Padmaavat and What We Choose to Remember About Pride

Social Commentary

Padmaavat and What We Choose to Remember About Pride

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

As a third-generation refugee of the Partition, I am no stranger to memory. Every family gathering where you speak to a whimsical old relative is an occasion to recount the Punjab that is now Pakistan, with its wondrous bazaars, chilgoze, and people irretrievably lost. There is a certain opulence to this memory, for grandmas from the time fondly remember the swathes of heere-moti they left behind as the men lament the loss of ancestral land, simultaneously coronating themselves as rajas of a bygone world.

One way to deal with these narratives is to enjoy them for their lightness, for the joy and grief that their nostalgic subjects emanate in remembrance. Another, the way of the haughty historian, is to declare memory to be a historical fiction with no basis in reality and yet, held by unthinking mortals in their eagerness to exaggerate.

If only it were that simple.

For as is becoming ominously evident, memory is at the centre of politics – it is one thing to remember joy and tragedy and leave them at that, and quite another to use what you remember of your community’s past to threaten with murder, riots, beheading, and jauhar as the Shri Rajput Karni Sena has done. How must the historian respond to this, especially because nobody cares about real history or the historian in this country?

In the curious case of Padmaavat, a rendering of Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s 16-century rendering of Alauddin Khilji’s siege of Chittor in 1303. The film has been at the centre of national consciousness due to the mere suspicion that the “history” of the Rajputs is being distorted. Here, what is remembered as history is only memory, but to those who remember, the difference is irrelevant. It is thus unimportant that Jayasi’s text came about two centuries after the historical siege of Chittor, and that there is no mention of Rani Padmini before Jayasi’s “invention”. In the text, if it is at all read, Padmini is invoked not as a historical figure, but as a metaphor – she is not a person, but an allegory. Rooted in the Sufi mystical premakhyan tradition, the text narrativises Khilji’s quest for Padmini as the individual’s quest for the divine. Khilji is thus maya, an illusion, and as he conquers Chittor, he finds only Padmini’s ashes, rendering his triumph illusory.

In the text, if it is at all read, Padmini is invoked not as a historical figure, but as a metaphor – she is not a person, but an allegory.

The alleged “historical” distortion, however, is an alleged amorous scene between Rani Padmini and Alauddin Khilji; the primary reason why this is considered a distortion is not because Rani Padmini is a purely fictional figure, but because such a scene would hurt Rajput pride and understate the community’s courageous history of resistance against the encroaching, barbaric Muslim. As is often the case, the pride and honour of a community are placed on the body of the woman – the mere fact that Padmini is shown dancing is an exhibition of her sexuality and therefore abhorrent.

Such a memory also glorifies jauhar, an act of sexual governance, and in later incarnations of Jayasi’s literary invention, it was employed to demonise the Muslim “other”. To engage with this memory is to engage with caste supremacy, patriarchal honour, and communal sentiment.

There was, however, another event of memory that has floated into oblivion. This was the attack at Bhima-Koregaon – an attack on the Dalits who had gathered to commemorate Mahar participation in the Anglo-Maratha Wars by the obelisk that BR Ambedkar had inscribed as a site of Dalit memory.

By itself, of course, Dalit memory of Bhima-Koregaon is historically untenable. While the Mahar regiment was certainly a presence in the Company army, memory overstates it, while glossing over the historical fact that the Mahars were employed in the Peshwa army as well, beside the Arabs. Company rule carried no promise of emancipation – after deftly employing the Mahar regiment to win critical battles, the Company promptly ended the practice, dubbing them a “non-martial” race.

But the remembrance of formidable Dalit participation in the Company military, however overstated, leading to a crushing defeat of the Brahmin Peshwas inverts what Brahminism imagines for the Dalit – to be pliable, seamlessly coerced, and ultimately subordinated. The attack at the pilgrimage in Bhima-Koregaon, killing one and injuring hundreds, is instructive in how much more alive memory is than history. History ordains what was, but the memory of Bhima-Koregaon, particularly in what it means to the Mahars, leaves us with a more democratic vision of what can be.

Of course, what is remembered depends on who is remembering it, and why it is remembered at a particular time. While Rajput memory of Padmini and the siege of Chittor is the assertion of caste supremacy, patriarchal honour, and in its later incarnations, communalism against the othered Muslim, Dalit memory of Bhima-Koregaon invokes injustice. Why is honour the centrepiece of Rajput memory? Why is honour a quiet absence in the Dalit memory of resistance and the righting of historical wrong? Why is Rajput memory given a due hearing and Dalit memory violently suppressed?  

Every society has to make critical political decisions about what to remember and what to forget. This determines, who is remembered and who is forgotten. For memory might not be historical truth, but it can be historical justice.