The story of real ‘Padmavat’

Ambika Shaligram
Monday, 16 July 2018

Littrateur Purushottam Agrawal has delved deep into Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s Padmavat, to bring us the true picture, of the mystical beauty

With the frenzy surrounding the release and post release of the film Padmaavat, a sane dialogue around the characters was well nigh impossible. To those who wondered about the veracity of Padmavati of Chittor — whether she was from Sri Lanka and her beauty was really breath-talking — should read Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s Padmavat. Or its critical appreciation by Purushottam Agrawal. Published by Rupa, Agrawal’s book, also called Padmavat, delves deep into Jayasi’s thought process, the cultural ethos of the period, and includes references from previous literary works in which Ratansen and Padmavati’s story finds a mention. 

In short, Agrawal tells us the story behind the epic story. Firstly, Padmavat is in no way a celebration of the identity of a valorous community. It’s an ode to beauty, written by Jayasi, who had pock-marked face and was blind in one eye and couldn’t hear from one ear. 

Jayasi’s Padmavati, Agrawal says, is based on gadharudha pratyay, or someone who has occupied the public memory. His Padmavati is of course beautiful, but she is also well-read and intelligent. According to Agrawal, Padmavat, written in Awadhi in 1540, upholds true love based on consent. His Ratansen turns into a love-yogi to woo Padmini, and wins her over. 

Jayasi was a Sufi poet, but Padmavat is not a Sufi poem. It has elements from Sufism, Islam, Nathapanth and Hindu mythology. And, now about Alaudin Khilji. He is not shown as evil personified. There are references to his ability as an administrator. When he decides to wage a war on Chittor, he gives his Rajput vassals permission to side with Ratansen. Historical facts say that within three months of fighting with the Rajputs, Khilji had left for Delhi, to protect his sultanate from the invading mongols. Ratansen, after his release from Khilji’s imprisonment, returns to Chittor. He is killed by another Rajput king. Which brings us to the question of jauhar. Jauhar is mass self-immolation when there is no hope left, and it was committed only after all the warriors have left for the final desperate battle. Sati is an individual act committed by the widow on her husband’s pyre. The importance of Jayasi’s Padmavat lies in the fact, that much before Padmavati’s and Nagmati’s Sati at the very end, we see Ratansen preparing to commit ‘sati’ out of frustration in not being able to see Padmavati in Simhal. The expression ‘sati’ for Ratansen’s willingness to end his life is Jayasi’s own. Similarly, the term ‘jauhar’ is also used by Jayasi first to indicate Ratansen’s resolve to defend his fort against Khilji’s invasion. Jayasi describes Padmavati’s and Nagmati’s sati in three stanzas, but for jauhar, he reports it in three words, Jauhar bhain stree (women committed Jauhar). 

Padmavat in actuality, says Agrawal, is an antidote to a violent and intolerant society that we are on the verge of becoming. 

Excerpts from a chat with the author:

Padmavat talks about mystical beauty of Padmavati, who may or may not have existed. The Bani Thani is another mystical beauty from Rajasthan. Why did the writing of the past have mentions of these beauties?

Thanks a lot for this very important question. Padmavati of Simhal or Bani-Thani are parts of deep cultural memories and hence serve well as parts of any gadharudha pratyay — a narrative deep rooted in popular consciousness. So, at one level they serve the purpose of making audience relate with the story or narrative. At a deeper level, the mystique of feminine beauty has been both a compulsive attraction and challenge to artists and writers throughout the world. Padmini and Bani-Thani serve as metaphor of this mystique. 

One may ask — why only the feminine beauty? Well, it seems ‘feminine’ indeed has a mystique of its own, and I think this mystique can’t be seen in isolation from the position of women in the societal and cultural power structures.

In other words, this question obviously relates to the fact that like all other fields of life, men have been dominant in literature and arts as well. Now with the arrival of a female voice in a big way, we are surely going to have an exploration of mystique from the other end as well. 

Your book argues against the politicisation and deliberate misreading of Padmavat vis a vis the movie and the statements of Karni Sena. What advantage does the state and fringe outfit get from this stand?

I have essentially tried to underline the need of not forgetting the pastness of past; and of ‘reading’ any work of art with due sensitivity, on one hand, to its context, and to its deeper meaning on the other. Jayasi’s Padmavat is a celebration of love, but with very forceful insistence on the ‘consent and agency’ of woman. It is not at all a celebration of mindless violence and customs like mass self-immolation. Jayasi presents Ratansen as a veritable ‘love-yogi’ and through his sadhana takes the reader to a very elevated level of aesthetic appreciation and ethical responsibility.

On the other hand, the film which claimed to be based on Jayasi’s epic had neither the vision nor the sensitivity of Jayasi and his epic. As far as the advantage is concerned, obviously in the era of ‘hurt’ sentiments, everyone sees an advantage in stoking emotions and marginalising rational thinking and moral accountability.

Are youngsters in UP and Rajasthan still reading Jayasi’s Padmavat? And do they get the message that Padmavat talks of — acceptance, purity and love in its truest sense?

I wish it were so. I hope my book will make some of the young women and men read Jayasi’s work. As you would recall, the book is dedicated to young generation.

Your writing mentioned that it was with the advent of colonial rule that our society became prudish. But they ruled us for 150 years, and we are supposed to have been a thriving, open and assimilative civilisation for several centuries. What changed in those 150 years?

What changed was the way of looking at our own tradition and heritage. Much more decisive than the time-span of colonial rule is its deep intervention in our self-perception. It resulted in a kind of siege mentality and diffidence; and as a result, the colonised society attempted to prove its worth on the parameters set by colonial knowledge and interpretation of Indian culture and heritage. In the context of prudishness, eminent Hindi critic Ram Chndra Shukla put the point succinctly many decades ago. Criticising the attempts to impose ‘spiritual’ reading on erotic poetry of great poet Vidyapati, he said sarcastically, “Europeans pronounced Indians as ‘spiritual’ in a big way and many of us started proving it in even bigger way.” 

What feedback did you get from scholars and layman for the book?

To be frank, I knew I had written something really good. But, still I was naturally apprehensive. After all it was a different kind of book and the first full length of mine in English. I am excited and happy to say that this book has received universal acclaim from scholars and other readers. Everyone seems to have found something to relate with here. It came out in the second week of May, and just after a month, my publisher was already gearing up for the reprint.

Any other literature by Jayasi and his peers that you would recommend for youngsters?

The names instantly come to mind are Kabir, Mira, Tukaram, Shankardeva, Lalded, Sarladas, Akka Mahadevi.

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