By 1868 India had seen many reputable and honourable female leaders, what with the likes of Razia Sultan reigning Delhi from 1236 to 1240-a great warrior queen-being one to note. So, it doesn’t come as a surprise that when Shah Jahan became the Begum of the state of Bhopal on the 16th of November, she was another. Despite controversies surrounding her marriage, she made positive and longstanding changes to her court.

Her ruling was of distinctive character, taking a different stance to that of her mothers, who learnt more ‘masculine’ activities such as fencing and horse riding. Shah Jahan’s interests lay in more ‘feminine’ pursuits dedicating much of her time to music, poetry, needlework and cooking. This didn’t detract from the fact she was also a committed and enthusiastic ruler, improving the revenue system followed by the modernisation of the postal and police services. Her effective and influential governing bought her the title of Grand Commander of the Star of India by the British in 1872.

In 1871 Shah Jahan had married her second husband Syed Siddiq Hasan, her personal tutor. Before their marriage, rumours were flying around of their emotional engagement. Their relationship grew and once word had gotten out of Shah Jahan’s pregnancy, marriage was imperative to save her honour. For a Begum to be carrying an illegitimate child would have been of embarrassing consequences. Oddly, after their nuptials, no child was born and it was speculated that Siddiq may have faked the news or the foetus was aborted.

Hasan’s unsavoury influence dominated during her 33 year reign. Gradually Shah Jahan’s executive power transferred to the hands of her husband and she resigned to domestic life, leaving him the task of meeting her subjects. His gain of control over state affairs saw the appointment of a British minister Sir Lepel Griffin to take over Bhopal’s administration, reducing the Shah Jahan’s status as sovereign. It wasn’t until his death in 1890 that she took back her power.

His presence also affected her relationship with her only daughter. Shah Jahan took a cold and official manner in her approach in Sultan Jahan’s upbringing. In an autobiography, her daughter described their marriage as the “commencement of one of the unhappiest periods of my life…” Their relationship continued to fracture until Shah Jahan’s death.

What distinguished Shah Jahan from other Begums was not just the role her marriage played, but the emergence of a new and liberal atmosphere in the court. Her artistic pursuits influenced a state which flourished as a cultural and literary centre. She utilised this opportunity to share her own writing under the pen names ‘Shirin’ and ‘Tarjur.’ Her work ‘Tahzid un-Niswan wa Tarbiyat ul-Insan’ (The Reform of Women and the Cultivation of Humanity) served as an accessible manual to Urdu speaking women, addressing issues ranging from women’s household work to their status in Islam. In an attempt to help women understand their control, she also supported girls’ education. Her creativity extended to the world of architecture, she was responsible for the building of Ali Manzil, Benazir and Taj Mahal, all accompanied with beautiful gardens in Mughal and European style.

While Shah Jahan was not the traditional reformist, her commitment to creativity introduced a liberal ambience to her state, and she was certainly an early feminist. Controversy included and as a patron of the arts, she made changes to Bhopal that were everlasting.

Author Amira Hassan