Manufacturing the fable of Padmavati

(My column in Mint Lounge, February 11 2017)

22Princess_Padmavati_ca._1765_Bibliothèque_nationale_de_France,_Paris.jpg

Alauddin Khilji, who died 701 years ago, was ruthless. He inaugurated his career by murdering his predecessor before proceeding to also murder very many Mongols when they decided to raid India. He then appointed himself chief raider, penetrated the south, scattered its kings, and couriered much treasure north. Under him, the sultanate towered over India and, naturally, he was eulogized by his own, despised by enemies, but inevitably commemorated in song and lore.

Last September, film-maker Sanjay Leela Bhansali received an atrociously worded letter for making a movie out of one such song, featuring the sultan with a fabled queen. “We have come to know through various reliable sources that you are portraying an imaginary character (sic)…of Rani Padmavati of Chittor who is a famous historical ICON (sic) of Rajputs’ age-old culture, valour & tradition…. Hence, we wish to make it very clear that your proposed film should be based purely on authentic historical facts and not in any allegorical manner. Hence, we forewarn you well in advance that there should be no deviation or distortion of History in projection of the iconic character of Rani Padmavati…”

Rumours circulated that Bhansali had sacrificed history at the altar of deviant distortion—in one “dream sequence”, he had the rani in an embrace with Alauddin, they said—and so a herd of self-appointed custodians of Rajput prestige descended on Bhansali’s set and demonstrated that courage and honour are counted today by the number of items smashed.

The “history” they sought to protect is a 1540 Avadhi work of fiction by Malik Muhammad Jayasi titled The Padmavat, which features a parrot that talks of a Sri Lankan princess’ beauty to the raja of Chittor. Dark-skinned Padmini (aka Padmavati) accepts Chittor’s proposal and becomes queen in the desert. A sorcerer, following in the footsteps of the parrot, sings praises of Padmini’s face in Delhi, prompting Alauddin to desire her. He besieges Chittor and, in a tedious compromise, the rani shows herself in a mirror to the sultan. In the end her husband is killed, and Chittor defeated. But instead of surrendering to the invader’s lust, Padmini jumps into a blaze.

“Awful sacrifice,” wrote James Tod (of The Annals And Antiquities of Rajasthan), followed “in that horrible rite of ‘jauhar’ where the females are immolated to preserve them from pollution or captivity…and the defenders of Chittor beheld…the queens, their own wives and daughters to the number of several thousands. The fair Padmini closed the throng and they were conveyed to the cavern…leaving them to find security from dishonour in the devouring fire…. The Tatar conqueror took possession of an inanimate capital, strewed with brave defenders, the smoke issuing from the recesses where lay consumed the once fair object of his desire.”

There is at least one instance of Alauddin seizing another’s wife (Kamala of Gujarat), but Jayasi’s literary cocktail, inspired two centuries after the siege of Chittor in 1303, had little to do with reality, notwithstanding all the nourishment the Rajput self-image has derived from it. Padmini became emblematic of (patriarchal) honour, Jayasi’s tale embellished numerous times over. Till the colonial age, these were romanticizations of Rajput valour in standing up to a mighty conqueror, and their preference for self-destruction over public ignominy.

The 19th century, however, saw Padmini upgraded from poetry to “fact”. Colonial writers manufactured the enduring impression of Indian history as a confrontation between Muslims and Hindus—which justified British rule to keep the peace in a land of competing antagonisms. The tale of Padmini was now a communal affair and a sample of Hindu suffering under Islamic tyranny, a perversion that has had enthusiastic takers in certain obvious quarters.

Even Indians who didn’t buy this invented historical conflict were willing to play up the “fact” of Padmini’s sacrifice to fuel the nationalist cause. As Sarojini Naidu said in an address to the Indian National Congress in 1917, “Womanhood of India stands by you today…as holders of your banner, sustainers of your strength. And if you die, remember that the spirit of Padmini of Chittor is enshrined with the manhood of India.” Padmini found herself a transfixed patriotic audience, and by the early 20th century versions were in circulation in influential Bengali circles also.

Historian Romila Thapar wrote, “An event occurs, and it slowly becomes encrusted with narratives about what happened.” The monumental irony with the Padmini episode is that narratives have been draped elaborately around a non-event drawn from the fertile mind of a Sufi. Meanwhile, Bhansali has ceased shooting in Jaipur, preferring to carry on in safer quarters where reinterpreting old poems does not invite hordes of self-righteous men who know little history but are determined to “punish” those who offend their over-sensitive sensibilities.

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