As a girl growing up in India, I often got into minor brawls with boys of my age. Reprimanding teachers and parents would say, “Who do you think you are? The Rani of Jhansi?” Fighting boys, or fighting the British, is modulated by social norms. Girls do not fight and legendary warrior queens must not upset the patriarchal, societal order.
The recent protests by the Sarv Brahmin Mahasabha against the “indecent portrayal” of Rani Lakshmi Bai, in the yet to be released film Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi, indicate what is at stake for women’s roles in Indian society. Battling the East India Company, as a queen, mother, and widow, falls squarely within the dictums of dharma. Being depicted as a woman with dilemmas or desires, whether fictional or real, calls, however, for the banning of books and films. Building upon protests by the Rajput Karni Sena against Padmavati (released as Padmaavat), the Brahmin Mahasabha alleges Manikarnika is based on Jaishree Mishra’s banned novel Rani (2007), which shows the queen in a romantic liaison with a British officer.
Rani Lakshmi Bai led her troops against the British in 1857 and died on the battlefield. That much is historical fact, though some Dalit historiography has disputed even that in putting forth the legend of Jhalkari Bai.
Born Manikarnika, and known affectionately as “Manu”, the Rani was the daughter of a Brahmin in the court of the Peshwa Baji Rao II. She was married to Gangadhar Rao, the Raja of Jhansi, in 1842 and bore him a son who died in infancy. According to the infamous Doctrine of Lapse, the East India Company annexed the kingdom after the Raja’s death in 1854 and refused recognition to the adopted son, Damodar Rao. When the rebellion overtook the area, the Rani made her stand against the British in Jhansi and then in Gwalior. Details of her life, her friendships, and her daily routine are anecdotal at best as there was no reason before 1857 to record the life of a girl who was not of royal lineage.
In an eloquent article on the controversy, the journalist Adrija Roychowdhury writes, “What is certain though is that it is the imaginary depiction of the queen in a banned book that is being feared to disrupt her legendary status.”
And yet, the Rani’s legendary status has everything to do with imaginary depiction. Her literary and cinematic representation is inextricably bound to historical memory, if not historical fact. We all know Subhadri Kumari Chauhan’s “Khoob Lari Mardaani…”, but how many of us really know the details of the Rani’s life? While Victorian fiction portrayed the Rani as a bloodthirsty, rapacious oriental, some novels cast her as a worthy foe. Indian texts focused on her as an early symbol of the national struggle for independence. But Mahasweta Devi’s singular Bengali novel Jhansir Rani (1950) reconfigured her as a symbol of India’s continued struggle against caste and gender domination. Rani Lakshmi Bai is a historical figure but she is famous precisely because her story continues to be told in many ways and at different times.
Also read: The Forgotten Women of 1857
We reimagine and reorient our past according to the dictates of the present. It is a mistake to believe that the narratives of history, the stories we know and love, will somehow remain static, unchanged as the world changes rapidly around us. There is history. Academic rigour and research maintain standards of integrity to arrive at plausible versions of the past.
The Rani’s participation in 1857 is historical fact. But stories of her childhood, her jumping off the ramparts of Jhansi fort while astride her horse, her military training and her platonic friendship with Nana Saheb are at best conjectures built upon literature and folk traditions. Memorialisation through repetition keeps a legend alive. But this impulse to wrest control of women in popular culture has risen in opposition to women’s effort to defy mythological and religious mores. It is no coincidence that two largely male political outfits, tasked with protecting caste interests, should focus their energies on the fictional representation of a Rajput and a Brahmin woman. Almost always an emblem of the collective, women are rarely accorded the luxury of individual representation.
Women’s presence as equal participants in India’s politics, economy, culture, and society, has vastly increased since liberalisation in 1991. But we have also witnessed an aggrandised policing of women’s choices.
Even victims of horrific rapes and murders are not spared the disapproving cluck of India’s patriarchy: Why was she there? What was she wearing? How many men had she slept with? How women are represented matters but it matters less than the actual lives of women. The attacks on Padmavati and Manikarnika resonate with the added scrutiny and disciplining of the female body in the public sphere. The Karni Sena bristled because Padmini was allegedly shown in a romantic sequence with Alauddin Khilji; the Brahmin Mahasabha is insulted because the film is supposedly based on a banned book that depicts the Rani in a romantic relationship with a white man.
The filmmakers denied the charge vociferously, but the mere hint of fictional depiction in which women have somehow stepped out of bounds, out of maryada, is enough to convulse parts of the country into mob violence. History has nothing to with this fracas. Its men’s purported ownership of women’s bodies.
Rani Padmini and Rani Lakshmi Bai – foremost daughters, wives, and mothers – represent a female heroism bound to the family and the nation, a valour that does not detract from masculinity. Jaishree Mishra states she wrote the book “to find the woman behind the warrior” who was “strangely, a bit like every woman I knew.”
I disagree with this assertion as I do with banning books or films. Why make the Rani ordinary when she is clearly extraordinary? Why domesticate her to privilege romance? And why are woman and warrior mutually exclusive categories? A woman who fought the British Army in 1857 does not need us to protect her legacy. Her story and our history can weather a few imaginative liberties. The Rani is not like any other woman, but her representations in India’s past and its present are deeply connected to the life of every Indian woman.
Harleen Singh is a professor of Literature and Women’s Studies at Brandeis University, USA. Her book The Rani of Jhansi: Gender, History, and Fable in India was published by Cambridge University Press in 2014.