1857: Our middle school history books have programmed our minds to immediately search out within its depth, the names of Rani of Jhansi, Nana Sahib and Tantia Tope at the very utterance of these digits. The events of our first war for independence have been cropped and tailored to fit into the framework of these personas.
This view, however, is immensely flawed and blatantly ignores various other rebellious icons that emerged during the madness of the mutiny. One such woman was Azizun. A debatable reason for her absence from the CBSE curriculum would be the fact that she was neither a queen nor did she hail from any noble or royal lineage. She was just an ordinary woman who, despite all the obstacles, the largest of which was her sex and her profession; made a difference.
Azizun was a courtesan, a dancer girl in one of the many kothas of Cawnpore (Later Kanpur), the epicenter of the entire uprising. Her daily routine gyrated around make up, dresses, dance recitals and her evening performances for the tired soldiers serving in the British army or for the British officers themselves. She had earned a name for herself in this line of work and was content with her life.
Her lover was Shamsuddin, a frustrated Indian serving in the British cavalry. He was tired of serving his invaders for no purpose other than monetary security. This built up frustration inside him and the fact that he was of no help to the general Indian public was fuelling within him. He developed an intense hatred for the British command, a sentiment that found companionship with the ideas of Nana Sahib and the other strategists of the revolt. This growing urge to rebel was catalyzed by Mangal Pandey’s historic mutiny in Barrackpore. Kanpur joined the upheaval and Shamsuddin plunged into the fire.
Azizun’s thoughts were being influenced by the stories Shamsuddin brought to her while dealing with the British atrocities on Indians. The frustration inside him began resonating inside her conscience as well and she felt the hatred and disgust and empathized with what the Indian soldiers.
Her thinking began to be swayed slowly away from the glamorous and the shielded environment that she had grown up in and was accustomed to, towards something that seemed a lot more meaningful- her freedom, her people’s freedom. Her thoughts ultimately took shape and she joined the revolt as a soldier. She wore male attire and adorned all the weapons that the men did. Her transformation was complete. She was a warrior now. Her present had severed all connections with her past.
Azizun was the only woman present at the unfurling of the Indian flag against the British rule at Kanpur. She was present in full fighting armour on a horseback, ready to fight for her people and to justify the strong unfailing belief that had changed who she was, forever.
Azizun fought fiercely in battle and wielded her sword as competently as any other soldier. What happened to her after the rebellion remains shrouded in the haze of poor documentation.
The legend of Azizun has been preserved and passed on from generation to generation through oral tradition by the people of Kanpur. However, archival material testifies her existence and the nature of revolt. She remains a permanent feature in the stories of bravery and patriotic sacrifice that characterized the mutiny and have been told over and again. Her example shook the assumption that women were not meant to involve themselves in the male dominated domain of battle and revolt.