Sunday, December 10, 2017

A Passionate Preoccupation with Padmavati

One doesn’t feel inclined to become embroiled in the tidal wave of controversy buffeting the Sanjay Leela Bhansali film made on Rani Padmavati and starring Deepika Padukone simply because every word written on the subject is merely the fuel that fans the flames of a fire that refuses to burn out. Clearly, cold – blooded commerce and hot headed nationalism are at loggerheads uncaring that it is art and freedom of expression that may be devoured on the pyre of this bitter conflagration. Everybody seems convinced that only their version of Padmavati, even if it is largely imagined or singularly far - fetched must be the right one and everybody else is not merely grossly incorrect but deserving of drastic punishment that includes disgrace and decapitation. What is it about Padmavati that provokes such a passionate outpouring of fervent reverence and frenzied rage?
            Rani Padmavati, (let’s forget the fact that serious historians refuse to see her as anything other than fictitious and give her story the same credence they would a fanciful legend or myth) cemented her place in history by opting to enter the flames of Jauhar when confronted with abject defeat at the hands of a foreign invader and was lauded for the ‘brave’ decision to end her life rather than live to a ripe old age in a luxuriously appointed harem. It is quite the story but hardly a unique one, even for that time period. Alauddin Khalji had also taken Ranthambore after defeating Hammira Chauhan and Devalla Devi, his daughter chose to perform Jauhar refusing the conqueror’s offer of marriage. It was the same after other Rajput strongholds in Jalore and Siwana fell - hopelessly tragic tales on loop, where the men sacrificed themselves in a futile, headlong charge and the women burned.
There have been other recorded instances where hapless women of royal birth (including children) were less than thrilled with the prospect of committing either Jauhar or Sati. These were ‘gently’ prodded into taking the patriarchy – approved, ‘honourable’ decision, by being fed opiates and led glassy – eyed into the flames, because it would never do is they went to their deaths kicking and screaming. But nobody wrote stories about these women or worked themselves into a tizzy over their tragic fates.
            Epic poetry was not composed in Rani Kamala Devi’s honour either. She was a fabled beauty and the wife of the ruler of Gujarat, Karan Singh Vaghela. After his infamous conduct and ignominious defeat, she made a brave decision too and chose life over death, accepting Alauddin Khalji’s offer of marriage. Yet, Padmavati alone continues to capture the fancy of generations of Indians. It could be because her story got told in a manner that fired up dormant passions, bringing characters and situations to life within the fevered imaginations of the oppressed trapped under the yoke of tyranny. It also managed the tricky feat of transforming a tale of woeful defeat into one that was doused in heroism and given a lustrous sheen, thereby making a ruinous and disgraceful period in history more palatable and worth taking pride in.
            Perhaps Padmavati’s story was always contentious, especially since it was written by a poet who belonged to the faith of the much reviled invaders, two centuries after the actual events. It is entirely probable that our distant ancestors were butting heads over the salient features of this arresting saga and threatening each other with death and worse, arguing over whether it was becoming for a comely Queen to be spirited, have a mind of her own and oppose her husband’s decision to surrender. Possibly controversy was always the reason, this particular story survived, nimbly leaping over the abbess of obscurity that might have otherwise been its fate. 
            After all this time, Padmavati’s story continues to captivate, bringing to a boil, the simmering frustrations of a bitterly divided nation where all are convinced that they alone are paragons of virtue and upholders of just causes. It is an age where we cannot agree on anything whether it is demonetisation, GST, Kangana vs Hrithik, or Dhoni’s retirement since every happening is bitterly argued over without any consensus. Yet, with typical arrogance, we insist that we know exactly what went down with a beautiful Queen from centuries ago.
            Ultimately though, it is important that a story like Padmavati’s, gets told even if it is with shocking departures from the original source material. It may make us mad when an affected auteur with a tendency to bury his heroines under yards of fabric and heavy jewellery that could break an elephant’s back before making them prance around in complicated dance sequences, wants to mess with it, but we need to let him have his say. Because every story is a living thing and must do what it takes to survive, even if it means allowing vested interests to take liberties with it, in order to get told, listened to and retold. Shooting the storytellers would never do since that entails striking the death blow not just for stories but history as well.

Hmmm... Mostly all the mags and websites have opted to carry pics of Deepika Padukone for my articles on Padmavati. What's wrong with my mug? (PS: That's a joke albeit a lame one.) 
This article appeared in India Today. 

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