The recent controversy over the production of a film on Padmavati is part of a long history of struggle over the question of historical truth involving protection and honour of a Rajput princess. The issues involve aggressive kinds of politics of identity, as well as ideological contestations, in which history is treated as a disputed site, which is sought to be reclaimed by unleashing violent mobs or through recourse to verbal abuse. Accordingly, interested parties proffer details of the motive of Delhi Sultan Alauddin Khalji’s conquest of Chitor (CE 1303) on the one hand and Rajput sense of its own glorious past on the other.
Historians really do not know enough on this contested theme, not only because not much research has been done, but also due to lack of sufficient data from the 14th century to speak in concrete factual terms as a matter of reality. Popular histories in the public domain have their own different ways of looking at the past. The traditions and customary practices of Rajput warlords are part of historical memories and narratives for over five centuries or more, though these can be at variance with what we may know through serious academic research produced by professional historians.
In the original story, the king of Chitor’s fascination for Padamavati and the subsequent love-affair between the two are portrayed as something akin to the kind of sacrifices and hardships endured by Sufis as a matter of heart.
The limitations of the protocols of conventional historical research include its inability to treat literary classics such as Padmavat of 16th-century Chishti Sufi enthusiast, Malik Muhammad Jaisi. Written in 1540, in the beginning of the reign of Afghan empire-builder Sher Shah Sur, Jaisi’s Padmavat is an extraordinary example of literary history in the genre called premakhayan, or Sufi poetry of love, in Awadhi dialect of medieval Hindi. Happily, new generation of literary historians can now deal with the significant interconnections between literature and history to be able to understand the value of such fantastic texts.
In the original story as narrated by Jaisi, the king of Chitor, Raja Ratan Sen’s fascination for the Sinhalese princess Padamavati and the subsequent love-affair between the two are portrayed as something akin to the kind of sacrifices and hardships endured by Sufis in their love for God, which is a matter of heart and is not determined by lust and desire. On the other hand, the Khalji Sultan’s alleged capture of Chitor with an evil eye on the queen, the accounts of whose charm and beauty had reportedly enchanted him, represented the lustful ways of the world, which the Sufis wanted to steer clear of.
Beginning in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, several recensions of the Padmini legend have been deployed in politics of different kinds, ranging from regional and caste- or jati-based interests to more vicious British colonial agenda and Hindu nationalist sentiments. At the centre of all these are issues of patriarchal notions of control and protection of women as a matter of valour and manliness, to be guarded on pain of death. Jauhar and sati of yore have taken the form of honour-killing in recent times.Thus, any rumour of an intimate scene between a Rajput queen and a Muslim king, and indeed an anti-hero, even in a dream sequence, is bound to create acute discomfort, with matters going to court and a mob unleashed. Violence is unacceptable under any circumstances, even if the film-maker and his team were on stronger grounds of being factually accurate in their representation of the past, which cannot be the case given the state of our knowledge at present. The varieties of ways in which Padmini legend have been commemorated for over five centuries now have left us with a whole range of issues regarding the nature of politics and society we inhabit. Historians do not know much, society is ignorant and intolerant about its own past, need of community identity creates its own reading of the past at different times, and politics thrives on hurt sentiments.
One of the finest attempts to understand the ways in which Sufi initiates, Jain monks, Rajput story-tellers, Bhats and Charans, British imperialists as well as Hindu communalists have used the Padmini story have been offered by Professor Ramya Sreenivasan in her fascinating book, The Many Lives of a Rajput Queen: Heroic Pasts in India, c. 1500-1900, which all interested parties must necessarily read for a better view of what all is at stake in what was primarily a Sufi story built around the ideas of spiritual love and discipline. Thus, also recommended is Jaisi’s original text itself.
Creation/recreation and transmission of image/s and memories as well as forgetting happens in particular contexts with its own sub-texts of meanings and political needs of people involved. Cognizance of the multiple ways in which memory, history and traditions intersect and diverge would perhaps make us more perceptive of the politics of the present.