The controversy surrounding Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmavati has led to a lot of talk about the very existence of Rani Padmini or Padmavati.
Some historians like Harbans Mukhia and Tasneem Suhrawardy claim there is no mention of a Rani Padmini in the timeline of Alauddin Khilji, as per the two most credible sources of the period – Amir Khusrau and Ziauddin Barani.
Writer Aziz Ahmed, in his paper ‘Epic and Counter - Epic in Medieval India’ states that it was Ghiyasuddin Khilji of Malwa, and not Alauddin Khilji who had taken a fancy to Padmini.
Ramya Srinivasan, a Professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the book ‘Many Lives of a Rajput Queen: Heroic Pasts in Indian History (c. 1500-1900)‘ takes an entirely different route.
In her book, she traces how the Padmini narrative was reimagined when it crossed regional, socio-political, and linguistic-literary boundaries over a period of four centuries.
A Sufi ‘Tale of Love’
To Srinivasan, the different Padmini narratives speak about two kinds of traditions: one of memory, and the other of literary-romances.
So, Did Rani Padmavati Really Exist?
While she examines the many versions of the Padmini narrative, that have made the rounds through the centuries, she says that there is one common factor that almost all the ascribing versions can accrue to -– in the history of India, Padmini of Chittor represents the ‘perfect model of Indian womanhood’.
Srinivasan says that Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s ‘Padmavat’ was a Sufi mystical adaptation of the formula pertaining to a ‘heroic romance’, where the idea of mighty princes embarking on heroic, mystical quests to woo beautiful princesses, took major precedence in the period between the 14th and 17th centuries.
The story is built around the conquests of the Delhi Sultan and Rajput resistance in the context of Sufi practices, which had been shaped by competition with rival religious traditions for influence.Ramya Srinivasan writes in her book ‘Many Lives of a Rajput Queen’
The theme of ultimate sacrifice, duty and conquest marks this version of ‘Padmavat’, that circulated through the different courts in the period broadly categorised between the 14th and 17th centuries. Other texts of this period, which include the ‘tale of love’ stories of Madhavanal-Kamakandala, Usha-Anniruddha or Nala-Dayamanti, all echo the same kind of theme, says Srinivasan.
The glorification of Rana Ratansen’s death, where his final moments lay in the fight to protect his wife Padmini, and the latter’s ‘supreme act of love’ by committing jauhar and the ruthlessness of the ‘invader’ Sultan Alauddin Khilji, seems to be a characteristic style of this narrative.
This narrative heavily influenced several Urdu and Persian translations of the ‘Padmavat’ that emerged through this period, which focused on the glorification of this sacrificial love and its fight against a ruthless invader.
17th and 18th Rajput History
While the 17th century and 18th century Rajput translations of Jayasi’s ‘Padmavat’ differed from each other in many ways, they both agreed on one point – the heroism of the virtuous queen that preserved the Rajput kingdom and its moral order.
Additionally, the story behind the events that Jayasi notes also differed according to the relationship of the local chief or ruler with the writer translating it. For instance, while the 17th century translations spoke more about Rajput honour and pride in terms of Rana Ratansen and Padmini, the narrative of the 18th century translation turned more towards an emergent demonisation of the conquering enemy as the iconoclastic, unclean Muslim, Srinivasan says in her book.
19th Century Bengali Literature
19th century Bengali translations were modelled widely on James Tod’s ‘Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan’, which presented the story through an extremely colonial perspective.
“The story of the heroic Rajput queen immolating herself rather than surrendering to a lustful muslim conqueror gained new significance within the heroic traditions of a largely Hindu nationalist historiography”.
For the Bengali bhadralok, the legend came to exemplify a reinterpretation of the emerging nation’s medieval history in which ‘patriotic Hindu’ had resisted ‘Muslim invader’.Ramya Srinivasan writes in her book ‘Many Lives of a Rajput Queen’
Jayasi’s ‘Padmavat’ thus came to exemplify Hindu patriotism in the face of a Muslim conquest. While there were many instances in the poem which suggested a vast deviation from this theme, considering it hosted an infusion of both Hindu and Muslim elements, a ‘reformulation of new national identities along tacitly communal lines’ had been established in the 19th century Bengali translation of the same, on account of its selective appropriation of earlier traditions.
However, Srinivasan mentions a disclaimer in terms of the many translations of the story she is tracking.
14th century accounts that described Alauddin Khilji’s conquest of Chittor did not mention Rani Padmini at all. The absence of any evidence, material or literary, strongly suggests that the figure of the queen became associated only later with memories of the Delhi Sultan’s conquest of Chittor, she writes.
She also adds that different narratives around Padmini’s story reveal neither internal nor contextual mechanisms of authentication. However, they each circulated within familiar traditions, in which they were in dialogue with other narratives.
But, she concludes, the true purpose of the many versions of the Padmini narrative were for them to be enthusiastically used to mobilise specific kinds of communities for political purposes. Something, which if we think about it, is happening just right now in our country as well.
- Excerpts reproduced from Ramya Srinivasan's Many Lives of a Rajput Queen: Heroic Pasts in Indian History (c. 1500-1900).