Archana Garodia Gupta, National Chair of the FICCI MSME Committee, says that she has read a book a day all her life. Gupta, a member of the Brics Financial Committee from India, leading the SME Task force, was the President of FLO, the women’s wing of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry in 2015- 2016.

With a lifelong passion for books, languages, travel and history, Gupta has a knack for weaving nuggets of information into engaging tales. It is no wonder then, that her latest book The Women Who Ruled India: Leaders. Warriors. Icons, brings the largely forgotten powerhouse women from Indian history to the forefront. She speaks with SheThePeople.TV on retelling the history of Indian women and why the subject fascinated her.

How did you decide to plunge into writing a book?

Books have been my constant companions since childhood. On an average I have read a book a day all my life on a varied range on subjects. It was always a dream to write. I had been writing articles on retail and history for magazines. I was lucky to get opportunities to write books on history, which has been a ruling passion.

Many biographies tend to be hagiographies – they paint unrealistic portraits which are all praise and attribute every conceivable virtue. Especially for women, they like to attribute ‘womanly’ virtues like sacrifice etc.

What prompted you to choose this topic? How have you differentiated your retelling of the history of these women from the history that we already have?

Women and their story and struggle is something which I have been occupied with. I have been working in the field of women empowerment for the last two decades. As president of FICCI Ladies Organisation, I launched many schemes to help skill women at the grassroots and to help create women entrepreneurs. Women rulers combine two abiding interests of my life – history, and empowerment of women.

Many biographies tend to be hagiographies – they paint unrealistic portraits which are all praise and attribute every conceivable virtue. Especially for women, they like to attribute ‘womanly’ virtues like sacrifice, etc. I did not want to hold up the women to impossible standards. So these portraits are ‘warts and all’. Many of these women used all sorts of questionable means to achieve their objectives. They often failed – sometimes because of the people around them, but also because of their own flaws and wrong decisions.

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How did you choose which women to portray in this book? You have given the reader interesting facts and tidbits which may not have otherwise been in popular consciousness. How did you do your research and uncover these treasures?

archana garodia gupta
The Women Who Ruled India: Leaders. Warriors. Icons

To my surprise, I came across hundreds of women rulers when I started looking for possible candidates for inclusion, and it was a tough task to choose. A major criterion I set was that they should have ruled directly, either as regent or crowned king – I did not want anyone who ruled by agency – i.e. by influencing their husband etc who was the ruler. The only exception I have made is Noorjahan, as she was probably the most powerful woman ruler the world has seen. I have tried to take rulers across all regions of India and over various periods and religions. A constraint was the amount of verifiable information available on them. I would have loved to include rulers like Prabhavati Gupta, the daughter of Chandragupta Vikramaditya, who ruled over the Vakataka empire for 20 years in the fourth century. But there are very few details available.

To my surprise, I came across hundreds of women rulers when I started looking for possible candidates for inclusion, and it was a tough task to choose. A major criterion I set was that they should have ruled directly, either as regent or crowned king – I did not want anyone who ruled by agency.

Regarding research, I have been reading books on history for a long time, and as is the wont of quizzers, I mentally store up titbits. Again, as I researched each queen, since they were little known, I had to read up histories and travel accounts written in their periods: reading them was a pleasure, and I learned a lot of things I hadn’t known before. We are fortunate that scanned copies of these centuries old books are now available online.

Whose story or which characters resonates the most with you, and why?

This is truly a difficult question to answer. All the women had something fascinating in their characters. I loved the story of Begum Samru, for her sheer audacity and chutzpah. The Begums of Bhopal ruled Bhopal for 100 years, creating almost a welfare state, instead of spending on personal pleasures like so many royals. Tarabai truly influenced the course of Indian history, by holding Aurangzeb at bay and allowing the Marathas to survive. Ahilyabai Holkar is of course unparalleled. She seems too good to be true, but the more one researches, the more she seems like the ideal ruler and a saint– it is almost impossible to find any vices! She was hardworking, just, eminently sensible, and good at managing her neighbours, courtiers and the people. The British called her the ‘Philosopher Queen’. In India, we would use the term Rajyogi.

You have written about the history of India for children? How do you go about making the subject fascinating for your young readers?

History is a subject that can be really interesting for children, or indeed anyone, because it can be told as fascinating stories. We have so many characters who should be portrayed as real people with their idiosyncrasies so that you can connect with them. Unusual little known facts and titbits create a gasp factor. It is also important to explain the logic of how things happened and invite the readers to reason with you. It is important to create relatable context, with what was happening in the world, and with what the children are familiar within today’s world.

What is next for you? Which project are you working on next?

We are working on more books based on Indian history – There are countless tales waiting to be told!

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