I really don’t see how we can talk about shame-shifting and changing the term ‘rape victim’ to ‘rape survivor’ and in the same breath hold up a regressive, death before ‘dishonour’ tale as a shining example for contemporary Indian women to look up to.
Like all Rajputs, I’m very proud to be one. I didn’t change my surname after my marriage partly because feminism, but mostly because I just love the way it sounds. I’ve diligently researched all my ‘royal’ connections (few, tenuous, almost no bragging rights). I possess T-shirts that read ‘Rajput war strategy—A headlong dash with no plan B’ and ‘Your Palace or Mine?’ and I’ve worn them both to bits. When I was a child, I soaked up all the mandatory Rajput tales—Prithviraj Chauhan, Rana Pratap, Rani Padmini, you name it. In fact, I have several cousins named Prithvi, two uncles named Pratap and a sister named Padmini. All the older men in my family (and several of the women) have massive, white, handlebar moustaches.
Early this year, my sister Padmini, who has lived in Australia for the last 30 years, came to India with her family and we did a tour of Rajasthan together. Her teenagers, an amiable, intelligent, Aussie bunch, their blood thinned by her union with their UK-bred, academically inclined, Kayasth father, were pretty shaken by the stories narrated at the sound and light show at Chittor Fort, especially by the tale of Panna Bai (surely every working mother’s child’s worst nightmare? Way to pick your career over your family!) and Rani Padmini’s jauhar [self-immolation by women to avoid capture when facing certain defeat in war]. At the bonfire camp that night, they gazed into the flames and wondered what it might be like to burn alive.
Then they started discussing if it might not have made more sense for the queen to have stayed alive and cunningly drugged/strangled/stabbed Alauddin Khilji when he came to have his wicked way with her in her chambers. Like Judith and Holofernes, they suggested, showing the debilitating influence of Christian schooling. At least she would’ve died fighting! What is this lame jauhar business, giving up without a fight?
My sister, who had been channelling her namesake all day, burst out, agitated.
“But Khilji was a monster! He would’ve done terrible, unspeakable things to her!”
A little old pink and white lady, a fellow traveller on our tour, spoke up dryly: “My dear, we’ve seen the plight of women in Rajasthan. Could Khilji have been worse?”
“But Ratansen loved her!” My sister protested.
“Better raped than dead,” opined one of my nephews, clearly corrupted by too many seasons of Game of Thrones. “No offence, mom.”
“But she was queen! A symbol! If Khilji had defiled her, it would’ve broken the spirit of all Rajputana! She made a sacrifice to boost the morale of her people!”
They looked unconvinced, but seeing that she was really upset, piped down. So did I.
But it’s the kind of thing you can’t stop thinking about….
History tells us that Khilji invaded Chittorgarh. This much is true and undisputed. History also records that he murdered his uncle/father-in-law, cruelly subjugated his people, extorted huge taxes and was ruthless in his quest to extend his empire. All in all, a pretty unsavoury character.
But history is silent on Rani Padmini.
The first mention of her comes up 200 years after Khilji’s sack of Chittorgarh, in Padmavat, a fictional ballad written by a Sufi (or, in today’s narrow terminology, Muslim) poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi. He describes her as a Singhala (Sri Lankan) princess, the news of whose beauty reached the King of Mewar, who then sets off on a quest to win her. They wed, and many flowery Awadhi stanzas later, Alauddin Khilji professes to be enamoured by her and launches an attack on Chittorgarh to win her from Ratansen.
Lots of female objectification and trophy-wifery all round, but hey, Jayasi is a Sufi poet and he states that the ballad is allegorical, with Ratansen standing for the human soul, Padmini representing intelligence (firasat, the supreme virtue of a monarch in Islamic philosophy), Alauddin Khilji, illusion (maya) and Chittor, the human body, so let’s not judge him too harshly, okay?
Padmavat ends with Rani Padmini’s sati btw, along with Ratansen’s first wife Nagmati, after he dies in a duel with another one of Padmini’s suitors—Devpal. Khilji’s attack on Chittorgarh comes subsequently, and the rest of the ladies of the kingdom commit jauhar en masse, so that while Khilji does win Chittor, ‘Chittor’ continues to elude him. The ballad ends with a final couplet where Jayasi clearly states, “I have made up the story and related it.”
But millions of Rajputs swear that she was real. And even though all subsequent retellings, including the popular Gora-Badal-Padmani-Chaupai, say she was from Singhala they swear she was a Rajput. (Tsk-tsk, do not raise an eyebrow at this, are you saying Sonia Gandhi is not Indian?) Rani Padmani is real, and as Rajput as laal maas [a meat curry from Rajasthan] and that is that.
And now Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Deepika Padukone are messing with laal maas. Naturally, the Sri Rajput Karni Sena and a ragtag bunch of Hindu Taliban, including the chief ministers of several states, want to make a meal of ‘em.
“We’ll cut off her nose!” They’ve been roaring. “We’ll behead her!” (Which sounds alarmingly Khilji-ish, to be honest. And not at all Ratansen. But then all extortionists sound the same.)
Why they aren’t gunning for Mukesh Ambani—the man behind Viacom 18, the studio which has produced the film—is no mystery. Ambani is way more powerful than poor Bhansali and though cute in a roly-poly, Gujju sort of way, not as sexy as Padukone. And so 010 crore is being offered as a reward for anybody who beheads Padukone. I wouldn’t take that offer too seriously if I were a youngster with my fortune to make, though. The Karni Sena credit isn’t too good.
Meanwhile, two other “lady-oriented films” have been denied a certificate by the Central Board of Film Certification too, S Durga and Nude, for no other reason than that they are lady-oriented films. Our moral police basically just do not want to see films where women think and act for themselves. Censorship of free female narratives is alive and kicking hard in Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao India.
The trailer of Padmavati, I must add, looks very sumptuous and paralysingly boring. The kind of film where you could fall asleep in your seat, with a half-eaten momo in your mouth. I also resent the fact that, because of the many delays the film has had, my favourite stud-muffin Ranveer Singh has been walking around with his gorgeous face obscured by large amounts of facial hair for over two years.
But I will go and see it. We all should.
Honestly though, I’ve never been much of a Padmini fan, because unlike say, Laxmibai of Jhansi, Rani Padmini was famous basically for being beautiful and killing herself, which is, at the end of the day, pretty lame. And I really don’t see how we can talk about shame-shifting and changing the term ‘rape victim’ to ‘rape survivor’ and in the same breath hold up a regressive, death before ‘dishonour’ tale as a shining example for contemporary Indian women to look up to.
Poor Sanjay Leela Bhansali! He must’ve thought he’s playing it so safe, making such a sanskaari film! About a virtuous Hindu queen who basically says, “I know you want it but you’re never gonna get it, tere haath kabhi na aani” to an evil salivating Muslim invader, whose victory ends up being so pyrrhic. But I guess, in a toxically patriarchal Hindu nation full of jobless youth (truly unemployment is our #1 problem!) where history books are being rewritten to say that Maharana Pratap won the Battle of Haldighati, there is no place for any Muslim victories, even hollow ones.