Lifting Padmini’s Veil

I just read this Scroll article which is being shared on Facebook by some good people. Following are the arguments in support of Sanjay Leela Bhansali made in this article (along with some other articles too, clubbed together) –
1) It’s not a ‘distortion’ of history because the ‘saga’ never happened in the first place. Two proofs forwarded are –
  • Malik Muhammad Jayasi wrote the book called Padmavat – hundreds of miles away from Rajputana and hundreds of years later than the incident said to have happened.
  • There is no corroborative contemporary evidence of Padmini ever having existed. The main source of Alauddin Khilji’s Chittore siege is Amir Khusro and he never mentions her.

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2) It’s a freedom of speech and expression issue – the basic civic right of each citizen in a liberal democratic set-up. Everyone has a right to interpret and analyse and then portray. And the people who are opposing it are by definition thus anti-democratic in spirit.

The article then goes on to suggest that today the Rajputs are ashamed because their daughters were once given to the Mughal kings in treaties as token of their subservience and loyalty. The same Rajputs who were once the carrier of the flag, known for their valour and loyalty, are now marginalised in their own territory, emasculated politically, economically and socially. Democracy’s number game has disadvantaged them because of their numerical inferiority. They are thus now turning to save their dignity with such vicarious-but-patriarchal methods as attacking the set of film-shooting, trying to protect their lost honour in the myth of Padmavati. Padmavati is this as mythical as the Rajput valour (another myth created by Tod). Thus, this frustration induced backlash.

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This is what the article says, I think. Its easy to counter some of these arguments.

First things first – the sources.

That Jayasi wrote the poem a couple of centuries later and a few hundred miles afar makes it abundantly clear that it’s not a primary and hence totally reliable source. At best it can be a secondary source and thus in absence of the primary source, it’s less reliable. There is also no denying that fact.

However, citing Amir Khusro’s non-mention (who was to be her supposed contemporary) of the Padmini affair as a proof of her non-existence is nothing but a logical fallacy. Proof of absence and absence of proof are two different things altogether. At best we can infer that there is no contemporary source. But to jump from this argument to the next level by saying that it proves her as a mythical character is little bit daring. This for two reasons.

A. Amir Khusro: A Poet, a Historian –

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Amir Khusro, despite having written a couple of histories, was not a regular historian is a settled fact among historians of today. He may be a great court poet and musician and a famous sufi murid. He may well deserve the epithet of Tuti-e-Mir and Turkalla. But his writings are mostly masnavis and other kinds of poetry which are packed with historical inaccuracies, geographical and chronological mistakes, undue exaggerations and deliberate omissions. He mentions, even in his histories, only those parts where he thinks would earn him praise of his master. Court historians are known to be like this everywhere and all the times. Its their job.

In Islam, history writing was a specialised job and it took many years of training under a master to be able to do so. Not only Elliot and Dowson, the authors and translators of (ill)-famous The History of India as Told by its Own Historians say so but the modern historians of medieval India like Satish Chandra have cautioned against liberally using his writing as history. Peter Hardy, one of the eminent historians of the medieval India has clearly cautioned against labeling Amir Khusro as a historians. Even Prof. Harbans Mukhia has said that Khusro could be used to understand socio-cultural ethos, customs, practices and traditions of the time… but to use him as a historian would be a mistake.

And when a mere non-mention by ‘poet’ Amir Khusro is being peddled as a proof of Padmini being a later-era myth, it brings me pain. Its a convenient smokescreen. Mind well – not for a moment I am suggesting that the whole saga is a history. It very well might not be. The logical inference is – we don’t know. There is no conclusive proof.

B. Absence of Proof as a Proof of Absence – 

Some readers of this blog would be surprise to know that there some queer cases like Meera. Meera is not known to have mentioned in any contemporary record. Earliest records that we find today are at least a century later – like in Bhaktamal of Nabhadas. Should that be taken as a proof of her being imaginary?

sanjay-leelaDefinitely, Padmavat is a very bewitching poem with a hold over public psyche for many centuries. It takes forward the tradition of bardic poetry of the Rajputana. It’s also the landmark in the medieval development of Hindi. Along with khyats (like burunjis of Assam), the Rajasthani bardic poetry has enriched our society, literature and also history to certain extent.

In Defence of the Indefensible: The Annals of James Tod –

Today, people are fond of attacking James Tod as a myth-maker. He relied mostly on bardic narratives and family annals. His resources were limited and biased, his methods unsophisticated and his approach uncritical. His reliance on bards is specially taken as a point to debunk each and everything he wrote.

History, both in substance as well as method, has changed very much after Tod’s romanticisation – they say. In between we have rise and fall of the Victorian era, well represented by imperial historians like Moreland and Vincent Smith, countered by nationalist historians of Rajasthan like Gauri Shankar Ojha. Then we have the Allahabad school succeeded by the Aligarh Marxist school. Today we have post-Marxist theories with multi-disciplinary approach and critical perspective. Tod, thus they say, is an outdated Scottish, India-lover Company-officer, who needs to be thrown in the dustbin of history or be rejected as romantic – not be treated as a historian.

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These people may well be partially justified. But only partially I must say. For one, Tod is not ‘out and out’ useless, there are various parts in his two volume book which still hold ground. Secondly and more importantly, oral history has been gaining quite some respect for last couple of decades. Not only from the narrative-reconstruction point of view but also in its own respect. Historians are adopting various new methods from different disciplines today – one of which is realisation of importance of ‘orature’ as historical resource. These methods are being borrowed from two different disciplines – anthropology (for tribal studies) and literary theory (for studying classics like Homer or Shahnameh).  Arrival of critical and post-colonial methods in social sciences has furthered such approaches.

In short – debunking Tod in off-hand manner only because he relied heavily on bards to construct his narrative may be fashionable but not strong enough reason. Its not only irresponsible but also cavalier. We can rather look at Tod today in a totally different perspective than we did in the previous century. It may not speak of history of instances, but it does speak of a different history – of people or ‘history of mentalities’ of the Annales school type (of both the medieval Jayasi-era Rajputs and also Scottish-Enlightenment inspired servants of the East India Company) or simply history of what people considered cherished and why.

Distort the Myth, Let Alone the History – 

Now, coming to the later half of the Scroll argument – the author seems to suggest that because the Padmavat-story it is not a history, it can be liberally interpreted. As the Padmini herself is a myth, so is the upcoming film – so where is the harm?. Why to cry about ‘distortion’  when the base itself is imaginary?

TS Elliot would have said –

Between the idea, and the reality
Falls the Shadow
Between the conception, and the creation 
Falls the Shadow

There is a two-level problem in the argument.

Firstly, its not always possible to separate history from myth. There are always some narratives. Fact-value is not as clinically dichotomous as it may appear at the first impress. Where to draw the line then? How to separate one from the another? I think its not only difficult but sometimes even practically impossible. Some historians have turned their gaze in other ways now and they study the attitudes, power-equation, approaches and shifts in such narratives today, rather than dealing in black-and-white.

(There is implied suggestion also that adhering to history as fact is rational but to myths is irrational. However, the author is blissfully unaware of the changed contours of the concept of rationality – both in psychology as well as in history of ideas. Holding dear the post-Enlightenment rationality by rejecting myth as irrational and considering positivist history as rational is fine sometimes but doesn’t paint the whole story.)

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Secondly, even if it is granted that such clinical separation of fact-value is possible upto some satisfactory extent, the corollary that emanates from it is this – history should be strictly interpreted while myth can be modified freely. Aren’t the problems in both the parts obvious? History can be imaginatively interpreted. Look at the work of the people like Prof Shahid Amin on Imaginary Gandhi. And if the author is claiming that all kind of distortion of any myth is legitimate by virtue of it being a myth, well then there is no end to it. It takes us to the second set of argument – freedom of expression.

The Speech: Free and Fair – 

Let me make my position clear – I am in support of total freedom of expression. Even to the extent that it shouldn’t matter if it causes offence to some individual or group. I believe that the speech is not progressive enough if its not causing offence to sizable number of people (however it’s converse is not true, as in the case at hand). There could have been no Buddha and Mahavira or Shankaracharya without the tradition of respecting free speech by their opponents. There could not have been any social reform in Hinduism starting in the 19th if we were so sensitive about not causing offence.

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However, the question is of intent. The controversy in its most crude form erupted with the Danish cartoon in Europe a few years ago. Was that in poor taste? – yes. Was that progressive in any way? – Perhaps not. Was there possibly some malicious intent? – Possible. Will the ban on such cartoon be the suppression of artistic and journalistic freedom? – definitely. What should be done then? – not sure. The debate in the classical liberal democratic place like Europe is not settled yet. Everyone agrees that there should be some line. But no one agrees on where that line should be.

The issue in India is however somewhat more complicated by the fact that India is NOT a classical liberal democracy. There are multiple laws and rules, state enforcement is weak, capacity is feeble. And moreover, the society is not as ‘progressive’.

Some people say these are the colonial era archaic laws that restrict the free speech. Its all the colonial legacy – starting from defamation secion in the penal code, sedition amendment later, gag act of Lord Lytton and Rangila Rasool controversy in 1920s. However this is just a partial picture again. The very first amendment to the constitution  of the free India was done to curb the free speech and it was done by Babasaheb Ambedkar and Chacha Nehru together. The two magazines in question were creating hurdles in the government land reform policy measures – one was Marxist while the other was religious right wing. The Indian state’s record is not blameless. It has buckled all too very often in last six decades.

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To be sure again – there is no legal and moral justification of the criminal conduct of the Karni Sena. All that we can say is SLB’s poor taste resulted in his having to face some uncouth, anti-social elements. And the state had neither will or capacity to impose the rule of law.

As the issue stands today – there is the Article 19(2) of the constitution which allows reasonable restrictions on the free speech on eight specifically enumerated grounds – nothing more and nothing less. But there is a due process. If the people had issues with the picturisation, they should have fully utilised the laws and processes available. Such street-level goonda-gardi is reprehensible.

Extrapolation: Reading Through the Fine Print – 

However, I would not like to judge the cause of their discontent or being felt offended in so off-hand a manner as the author of the Scroll article does. His line of argument can be converted in these words without any loss of meaning – that if Rajputs can themselves send off their daughters to the Mughal kings in marriage for centuries, SLB should have the right to picturise a dream sequence showing Alauddin and Padmini in romance. SLB’s ‘crime’ evidently is of lesser magnitude than the kaum of Padmini herself and  thus Rajputs have no moral right to claim any offence. These are not the author’s words, but this is what he seems to be saying in nutshell. I don’t need to expound on his arrogance of the author and his regressive-ness here.

If he had delved into history a bit more, what is called as ‘due diligence’ in a professional manner, he would have found that its the same Sena which has vandalised other film sets before and had indulged in some similar un-civil activities in the past. These are the habitual offenders who get habitually offended. To extrapolate immediately from that and paint the whole Rajput community in one brush is not only over-generalisation, but also criminal stereotyping. It only betray’s his own regressive attitude.

The Narratives: Created and Re-created – 

Anyway. History is and will remain a sensitive subject. And an object.

Also no one can rule out the possibility that this was all staged – by SLB himself – as a publicity stunt. That can also be one possible and probable ‘narrative’ for historians of Scroll.

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