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Updated February 18, 2018


The fortunes of the fecund text Padmavat, on which the controversial Sanjay Leela Bhansali Bollywood film of this name is based, embody a fascinating irony of history. And more, here the irony is complex, manifold and intriguing.

But what is the Padmavat? It is an epic poem written by a South Asian Muslim, the Sufi Malik Muhammad Jayasi. The language of the text is an Indo-European bhasha called Awadhi, classified also as Eastern Hindi. In addition to India’s Awadh and the lower Doab regions of Uttar Pradesh, Awadhi is also found in Nepal and Fiji. And let’s note: while one does find later transcriptions of the Padmavat in the Devanagari script, it was originally written in the Persian Nastaliq. The earliest extant manuscript of the text dates from 1675, copied in Amroha, containing interlinear Persian translations. Contemporary reports have it that the epic took the literary world by storm and one finds over the centuries numerous renderings, rewritings and adaptations — one of the most celebrated being the Shama wa Parvana, a reworking of the text in the mid-17th century by a governor of Aurangzeb.

Here, a few facts ought to be carved in our historical consciousness. First, that the Padmavat is a Sufi work of fiction, not of history. It has three main characters: the Turko-Afghan sultan of India, the much maligned and darkened character in the film, Alauddin Khalji; the proud Rajput ruler of Chittor, Ratan Sen; and, of course, Ratan Sen’s beloved wife, the queen Padmavati. Now, the first two of these figures are indeed historical, but ironically, there exists a virtual consensus among historians that Padmavati’s character is apocryphal; in all probability she has no historical existence. Second, that the epic was written in 1540, more than 200 years after Khalji. And third, that the Padmavat is a mythic work, full of Sufi symbolism and allegories.

Jayasi’s story moves on the crest of a moral tide, a story in which the agency of a talking parrot, Hiraman, plays a crucial role. Hiraman is a friend of Rani Padmavati of the Singhal kingdom (modern Sri Lanka). Her father, being dismissive of this closeness, orders the parrot’s execution. The parrot escapes and ends up as a pet of Raval [Raja] Ratan Sen. Now, it is this Hiraman whose descriptions of Padmavati’s beauty prompt the Raval to cross seven seas and visit the Singhal kingdom. Here, as Ratan Sen is desperately trying to win the heart of the famed beauty, the deities Shiva and Parvati induce him to attack the fortress of Singhal — which he does. Finally, through a confluence of events the Raval is married to Padmavati.

Note the symbolism: seven seas, counsel of the deities and a parrot with rational attributes. But more, there enters a down-to-earth element here. Back in Chittor, the Raval’s first wife, Nagmati, is resentful and sends a message to him through a bird. So he makes his way back home, now with an inflated pride that he is returning with a bride who happens to be the world’s most beautiful woman. Again, Jayasi weaves his tales allegorically, integrating real human emotions with his powerful mythic symbolism. We are told that the Raval is punished for his pride by a sea storm, but is rescued by the Ocean whose daughter Lakshmi puts him through a test of his love for Padmavati; he passes the test.

One, Ratan Sen is not dishonourably killed by Khalji. Two, Padmavati surrenders herself to sati. Three, she is not a Rajput.

Jayasi then sets his scene in Delhi at the court of Sultan Alauddin Khalji — that crafty, indulgent, pitch-dark villain of Bhansali’s commercial film. A banished Brahmin courtier of Ratan Sen informs the Sultan of the supreme beauty of Padmavati and induces him to claim her for himself. So incited, Khalji lays siege to that formidable stone structure that stands in its grandeur until this day — the Chittor fort. He demands Padmavati; Ratan Sen refuses and the Khalji siege continues. Finally, following an understanding between the two rulers, the Sultan is invited inside the fort where he sneakily catches a glimpse of Padmavati in a mirror, captures the Raval and returns to Delhi.

But through clever trickery, Ratan Sen is freed by two of his vassals. Upon his joyous homecoming, he finds out that in his absence another Rajput ruler, Devpal, had been sending marriage overtures to Padmavati. Incensed, Ratan Sen decides to punish Devpal. A combat ensues and both rulers are killed. Nagmati and Padmavati then embrace death by sati, or widow’s self-immolation. Note that by the time the Khalji army reaches the Chittor fort again, Padmavati is no more. Upon the Sultan’s victory, all the women of the grand fort end their lives by jauhar, or mass self-immolation.

Does Alaudin Khalji really win this battle? In a moral and Sufi posture, Jayasi makes us pause over an irony. Indeed, the Sultan captures a fort of ashes! This is what lust does — it only brings about defeat. Here, three more highlights of the fiction ought to be singled out: One, contrary to what Bhansali’s film depicts, Ratan Sen is not dishonourably killed by Khalji, but by a fellow Rajput. Two, the non-historical character Padmavati does not commit jauhar after Khalji’s capture of her fort; indeed, she is a victim of the internecine warfare of the Rajput rulers themselves and surrenders herself to sati. Three, she is not a Rajput.

So if we examine the film Padmaavat, or if we attend to the rhetorical grounds of the violent Hindu nationalist acts against it, we see a multiplicity of ironies. They both betray Jayasi and they both betray history. How strange that the fringe Hindu groups selectively consider Padmavati to be historical, but what about the talking parrot? The Ocean? Lakshmi? Placing bounties on the head of the actress who played the character, the fringe Hindu group Shri Rajput Karni Sena made the Archaeological Survey of India remove a plaque at the Chittor fort that declared the Padmavati story a legend. They also forced the removal of a mirror in which Alaudin Khalji was supposed to have caught the glimpse of Padmavati. The mind boggles...

The columnist is a professor and advisor of the social sciences and liberal arts programme at the IBA, Karachi, and visiting faculty at the University of Pennsylvania

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 18th, 2018