The Akbar-Birbal Stories We Know and Love – History as Anecdote – Part 3

I left part 1 and 2 talking about the pattern of the Akbar-Birbal stories that we know and love. I wondered why they seemed to show Akbar in a poor light and highlighted some among many of Akbar’s activities which showed religious tolerance. I also mentioned Birbal and Akbar’s closeness to his once-discovered courtier, who was Akbar’s only Hindu courtier.

So, is the one-upmanship displayed of Birbal over Akbar, as depicted in the stories, a symbol of subsequent Hindu contempt for a Muslim emperor? This question becomes more problematic if we consider Akbar’s many practices which preached equality before the emperor irrespective of one’s religion. Why chose Akbar for ridicule when there were tyrants like Aurangzeb existing in history, is what one line of thought would say. And given today’s Islamophobic world, this question needs to be given weight.

Before delving into the possible answer to this question, I would like to say a little on the nature of history. History represents. It does, in other words, re-present. It has the power to show something in a light different from what actually happened. To explain this, consider an event A, which really took place. Now this event can be written down in various historical formats. These formats can add colour to the story. This does not mean that A did not happen; only that it gets written down with a little variation.

This is especially true of the folk form of history. Folk tales tell the truth, but in their own special way. The literariness, or the quality which makes the folk form literary/ story-like, needs to be considered.

Now if we add to this the question: Did the Akbar-Birbal stories really happen as they are shown and talked about today? Or, do they belong to a folk form that has traversed centuries, carrying with it a little flavour from all of these times? If we think about it, the latter seems to be the case.

Folk forms change with times coming to mean different things at different places. They travel down time to reach us with so many variations that it is difficult to take them literally. They should, in my opinion, be looked at symbolically instead.

So what do these stories – and we can rest assured that they are not literal imprints of what happened but only stories – tell us symbolically?

For this we need to take a walk into the realm of history books to find out how exactly the stories and anecdotes centering on Akbar and Birbal evolved.

Since I don’t want to ramble on, I’ll stop here and discuss this further next time. Till then, happy history-reading!