Padmavati : The Imperial Project of the Khiljis and Rajput Resistance
Saint-poet Gyaneshwar (second half of the 13th century) wrote a commentary on Bhagavagita under the title Gyaneshwari to arouse the Indian masses, especially the Yadavas of Devagiri to stand up in heroic defence of their cultural and religious values which were then threatened with extinction by the depredatory imperialism marching towards Chittor in Rajasthan and Devagiri (Daulatabad) and beyond in the South. The threat came from Sultan Ala ud-Din Khilji. He was quick in looting the vanquished and in dishonouring their women. Kafir-Kasi (the killing of the infidel) was for him the path to heaven. In the face of such an invader, the emotional appeals of the saint-poet succeeded in kicking off only sentimental dust, and, in the aftermath of defeat, strong feelings of self-mortification among Hindus.
Rather than tearing a page from the history of Ala ud-Din’s valour, Indians plunged themselves into rethinking their culture and shifted the goal of life from worldliness to other-worldliness. For them, the shift represented their way of rejecting the imperial project of the Sultan. This Hindu approach to conflict-resolution continues till the present. This has been romanticized also. Self-denial and suffering on the part of Indians as a response to cultural otherness and its violence is believed to be a potent source of catharsis and is practised with courage and forbearance. For this reason it has given rise to a filmi formula also which in recent years has inspired the storyline of popular films like Veer-Zara. Such films seek to forge an aesthetic of social and cultural change through loss and submergence generally acted out by a bold female actor as story’s crescendo. Royal romance is the high-end site for acting out such roles. Commercial cinema is avid about it and film producers eagerly drop anchor into its deep waters for playing the game of treasure-hunt. Success here lies in the ability to invest human relationships with ambiguity and in making them amenable to tantalizing interpretations of motive and meaning.
Take the case of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s latest film ‘Padmavati. It is alleged to have shown all this and, to top it all, it has shown a Rajput queen revealing her midriff in a dance sequence. Watching naked midriff of a beautiful lady while she twists her slim wiast in a dance-like motion is no doubt pleasurable. If the name of the game is ‘pleasure’, then one may ask, why only the midriff, nakedness beyond it will be pleasurable too. Confusing the issue with ‘pleasure’ is not to hold a debate on the film. The issue is authenticity, decency and propriety. Body exposures as shown in the film (as reported by the media) can legitimately hurt the dignity of a community wrapped up in tradition especially when their kings and queens have popularly been visualized as embodiments of divinity symbolized by teen murti.
But the Rajputs reject Bhansali’s Padmavati as a narrative of modern nationhood in India. It is not descent or some such anachronism but common struggle against the imperial project of Arabs, Turks and Mughals which constitutes them into a community of resistance. During Umayyad Caliphs times in the eighth century, and later, the whole of North Western India was living in fear of Central Asian Empires. Muhammed bin-Qasim conquered Sind. Several cities in South Rajasthan were plundered by Junaid ibn Abdur- Rahman al-Marri, though his occupation of Rajput lands was halted by Bappa Rawal of Mewar. Successful resistance was mounted on a few other occasions also. But persisting rivalries among Rajput kings opened strategic opportunities for the invaders like Mahmud Ghazni, Mahmud Ghori, Sikander Lodi and Kutub-uddin Aibak. But still the Rajput resentment swelled when the battle code of the invading armies was experienced as different and harsh. Their women were admitted to harems and the rulers blinded or killed. Decency was flouted and promises were broken. This was borne out from the way Mahmud Ghori treated Prithviraj Chauhan. Creative sensitivity burst out and led Chand Bardai to write about these atrocities. His poems and the ballad Prithviraj Raso continue to echo in Rajput ears to this day. The historical period of Bhansali’s film is early medieval India and so it does not require further exploration of the invader’s imperial project through a tour of the Mughal policy towards Rajput sensibilities and vulnerabilities and their artful use of diplomacy for gaining control over desired objects of love and loot.
The opposition to the film springs not from the Rajput anxiety about their culture getting displaced by other cultures, but from the memories of their resistance to imperial domination of their land and people. It has a parallel in India’s common struggle against the British rule. It is not driven by communal bias as it is commonly understood. It is driven by their reading of cunning and depridation committed by Muslim rulers in complete violation of Islamic morality and ethical norms. Likewise, during the national movement, the focus was not on dislike of the Englishman as on the un-British character of the colonial state. The issue is far more important than probably its trivialized presentation in the film. It calls for a serious study and discourse on the part of relevant people. What is the relation between nationalism and history-writing? Narrativizing history, as in Mughal-E-Azam, could not erase grey areas in Akbar’s rule. Likewise, Rani Padmavati as a fictional character in Malik Mohammad Jaisi’s Padmavat is a bad allegory because it cannot hide what is so well known. The claim that Padmavati is cast as a muse, alamat-e- paakizgi, corresponding to Persian mystic tradition, overlooks the reality of women’s condition in harems. The problem with the film is that it offers a structured outlet for creative expression. Creativity is chained there, not free. The touchstone of creative freedom is sensitivity. Creative people should look back in dismay and focus on the deed of yesteryear heroes and underline the ethics of confession. The aim of a historical film like Padmavati should not be to titillate the masses but to foster a culture of confession and frogiveness.The only worry with the film is that the Rajput feeling of hurt gets deeper by this attempt to laugh away the history of Chittor in the darkness of a cinema hall.
(The writer is a retired professor at JNU)
By Sushil Kumar