Making sense of contested historical legacies at times of widespread ignorance and suspicion is a difficult proposition. The Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi identified with the Chishti tradition, wrote many long narrative poems in Awadhi. Sufis and other poets of the period wrote in different registers in a range of genres and a variety of Indian vernaculars. The Awadhi Premakhayan, the poetry of love, was a well-recognised genre in which Sufi poets expressed their ideas of mystical love and the material desires that mystics or lovers of God would steer clear of. Jayasi’s Padmavati is an excellent example of such Premakhayans, which also included Mulla Daud’s Chandayan, Manjhan’s Madhumalti, and Qutban’s Mrigavati. Jayasi was a well-known figure in his time, writing on themes understandable to Hindus and Muslims alike and, as typical of most Sufi compositions, in a language intelligible to the common person. He avoided Arabic, though he was well-versed in Arabic Islamic tradition; he also avoided Persian, the language of power and elite intellectual discourse. Sanskrit was also an exclusive language—Sanskrit classics themselves were being adapted in Braj and Awadhi.

By the 14th century, the Chishti tradition had established itself firmly in almost the entire Indian subcontinent. The Chishtis were devoted to God, and their songs of love were presented to the people as an essential form of worship; since God created everything, they believed, one should love and respect the whole of His creation, and this included people of all creeds, castes, and ethnicities. Sufis established their hospices not only in the big cities, but also in many qasba-kinds of towns, in Awadh, Punjab, Bengal, and the Deccan; in this way they created a spiritual following over a vast geography of the Indian environment, embracing people who had or had not formally converted to Islam. What poets like Jayasi and others wrote and performed was widely acceptable in their time. Modern-day ignorance about the past and communal bigotry and politics have led us to a situation where our historical legacy is now violently contested.

Early 16th-century north India, the period in which Jayasi flourished, witnessed a variety of developments. On one hand there was the vibrant religious and cultural impact of the Sufis and Bhakti saints, on the other hand a fluid political context charged with possibilities was emerging. Babur’s attempts to establish his Timurid or Mughal dynasty here in India, would be followed by Afghan resistance, especially the one led by the formidable Sher Shah Sur. Though Rajputs were still emerging in the early 16th century, the “Hindu” subjects may not have felt disenfranchised under the Afghan or even the earlier Turkish rulers—just as they would not under Akbar or the other Mughals.

Historians of medieval India do not know how to handle the literary masterpieces of their period; and literature scholars have little understanding of medieval history; as a result, false assertions mar discussions in the public domain. False history has become an ideological weapon. Whatever little we know of medieval India, and it is not insubstantial, has not been used to inform, interest, and educate the public. In fact, we do not have a tradition of popular history of the kind that exists in the West.

Modern-day ignorance about the past and communal bigotry and politics have led us to a situation where our historical legacy is now violently contested.

The Padmini legend has spread over almost five centuries to large parts of upper north India, Bengal, Arakan and of course Rajasthan. Rajput sentiments must undoubtedly be respected in a political context in which they do not enjoy much power. Any depiction of Rajputs unable to save their women will be considered as a statement of their inability to safeguard their honour. It is the time of khap-panchayats and honour-killing, notwithstanding the modern state’s claims to establish its own rule of law—but in some cases vacating its rights to uphold the law, unleashing violent mobs as a political statement.

Though we are not sure if a Rajput princess called Padmini existed, but Alauddin Khalji was a historical figure with a massive amount of information available on him. He was a strong ruler who warded off several Mongol invasions from the north, and an able administrator, no more harsh and violent in his methods than rulers of the same period in any other part of the world. To portray him as an ugly barbarian and foreign invader, as in the widely circulating trailer of Bhansali’s Padmavati, is playing to easy stereotypes in our troubled times, and is also perhaps opportunistic. Demonisation of medieval Muslim rulers does not provoke the same ire or outrage and continues to feed into the myth of the “dark” medieval ages and a millennium of degradation.