History & Culture

The ‘Padmavat affair’

BETWEEN FACT AND FICTION Scene from “Jodhaa Akbar”   | Photo Credit: PHOTO: AFP

‘Dilli-ki-Akhri Shama’ (the last lamp of Delhi) by Mirza Farhatullah Baig celebrates a mushaira at the court of Bahadur Zafar in the pre-1857 First War of Independence days. The participants include shairs like Zauq, Ghalib, Tischina, heir apparent Mirza Fakru and Zafar himself. They all recite their verses to “wah-wahs” and other encores in the Red Fort. But though written in 1910 it makes the reader believe that he is witnessing a mushaira in which the shama or lamp is being placed in front of historic personages one last time before Zafar’s exit. Similar is the case of the ‘Padmavat’ of Malik Mohammad Jaisi, a resident of Jais in what is now east UP, who imagined a romance between Alauddin Khilji and Rani Padmini of Chittor and wrote about it as a drama in 1540 during Sher Shah’s reign, whose capital was Agra. That was more than 200 years after the death of Alauddin. The make-believe scenario has prompted Sanjay Leela Bhansali to make a film (“Padmavati”) on the subject amid violent protests by the Karni Sena, a Rajput organisation. The protest is farcical because Padmini was not a real princess but an imaginary one and, to top it all, was not even a Rajputani (sic) but a woman from Ceylon (Lanka) and fancied by Jaisi as the most beautiful of her time – a la’ Helen of Troy.

It is pertinent to remember that Alauddin Khilji may have been a tyrant but otherwise he was a henpecked husband with two wives who constantly quarrelled and made life miserable for him. As a matter of fact, one afternoon when the Sultan was relaxing with the second and younger wife Mehru, the elder one barged into the pleasure garden in Mehrauli and attacked her with her slippers. Seeing the plight of poor Mehru, Alauddin drew his sword and forced the elder wife to beat a hasty retreat. Despite all his sins of omission and commission the Sultan has not been depicted in history as a great womaniser. The scene where he is satisfied with seeing Padmini’s image in a mirror is also a figment of Jaisi’s imagination.

However, the real romance was between the Sultan’s son Khizr Khan and Deval Devi, daughter of the Gujarat raja’s abandoned wife, Kamla Devi who had been brought to Delhi during Alauddin’s campaign against Gujarat in 1297. Famed courtier Amir Khusrau wrote his classic Deval Devi-Khizr Khan under the titled “Ishqiya” (in love) which was hailed even in his lifetime. That Khizr Khan ended up tragically after the romance had cooled off is another story. Probably Jaisi was inspired by Khusrau’s masterpiece to attempt something on the same lines, but by deputing Alauddin as the lover of the fictitious Padmini who allegedly commits johar (sati) after the defeat of her husband, the Rawal of Chittor in 1303, rather than fall into the Sultan’s hands, he went a bit too far.

It is worth remembering, says Dr Ramesh Sharma, former Head of the Department of History, St. John’s College, Agra that the noted historian, Dr K.R. Kunungo, in a paper read during the History Congress in 1960, declared that there was not much truth in Jaisi’s work. The same thing was repeated in 1980 by Prof K. S. Lal, who too absolved Alauddin Khilji of “trying to abduct Padmini Devi”. There’s no mention of her either in Col Tod’s “Annals and Antiquities of Rajputana”.

According to Dr Ram Nath, former Head of the History Department of Rajasthan University, Jaisi had created a myth over which passions have unnecessarily been aroused now after nearly 500 years. He pointed out that Akbar was not even born when Jaisi wrote his fictitious work. Incidentally, there is no mention in history of Akbar having wed Jodha Bai, though she is sometimes referred to as one of Jahangir’s wives, with a Mahal named after her. The one Akbar married was the daughter of Raja Behari Mal of Amber, the aunt of Maharaja Man Singh I, and she is only referred to by her tittle of Mariam Zamani, mother of Salim (which prompted some to aver that she was the emperor’s Christian wife as Mariam corresponds to the name of the Virgin Mary, mother of Christ). Yet Jodhaa Akbar has been made into an acclaimed film.

Similarly in the film Mughal-e-Azam also liberties have been taken with history which does not record any such romance between Prince Salim (Jahangir) and a kaneez of the court, Anarkali. It is said that she was actually a concubine of Akbar, like her mother, and the Emperor was angry that Salim had dared to have an affair with her and so he banished mother and daughter from his kingdom. No doubt there is an Anarkali Bazar in Lahore and also a so-called grave of Anarkali there (with a verse ascribed to Salim) but all this is in perpetuation of a legend. The real one actually was between Salim and Meharunissa (Nur Jahan) at Fatehpur Sikri. Mehar was asked to hold on to two pigeons by Salim but she released one and when Salim came back and asked where the other bird was, cheekily released the one still in her hand saying, “It flew away like this”. The answer bowled over Salim completely and he fell in love with the witty girl (whom he married after she was widowed), the daughter of Mirza Ghiyas Beg, a Persian nobleman who had come as a refugee to Akbar’s court.

Scene from “Mughal-e-Azam”

Scene from “Mughal-e-Azam”  

Historians like Prof. Irfan Habib and academics in Delhi feel that protesting over liberties with history shows a narrow mindset. The fictional works should be appreciated for their own amusive sake and not lead to bloodshed. Alauddin Khilji, in whose maqbara in Mehrauli a mongoose has dared to make its home, must have surely turned in his grave because of the commotion caused by his purported romance with a fictional princess whom he really couldn’t have longed for even in his wildest dreams. Where then was the question of violating her?

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Printable version | Sep 11, 2021 1:00:29 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/The-%E2%80%98Padmavat-affair%E2%80%99/article17289175.ece

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