New year, new eminent project! As always, I hope this project can lead me down new academic paths and aid me in my journey of learning things about myself as well as my eminent person previously unbeknownst to me.
This year, I intend to do something very different from last year. My selected Notable is Mastani Begum (better known as Mastani), who in shortest terms is a Medieval Indian warrior, dancer, and musician.
Born in 1699 in Bundelkhand as a princess, she was a very controversial individual in her time. She was known as the second wife of Bajirao I, a very important figure in the Maratha Empire. He served as a Peshwa (Prime Minister) and was a remarkably skilled warrior, known for never losing a single battle in the time of his military career. Their marriage materialized as a result of one of Bajirao’s winning in a battle he was requested to fight. Chhatrasal (the warrior who requested Bajirao’s assistance) then married his daughter, Mastani, to Bajirao along with giving him a third of his own kingdom as a symbol of gratitude. They fell deeply in love with each other, and Bajirao returned to Pune with his new wife. Their marriage caused a stir in the Bhat Family, an important reigning family that was carried down through Peshwas. Throughout Mastani’s entire lifetime, she was never fully accepted by Bajirao’s mother, brother or first wife, let alone the entire territory of the Maratha Empire. The contemporary orthodox Hindu Brahmin society refused to accept the marriage, primarily because Mastani had a Muslim mother, and partly because her beauty was so rivalrous.
Mastani was someone who believed in religious unity. Her father was a Hindu while her mother was a Muslim, and she was brought up with and embraced both religions. She sang devotional hymns to Lord Krishna on one hand and offered Namaaz on the other. However, this type of thinking was far from being accepted back in Pune, where they saw her as nothing more but a Muslim courtesan.
She had to go through an extraordinary amount of obstacles to survive in a place she would have liked to call home – being housed with courtesans, being placed on house arrest, and multiple attempts of murder by Bajirao’s brother, Chimaji Appa. However, Bajirao had later built a palace solely dedicated to Mastani and her safety called the Mastani Mahal. Though his family could never accept their relationship, Bajirao fought substantial social sanctions and political peril in order to stay with Mastani and protect her from political reprisal.
Their love story is a commonly told legend, especially in a western Indian state named Maharashtra. Yet, Mastani prevails in being one of the most misunderstood characters in Indian history. By most skimmers of the story, she is labeled nothing much more than a mistress, a concubine – but she was a surpassing amount more than that.
Mastani, above all else, was a true warrior. She was highly skilled in the art of horse-riding, spear-throwing, and swordsmanship – all falling under the art of Kalaripayattu, an ancient Indian form of martial arts. During her marriage to Bajirao, she would accompany him into battle on his many military campaigns, except when she was seized and put on house arrest (this was before Mastani Mahal was built). Nothing could stop her from fighting and showing off the skills she had sharpened so precisely. Mastani was a diplomat, educated in politics and the running of a kingdom. It was rare for women to be so educated during that time, but her upbringing made her special. She was also an incredibly talented dancer and musician, and it is believed she learned these skills from her mother, Ruhaani Bai, who was a Muslim court dancer herself. Because of this fact, some people believe she was just a Muslim court dancer as well, completely ignoring how hard she fought in literal battle, and in the emotional/social aspect when it came to her in-laws. The exact cause of her death is unknown, but it is widely accepted that she consumed the poison in her ring as a form of suicide. Whether she did this because of grief when she heard that Bajirao had died in battle, or because Bajirao’s son (born from his first wife) tried to sexually assault her and she killed herself to refuse to the humiliation as she was a woman of honour and valor, is still debated today between historians.
Mastani left a legacy. She was the only known woman to ever take part in battles in the Maratha Empire, and one of the few who was well educated and informed. She would even assist Bajirao in running the day to day course of courts. She was incomparable when it came to her talent, her intelligence, and her bravery. For love and her pride, she withstood great amounts of hindrances to earn the respect she rightly deserved. She died with her concrete values still in place, never failing to believe in interfaith relationships and that no matter your background, you could exhibit your bravery for what you deem to be important.
Well, after that crash course history lesson, let’s talk about my personal affiliations when it comes to this project!
I first learned about Mastani’s story when I watched the film Bajirao Mastani (2015). I learned what an important piece of Indian history the Maratha Empire was, containing the Peshwa Era. I have been greatly intrigued towards Mastani’s life ever since, but it took me a while for it to kick in that I should pick her for eminent! I’m glad I watched this movie, otherwise, I may have never known about her story. This made me realize how important it is to have historical tales depicted in media so that awareness can be brought to those wanting to learn more about their cultural history. This may be the focus I have on my upcoming interview, as I have some people in mind who are experts in the Bollywood industry.
My original thought was to pick Beyoncé, seeing what an influential and inspirational figurehead she is. With the help of peers and Mr. Jackson, I then got to thinking about where I really wanted to take this project. What do I want to learn about? What do I want to display to everyone who sees/interacts with my project? Where can I find something I am deeply passionate about? When I thought long and hard, all answers pointed to one big idea – my culture.
My main goal for this entire project is to strut my culture on stage, and proudly too.
One of the biggest connections I personally have to Mastani is, of course, our heritage. I too am someone under the Islamic faith, and we both have roots in India. I am Pakistani, but my early roots are connected to India.
This is a personal and developmental focus. All my life, I have had ups and downs with embracing my culture. I’ve always been happy with who I am and where I come from, but certain experiences in my life have made it especially difficult to do that at times. Today, I am unapologetically myself in every aspect. I am proud, I am bold, and I am here. I am what I am thanks to my background and all it has given me. A sense of self, a foundation for my values, and a key to my history. I am ever thankful for my heritage.
Other than that, I greatly admire Mastani for all her talents. She has a fierce and brave warrior side, but also a profound and soft artistic side. I am heavily involved in the arts, and also take part in singing and playing instruments. Dance has always been an art form I’ve appreciated, and Mastani was also believed to be a poet greatly skilled in literature. These are all things I aspire to be skilled in, and continue doing for the rest of my life. If a religiously segregated Muslim female outcast in the 1700’s can do it, so can I! She’s truly an inspiration.
I’ve done a lot of research on Mastani already, and she has such a beautiful story with so much depth. I cannot wait to further my studies and learn more about the social hardships she had to face, being a warrior in every sense of the word. I intend to learn a lot about myself through this project, too. I’ve never been this openly embracive of my culture, so seeing how everything plays out is sure to be interesting.
I want to challenge myself to portray this character as uniquely as I can, really delving deep into her story and truly embodying her on the big night. I want to find the deeper themes in this historic tale and send a message about personal bravery to every single person in the audience. I have so many buzzing ideas for my speech and for my learning center, and I’m so excited to take the steps towards my final project. I’ve always loved and had a knack for public speaking, but a short dramatic monologue of sorts isn’t something I’ve specifically done before. With the angle and tone I choose for my speech, I want it to make an impact on the audience. I want Mastani to be remembered as a brave soul for everything she endured by the audience who listens to my speech.
I want to take in my culture for all that it is, and show the audience how proud I can be of it.
This year’s eminent project is sure to be an exciting one.
“Culture is the arts elevated to a set of beliefs.”
~ Thomas Wolfe