Opinion

Persistence of memory: Never mind history, Padmavati is as real for Rajputs as their famed valour

The violence over the filming of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s ‘Padmavati’ is a reminder of the wide gap between history and memory. And the anxiety it creates.

In 2009, Anurag Kashyap made Gulaal, a film about a fictitious Rajput secessionist movement. The leader of the movement had a long list of historic betrayals against the Rajputs, the last of these being the loss of privy purses in 1971.

The Rajputs are a demographic minority in Rajasthan, a state named after them. The post-Independence electoral politics has seen the rise of traditionally powerful groups like Brahmins and Jains, as well as that of backward groups, like Jats, Gujars, Malis and Meghwals. It has also seen the decline of Rajputs, the erstwhile rulers of Rajasthan, as a politically powerful group. In fact, the only Rajput to occupy the position of Chief Minister in Rajasthan was Bhairon Singh Shekhawat (1977-’80, ‘90-’92 and ‘93-’98). With declining political and social clout, the Rajputs have increasingly turned to the hospitality sector, turning their havelis and forts into heritage hotels, selling what they take pride in – their heritage. It is not unusual to come across Rajput guides around various forts in Rajasthan, sporting ear studs and jodhpurs, opening vistas into their past for foreign tourists.

The controversy and violence around the filming of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmavati is a reflection of the wide gap between Rajput history and Rajput memory and the anxiety it creates within the community.

Kālikācāryakathānaka, RAS Tod MS 34 f16. Image: The Royal Asiatic Society – From James Tod's collection of manuscripts
Kālikācāryakathānaka, RAS Tod MS 34 f16. Image: The Royal Asiatic Society – From James Tod's collection of manuscripts

Constructed identity

The Rajputs have often portrayed themselves as the last resistance against Muslim rule, both Turks and Mughals. They claim to embody the spirit of sacrifice necessary to mount resistances even at the cost of their lives. This spirit is claimed to have also resided in Rajput women who are said to have committed sati and jauhar when faced with the prospect of loss of honour at the hands of Muslims. These beliefs formed a crucial part of the idea of being Rajput, and have often been bolstered by historical writing and popular films and literature. Even the Amar Chitra Katha series featured Rajputs as a brave and valiant people.

Symbols of this resistance are littered all over the state, in the form of statues of Rajputs, often Maharana Pratap, on horseback. The idea of pride in Rajput heroism, in fact, became the unifying factor in a state that otherwise included diverse caste groups, regions, dialects and religions. The state of Rajasthan fashions itself as dharati dhoran ri – the land of shifting sand dunes, which, does not merely refer to the Thar desert, but alludes to the idea of a land that breeds valour and sacrifice in adversarial conditions.

However, while Rajput history frames itself around resistance, it is also framed by silences. While eulogistic genealogies of Rajputs pin their origins to the sun, moon and fire, a critical gaze into Rajasthani sources present them as itinerant adventurers, cattle herders or locally powerful groups who gradually rose to aristocracy. It is not before the 15th century that Rajputs began to view themselves as an endogamous caste group, that is, not marrying outside the group.

Despite this, the ranks of Rajputhood remained open adventurers long afterwards, with each new group on the rise, from the Marathas to the Sikhs, claiming some connection to the Rajputs. Marrying within the community, played a very important role in the framing of the Rajput as an elite caste group, with wives being sought only from within.

Image: The Burning of the Rajput women, during the siege of Chitor
Image: The Burning of the Rajput women, during the siege of Chitor

Uncomfortable memories

However, a thorn in the side of Rajput history is the memory of daughters given in marriage to Muslims, including Turks, rulers of Gujarat and Malwa, Sher Shah Suri and his generals, and later Mughals. In medieval polity there was nothing unusual about forming marital alliances to seal political ones. What is interesting about Rajput marital alliances with Mughals is that these helped in constituting both Mughal and Rajputs as elite social groups. Once Rajput daughters entered the Mughal household as wives, no more prominent alliances with Muslim groups were made. Apart from a few marriages with Pahari Rajput groups, the Hindu wives of Mughal emperors and princes were from prominent Rajput clans of the present day Rajasthan, 27 in all, from the reign of Akbar to Farrukhsiyar, that is from the mid-16th to the early 18th century.

On the other hand, Rajputs too rose to prominence in the Mughal empire as uncles and cousins of Mughal emperors. The Rajput chief at the Mughal court became the ideal representation of the Mughal empire, often defending the empire and the emperor at distant outposts, sometimes even against Mughal princes.

The memory of these marriages continues to rankle uncomfortably in the Rajput collective psyche as it gets represented as Hindu capitulation to a Muslim empire. In the popular culture, the idea that these alliances were forced upon vanquished Rajputs, who resisted these, has gained currency. By the early 19th century, as James Tod wrote in his Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan, the idea of resistance or capitulation rested squarely on whether a house had given a daughter to Mughals. The Hadas clan of Bundi state even produced for Tod a treaty of surrender of the Ranthambore fort between Akbar and Rao Surjan Hada, dating back to the mid-16th century, in which not giving daughters to Mughals featured as a condition. It has even been claimed that the Royal house of Bikaner attempted to pay historians to find evidence that would suggest that the Bikaner House did not marry their daughters to the Mughals.

An illustrated manuscript of Padmavat by Malik Muhammad Jayasi, c. 1750. Image: Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons
An illustrated manuscript of Padmavat by Malik Muhammad Jayasi, c. 1750. Image: Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

The ideal Rajput woman

It is in this context that the idea of Padmini, the ideal Rajput woman, who prefers death to violation at the hands of a Muslim becomes important to Rajput memory. Ramya Sreenivasan’s book, The Many Lives of a Rajput Queen: Heroic Pasts in India, c.1500-1900, on the multiple Padmini narratives demonstrates how a poetic text composed in Jaunpur, two centuries after the siege of Chittor by Alauddin Khilji, continued to circulate throughout India. Sreenivsan argues that through translations into Indian languages like Hindi, Urdu and Bengali, as well as in English, traditions like Padmavat were selectively appropriated to formulate communal as well as national identities.

However, the idea that Padmini was only a fictitious character, or a sufic ideal, is unimportant to the Rajput imagination. To Rajputs, she is as real as the famed Rajput valour. As histories of losses against Turks, Mughals, Marathas, Pindaris, the British (whom the Rajputs did not even fight), and now, finally, democracy, accumulate, it is the memory of resistance and valour, where women resisted overtures of Muslim men, that sustains the idea of being Rajput. The loss of Padmini is too big a loss for Rajput memory.

Tanuja Kothiyal teaches history at Ambedkar University Delhi and is the author of Nomadic Narratives: A History of Mobility and Identity in the Great Indian Desert.

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