Poetry, film and history

February 25, 2018

While Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film has drawn historians’ attention mostly to the depiction of Alauddin’s character, little has been written about the legend of Padmavati, as depicted in Jayasi’s poem

Poetry, film and history

Excellent articles about the movie Padmaavat have been written in India and Pakistan. This piece will focus on the legend of Padmavati itself to depict how it differs from the movie.

This legend has been written in versified Awadhi, probably in the Persian script, by Malik Muhammad Jayasi. Jayasi began writing the poem in 1540 AD, under the patronage of Sher Shah. For this essay, I am using the English translation of the poem entitled‘Padmavati’ by A.G. Shirreff, an Indian Civil Services officer. It was published in Calcutta by The Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1944.

Jayasi was a mystic, and like many other mystical works, the poem is an epic of love. It begins with the usual hamd, na’at, praise of the companions. However, it is full of references to Hindu traditions which were also present in other works of the era like the masnawi ‘Kadam Rao Padam Rao’. In both works, the treatment of Hinduism is erudite and sympathetic.

In short, history paints the actual characters pretty dark, though not for the reasons given in the film and not in the same manner.

Padmavati was the daughter of the King of Singhal (Sri Lanka). In the movie she is shown as having shot an arrow which hits Rawal Ratan Singh (originally, Ratansen), the Raja of Chittor from 1302 to 1303, who has come to her island in the search of precious pearls.

The poem is different in that instead of pearls, the supernatural brings them together.

Padmavati has a parrot called Hira Mani, her constant companion. One day a cat frightens away the parrot who is then sold to a Brahmin who in turn sells it to Ratansen. The Raja’s Rani, Nagamati, asks the parrot whether she is the most beautiful woman in the world but the parrot says that the correct answer to that question is Padmavati.

Upon hearing this the Raja is besotted by Padmavati’s imagined beauty and travels to Sri Lanka as a yogi. The King of Lanka would have killed him but upon learning that he is a Chauhan Rajput and a prince, he marries his daughter to him. The couple go back to Chittor. There are many supernatural occurences in the poem which the Sanjay Leela Bhansali film wisely ignores.

Back in Chittor, in Ratansen’s court there is a Brahmin called Raghav Chetan, who calculates the time of eclipses and so on. In the movie he is exiled on Padmavati’s suggestion but in the Jayasi’s saga, Chetan is exiled for having deceived the court in his calculation of the movement of heavenly bodies. Indeed, in the epic, Padmavati opposes this punishment saying that her husband had "not done well to banish such a sage" (pg 267).

Once in Delhi, Chetan praises Padmavati to Sultan Alauddin Khilji, who ruled from 1296 AD to 1316 AD. Khilji, completely enraptured by Chetan’s description of Padmavati’s beauty writes a letter to Ratansen saying: "She who is the Lotus Lady of Singhala, send her with speed" (pg 286).In the movie, as we have seen, he merely invites the Rajput ruler to come and experience Delhi’s hospitality. The legend as narrated by Jayasi, in fact, paints Khilji in darker colours than the movie.

In the poem, Ratansen refuses to obey the Sultan’s order and Khilji lays siege to Chittor. The siege continues for eight years and then Khilji accepts the offer of five supernatural gifts and finally departs. Before leaving, he is invited to Ratansen’s palace where he plays chess and dines with the Raja.

Here again the movie deviates from the poem making Padmavati out as a heroine, although a highly naïve one. In the movie, the Sultan craves a glimpse of her and in order to save the Rajput kingdom from being attacked, she agrees to show herself from a distance. In Jayasi’s epic nothing of this sort happens. Instead, she overhears her handmaidens praise Khilji’s looks and royal demeanour and out of curiosity spies on him using a mirror. Inadvertently, Khilji catches a glimpse of her and his passion is rekindled. Here, Jayasi’s poem paints Padmavati more like a careless girl than a heroic, though fatuous, queen.

Where the movie and the epic deviate is that in the film, the Rajput Raja is chained and kept in a dungeon but no torture is depicted. In Jayasi’s legend he is tortured by fire, scorpions and snakes. Again, Khilji appears more cruel in Jayasi’s poem than in the movie.

Now comes a twist that is altogether missing in the movie, perhaps because it is only a three-hour screening. The poem introduces a second Rajput prince, Devapal of Kumbhalmer, who also longs for Padmavati. He sends a female messenger to lure Padmavati away while her husband is Khilji’s captive. Padmavati refuses and throws out the messenger. She then asks her military officers, Gora and Badal, to rescue Ratansen. They go to Delhi, accompanied by warriors dressed as women.Unlike the film, in the poem Padmavati herself stays in Chittor -- she does not risk the journey to Delhi. The military commanders rescue Ratansen but the Sultan’s army comes after them.

When Ratansen reaches Chittor, Padmavati tells him about Devapal’s indecent proposal. Ratansen reacts bytaking an army to fight Devapal. However, they have a one-to-one duel. Ratansen kills Devapal but he is wounded by his rival’s poisoned spear. He returns to Chittor, only to die. The saga ends with both Nagmati and Padmavati committing Satti.

The film takes a major departure from the poem since in Jayasi’s tale the duel is not between Khilji and Ratansen as it is in the movie; nor does Padmavati lead the jauhar as she does in the movie. The Raja and her are already dead by the time Khilji attacks Chittor in 1303. The movie shows that the women commit jauhar and the Sultan achieves a pyrrhic victory. This vanity of desires in the poem is summed up as follows:

"Where is now that Ratansen, the king?

Where is the parrot who so excelled in wisdom? Where is the Sultan Alauddin? … Where is the beautiful queen Padmavati?

None remain: but the story remains in the world.

… The flower may die but its fragrance dies not."

The poet also tries to give a mystic meaning to Padmavati. Chittor is the mind; Singhala is the heart; Padmavati is the intellect; the parrot is the mystic guide; Nagmati is the care of the world; Raghava is the Satan; Alauddin Khilji is illusion (pg 371). But this allegorical meaning is not conveyed to the reader in any meaningful sense of the word.

So, is the movie fair to Alauddin Khilji and other Muslim characters? Well, one of the original sources on these characters is Ziauddin Barani,who penned Tarikh-e-Firoz Shahi (originally in Persian but also translated into English and Urdu). It does not comprise this legend at all. It does mention Khilji’s murder of his uncle Jalaluddin Khilji, but nothing of the story that Jayasi wrote a century-and-a-half after the events (in 1540).

In the movie, Khilji does not come out any worse than other medieval rulers who were oppressive, authoritarian and exploitative. However, in the film, he also does not emerge as being anti-Hindu as he did not follow the highly biased recommendations of the ulema and people like the historian Barani himself who were, indeed, anti-Hindu. His queen Malika-e-Jahan was jealous of another wife of Alauddin called Mehru and did nothing as generous and grand as she does in the movie.

Malik Kafur was a very able eunuch slave who may have been born of Indian parents. He rose to the rank of a general whose ability as a military leader and administrator is acknowledged by all historians. It is true that Khilji handed over all power to him in his last days. Kafur also tried to install one of Khilji’s sons to consolidate his personal rule but was outwitted. Barani does say that the Sultan was ‘infatuated’ with him but Barani is understood to be extremely biased about such sexuality, and it is not quite clear what to take from the few laconic references he makes in this regard.

In short, history paints the actual characters pretty dark, though not for the reasons given in the film and not in the same manner.

In my view, if the movie had followed Jayasi’s story literally (i.e Khilji’s letter ordering the Rajput Raja to send his queen to him; the torture of Ratansen etc.) it would have given more offence. In this age of the rise of Hindutva in India and radical Islam in the Muslim world, it is not conducive to peace and interfaith harmony to show movies on medieval subjects that depict inter-faith antagonism.

The medieval age was violent and prejudiced and monarchies are by their very nature oppressive and cruel. If we cannot take these things in their historical and literary contexts--which apparently we are not mature enough to do --we should not be exposed to them. The other view, which I respect but do not support under the circumstances, is that we should be exposed to them to create maturity. You take your pick from either of these two views.

Poetry, film and history