Historian Tarana Husain Khan is Writing About Women History Forgot

Priyanka Chakrabarty
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Tarana Husain Khan, Rampur Kitchen

The State of Rampur in Uttar Pradesh has a rich history of royal Nawabi ancestors, wars and a male centric narrative that sheds lights on male rulers. While the documented history is rich in stories of kings, conquests and, treasures, women are absent from the historical narratives. The stories of women, the Begums of Rampur and the ordinary woman both are conspicuously absent from the historical narratives.


 Dr Tarana Husain Khan, a cultural historian based in Rampur, got intrigued by the same questions. She has been documenting the stories of women history forgot, who lived in Rampur and shaped the history of this town. Where were these women and their life stories? Along with these questions, she also started documenting forgotten recipes of Rampur from manuscripts in the local library. Rampur, small quaint town in Uttar Pradesh, has a rich history of women, food, war and, royalty and Tarana Husain Khan is at the helm of digging the past and shining light upon it in 21st Century.

While the past might fascinate her, present day literature also captures her attention. She started the Rampur Book Club where reading enthusiasts in the city get together and read. When I read about it I knew I had to reach out to her, to find out more about her tryst with history and the love for reading. SheThePeople.Tv reached out to Tarana Husain Khan and here are some excerpts from the interview.

Studying Gendered Narratives in History

History or his-story is the story of mankind written by men for men. The aspects of history that are documented shows the stories and legacies the historians wanted the future generations to remember, “Rampur’s history, as most historical and cultural narratives, is very male centric. As a woman I find myself looking beyond beyond wars, treaties and forts to separate the strands of gendered telling of historical narratives. For instance, the main proponents of the literary movement of what we call the ‘Rampur school of poetry’ were Daagh Dehlvi and Amir Minai in mid-19th century. The tradition of genteel women as well as tawaifs writing love poems and ghazals was very much a part of this literary movement”.

She further adds, “I found a manuscript – bayaz, a simple notebook, by Tuti Jan, a tawaif who was married to Nawab Yusuf. It has her scribbling and the rough drafts of her compositions. It is said that the Nawab ordered her execution but he also built this beautiful mausoleum for her. Unfortunately, the work of most women poets is not preserved well. So when I study literary trends of Rampur, I find my focus turn from Daagh towards a Tuti jan”.

Much like poetry, the commercial royal kitchens and singers also had women contributing. However, their voices are missing in the canons. “In a similar vein, the ancient cookbooks are written by men with inputs from khansamas who were male cooks, so I come to the question of women as repositories of culinary traditions. Were there two gendered strands of culinary traditions? This led me to oral food memories and the rare personal diaries written by women. Rampur’s ‘sadarang’ tradition of music, or Rampur gharana also had female proponents. There are lists of tawaifs who were accomplished singers at the durbar. They were always paid much less than their male counterparts and, probably, sexually exploited”


Begums of Rampur: The Forgotten Women

Tarana was bothered by the absence of women and their narratives from the documented history of Rampur, “I walked through the old town, called on old timers asking questions – where did she live? What were her days like? What happened to her?”. This subsequently led to the realisation that, “Women often disappeared from the pages of history. Some were mentioned in passing if they birthed a child. I rejected the idea of an unemotional factual history. I wanted a historical narrative which would have a place for these voices, and ‘The Begum and the Dastan’ was born. It draws from my research on gender, culture and the dastan tradition of Rampur and is located in a fictional place”.

She further adds about documenting the lives of begums in her latest book, “The Begum and the Dastan, weaves the story across two timelines and the lives of women then and now. Patriarchy is a reality in Indian homes today and young girls live with constraints both mental and physical. The tawaifs in the harem were often more educated and accomplished than the begums from genteel families. Writing poetry and dastans was an acceptable pastime. The begums came out of purdah after 1930s. The begums came out of purda in the 1930s and the elite classes focused on university education for the girls. However, the ambitions of the girls of middle and lower income groups are still constrained. Girls in Rampur don’t wear the burqa like their mothers; some wear scarves but their movement and ambitions are often constrained”.

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Bringing Past on the Plate: The Forgotten Recipes of Rampur

To chase the fast paced life the past gets left behind and eventually forgotten. Rampuri cuisine may have evolved to reflect global and pan Indian food practices but that place has its own unique culture and cuisine in a forgotten corner of a state library. Tarana took upon the arduous task of finding these cuisines, documenting them and also bringing them back on the plates. “My initiative has been to mine the archives for old recipes, gather oral food history and communicate with practitioners to give historical meaning, texture and practicality. I chanced upon Persian manuscripts on Rampur cuisine at the Raza Library when I was researching the cultural history of Rampur. I was amazed at the vast repertoire of dishes in the cookbooks. We only know one kind of pulao, biryani or qorma. Here there were nearly three hundred recipes which were cooked till about 1960s –which is just generation back. Intrigued, I took Persian lessons and started translating these manuscripts”


She further adds, “I started interrogating old khansamas (cooks) and talking to the members of the erstwhile royal family of Rampur to get a sense of the lost elements of the cuisine. It was a humungous task. Besides gastronomic queries, I was plagued with academic questions –what factors led to the ‘forgetting’ of the cuisine? Was there a Rampur cuisine and how was it distinguishable from Awadhi and Mughal cuisines? The term ‘heritage foods’ is a highly contentious term. It was around this time that my article ‘A Quest for Pulao Shahjahani’ generated interest in the academic circles and the project on ‘Forgotten Food: Culinary Memory, Local Heritage and Lost Agricultural Varieties in India’, funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council came up. It was a typical universe-conspiring kind of a moment and gave me the time and resources to pursue my interest.”.

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As a part of making the recipes more accessible and available to the public at large, she is getting the chefs of the city trained again. “One of the efforts that I’m making is training the chefs of Rampur in the old recipes. It’s a two way process. I bring my translations, the practitioner brings his skills, and we see what works. So we have been able to place about ten ancient recipes on the ‘menu card’ of these khansamas. Most of Rampur khansamas cook at banquets and food festivals. This new repertoire popularises the ‘lost’ dishes and gives the khansamas better marketability. We also plan to come out with a cookbook on Rampur cuisine in three languages”.

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Tarana Husain Khan

Trials and Tribulations of Being a Historian

Being a historian means trying to map a past that is scattered in obscure libraries, manuscripts, one sided stories and the narratives that are buried under the debris of time. “When I settled down in Rampur in 2010, the demolition of heritage gates and buildings began in an effort to ‘modernise’ the city. It set me off on a scrambling quest of rediscovery. I felt vulnerable and powerless  and had this desire to preserve some part of what was being systematically erased from our lives”.


She further adds, “I am deeply impacted by my work as a cultural historian and as a writer. When I started researching the Rampur cultural and oral history, I had no clue of all that we had already lost. Rampur was just a quaint little place with a funny way of speaking and a glorious past”.

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On Reading and Writing: Concluding Remarks

It is often said that good writers are avid readers. Reading and writing are tethered together and feeding off each other. Every writer first needs to lose themselves in the world of reading. “Rampur Book Club was born out of a desire to connect. We formed a book club in a town that didn’t have a book store. Rampur was a hub of literary movements in the 19th and 20th centuries. Maybe the Book Club would have been more appropriate then.  Initially we were only women but soon some male readers joined in. We went through writers, countries and history together”. She further adds about her connection to reading, “Every generation has its own way of processing and replicating knowledge but I’m certain that reading lights up absolutely vital areas of the brain. It changes the texture of your thoughts”.

Towards the end I am tempted to ask her about writing and writer’s block, every writer’s most elusive nightmare. “On the worst of days, I never leave the page blank. I write something –I can’t let the block get the better of me. I have to write, I’m a writer”.

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