Purushottam Agrawal’s Padmavat offers a commentary on Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s sixteenth-century epic poem. Through his interpretation of Padmavat, which has inspired many films, most recently Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat, Agrawal hopes to “help the reader gain a better sense of the claims and conflicts of love in general as well as the one in her or his life”. Jayasi’s poem is “not a Sufi allegory”, nor a “call to arms in the name of community honour”, Agrawal says. “Unlike his ‘modern readers’, the poet is not obsessed with the conflict between his hero and the Sultan of Delhi…Jayasi’s sympathies are clearly with Ratansen, not because he is a Hindu warrior, but because is a love-yogi. Jayasi’s Alauddin is cunning and unfair to Padmavati and Ratansen, yet he is not a monster. Jayasi’s characters are not just good guys or bad guys. His Padmavat is first-rate poetry, not an opulent, regressive Bollywood extravaganza.”
Padmavat: An Epic Love Story contains illustrations by Devdutt Pattnaik, the scholar of myth and folklore. Here are edited excerpts on Nagmati, the wife of Chittor ruler Ratansen who has to share him with his newfound love Padmavati. The parrot Hiraman, who sings Padmavati’s praises, plays a prominent role in the narrative.
One day, when Ratansen is away, his queen Nagmati adorns herself and standing in front of the mirror, she asks a variant of the question – “Mirror, mirror on the wall/Who is the fairest of them all?” The difference, however, is that here the question is not addressed to the mirror, (which has in any case satisfied her by giving the desired answer), but to the pundit parrot from the island of Simhal. She questions him and challenges him to reply on oath, ‘You are supposed to be an expert assayer; now, use your touchstone, take oath by the king, and tell me: is there anyone more beautiful in your Simhal? Is that Padmavati (of whom you think so much) anywhere close to me?’
Hiraman initially intends to avoid the tricky situation by giving some diplomatic answer. But Nagmati’s insistence on the comparison to the women of Simhal, in particular Padmavati, takes away all his diplomacy; and then there is also the oath involving the well-being of his benefactor, Ratansen. He bursts out rather derisively – “Where is the question of comparison with the women of Simhal? Of course, in a pond, which is never visited by swans, herons can claim to be swans. But really, can one compare day with night? The Simhal women have fragrant bodies, and as far as Padmavati is concerned, her body has the complexion of purified gold and is blessed with a unique fragrance.”
Nagmati cannot bear the truth and is mad with jealousy and insecurity and decides to have Hiraman eliminated.
She instructs her reliable maidservant to take the wretched bird away and kill it in such a way that not a single soul witnesses the act. The maid takes the parrot, but unlike her mistress, she reflects over the situation calmly: “In the first place, one cannot kill someone admired by the king. Secondly, what wrong has this poor parrot committed? He is a pundit; in fact, he seems to be a renunciate who is here due to some break in his sadhana. How can I kill this parrot on the order of a woman who is not even bothered about her husband’s affection for it? If and when he orders a search for this parrot, I will have to face the music.”
Nagmati is stunned and realises that she has been defeated even before the “battle” has formally begun. Her maid who had defied her order to kill Hiraman comes to help. Nagmati ends up getting scolded from her friendly maid as well. The parrot is handed over to the king. Nagmati is hurt and her disillusionment with her husband comes out in moving words of exasperation, “I thought I meant a lot to you, but obviously, to you, this bird is more important than me. You ordered your wife to commit sati with him if he could not be brought back to life. My dear husband, I loved and served you all my life and was proud of our love, but this is the reward I get. Well, at least now I know the truth – you are with me, but do not belong to me. You are here only in appearance but actually, seem from an alien land. So strange you seem to me now. But, anyway, I will do what you want…”
Though dejected, Nagmati is never completely vanquished. Even after Padmavati’s arrival at the royal abode, she continues to fight for her space. People who read Padmavat as an allegory of Sufi spiritualism see her character as symbolic of worldly bonds. This is being insensitive to a woman who was forced to suffer for absolutely no fault of hers. Whatever the interpreters may say, in the poet’s narrative, she comes out as a human being who deserves sympathy. To Jayasi, she is not someone to be derided or considered as an evil person symbolizing any undesirable bond. Jayasi’s description of her longing for Ratansen, while he is enjoying his new-found love in Simhal, is considered one of the finest pieces of poetry of longing and pain in Hindi literature.
To Jayasi, Nagmati is not merely a nagging wife or a symbol of worldly bonds. Just as Padmavati is not merely a stand-in for god or Ratansen for a devotee. In any case, it is not a good idea in fiction or in real life to reduce human beings into mere symbols of abstract ideas – good or bad.
Padmavat is not only about the grand love of Ratansen and Padmavati, but also the third person in this love triangle—its poor victim, Nagmati. As indicated earlier, it is through her that we get a sense of a woman’s plight in a patriarchal system—irrespective of her status. Unlike Padmavati, she does not carry an aura of divinity around her. She is a queen, but in Jayasi’s articulation of her suffering, Nagmati could be the woman next door.
It is important to note that Jayasi and his epic are products of their time. It would be anachronistic and futile to read any trace of ‘feminism’ in his treatment of Nagmati. Her world remains Ratansen-centric, in spite of all his insensitivity, and Jayasi describes her lamentations in an erotically suggestive, ‘inviting’ idiom, as was the poetic norm. The point, however, is the poet’s awareness of the suffering of a woman whose husband discards her for no fault of her own.
At the outset, there is a deliberate identification of Nagmati as an ordinary, rural woman as opposed to a privileged, urbane, sophisticated one: ‘Nagmati waits in Chittor, watching the way expectantly for the lover who has not looked back. “He must have been enchanted by some city woman. That is why he ignores me.”
In a typical husbandlike manner, Ratansen assures his “first wed” of her “superior status”. She, however, knows the “truth”; but what can she do? She has to be happy with her Simhal-returned husband. But teasing sarcasm will do no harm. She compares her husband with an “elephant who after a bath and a spread of sandal powder on his body will still put some dust on himself”.
The king “handles” his newly-wed wife in the same way – being his first wife, Nagmati is senior to Padmavati: “But do I need to tell you, you are my life-breath.” Padmavati also has her armoury of sarcasm and insults, all directed at Nagmati, “I know your ‘truth’ my dear; but what can one do about a ‘body’ which has been poisoned by a she-snake.”
Following the above separate dialogues between a husband and his two wives, we witness a proper quarrel between the wives. It starts in the palace garden and is ostensibly a discussion about flower-plants, their characteristics and maintenance. Each sentence is loaded with double meaning – working simultaneously for or against one of the quarrelling duo. Soon, the dialogue degenerates into a full-fledged fist fight and hair-pulling. They fight like “drugged ones, no one dares to separate them”.
Ratansen rushes to the scene and tries to pacify the fighting women – both are valuable to him, he cannot afford to lose either woman. It is important to note here that Jayasi’s Ratansen has no other woman in his life except these two. Jayasi has thus made Ratansen’s love for both the women in his life seem quite credible.
Excerpted with permission from Padmavat, Purushottam Agrawal, introduced and illustrated by Devdutt Pattnaik, Rupa Publications.