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.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

How sustainable farming practices can secure India's food for the future

India is home to 15% of the world’s undernourished population.

Food security is a pressing problem in India and in the world. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), it is estimated that over 190 million people go hungry every day in the country.

Evidence for India’s food challenge can be found in the fact that the yield per hectare of rice, one of India’s principal crops, is 2177 kgs per hectare, lagging behind countries such as China and Brazil that have yield rates of 4263 kgs/hectare and 3265 kgs/hectare respectively. The cereal yield per hectare in the country is also 2,981 kgs per hectare, lagging far behind countries such as China, Japan and the US.

The slow growth of agricultural production in India can be attributed to an inefficient rural transport system, lack of awareness about the treatment of crops, limited access to modern farming technology and the shrinking agricultural land due to urbanization. Add to that, an irregular monsoon and the fact that 63% of agricultural land is dependent on rainfall further increase the difficulties we face.

Despite these odds, there is huge potential for India to increase its agricultural productivity to meet the food requirements of its growing population.

The good news is that experience in India and other countries shows that the adoption of sustainable farming practices can increase both productivity and reduce ecological harm.

Sustainable agriculture techniques enable higher resource efficiency – they help produce greater agricultural output while using lesser land, water and energy, ensuring profitability for the farmer. These essentially include methods that, among other things, protect and enhance the crops and the soil, improve water absorption and use efficient seed treatments. While Indian farmers have traditionally followed these principles, new technology now makes them more effective.

For example, for soil enhancement, certified biodegradable mulch films are now available. A mulch film is a layer of protective material applied to soil to conserve moisture and fertility. Most mulch films used in agriculture today are made of polyethylene (PE), which has the unwanted overhead of disposal. It is a labour intensive and time-consuming process to remove the PE mulch film after usage. If not done, it affects soil quality and hence, crop yield. An independently certified biodegradable mulch film, on the other hand, is directly absorbed by the microorganisms in the soil. It conserves the soil properties, eliminates soil contamination, and saves the labor cost that comes with PE mulch films.

The other perpetual challenge for India’s farms is the availability of water. Many food crops like rice and sugarcane have a high-water requirement. In a country like India, where majority of the agricultural land is rain-fed, low rainfall years can wreak havoc for crops and cause a slew of other problems - a surge in crop prices and a reduction in access to essential food items. Again, Indian farmers have long experience in water conservation that can now be enhanced through technology.

Seeds can now be treated with enhancements that help them improve their root systems. This leads to more efficient water absorption.

In addition to soil and water management, the third big factor, better seed treatment, can also significantly improve crop health and boost productivity. These solutions include application of fungicides and insecticides that protect the seed from unwanted fungi and parasites that can damage crops or hinder growth, and increase productivity.

While sustainable agriculture through soil, water and seed management can increase crop yields, an efficient warehousing and distribution system is also necessary to ensure that the output reaches the consumers. According to a study by CIPHET, Indian government’s harvest-research body, up to 67 million tons of food get wasted every year — a quantity equivalent to that consumed by the entire state of Bihar in a year. Perishables, such as fruits and vegetables, end up rotting in store houses or during transportation due to pests, erratic weather and the lack of modern storage facilities. In fact, simply bringing down food wastage and increasing the efficiency in distribution alone can significantly help improve food security. Innovations such as special tarpaulins, that keep perishables cool during transit, and more efficient insulation solutions can reduce rotting and reduce energy usage in cold storage.

Thus, all three aspects — production, storage, and distribution — need to be optimized if India is to feed its ever-growing population.

One company working to drive increased sustainability down the entire agriculture value chain is BASF. For example, the company offers cutting edge seed treatments that protect crops from disease and provide plant health benefits such as enhanced vitality and better tolerance for stress and cold. In addition, BASF has developed a biodegradable mulch film from its ecovio® bioplastic that is certified compostable – meaning farmers can reap the benefits of better soil without risk of contamination or increased labor costs. These and more of the company’s innovations are helping farmers in India achieve higher and more sustainable yields.

Of course, products are only one part of the solution. The company also recognizes the importance of training farmers in sustainable farming practices and in the safe use of its products. To this end, BASF engaged in a widespread farmer outreach program called Samruddhi from 2007 to 2014. Their ‘Suraksha Hamesha’ (safety always) program reached over 23,000 farmers and 4,000 spray men across India in 2016 alone. In addition to training, the company also offers a ‘Sanrakshan® Kit’ to farmers that includes personal protection tools and equipment. All these efforts serve to spread awareness about the sustainable and responsible use of crop protection products – ensuring that farmers stay safe while producing good quality food.

Interested in learning more about BASF’s work in sustainable agriculture? See here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.