festival celebrations

Lohri legends: the tale of Abdullah Khan 'Dullah' Bhatti, the Punjabi who led a revolt against Akbar

The Punjabi festival of Lohri commemorates Dullah Bhatti for his act of defiance against the Mughal emperor.

Lohri in Delhi has bonfires, popcorn, peanuts, pine nuts, gur or jaggery and til and sundry sesame sweets. Around the bonfire, people gather to sing a popular Punjabi folk song, Sundar munderiye, about a certain Dullah Bhatti who helped to rescue poor Punjabi women from the rather cruel zamindar, landlord.

In the big city, cut off from folk legends, most of the people who sing that song are unaware of who Dullah Bhatti was. Bhatti, though, is a historical figure, a contemporary of Mughal emperor Akbar who lived in Pind Bhattian, a town about 50 kilometres west of Lahore.

Rai Abdullah Khan Bhatti – to use Dullah’s full name and title – lived in tumultuous times. Akbar was just beginning to consolidate the Mughal state, setting in process a new order that would ensure that his dynasty would rule Delhi for the next three centuries to come. The Mughal state proceeded to implement a system of land revenue devised by Akbar’s brilliant Rajput finance minister, Todar Mal, called the Zabt system. The Zabt revenue system made Mughal officers responsible for both the assessment and collection of revenue.

Punjab in chaos

What was victory from Delhi, though, often meant chaos and destruction on the ground, as old ways of life were overturned. The Zabt system underpinned the Mughal state but proved to be the end of the road for local power centres in the Punjab, as all authority was concentrated in the Mughal administration. One of those local power centres was Dullah Bhatti’s family, a Rajput landowning clan made powerless by the financial scheme of Mughal finance minister, Todar Mal. As a result, the Bhattis rebelled against Akabr – and lost. Both Dullah’s father and grandfather were executed – at the time, Dullah’s mother was pregnant with him.

Legend now has it that Akbar’s son Jahangir and Dullah were born on the same day. To make Jahangir brave, Akbar was advised to have his son breastfed by a Rajput wet nurse who – in an incredibly filmy twist – happened to be Dullah Bhatti’s mother, in one version of the legend. A more prosaic explanation for this myth is that the Mughals initiated a policy of reconciliation with the Bhattis. By providing Dullah and his mother with royal patronage, the Mughal state hoped to assuage their hurt, win them over and – most importantly – prevent future rebellions.

Things, however, didn’t go according to plan. Bhatti grew up to swear revenge on the Chughtais, Mughals who had executed his father and grandfather. So fierce was this local resistance that, says historian Ishwar Dayal Gaur, Akbar had to shift his capital to Lahore from Delhi for two decades to try and get things under control. Gaur also adds that Akbar exempted the Bari Doab or Majha (the region between the rivers Beas and Ravi) from taxes and also made peace with the Sikh guru, Arjan Dev by visiting him in Goindwal – Bhatti’s revolt was so effective that the Mughals couldn’t afford to make any new enemies.

Dullah Bhatti becomes legend

Ultimately, though, Akbar prevailed, the Mughals capturing and beheading Dullah publicly in the main bazar area of Lahore. Till the last, though, Bhatti remained defiant and his final words as recorded by sufi poet Shah Hussain were, “No honourable son of Punjab will ever sell the soil of Punjab”. His grave still exists in Lahore, although interestingly, there is no official recognition of the spot. Pakistan – a country which is dominated by Punjabis – still takes much of its national mythos from the Mughal state, making its recognition of Dullah Bhatti’s revolt against Akbar a rather delicate matter.

Nevertheless, Dullah’s revolt passed into popular Punjabi legend and his feats as a Robin Hood are still celebrated today in the popular song Sundar munderiye, which talks of how he protected Punjabi girls from being abducted by the Mughal zamindar. The custom of giving money and sweets to children, who go from door to door singing the song, is said to honour Bhatti’s acts of generosity, of looting the tributes and taxes sent to the emperor and redistributing them among the poor.

In 2015, Bhatti’s tale was even made into a Punjabi pop number, although the video of the song, interestingly, portrayed him as a Sikh battling the Mughals, rather than the Muslim Rajput Bhatti historically was. Given that our histories rarely talk of the complex nature of Mughal India, and reduce most situations to a mirror of the communal conflicts of the modern age, this, perhaps, is an expected error.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.