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JLF London 2024 – Day 2: How the West made itself, Mughal Princess diaries, Museums curiousity and Bengali short fiction…

JLF London 2024 – Day 2: How the West made itself, Mughal Princess diaries, Museums curiousity and Bengali short fiction…

Suman Bhuchar writes about the sessions she was able to attend on Saturday June 8 at the British Library in London…

How The World Made the West – Josephine Quinn in conversation with William Dalrymple

I MISSED the morning music but my first talk of the day is How The World Made The West where historian, archaeologist and author, Josephine Quinn talks to William Dalrymple about her new book.
Quinn who has just been made Chair of Ancient History at Cambridge which is a “top job in classics”, seeks to debunk the myth of modern West as emerging from the ancient civilisation of Greece or Rome. It was more engaged with encounters through trade, sex and war and most ideas (that are now considered “western” or “European culture” came from elsewhere.
She questions the idea of the word “civilisation” itself as it’s a construct during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to “reinforce the superiority of the European nations and justify empire”.
She explains how the word changed from a singular idea of civilisation in the 18th century as an abstract idea which was “in theory available to everyone but Europeans were best at it!” she said, to the 19th century when it became “civilisations”.
This meant plural civilisations in particular distinct cultures rooted in particular places which could be ranked (in a hierarchy of being civilised ) and some people couldn’t be helped which led to a brutal and violent phase in history.
It’s an engaging conversation between the two historians and Quinn explains her book is in 30 chapters and you can read it per chapter with a cup of tea or a glass of wine.
They picked some chapters to debunk popular misconceptions about where the alphabet originated, or why people in the West used numbers which originated from India and how the discovery of the sail changed the landscape of the world and other fascinating insights into monotheism and democracy.
Dalrymple joked that Quinn’s book has pre-empted some of the themes in his forthcoming book ‘The Golden Road: How Ancient India Transformed the World’, due in September 2024.

Surprise Pop Up as actors from ‘A London Lark Rising‘ appear at How the World Made the West talk with historians Josephine Quinn and William Dalrymple (ACV pic)

Vagabond Princess: The Great Adventures of Gulbadan

THIS was another fascinating conversation between Ruby Lal an acclaimed historian and Professor of South Asian Studies at Emory University, Atlanta. Moderated by William Dalrymple, it focussed on the life of the Princess Gulbadan (1523-1603CE), daughter of the Emperor Babur and sister to the future Emperor Humayun and aunt of Emperor Akbar.
Titled ‘Vagabond Princess: The Great Adventures of Gulbadan’, this is the third book by Lal, who has sought to provide an insight into the lives of the women of the Mughal Empire and provide a counter narrative to the work of many historians who have considered them to be just chattels in the harems of the male emperors.
Her earlier works about Mughal life are: ‘Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan’ and ‘Domesticity and Power in the Early Mughal World’.
Lal told the rapt audience that Gulbadan (the name means Rosebody) was the first and only historian of the Mughal Empire to write a contemporaneous narrative of history as it unfolded.
She recalled the first time she encountered her original manuscript Oriental166 written in Persian and held at the British Library in 1997 as she waited with “nervous anticipation” to uncover the story of a princess who “chronicled in granular detail the life of the people she was close to”.
Gulbadan was born in 1523 in Afghanistan and travelled to India in a caravan at the age of six. She was close to her brother Humayun but her dad Babur (considered to be the founder of the Mughal Empire) witnessed the ups and downs of the court life and was a witness to the life as it unfolded.
Eventually her nephew Akbar is proclaimed Emperor and although he is now considered to be the benevolent or fair minded monarch as depicted through Bollywood films like ‘Jodha Akbar’ and ‘Mughal-e-Azam’, he was quite ruthless in consolidating his power and also was the first king to establish the idea of a Mughal Harem at Fatehpur Sikri.

Co-JLF director Dalrymple and historian of the early Mughals Ruby Lal in conversation (ACV pic)

Other talks covered on the by included…

The Museums that Make Us with Arthur MacGregor, Sir Roly Keating and Sushma Jansari in conversation with Sanjoy Roy.

ARTHUR MACGREGOR is an academic, author and was curator of the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford (1979-2008) and part of a research project called The Indian Museum, Revisited (part of the Victoria & Albert’s Museum Research Institute), which was founded as part of the East India Company and its contents are now part of the V&A’s collections.
Sir Roly Keating is chief executive at the British Library, while Sushma Jansari is a historian and is the South Asian curator at the British Museum, where she is preparing a major exhibition about art, religion and power in ancient South Asia (opening in May 2025).
In a wide ranging and fascinating conversation with Roy, they discussed why humans feel the need to collect, the changing nature of the collection policies of museums going from objects of curiosity to specific objects that can tell a whole story; sponsorship of museums who to take money from and not; and how to help save endangered archives during the context of war and upheaval. It was another inspirational discussion.

In Short Fiction and the Bengali Imagination, Arunava Sinha and Tahmima Anam spoke to moderator Mohini Gupta

Mohini Gupta, Arunava Sinha and Tahmima Anam
(Courtesy of JLF)

ARUNAVA SINHA has edited a landmark book ‘The Penguin Book of Bengali Short Stories’ which will be considered a seminal piece of work making accessible to non-Bengali readers the range of a literary canon emanating from authors in West Bengal and present day Bangladesh. The authors include, Tagore, Mahashweta Devi, Sankar, Akharuzzaman and many more.
Anam spoke about what inspired her to write her Bengal Trilogy (‘The Golden Age’, ‘The Good Muslim’ and ‘The Bones of Grace’) and also the complex relationship Bangaldeshis with Bengalis in Kolkata (Calcutta), among other things.

The day was then punctuated with a pop-up visit by the cast of ‘A London Lark Rising’ (see lead picture above) – a play by Anu Kumar Lazarus, as an open air walking theatre experience around the city of London streets to learn about the story behind the East India Company. Roy, managing director of Teamwork Arts was so taken by the show that he has been promoting it across the festival.
You can find out more about ‘A London Lark Rising’ and tickets below…

LJF London 2024 –

Day 3 and Day 1 are covered here – (coming)

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture