Poetry wire Art

Harmless poetry and disastrous myth

An 18th century painting of Rani Padmini.

An 18th century painting of Rani Padmini.   | Photo Credit: Photo: Wiki Commons

Some lessons from the attack on filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali

Who would have thought that an Awadhi poem written in the 16th century by Muslim Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi would, in the 21st century, get an ambitious filmmaker like Sanjay Leela Bhansali beaten up in Jaipur? Who would have thought that the Hindu imagination would be beguiled by a Muslim poet who invented Padmini, the queen of Chittaur? Who would have thought that spurious guides would make money by showing gullible travellers like yours truly the place where the mass immolation (Jauhar) took place? I really believed in the story till, thanks to Bhansali, I read about poet Jayasi, who has a parrot flying from Lanka to Chittaur to tell Raja Ratansen of the beautiful Lanka princess Padmini, and how Ratansen brings her to Chittaur. Then an exiled necromancer tells Allaudin Khilji how beautiful Rani Padmini is, and the saga begins with Allaudin’s invasion of Chittaur.

But the incident or legend is deeply ingrained in the heart of Rajput Rajasthan. Lest people forget, the region was known as Rajputana earlier. I think Colonel James Todd raved over it. The trouble is that for Hindus the line between history and myth was always blurred. History was folklore, myth, word-of-mouth with perhaps a fact thrown in somewhere. And yet it could very well have happened, a Rajput queen committing sati seeing the defeat of her king.

The Bhansali thrashing has its lessons. One, the power of rumour. Once it went around that Allaudin and Padmini would be shown in dream sequences, Rajput imagination went wild. The Khilji emperor running around trees with the Chittaur queen! Unthinkable. What about Rajput maan and maryada? Two, the credulity of us Indians is phenomenal. In the pre-radio and TV era, 80% of Indian peasantry must have believed Hanuman actually set Lanka on fire with his tail.

Three, don’t play with people’s perceptions. Don’t write a book saying Hanumanji never had a tail, and even if he had one it couldn’t have set fire to Colombo. Some Sena or the other is sure to get you. And in Mumbai speak well of both Chhatrapati Shivaji and Balasaheb Thackeray. You’ll be safe. The only people in India you can safely make fun of are Parsis and Anglo-Indians.

I am reminded of a poem by Robinson Jeffers, ‘Cassandra’, the doomed Trojan prophetess, cursed by Apollo that her prophecies would never be believed. Thus when she said that there were men in the wooden horse, no one believed her and Troy was sacked.

...does it matter Cassandra

Whether the people believe

Your bitter fountain? Truly men hate the truth, they’d liefer

Meet a tiger on the road.

Therefore the poets honey their truth with lying; but religion —

Vendors and political men

Pour from the barrel, new lies on the old, and are praised for kind


Would those words pouring ‘new lies on old’ fit the old MGM Biblical extravaganzas, or our own Jodha Akbar and Bhansali’s Padmavati? And why not carry it a little further and get our Hindutva politicians in the net as they go on about plastic surgery and Vedic science? Others too are victims of these mythicised hoaxes. A year or so back, I read an article by a historian that said there was no such thing as the war over Helen, and that the whole story was the invention of a ninth century BC Greek minstrel, followed a hundred years later by Homer. Let me draw your attention to the poem ‘The Persian Version’ by my onetime mentor Robert Graves:

Truth-loving Persians do not dwell upon

The trivial skirmish fought near Marathon.

As for the Greek theatrical tradition

Which represents that summer’s expedition

Not as a mere reconnaissance in force

By three brigades of foot and one of horse

(Their left flank covered by some obsolete

Light craft detached from the main Persian fleet)

But as a grandiose ill-starred attempt

To conquer Greece… they treat it with contempt.

The Jaipur Literary Fest was as great as ever. Poetry wise it started with Anne Waldman. I couldn’t enjoy her poetry because she bounced too much. At least some poems should be read without gesticulations. Let the words sink in. Her acrobatics (fortunately) distracted me from her mediocre poetry. A good thing about the Fair was the daily hour of Kavita Nirantar. Eight poets, good, bad and indifferent, were slotted in one hour every evening, and the best thing was the crowds were very appreciative. Ruth Padel was there. Jayanta Mahapatra was deservedly given the Kanhaiya Lal Sethia Award. And great writers abounded.

I made a point there that Indian writers need to get away from Mahabharata and Ramayana. How long are the Dalit writers going to tom tom Eklavya’s severed thumb, or feminists go on about Draupadi’s disrobing? I attended a story session where a writer proudly proclaimed that all her stories in a volume were on Sita. She narrated one story where Sita tells Rama that Ravana loved her more than he did because he sacrificed his kingdom and his life for Sita. So she burns on Ravana’s pyre. The only snag is that mother earth opened up for Sita and swallowed her. What use such ‘stories’? In Uttar Pradesh, we would call this tukbandi.

Keki N. Daruwalla is a poet and novelist.

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Printable version | Feb 23, 2020 10:15:11 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/art/Harmless-poetry-and-disastrous-myth/article17282975.ece

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