Watched the film Padmavat. Spectacular, disquieting and disturbing. Spectacular because of the visuals but disquieting and disturbing because of the history. Historians want to take the history bit out of it and the Karni Sena wants to stop the history from coming to light ever. I think that unknowing to themselves both have exactly the same concern and which is that now that India is a nation why rake up the memory of the ferocious and treacherous Muslim conquerors on the Indian soil? Upinder Singh has recently published a book called Violence in Ancient India which has details of political assassinations and punishments in a period we loosely call as the Hindu period but such acts are confined to the royalty only. Memories of conquerors looting the homes, abducting and raping women of ordinary householders are affixed specifically to the Muslims and not to invaders in general. Popular memory recalls that the purdah and the palanquin came throughout northern India in order to protect women from the rapacious gaze of the Turki soldier on the streets. Written history may not have this on record but oral memory does and standing squarely between a multicultural, plural and secular India and a communally divided society is this memory of the Muslim. Hence historians wish to obliterate Alauddin’s ransack and the Karni Sena that of Padmini’s Jauhar, two sides of the same coin of the Muslim conquest of Hindu India. India cannot accommodate the two communities given the history of their coming together, one the rapist and the other the victim of that rape. This will be like asking the offender and the victim to marry. How is that? This is why if India is to be a nation then such memories must be reworked and histories distorted. Historians and the Karni Sena are both performing the same task of revision.
But who really made an epic out of stories surrounding Rani Padmini and her Jauhar? Who used the story to create a sharp contrast between the cultured Hindu and the barbarian Muslim? It was none other than a Muslim poet, Malik Mohammad Jaisi. A century later, miles away in yet another corner of undivided India, in a Muslim kingdom of Chittagong hills, an imprisoned Muslim poet Syed Alaol rewrote Jaisi’s Padmavat as Padmavati in Bengali. One wonders why Muslim story tellers would be so keen to show Muslim conquerors in such uncouth veneer. In fact the folk stories around Padmini in Rajasthan portray the battle between Alauddin and Rana Rattan or Bhimsingh as a Khilji versus Rajput conflict but Jaisi goes out all the way to sharply communalize the story; it is Sultan for him and not Alauddin and thus stereotyping all Muslim rulers as nauseating barbarians. To my mind, the real history should lie in the writing of the folklore as an epic by Muslim poets like Jaisi and Alaol. What were they doing when they were lionizing Hindu ideals and lambasting the Muslim treachery?
Actually, Jaisi and Alaol were fighting what the historian Barani who lived, observed and reported during the 13th century that the Hindus were aristocratic but of mild and meek nature. Jaisi’s description of Rana Ratan in love with the idea of Padmavati, a woman who he merely heard of but whose imagination of her made him into an ascetic and undertake a journey with thousand yogis to Sinhala, is a man who has the power of enormous self-abnegation and self-sacrifice. This he contrasts with the crassness of the Sultan, who much like Rana Ratan becomes infatuated with Padmini by only hearing about her. But he shows crudity, aggression, greed and violence and eventually destroys the queen and her kingdom. Jaisi argues against Barani and other court historians of the Sultanate that neither was the Hindu indifferent towards his religion nor was he ever weak and the mighty Rajputs with their enormous armies had to be the validation of the Hindu prowess. Padmavati, therefore becomes a poem in which the grandeur of the Hindus are described and set off against the crudity of the Muslims.
Barani could not say much against the incumbents of the Sultanate because he was employed as a court scribe of Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq and he ended up praising Muhammad bin Tughlaq, a man though eloquent was a ruthless pervert. But he dropped rather sharp hints against these jihadi rulers, who plundered in the name of a Holy War in his treatise on the ideals of polity. Here Barani invokes ideals which are totally in contrary to the rules followed in the Sultanate. In his “own work”, namely the Fatwah-i-Jahandari, or the rules of everyday living he invokes the idea not only of a polity based on the Hindu ideals of duty, loyalty and commitment and obligation but imagines the Hegelian Super Individual, namely the ruler of the land to be a personified epitome of such values. Hence in Rana Ratan in Padmavat, Jaisi searches for the Purushottam. It will be only another forty years when Tulsidas would compose his Ramcharitmanas to freeze the idea of the Purushottam in Ram.
School texts and other commonsense construction of history tells us that at the time of the invasion of the various parties in the Sultanate, there was no idea of India. Hence in the oral version of the tale around Padmini, the fight is between the house of Mewar and the Khiljees but Jaisi and after him Alaol both insist in a Hindu versus Muslim battle. At one level both are much more aware of the use of Islamic jihad behind the intent of the Sultanate than the anonymous folklore composers but at another level, these poets namely Jaisi and Alaol along the the 11th century Arab Godman, Satya Pir and the 9th century Sankarachary were all in the game together of presenting Hinduism as a dharma that unified a territory with a definitive boundary, namely the geography of India. Padmavat, the epic poem must be placed in this context.
Jaisi has two motives for the composition of his epic poem; one is to contrast the Muslim marauder with the civilized Hindus so as to establish a much more refined version of Islam which did not ride on the swish of the swords and the other is to imagine a purushottam, or the Hegelian Spirit, a Napoleon, or a Caesar who could unite together the highly fragmented polity of Jaisi’s times. Rana Rattan was that Purushottam in a sharp contrast to Alauddin, a man who wants to overrun the whole of India. Both are contrasted with each other not so much by way of direct confrontation but by their kinds of infatuation with the same woman, Padmini. In Jaisi’s poetry both men are enchanted with Padmini without ever having seen her. Ratan becomes an ascetic and leaves his home with a thousand yogis and set off to Sinhala to express his love for the daughter of Gandharvasena, the king of Sinhala. Ratan camps for days and months outside Gandharvasena’s fort and when at last he climbs over the high walls into the premises, Ratan is arrested and sentenced to be burnt at stake. Padmini rescues him, marries him and sails away to Rajasthan as his bride. Soon enough Alauddin fascinated by Padmini just by hearing of her camps outside the impregnable walls of Chittor, finds his way inside the fort and begins a cycle of events in which Padmini burns herself in the jauhar fire. Ratan becomes an ascetic or the yogii in his love for Padmini while Alauddin becomes the ultimate consumerist, or the bhogi. Ratan offers to burn himself, Alauddin creates condition for Padmini to be burnt alive. Ratan’s companions are weaponless yogis, Alauddin’s men are armed to the teeth. Bhanshali’s film has done justice to this spirit.
Rana Ratan and Padmini are lovers while the first wife stands out like a sore thumb between them and Alauddin and his eunuch general, Malik Kafur are lovers and Alauddin’s wedded wife is a less wanted surplus. Alauddin is a narcissist for he lives in a room full of mirrors; it is irony that he is made to look at Padmini through a series of angularly arranged mirrors. Ratan was about to be burnt alive by Padmini’s father, Padmini fulfills her love by setting herself on fire. Bhanshali has changed the introduction quite a bit so that Ratan is never seen outside the fort of Gandharvasena. But the rest are pretty similar. Alauddin and Ratan are shown in juxtaposed shots as each enters his palace, or get dressed up to meet each other over dinner and each frame that shows them parallel or together the contrast between them is heightened. Alauddin has no ideals, Ratan is idealist; Alauddin is treacherous, Ratan is loyal. Alauddin often loses self-control, Ratan is restrained, Alauddin brooks no opposition while Ratan accommodates everything. But brave they both are. Alauddin’s bravado consists in attacking the other, Ratan’s bravery lies in absorbing the attacks. The strength of the Muslim says Jaisi lies in plunder, the strength of the Hindu is in his or her capability of self-sacrifice and martyrdom.
Ratan could have killed Alauddin many times over but each time he would let go of the Sultan for ideals and values came in between. Alauddin cared nothing for values and hence he could kill rather easily by treachery. Bhanshali does nothing to sugarcoat the bitter pill that Alauddin Khiljee and his portrayal inheres the spirit of Jaisi very closely by making his film into an encounter between the Hindu ideals and the Muslim conquerors lack of it. The oral sources however recognize the wars as a battle among the Rajputs and the Khiljees or a matter of ethnicity as in the Turashkas plunder of the Hindus and not necessarily as a communal warfare.
Despite his deep admiration for the Hindus, Jaisi does not ignore the smallness of the Hindu mind because kings could not unite against the invaders and the perverseness of Brahmins exemplified by the betrayal by Raghav Chetan, a court poet in Jaisi but a royal priest in Bhashali’s fim. Jaisi seems to be saying and Bhanshali has correctly picked up the details that the Hindus had no idea of what was striking them.
The reasons for Jaisi and before him Ziauddin Barani, Sultans like Firoz Shah Tughlaq and emperors like Akbar lauded the Hindu ideals was because of the utter unsophistication of people like Alauddin Khiljee or pervertly cruel Muhammad bin Tughlaq. It is never a good ideal for secularism to support fundamentalism in any religion and Islam deserves no reservation to be spared of that either. If we uphold the Sati as a Hindu ideal then where do we place Raja Rammohan Roy or Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar? If we imagine Alauddin as a nice person how do we ever understand the contribution of the great Mughals? or of Jaisi, or of Alaol or of those medieval Islamic scholars and scribe for whose efforts India is multicultural? I think that it is important for every nationalist Indian and secular liberal persons to separate the grain from the chaff.
Eventually, Hindus caught on Jaisi’s idea rather well and there came the Sikhs and the Marathas. The Sikhs imitated the Pathans in their attire and especially the plaits and braids for men and much of their dance moves of swinging on one leg and slapping the thigh are integral parts of the bhangra. The Marathas adopted much of those behavior which were the most hated about the Muslim conquerors namely cruelty, treachery, disloyalty and betrayals and above all, hate. No wonder then the Maratha’s desire for Hindudom lies at the root of the present day Hindutva, a very Islamized Hinduism. Javed Akhtar warns the Hindutvawadis never to become like the Muslims just as Jaisi or Alaol or secretly Barani did the same too. For only they know the barbarity that Muslims are capable of in the name of religion just as we the Hindus know the extent of crudity that Hindu fundamentalism is capable of. To deny fundamentalist possibilities of any religion is secularism’s shame, not its function.
Bhanshali’s film has changed the storyline of Jaisi here and there perhaps to simplify stuff for the film screen but he has put in some Shakespearan nuances in his otherwise operatic magnum opus. Padmini goes all the way into Delhi, albeit unknown to Alauddin to rescue Rana Ratan. As long as he was a captive of Alauddin, Rana held on to his character but as soon as he walked free back into his fort with the crowds rising in ovation to his queen, Padmini, he suddenly appeared to be a crushed man, his masculinity deeply afflicted by his queen’s bravado. It is from the moment of his rescue that he actually loses it all and seems to surrender to both Alauddin and his Fate. This is a slight distortion of Jaisi’s tale, where Alauddin has not been able to kill Ratan and instead Deepaval stabs the Rajput king at the back just as the Sultan’s men stab Ratan from behind, but well, the king is dead and Alauddin is ransacking Chittor. Alauddin runs into the fort, imagining to finally get to see the queen but finds her nowhere among the thousands who now march towards the raging fire in the giant pit. He has no idea of what the jauhar is but finally pieces it all by drawing inferences from the lighted embers thrown at him and the huge conflagration which he sees and the march of women towards it. He then crashes, almost cries at stop and seems to say look I didn’t think that the game would go this bad. It is said that Alauddin corrected himself quite a bit in the later part of his rule and Khusrau, his court poet assigns this to the scolding he got from Nizamuddin, the saint of Delhi. But Bhashali suggests that it was the slap he got from Padmini when she walked into fire must have stunned him into civilization.
I am not in favour of a modernity which places a hierarchy on values, claiming the modern values to be morally higher than the medieval ones Jauhar is not Sati; it is the Samurai sense of honour, committed by women of the warrior clans, actual instances being only one here and another there. Sati, on the other hand was forced upon ordinary householders, their numbers could stretch to thousands in the 18th and early 19th century Bengal. Jauhar is not for the ordinary nor for the everyday; it is part of war, a martyrdom in which by an inward collapse you leave the enemy with nothing to fight for. This is what Padmini did; when encountered with a man who had no values or morals, she undid herself and thereby divesting him of his reason for warfare. There are many similar tales as this among the Buddhists as well.
I have no idea why some people in India are trying to appease our Muslim citizens by denying the tyranny of the Sultanate. I am sure that the practitioners of Sati does us the Hindus no service. By erasing the truth of the horrors of the Muslim conquest, we are insulting our Jaisis and Javed Akhtars of their right to critique their religion and reform it to suit a plural world of secular modernity.