By Rakshinda Rehman, SY BA LLB Div. C
Is Rani Padmini of Chittor fact or fiction? The answer depends on who is asked. The existence of Padmini is definitely a fact for a Rajput, especially one for whom identity matters in a social context. However, she is most likely fiction for a historian who has no skin in the game. This makes the tale a myth: true for the insider and false for the outsider, very much like the idea of God– true for the believer and false for the non-believer. The story of Padmini is a special kind of myth. It is a legend, firmly anchored in history and geography, based in fourteenth-century Chittor, very different from pure myths. Insiders or believers will always find evidence to establish their claims. Outsiders, the non-believers and the sceptics will always point out that these ‘facts’ demand a leap of faith. The battle over Padmini, or God, is a battle of identity, of culture, of a way of being, and not a battle over facts. It is a battle of whose subjectivity matters.
The success of a Bollywood magnum opus on Padmini, for example, reveals neither a record of events that took place in the fourteenth-century, nor a faithful recreation of the sixteenth-century classic. It is a reflection of the twenty-first-century thirst to demonize Muslims and glamourize a beautiful woman who burns herself for her honour and the honour of her husband and his clan. Had the film been rejected by the masses, it would have portrayed something else. In oral history, as in Bollywood extravaganzas, the battle is rarely political or economic; it is always moral. The villains are either jealous, lustful, greedy, or intolerant of other faiths. Many modern historians have earned the ire of Hindus for dismissing oral history as fantasy and for favouring the argument that the Islamic invasion of India has nothing to do with Islamic morality, but has everything to do with the quest of Central Asian Turks for wealth and power.
For centuries, the most famous literary epic poem on Padmini was Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s ‘Padmavat,’ which was composed in the sixteenth century. Reading this book helped me appreciate the India that existed 500 years ago; India that was not medieval, but rather modern. Sixteenth-century India was willing to engage with foreign ideas. This poem that Jayasi wrote has nothing to do with history, religion, God, hatred, invasions, or honour. It is simply an ode to love, where characters happen to be Rajput, Brahmin and Muslim. Their nobility is a function of their personality, not their identity.
Jayasi’s work celebrates womanhood. In this book Professor Agrawal, the author, traces the themes in the epic poem to Jayasi’s physical ‘ugliness’ and the resultant sense of rejection and low esteem. The imagination of Padmini’s perfect beauty helps Jayasi rise above bitterness and misery. He yearns to be Ratansen (King of Chittoor) who pines for her and is willing to die for her, not Khilji who seeks to possess her by force, with no regard for her wishes. This regard for consent reaffirms the modernity of Jayasi; just as the projection of her death as martyrdom in the face of invading contamination reveals the medieval mindset of contemporary times. Today as technology is being used to amplify ugliness, we need to relook at Jayasi’s poem, which elevates us towards love and beauty.
Padmavat is an epic about a woman, named after Padmavati, princess of Simhal, and not after her lover and her husband, Ratansen- King of Chittor. Padmavati’s friend, philosopher and guide is Hiraman, a parrot. Besides Padmavati, there is also Nagmati, Ratansen’s first wife. The tale of two women and their husband, who are tormented by Alauddin Khalji, is told by a man. Who is the man? He is none other than Malik Muhammad Jayasi, who was one of the foremost poets of early modern vernacular literature in north India. Many historians and a large number of scholars prefer to describe the period from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century as ‘early modern’. To explain the point briefly, modernity is not merely about industrialization. Modernity is reflected in the change of attitudes and the spread of commerce.
During this period, Indian commerce became so widespread that in the early eighteenth century, India had a 22.6 per cent share of the Global Domestic Gross Product. Such a strong and vibrant economy led to a major change in social attitudes, in other words, the emergence of early modernity. Jayasi’s Padmavat reflects the excitingly creative outcome of the confluence of two cultures, first through aggression and resistance and later on through coexistence and interaction. Padmavat brings to the forefront human love and its evocative power. Jayasi takes a legend with a historical event as its background. Padmini of Chittor may or may not have been a historical figure but Alauddin certainly attacked Chittor in 1303 CE. Jayasi takes this event and transforms it into a remarkably moving tale of love, search angst and sacrifice. In Jayasi’s poetic reconstruction of the event, Alauddin the victor, instead of taking pride in his victory, regrets the destruction and reflects on the disastrous insatiability of uncontrolled desire. In Padmavat, Ratansen is slain not in battle with Alauddin, but in a duel with fellow Rajput King, Devpal, who had lustful eyes for Padmavati. The fact that the king of Chittor was vanquished by Alauddin is thus given a twist, saving the hero from humiliation.
Padmavat opens with praises to the Lord, with the narrator mentioning that God has given us eyes to behold all of creation and ears to hear sounds and voices. He says that God has given us tongues to speak, and arms, palms to act, feet so that one can move, and that their value is truly appreciated only by someone who has been deprived of any of these. Being able to see in only one eye, and hear in only one ear, as well as having his face pockmarked (due to smallpox) in early childhood, Jayasi knew the pain of suffering from bodily deformities and ‘ugliness’. He talks about the unlimited treasure of positivity and other qualities possessed by the Lord from which he gives generously to the deserving.
This is one of the parts I like about the book, the idea that we should be thankful to God for what we have got and not be unhappy because somewhere, someone isn’t getting what you do. We should be grateful to God for whatever he has blessed us with. We should spread the positive qualities that we possess far and wide instead of lamenting about the negativity within us and the things we don’t possess. This taught me that nobody is perfect, that we are all unique in our own way, like Jayasi– who was physically deformed, but nobody could deny him the title of being one of the greatest poets of all times. He also didn’t stop spreading his positive qualities and overcame all the negativity.