The legend of Mirabai, like that of Padmavati/Padmini, stands on the cusp of history and mythology, and seems to speak to our present historical moment.
Padmavati – now Padmavat by the decree of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) – continues to be held hostage by competing claims of ‘authenticity’. No sooner had the CBFC agreed to certify it in exchange for five “modifications”, a member of the Mewar Royal family has threatened “social unrest” if the film is released because it “misrepresents revered heroic characters”. The Rajput Karni Sena has carried out its savage agenda on similar and other absurd grounds. Even the more reasonable Amarinder Singh, who condemned the violence against the film, stated that nobody had the right to “distort history” and that “cinematic license does not give anyone the right to twist historical facts”. If films are discredited on the basis of this seemingly reasonable statement, then the history of world cinema would have to expunge some of its best films. Let me test the usefulness of the ‘authenticity’ claim by revisiting Gulzar’s Meera (1979) about Mirabai, the 15th/16th century Krishna devotee and mystic saint. I take this example not only because the legend of Mirabai, like that of Padmavati/Padmini, stands on the cusp of history and mythology, but also because the film seems to speak to our present historical moment.
Meera is set against the fratricidal wars of the many Rajput kingdoms and Emperor Akbar’s ascent to power. The warring Rajputs are in a dilemma. Should they ally with Akbar or should they unite to oust him? When Akbar (Amjad Khan) is introduced, he has called for a temporary truce with the Rajput kings in order to celebrate Holi and the birth of his son. Akbar is delighted at having received gifts and greetings from “all corners of Hindustan”, whose imagined contours are different from that of present-day India. Therefore, the gift of hing (asafoetida) – a condiment that Akbar likes his lentils flavoured with – has come from Kabul. He is happy that people are beginning to realise that he is “Hindustani” and not an invader from Samarkand. After all, his forefathers lay buried in this land and his son had Rajput blood flowing through his veins. But not all are ready to accept him. Rana Vikramjit Singh Sisodia (Shammi Kapoor) sends Akbar a snake-charmer’s flute to welcome the off-spring of an implied viper, while the Shia community sends him sandalwood paste, cymbals and a sacred thread to express their displeasure at his proximity with Hindus.
In order to unite the Rajputs against Akbar, Raja Virendev (Shreeram Lagoo) offers his daughter Krishna (Vidya Sinha) in marriage to the family of his longstanding enemy Rana Vikramjit. But this only aggravates conflict because his son Jaimal (Dinesh Thakur) has already arranged her marriage to a Rajput family in Ajmer. Consequently, both Rajput families laying siege to Virendev’s fort staking a claim to Krishna. To save family honour, Virendev asks his daughter to kill herself after which their younger daughter, Meera (Hema Malini) is offered in marriage to Vikrmanjit’s younger brother Rana Bhojraj (Vinod Khanna).
Meera is a reluctant and unusual bride. Her mother worries that she is more jogan than a princess. A fervent devotee of Lord Krishna, Meera considers herself married to him. She writes poetry and composes songs about her love and longing for Krishna. When on their wedding night, she tells Bhojraj that she is already married to Krishna, he laughs good-naturedly. But soon tensions begin to surface. When the newlywed Meera prepares the traditional bahu bhoj (feast cooked by the new bride), she breaches family tradition by refusing to cook the meat of the sacrificial animal. The Khsahatriya Sisodias are Durga and Kali worshippers for whom sacrificial meat is sacred mahaprasad. The royal priest engages her in debate only to rue his decision. Meera is articulate, knowledgeable and fearless in speech. She informs him that as a devotee of the makhan chor (butter thief), she knows nothing about sacrificial meat. The priest reminds her that Rajputs are warriors entrusted with defending the nation therefore butter would only make them weak. Meera reminds him that it was the same makhan chor who gave strength to Arjun in the battlefield of Kurukshetra. The priest asks: “Why then do you oppose the offering of the swords?” Meera replies: “Because weapons should be used against the enemy in a battlefield, not against mute, helpless animals tied to a stake. That is not valour but cowardice.” The priest storms out regretting his decision to argue with a woman. The literal-minded vegetarian vigilante might read into Meera’s words and actions an endorsement for vegetarianism, but only to be disappointed. Meera values nothing more than personal freedom. For her, spiritual liberation lies in following a path that one has voluntarily chosen, not one that has been imposed by tradition.
As the distraught but compassionate Bhojraj looks on, Meera breaks one family tradition after another. She leaves the palace as she pleases, worships Krishna in a small and neglected shrine, sings and dances in gay abandon with other devotees and becomes a disciple of Sant Raidas, a low-caste cobbler. When the outraged royal priest tells her that she should only consider her pati (husband) to be her parameshwar (god), she replies that only parameshwar was her pati. As chastisement, Meera is sent back to her maternal home from where she is turned out by her brother. Having lost both families, Meera is liberated. She sings and dances with ever-multiplying crowds of ardent devotees.
One day, Akbar asks Tansen (Bharat Bhushan) whether in Hindustan there was another voice that could match his own. Tansen takes him to hear Meera sing at a Krishna temple. As devotees dance to Meera’s bhajan, Tansen and Akbar take their place on the steps of the temple. Akbar is dressed as a commoner so as not to be recognised. The two are mesmerised by Meera’s bhajan. Tansen is so moved that he joins her in singing. Meera recognises the voice. When the bhajan ends, a conversation ensues:
Meera (looking at Tansen): “This voice of love and prayer – why have you caged it in the court of the Emperor? There is no voice like yours in the country. I cannot mistake it.”
Tansen (glancing in embarrassment at Akbar); “The emperor has honoured me by making me a part of his court…”
Meera: “The honour would have been greater if the emperor had left the court and joined you in your prayer. Tell your Emperor that voices can be bought but not Allah.”
Tansen: “You will not be able to say that about my Emperor…”
Meera: “I am very aware that I am saying all this in his presence.”
Akbar: “Subhanallah! Subhanalah. Please accept this gift from us”
(He offers her a pearl necklace).
Meera: “There you go again… offering remuneration….”
Akbar: This is not remuneration but a gift. Please adorn the deity in the temple with this.”
A smiling Meera accepts the gift with folded hands.
For Rana Vikramjt, Meera’s acceptance of Akbar’s gift is the ultimate act of treachery. He imprisons her and produces her before a dharm adalat (religious court) for a public trial to be conducted by the royal priest. The allegations against Meera are read out in court. The charges include her refusal to adopt her husband’s religion, her forging of relations with other men, befriending people from lower-castes, spending nights away from her husband’s house and for accepting someone other than Bhojraj as her husband. As the charges are formally presented to her, Meera responds through poetry, with lines from her bhajans. The royal priest thunders: “Have you no responsibility towards your family that feeds and clothes you?” With calm fortitude she declares: “Today, this very instant, I give up my family and this society.”
The riveting exchange of words in this extended sequence culminates with Meera responding to charges of treason.
Priest: “You are accused of being a traitor (deshdrohi). You accepted a gift from Emperor Akbar, the country’s sworn enemy.”
Meera: “I have no enemies.”
Priest: “Isn’t the enemy of your country, your enemy?”
Meera: “For you, your country is limited to only where your power ends….I do not accept your parameters to be my country.”
As the trial comes to a close, Meera’s calm is undisturbed. She tells the royal priest: “We both know what the punishment will be. I free you from the sin of killing me.” Meera gets the death penalty. She will have to die by drinking poison from a bowl in the court. The verdict of the dharm adalat finds little support among the spectators. People begin to cry. Even Raja Vikramjit pleads for her life. The royal priest agrees to forgive her but only if she apologises and accepts her husband’s religion. Meera remains silent. A distraught Bhojraj makes a last attempt. He begs her to apologise. Meera tells him gently: “Just as one never calls back a warrior on the way to the battlefront, don’t call me back. I am walking the path of my truth.” Meera drinks the poison and returns the bowl back to the man who handed it to her. His hands shake. The bowl drops and falls with a resounding clatter. In the next sequence, Meera sings her way to the derelict Krishna shrine. Multitudes of people follow her. As she enters the abandoned Krishna temple, they wait outside. Only Bhojraj’s sister follows her in but Meera is gone. At the feet of the deity lies her ektara and in another corner, her book of poems. As the bhajan plays over the soundtrack, the undulating desert sands bear the imprint of Meera’s footsteps.
The entire sequence of events recounted in Meera does not stand up to any ‘authenticity’ test or historical scrutiny. Mirabai is one of the most celebrated figures of the Bhakti movement but the facts about her childhood, marriage, subsequent life and death are deeply contended by historians. Of the thousands of bhajans attributed to Mirabai, only a few hundred were authored by her. The rest were composed by her followers. Apart from Krishna-bhakti, Mirabai’s musical legacy bears testimony to her rejecting the institutions of marriage and family. He rebellion against the oppression of women and the lower castes continue to inspire people of many faiths and none. Yet, no definitive reconstruction of Meera’s life is possible because the scattered historical references are enmeshed in legends and folklore. Mirabai, for instance, did not live during the reign of Akbar but possibly during the time of Babur. But the story of her encounter with Akbar and Tansen is so popular that it became an integral part of the legend. It finds a place in Gulzar’s film as well as in Ellis. R. Dungan’s Tamil Meera in 1945 and its Hindi remake in 1947. Starring M.S. Subbulakshmi, both films are classics in the history of Indian cinema. Little is known of Mirabai’s death. According to legend, she merged with the Krishna idol at the Dwarka temple. Was she killed by the Rana’s emissaries? Did she end her own life? Or did she, as one scholar suggests, escape through a door in the temple to live among other devotees? What remains undisputed though is that her adversaries – which include communities that continue to denigrate her as a promiscuous and disreputable woman – have failed to extinguish the legend of Mirabai.
Today, a vocal alliance of groups and individuals are using the ‘authenticity’ argument to suppress Padmavati. What they really fear is not ‘misrepresentation’ but an unconventional representation because the legend itself is full of intangible provocations and possibilities. One of the five changes demanded by the CBFC includes ‘modifying” the song ‘Ghoomar’ to make the “depiction befitting the character being portrayed” which is a direct response to Rajput groups raising objections to a woman of the royal family dancing in public. Was this not what the dharm-adalat had held Meera to be guilty of?
Whatever the immediate fate of the film, the eventual defeat of its detractors is assured. Like creative imagination, legends are impossible to control.
Shohini Ghosh is professor at the AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.