Women of the Indian Sub-Continent: Makings of a Culture

Celebrating women of the Indian sub-continent, their poetry and the larger impact their contributions made in shaping up the Indian culture from 1614 to 1901

By Rekhta Foundation

Rekhta Foundation

PlayRekhta Foundation

Indian Culture and the Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb

The Indian culture, though rich in itself, often has hues of our invaders' cultures as well. While some left behind lasting legacies of architecture and infrastructure, some left an indelible mark on our language and culture. The "Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb" is one such instance of the composite culture that marks various regions of the country.  Prevalent in the North, particularly in the central plains, it is born of the union between the Hindu and Muslim cultures. Most of the temples were lined along the Ganges and the Khanqah (Sufi school of thought) were situated along the Yamuna river (also called Jamuna). Thus, it came to be known as the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb, with the word "tehzeeb" meaning culture. More than communal harmony, its most beautiful by-product was "Hindustani" which later gave us the Hindi and Urdu languages.

Dancers DancersRekhta Foundation

Makers of the Indian Culture

Contrary to what popular stories may indicate, women have not always played a passive part in the history of India. There have been many who have been at the forefront and have challenged and changed times. From power-yielding courtesans to politically charged revolutionaries, India has been a witness to these women who did not yield when faced with prison, taboo or norms. They left a definite dent in the cultural zeitgeist of their times with their non-conformist approach to their medium of art. They wrote books that were banned, counseled all-male courts, built cities, fought against tyranny and above all, were instrumental in shaping the times to follow. 

Dried Roses & Old Books WomanhoodRekhta Foundation

Experiencing the fragrance of the Indian Culture through the works of great women

Colored Portrait of Jahan AraRekhta Foundation


1614 - 1681


Jahan Ara Begum represents an important era in the role of women in India’s cultural history. The daughter of Shah Jahan and sister to Dara Shikoh and Aurangzeb, she could have been easily lost in the annals of history. But it was impossible to overlook the visionary that she was.

Proof of her genius lie in the pages of Munis-ul-Arwah and Sahibiya as well as the lanes of the bazaar she built which is now known as Chandni Chowk in present-day Delhi.

Take a closer look at her life in the exhibit:

Jahan Ara - The Sufi Princess

Portrait of Begum Zeb Un NissaRekhta Foundation


1638 - 1702


Zeb-un-Nissa was the eldest child of the emperor Aurangzeb. To call her multi-talented would be an understatement. Highly intellectual, she was an accomplished scholar and had an enviable library. She was also trained in the use of arms and was a talented musician.

Since Aurangzeb was highly orthodox, she would write poems secretly. She took up the pen-name of "Makhfi", meaning "The Hidden One" and went on to write 421 ghazals and several rubais which were posthumously compiled in Diwan-e-makhfi.

While her personal life was shrouded in myths and mysteries regarding her spinster status and her role in the state matters, she remained a benevolent figure for her subjects. The princess who was once a trusted aide to her father was later imprisoned by him for the last twenty years of her life.

Begum Zeb-un-Nissa: A princess enchained

Colored Portrait of Begum SamruRekhta Foundation


1753 - 1836

Begum Samru was the only Catholic Indian ruler. She ruled the areas around present day Meerut in the 18th and 19th century. A skilled diplomat and a master strategist, her journey from a nautch girl (court dancer) to a Begum is truly astounding.

Born as Farzana, she was of Kashmiri descent and caught the eye of Walter Reinhardt Sombre, a European mercenary when she was 12. She inherited the mercenary Army from him and proved a worthy Commander-in-Chief. She built a beautiful palace for herself in Chandni Chowk, which is currently being used by the State Bank of India as its office.

She later converted to Christianity and built a magnificent Church in present-day Meerut which attracts tourists till date. An icon for female empowerment, she lived her life defying gender and religious norms.

Take a closer look at her life in the exhibit:

Begum Samru

Portrait of Mah Laqa ChandaRekhta Foundation


1768 - 1815

Mah Laqa Bai, born Chanda Bibi, was a poet, a warrior, an adviser and a courtesan in that order. Most importantly, she was the woman who would single-handedly redefine being a woman in 18th century Hyderabad.

She accompanied the Nizam into battles dressed in male attire. Her delicate beauty and strong mind enabled her to rise to a position unthinkable for a courtesan.

Apart from her life at court, she was an accomplished poetess. She was the first woman to publish a Diwan (collection of Urdu ghazals) titled Gulzar-e-Mahlaqa with 39 ghazals.

An accomplished Kathak dancer and is considered to be the inspiration for the famed Umrao Jaan Ada.

Take an in-depth look at her life and poetry in the exhibit:

Mah Laqa Chanda

Portrait of Nawab Sultan Jahan BegumRekhta Foundation


1858 - 1930

Nawab Sultan Jahan Begum was a ruler par excellence in the history of the Bhopal state. She ascended the throne at the age of six under the regency of her mother. To say that she spent her entire life in the service of the state, would then, not be a hyperbole.

She was officially recognized as the Begum of Bhopal after her mother’s death in 1901. The Begum made education, especially education for girls her priority. Through a series of reforms in military, taxation and public works, she built the very core of the princely state.

Her greatest legacy, though, is the institution of the famed Aligarh Muslim University. She was the Founding Chancellor of the institute and is till date the only female to hold the post. She was also a pioneer in the field of Public Health advocating vaccinations and inoculations, improving the sanitation and hygiene of the state. This came at a time when both education and medical care were not considered vital topics of consideration. A true visionary, she authored biographies and books on education and health.

A ruler who struck a fine balance between popularity and efficiency, the Begum of Bhopal has left an indelible mark in the emancipation of women in Indian history.

Take a closer look at her life's works in the exhibit:

Nawab Sultan Jahan Begum
Credits: Story

Rekhta Foundation

Suman Mishra

Prof. Anisur Rahman, Faiyaz Ahmad Wajeeh, Neha Malara

Aalok Soni, Pulkit Sachdeva

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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