Chittor and Thoa Khalsa, ‘Padmaavat’ and ‘Rajkahini’: Expanding The Patriarchal Context for Jauhar

It's about time we Indians seriously thought about what constitutes "honour" and where it should be located.

Padmaavat. Credit: Twitter

History repeats itself

1303, Chittor, Rajasthan:

Alauddin Khilji, the Sultan of Delhi, attacks the fort of Chittor, in a bid to snatch away by force what he couldn’t by persuasion – the beautiful Rani Padmavati, wife of Rana Rawal Singh. When Khilji’s victory is imminent, the Rani thwarts it by performing jauhar – immolating herself in a ceremonial pyre – along with thousands of other Rajput women.

March 1947, Thoa Khalsa, Punjab:

Violence has come to the Punjab months before the Partition of India, at the end of a long retaliatory relay between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. Starting from Calcutta in August 1946, it has first moved eastwards to Noakhali, and then westwards to Bihar, UP and finally Punjab in the spring of 1947. One incident during that month stands out. It is in Thoa Khalsa, a small village in the district of Rawalpindi, which witnessed unabated violence in the week of March 6-13, 1947. There is a Muslim attack on the (predominantly Sikh) village which the Sikhs try to stave off during the first wave of the attack one evening. But the next day, some thousands come. When it becomes imminent that they would be butchered, it is decided that the women would drown themselves in the village well. Some 90 women gather together and jump one by one, some with babies. Towards the end, there is not much water left to drown themselves in and some try repeatedly without success.

Watching Padmaavat, I remembered this story that I had read years ago as a Partition scholar.

Expanding the patriarchal frame of reference for jauhar

The film has been in the news for months now, the controversies before the release of the film giving way to endless reviews and interviews post its release. Last week, I thought I’ve had my fill… until I saw the film myself and felt compelled to write about it.

I’ve been following the reviews with keen interest. The film has elicited a wide range of opinions: from being called a huge bore of a film (Raja Sen, NDTV), Islamophobic (Tanul Thakur, The Wire) and denounced trenchantly for glorifying jauhar (Swara Bhaskar, The Wire; Vaishna Roy, The Hindu), to suggesting that it actually suggests another film in its deep sympathy with the devil (Girish Shahane, Scroll).

Whatever the slant of the various reviews, I find the discourse has largely been framed around the representation of Muslim and Rajput identities in the film. Even the patriarchal angle has been discussed specifically – and exclusively – within the Rajput context. And it is here that I want to intervene.

I think it is important to remember that while the legend of Padmavati is a hugely popular one, there is nothing intrinsically Rajput about her sacrifice/martyrdom. Let me clarify: granted, the Rajput sense of honour and glory –  “aan, baan, shaan” – is all their own, but women’s martyrdom in the face of imminent defeat/catastrophe, their preferring death to dishonour (whether by choice or by force), is not unique to Rajput history. It is simply the most celebrated instance of it.

Padmavati embraced fire to be spared the disgrace of being possessed by Alauddin Khilji. In doing it, she was not herself, but a symbol: she symbolised Chittor and the Rajputs in the same way that the women of Thoa Khalsa symbolised the Sikh community six centuries later. In each case, the woman’s body was made to bear the brunt of the community’s honour.

Also read

While watching Bhansali’s magnum opus, a different film was playing in my mind: in it, I imagined the women of Thoa Khalsa jumping into their village well dissolving into images of Padmavati jumping into the fire – a la Rang de Basanti, where post-millennial college students of Delhi become Bhagat Singh and his gang of revolutionaries. Nothing has changed in post-colonial India, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra seemed to point out – just one power structure has been replaced by another, with the same tendency towards the abuse of power by those who wield it. In the film I imagined, I saw a similar logic operating, vis-a-vis the deep-rooted patriarchy of our society: be it 14th century Rajputs pitted against a marauding foreign conqueror or mid-20th century Sikhs against their Muslim ‘brothers’ from a neighbouring village. Whatever the scenario, women have had to pay with their bodies.

Rang De Basanti. Credit: YouTube

Abanindranath Tagore’s ‘Padmini’ in Rajkahini and Srijit Mukherjee’s 2015 film

Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s Padmavat (c. 1540), which has been referred to in practically every review of Bhansali’s film, was the first and most influential literary text to tell the story of Padmavati – but it was not the only one. As Rajat Datta in The Wire has reminded us, the story was later incorporated into the bardic literature of Rajasthan, and then given a whole new life by James Tod in his Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan (1829). What has not been mentioned until now is that Padmavati’s story also inspired a Bengali classic – it was one among nine stories in Abanindranath Tagore’s Rajkahini, chronicling tales of Rajput glory. Beyond Bengal, Abanindranath is primarily known as an artist – he was the leading painter of the Bengal School of Art; but he was also a very popular writer, and Rajkahini remains his most-loved book to this day.

The cover of Abanindranath Tagore’s Rajkahini (left), movie poster of the 2015 film by the same name.

Interestingly, there are several scenes in Bhansali’s film which echo Tagore’s renditions of the story: Rana Rawal Singh and Padmavati viewing the approaching army of Khilji from their balcony; Khilji being given just a glimpse of Padmavati’s beauty through a mirror; the capture of the Rana; disguised Rajput soldiers kept at the ready by Gora, the army chief.

An illustrated section from the story ‘Padmini’ in the latest (2016) Ananda Publishers edition of Rajkahini. Credit: Rituparna Roy

The scene where the Rana points out Khilji’s huge army to Padmini is one of the most poetic scenes in Tagore’s story, with the author first elaborately comparing the army to the sea and then imbuing it with a sense of inevitable doom when the Rana says to Padmini: “Today I feel as if, the sea from whose midst I had taken you away like a lotus flower, that very sea is taking its revenge upon me by snatching you back in the form of this enemy army. I wonder how I will overcome this crisis”. The couple’s past, present and future all come together in one deft stroke through this metaphor.

There are crucial differences as well: Khilji comes to know of Padmini’s legendary beauty in the Bengali story through his Begum’s chief attendant, singing in praise of the queen (and not from a revenging ex-chief priest of Chittor); his army does not return to Delhi and then go back to Chittor again for a second assault, they just stay put outside Chittor till the end; and the jauhar is performed by the women as much to appease Chittoreshwari Ubardevi, the goddess of Chittor (who demands sacrifices of every kind from the Rana to resuscitate the fallen state of Chittor) as to protect their own honour. And though there is a dramatic build-up to the jauhar scene, the jauhar itself is dismissed in one paragraph as a painful but necessary evil.

In 2015, a Bengali film (Rajkahini) was inspired by the story. I didn’t like the film. Srijit Mukherjee has other much better work to his credit. But I found it a very interesting and ingenious adaptation of ‘Padmini’: transplanting the Rajput tale of honour to a partition context, transmuting princesses into prostitutes – who, by the way, mount a more spirited defence against their enemy than the Rajputanis. Only when all their ammunition is exhausted do they burn themselves in their ‘home’, even as we hear the grandma reciting the last portion of ‘Padmini’ in the final soundtrack.

The jauhar scene in Bhansali’s film

My response to Padmaavati was exactly the opposite to that of Rajkahini: while in the latter, it was the adaptation of the jauhar that I had found most interesting, in Bhansali’s film, it is the ending that I felt was most flawed (after the black-and-white representations of ‘Muslim’ and ‘Rajput’ and the slow pace of the second half) in an otherwise overall entertaining mainstream movie. I didn’t find the portrayal of the female characters in the film regressive: in fact, both Padmaavati and Mehrunnisa, the two main female leads, are strong characters – the former radiant and dignified, exuding warrior pride despite her femininity, and the latter displaying a quiet confidence while apparently playing the submissive wife. After two-and-a-half hours of that kind of portrayal, the jauhar scene was a let-down.

Mirch Masala.

The film has several disclaimers at the beginning. One of them states: “This is not a celebration of jauhar”. When I came to the actual scene at the end, I thought: “If this is not, what is?” I was deeply dissatisfied with that scene. To begin with, I didn’t like Khilji frantically running around in the palace trying to stop the jauhar. It totally spoilt the effect for me: felt like a rousing crescendo being disrupted repeatedly by a false note. The Rajputanis hurling burnt coals on his face reminded me of Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala – Smita Patil’s Sonbai and her co-factory workers hurling powdered red chilli on Naseeruddin’s Subedar, ending his oppression and debauchery once and for all.

Padmaavati and the women of Chittor took recourse to fire and not red chillies, of course – preferring mass suicide to save themselves. This scene, like all other scenes in the film, is picture-perfect – with the moving soundtrack, the orchestrated movement of hundreds of women marching resolutely to their deaths led by their gorgeous queen. And that is precisely what was so troubling about it: I found myself marvelling at the beauty of the moving red columns in the palace, when I was supposed to be simply moved by the tragedy. The beauty – the relentless beauty of a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film – in this case, took away from the tragedy.

And it seemed downright implausible. It must have been a messy affair: even when Rajput women were conditioned into a particular brand of honour, they must have hesitated? There must have been some dissent? May be, by some young woman who probably loved life too much, or some other who couldn’t bear to leave a lover behind. And what about that child whom we see in that shot with a pregnant woman? Probably, she could have questioned what all this was about. Some not-so-brave women may have run helter-skelter. If the battle scenes of the film could afford to be messy, why couldn’t the jauhar, I wondered.

Back to Thoa Khalsa

The incident at Thoa Khalsa was recorded soon after it happened in 1947 – in the form of eyewitness accounts, newspaper reports, and petitions submitted to Sir Evan Jenkins, the then British governor of Punjab. Decades later, several oral testimonies of survivors and witnesses were collected by Urvashi Butalia and Gyanendra Pandey. While the contemporary records uniformly celebrate the ‘martyrdom’ of the women, the oral testimonials tell a different – and far less heroic – story. They express the other emotions that were at play on that fateful day in March – doubt, hesitation, fear, the desire to live. In one striking account, the female respondent told Pandey, “Whoever could – escaped. However we could… wherever we could.”

She then went on to describe how a cousin (brother) had tried to stop her even as her elder brother had urged her to escape, “Run as fast as you can. Run wherever…”. While she started fleeing, her path was blocked again – this time by a servant who was among the attackers – and in the tussle that ensued, her chunri was left behind. Pandey eloquently comments at this point: “The chunri… a sign of a girl/woman’s modesty – a symbol of honour, [was] here … left behind temporarily in a struggle to escape from greater dishonour, and to preserve life ‘somehow, anyhow’ “. Such testimonials, coming close on the heels of the feminist turn in partition historiography in the late 1980s (initiated by Butalia, Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin), opened up possibilities of radical re-interpretations of the violence surrounding partition and the ways in which they were remembered.

The Partition museum in Amritsar. Credit: Rituparna Roy

To bring the story right up to the present: the complex textual evidence of the gruesome incident at Thoa Khalsa enumerated above has now been supplemented by a sombre visual reminder at the recently opened Partition museum in Amritsar. A simple installation commemorates the tragedy: it just shows a well, with a rope. The story is told in bare language on a plaque on the wall of the well. Above it, from floor to ceiling lies a white cloth, a long chunri, that gives facts and figures about the abductions and recoveries of women on both sides of the Punjab border. It is in that part of gallery 7 of the museum which deals elaborately with the recovery and rehabilitation of women: hence, it is made part of a broader narrative of violence against women during partition, which was one of the defining features of the time.

A prayer

A hallowed Rajput legend and recent Partition history are not the same, I grant. Especially when there can be no ‘witnesses’ to the legend seven centuries down who can radically alter her tale. But it’s about time we Indians seriously thought about what constitutes “honour” and where it should be located. I am all for creative freedom (in all fields) and have no problems whatsoever with any director choosing any given theme for his film, or paying cinematic tribute to something he finds courageous. But can we please call a spade a spade, show a gruesome act to be just that – gruesome? Let’s not forget our stories, but let’s also try and re-evaluate their significance. Amen.

Rituparna Roy teaches at Presidency University, Kolkata. She is the author of South Asian Partition Fiction in English: From Khushwant Singh to Amitav Ghosh (AUP: 2010).