Padmavati and Kannagi: How India Perceives History and Myth
The release of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmavati has been pushed indefinitely, maybe to 2018. The Hindu alt-right is baying for the heads of Bhansali and Deepika Padukone – with a bounty of Rs 5 crore (each) to boot. The film fraternity stands in solidarity, albeit at a safe distance.
Social media has been asking the same question about the row – why such a hullabaloo over a character which may not even be real?
People for #Padmavati saying it shld be shown coz nothing to worry, queen & Khilji aren’t in a single frame together & historians say she is fictional. In true democracy, it shouldn’t matter even if both were in same scenes, and shld be possible to show movie even if she did exist
For some perspective, let’s travel to Tamil Nadu to meet another woman – from over 3,000 years ago. Tamil Pride rests on her story even today.
Kannagi, the Woman Who Burnt Down Madurai
A merchant, Kovalan, is wrongly accused of stealing the queen’s pearl anklet. After he is executed, his wife, Kannagi, confronts the king, Kadungon Pandyan, and dashes her ruby-encrusted anklet to the ground. Unable to bear the miscarriage of justice, the king dies. Still enraged Kannagi tears away her left breast and hurls it to destroy the land that wrongly executed her husband. Her anger burns down the court, the palace, and the entire city of Madurai. Kannagi then ascends to heaven in a golden chariot.
Too busy to read? Listen to this story here:
Kadungon Pandyan (The Pandyan with the bent staff), was the moniker given to Nedunchezhiyan, a Pandya king who ruled during the 7th century.
It is believed that the author of Silappathigaram (Kannagi’s story), Ilango Adigal, abdicated his claim to the throne to his brother, the Chera King, Senguttuvan, and renounced the world for Jainism.
That the Silappathigaram is by far the most comprehensive and authentic record of contemporary history, culture, music and traditions of the first few centuries, CE, is common knowledge.
Kannagi’s legend, though, has been part of folklore and traditional song/dance forms since time immemorial.
India has always had scholars, poets, authors and other forms of wordsmiths of global repute.
The text of Silappathigaram, the story of Kannagi, was discovered only in the 1890s, by U V Swaminatha Iyer, one of the foremost scholars and researchers of Tamil culture.
India also has the largest collection of manuscripts compared to any other civilisation in the history of the world.
However, Indian historians, are a much more recent breed.
What About Kannagi in Films?
Recently, a cartoonist was arrested for drawing a satirical cartoon criticising the TN government of apathy. A few months prior to that, a few youngsters were booked for creating a meme.
Yes, TN’s politics, and any question on the ‘Tamil-ness’ is a touchy subject to say the least. Yet, there have been three movies on Kannagi so far!
The first was Kannagi (1942), in which P Kannambal played the titular role. The second film, Poompuhar (1964), had dialogues by DMK supremo M Karunanidhi, former CM of Tamil Nadu. The third was in Malayalam, titled Kodungallooramma (1968), which stuck to the legend of Kannagi as the goddess, and drew from folklore.
All three films did very well, but there haven't been any more remakes worth a mention.
So, Did they Distort History?
First off, historians wouldn't really consider the Silappathigaram as a piece of historic writing, though every academic's perception of that era is based on this book.
But any change made in the narrative will be considered distortion of history, because that book is almost all there is, of the story of the Tamils in that period.
But all three movies changed the climax, and deviated from the written text, in favour of more dramatic, socially acceptable folklore!
In the movies, Madurai was burnt down, not because Kannagi tore off her breast and invoked the fire God Agni, but because she threw down her anklet, which burst into flames.
The public took it well. Classical literature buffs and academia didn't. But since the latter aren't prone to violence, no hell broke loose.
Also, this trope was already in use in school and college dramas. In Tamil Nadu, even kindergartners play Kannagi. Therefore, the whole breast-tearing episode had to be made optional.
The Pandya king who erred in his judgement died instantly, so there was no real embarrassment to the dynasty of yore, or today’s caste of the same name.
From Tearing off a Breast, to Throwing an Anklet
Daily entertainment is an urban concept, as is entertainment that is separate from tradition.
Tamil cinema still carries the tropes of the Therukkooththu (street play) that is performed as both ritual and entertainment in rural festivals. From the early 30s to the late 40s, themes were predominantly mythological, just as with the Therukkooththu.
Haridas (1944) solidified the appeal of the song and dance format, and helped separate sensuality and love on screen.
Romantic fantasy was relegated to ‘dream sequences’, which erupted in vertigo inducing eastman colour in the 70s.
Heroines ceased to be attractive, and began to show much less skin. As with the use of words, body language too grew needlessly conservative, until finally, even the mention of the woman’s breast in a non-sexual way became taboo.
The makers of Kannagi and Poompuhar happily adopted the prevalent folklore of the fiery anklet in lieu of the flaming breast.
Nevertheless, Tamil cinema has always been open about showing the romantic side of the protagonists, even if they are worthy of worship. This is in part due to the influence of Telugu filmmakers, producers and actors, many of whom were equally active in Tamil.
P Kannambal, who played the first Kannagi, acted in 170 films, over 50 of which were in Tamil.
There were duets in both films, though nowhere as beautiful and graphic as in the book that spoke of Kovalan and Kannagi finding great pleasure in each other’s embrace.
Detour: The Mostly Absent Indian Historians
Megasthenes, a Greek historian wrote on India in 300 BC. While his book Indika is lost, its contents were reconstructed from later writings. This travelogue is considered the oldest writing on India.
The first ever historian of Indian origin could be Hemachandra (11th Century), who wrote an epic on the history of the Chalukya dynasty.
It is only in the 1800s, after the invasion (and influence) of the British, that historians in the modern sense emerged in South India and the rest of the country.
The purpose was not to create a written record of the times, but to showcase his skills in Sanskrit grammar.
Kalhana, Jonaraja and Shrivara (12th - 15th century) collectively compiled the history of the kings who ruled Kashmir.
Certainty of Myth Vs Ambiguity of History
The Oxford History of India, RC Majumdar’s An Advanced History of India and a dozen other books on Indian history swear by James Tod’s (1782-1835) accounts of the lives and times of the Rajputs. Other historians, including James Tod’s biographer believed otherwise.
Depending on which historian one subscribes to, Padmavati is either real or fictional. Likewise with Kannagi.
Archaeological (coins, inscriptions, etc) evidence, written records and folklore are typically the bases that historians cover. Indian queens neither featured in coins, nor were written about, but they do feature predominantly in folklore.
In 2016, over 12,000 artefacts were found at a dig in Ramanathapuram, in southern Tamil Nadu.
Many of these artefacts, including sawed conches, brick chambers and Roman amphoras (jars) corroborate descriptions found in ancient Sangam literature.
In this context, the existence of Rani Padmavati as a historical character is more probable than that of Kannagi, although there’s a big ‘if’ in both cases.
What of the songs on Kannagi from the hills of Valparai, that have passed down through millennia without ever being written down?
Itihaasa means history, or that which has happened.
It is considered the equivalent of the English word epic, which is defined as a long, poetic tale of historic or legendary characters.
In the minds of a majority of Indians – irrespective of demographics – this ambiguity simply does not exist.