On Padmavati, Left-liberals are trapped in a catch-22 situation

Rajput community members burn the effigy oif Padmavati's film director
Members of Rajput community protest against the release of controversial Bollywood movie Padmavati. | PTI Photo

Left-liberals first said Padmini wasn’t historical, but they’re the ones who emphasise ‘multiple histories’. It’s inconvenient this time, so they’re silent.

Fighting over history is one of the oldest ways of conducting politics around the world. The battle of ideas around Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film Padmavati is not unique to India. In Europe, one can still find Holocaust deniers. Many in the Muslim world continue to believe that 9/11 was a Zionist conspiracy, and that Jewish executives in the towers had been advised to stay away.

Even before the arrival of Wikipedia and that creative storehouse of mob and pop mythologies called WhatsApp, there was tension between published, peer-reviewed history and oral histories. To assume any one version of history to be final or absolute is regressive. While the written word is great, what travels orally through generations can’t be tossed away either.

The Padmavati controversy is not just a battle over the past, but it is a serious disagreement over how we build, understand, and approach history as a discipline.

Padmavati poses a troubling intellectual challenge to the politics of historians and activists who have celebrated and insisted on the validity of multiple narratives in history to counter the ‘one nation-one past’ theme.

The problem comes from a somewhat restrictive understanding that regards history as a set of facts. But as a museologist and oral historian, I am trained to regard history as a set of interpretations as well. I approach the past as a combination of recorded and oral histories, even when these work at cross-purposes sometimes. An oral historian’s work is not just to arrive at definitive historical truths, but also to understand how the process of collective memory works.

I am trained to acknowledge and accept that there are many – different and divergent – versions of history, and oral narratives are as legit as academic historians who write ‘fixed history’ textbooks. The discipline of oral history looks at collective memory as non-elitist, one that is not written by the victor. In the classrooms, we have come to call them subaltern counter-narratives.

For instance, not too long ago, Left-liberals cheered the inclusion of A.K. Ramanujan’s ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas’ in the college curriculum, because they insisted that there are multiple retellings of the Ramayana. Some communities worship Ravana, and others even believe that Ram and Sita were siblings. Not everybody has to adhere to the Tulsidas, Valmiki, or Ramanand Sagar versions of the standardised Ramayana, we were told. They said that to insist there is only one version which everybody must believe is unfair and unsustainable.

Another example of privileging oral histories is this: in an Outlook magazine article in 2009, author Arundhati Roy began her argument against mining corporations in south Odisha by saying that the Dongria Kondh people regard the hills as a living deity. “Now these hills have been sold for the bauxite they contain. For the Kondh, it’s as though god has been sold,” she wrote, conveniently using tradition to boost her case.

But when it comes to Padmavati, that celebration of collective memory is problematic for the Left-liberals – because it glorifies the oppressive Sati practice and caste pride, and has now been co-opted by the Hindu Right.

Their first response was to insist that Padmini was not a real person. That she was a fictional character found in ‘Padmavat’, written by the 16th century poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi. They used Jayasi to undermine powerful oral histories that have survived for centuries.

The “Padmini was fiction” argument is untenable. There is no “one history” that is officially stamped, sealed, and approved by the state or the academia. In Padmini’s case, oral history has been a significant way of preserving cultural memory.

People in Rajasthan make an annual pilgrimage to the Jauhar kund to commemorate the now-illegal act of Sati performed by her in Samwat 1360 on Chaitra Ekadashi.

Travellers to Chittorgarh are often taken by the guides to the ‘exact’ spot from where her reflection was viewed in a mirror by Alauddin Khalji as she stood on the steps of her palace. It is the spot where millions of photographs have been clicked, as travellers pester the guides to tell the story of honour and sacrifice in every minute detail. It is a daily ritual of enacting history as theatre.

The controversy over the film poses an intellectual challenge to multiplicity advocates. The story of Padmini’s reflection and Sati is part of remembered history by a kingdom that lost the battle. It is classic stuff of oral histories. Why are the Left-liberals undermining it now?

During the nearly eight centuries of Muslim rule in India, a lot of Rajput history was preserved through oral retellings, included in the ballads. Not all of them had the luxury of Darbari chroniclers like the ruling Mughals did.

Having advocated the subaltern power of multiple narratives and oral histories for so long, the Left-liberals can no longer dismiss the communities’ belief about Padmini as not being factual now. Just like we can’t dismiss Jayasi’s epic as a work of pure fiction. Around that time, many works of history and fiction coalesced.

But Padmavati also hints at a larger problem of pluralist liberals in India today.

As they campaign against the homogenising impulse of the prevailing Hindutva politics by insisting on the plurality of identities and narratives, they have to let go of something else that they hold dear. They must shed what they interpret as the sole “idea of India”. Their idea of India has itself, in the past decade or so, become an inflexible, homogenising tyranny for many people. There isn’t just one idea of India. Liberals must re-map their political and intellectual strategies.

20 COMMENTS

  1. Very well explained by the author.Oral history narrative is as important as the written accounts. Both have equal chance of being biased. No one source can be called superior than the other.

  2. A. Padmavati may or may not have existed. There is no proof either way. There is no quandary here.
    B. The protests and the threats of violence is bullying and has no place in a democracy and a civilised society. There is no moral quandry here either.
    C. We have a film certification board for just this reason and the head of the board sees no controversy.
    D. The people protesting have not watched the movie. Where does their objection come from and what is it about?
    E. The state and central governments are doing nothing to quell this violence. Are they complicit?
    F. Where is the debate? Where is the discussion before the violence? Is this what Indian society should be like?

    Right wingers like you should ask yourselves difficult questions too. Is your idea of India one of violence over trivialities? Is your India one where dissent is not about informed and logical debate, but of violence? Is your idea of India one of regionalist outrage and revisionist histories? Is your idea of India one of conflict and division? Is your idea of India one where anyone can discriminate any other Indian on the basis or religion, caste, region, ideology and morality? Because if this is what you want, then you are staring at a future where India will be divided and fragmented into more pieces than when the British took over the country.

    • Author is no where close to being Right Winger. Read her other articles. I always thought her as JNU Communist until I read this article. She is leftist only.

    • Clearly you have not understood the “multiple narratives” argument. You are also oblivious to the “subaltern” disadvantage in articulating their versions. Even the narratives have an asymmetry of power. In medieval times, the Dalit narrative could not be articulated. It took a Phule and an Ambedkar to do so. They had to educate themselves to do so. An African proverb says “Until the lion learns to write, the story will always glorify the hunter”.

      Now, the narrative control is with visual media, and the film industry. They can ridicule people worshiping lingas and stones. They can label polytheism ridiculous. They can define celebration of Sati and Jauhar as evil. They can pour scorn on Rajputs defeated by the Ghoris, Khiljis, Mughals and the British. They can high-light the Rajput daughter or wife surrendered to the victors.

      The targeted community can only lash out and threaten violence, because they have not the literacy required to do counter-narratives. Whereas the Dalits and the other oppressed communities have the Left doing that job very well, and for decades. Violence and threats are due to such impotence among the erstwhile ruling classes. The underlying psychology is not recognized by the Left because such subalterns are not the materially oppressed classes.

      Do not mistake me. I oppose such threats and violence. But true understanding cannot be based on – those people are evil. This is a different kind of othering. Characterizing groups as backward, regressive, patriarchal, khap-like etc. What if they are? Why are they so? Can the anti-modern groups have a point of view? Can they feel hurt?

      At the meta-level, is Othering a barrier to understanding? Can the Left recognize that they do ideological good/bad divisions to the minutest levels? If so, are they just like the Right?

  3. I have a nagging feeling – given how predictably one-track, Sanjay Leela Bhansali is – that the movie will actually be some weepy ode to a love story between Raja Ratan and Padmavati, with a caricature of Khilji hovering about menacingly. I strongly doubt he even cares abt the politics or history… History is just a backfrop for him to tell the same story over and over. Bhansali loves the idea of a self-sacrificing woman who spends her life devoted to harming herself over love. Koirala in Khamoshi, Rai in hum Dil de chuke and Guzaarish, Deepi in bajirao mastani or Ram Leela, Sonam in saawariya. Only Black had some spunk and it was a lift. He doesn’t really care beyond the love story. He is actually an accidental genius with a bit of a masochism streak for his female characters. Both Karni Sena an dleft liberals are gonna look silly when this releases. I would ve had Deepi throw both Shahid & ranveer into the fire kund! But Mr Bhansali will have her jump and carry on with his trope. Even Meena Kumari was more cheerful than his soppy women

  4. The writer uses false examples to bolster his arguments about the Left’s idea of history. Yes history can have multiple versions but all those versions should individually stand on facts. Even if these versions run contradictory to each other true historians should take an approach of reconciling the facts to reproduce a coherent version. Meanwhile the two versions can exist on their own.

    The writer gives ‘ramayan’ as an example for history. Ramayan is part of Indian mythology and mythologies are known to exist in varying versions. The author confuses history with mythology.

    When the author revels on the supposed quandary of the left, he also glosses over the fact that the current protests of the right have taken a dangerous, violent and illegal form. More than the predicament of the left, the author ought to have discussed the abysmal position of the right.

  5. Since when Rajputs became subaltern? Then every caste in India is subaltern even though the castes like Rajputs and Brahmins still had higher status, privileges and share of power under the victors.

    When the author says the story glorifies Sati and the caste pride, do we need to consider them as subaltern feelings?

    I think Left-Liberals are consistent in this apparent hypocrisy. All they need is strict definition of the term subaltern so that people like this author don’t misuse it. Hopefully, this won’t become another abused term like “tolerance”.

  6. Nicely articulated.

    But please correct me if I am wrong, there is a difference between Sati-the practice, a Sati-the person, and Jauhar-a practice. Sati, the practice is performed by women who immolate themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre. Such women were called Sati too, Sati Devi, and a stone would be erected in their honor. Jauhar is entirely different. It is a practice where non-combatants would jump into a fire when they received news that their kshatriya warriors had lost the battle…women, men and children all committed Jauhar…at least those who could stomach it. There were those who could not go through with the process and lived to face a horrifying future.

    Also, prefacing Sati as an oppressive practice is unjustified. It was not so and only reached this oppressive stature in the recent past due to various factors. The vilification of Sati was a calculated move by the British.

    And seriously, left-liberals come across as being afraid of the truth in whatever form it appears. They are closed as you rightly point out to a different idea of India…in fact, they cannot stomach the idea of Bharat. Using a sub-altern narrative to promote their agendas is one thing but actually understanding what alternative narratives are and what they mean to people requires the left-libs to drop their agendas. Can they?

  7. I echo all the above appreciative comments on the writers excellent piece of writing style. Very impressive and convincing article.

    Agreed that there are both written and the oral styles of history records which has to be understood as there is no single and promising source for any history stories.

  8. Was it ‘Sati’ or ‘Jauhar’ ??? By any sense of imagination both are not the same. The writer deliberately calling /equating it with ‘Sati’ . Jauhar were done to save oneself from torture,rape,enslavement and to preserve dignity whereas ‘sati’ was self immolation on the pyre of the dead husband. This practice was there even among the Nordics the vikings. Also to remember whenever there were Jauhar done by women every men also went on for battle to death. We have seen some so called or self claimed intellectuals trying to brand Jauhar as symbol of patriarchy. By highlighting the deaths of women folks while deliberately escaping the fact that men also went for ‘battle to death’ at the same time.

  9. As a ‘liberal’, I would say this writer didn’t even address the issues I have with this whole controversy.
    I agree there are/can be multiple versions of history; the Rajputs/Hindus/Muslims/anyone else have as much a right as any other to want their “history” portrayed.
    So here are my questions: why destroy art simply because it doesn’t pander to your ego? Why threaten people so violently? Why ignore the disclaimer that ‘Padmavati’ is a work of fiction? And about your theory of multiple histories, what gives any group the right to object to Bhansali’s preferred version?

  10. Very good article. We have to value verbal history which has travelled for many centuries from mouth to mouth. Like Janapada which has both written and verbal episodes, history is also many versions written, believed, oral etc., Even today villeagers sing Janapada songs which has no written document. Janapada, Yakshagana, Bayalaata, Burrakatha etc., give lots of evidence and facts of history. History has to be respected. The instant article is well written and neatly explained.

  11. The author, while well intentioned, does not appear to have a solid grasp of the issues at hand. The move by the Rajput Karni Sena and BJP (which is ready to capitalize on caste-based and religious-based unrest at every opportunity) to prevent the film and its narrative from reaching an audience is precisely an attempt to silence alternative narratives and alternative histories. It is an attempt to privilege one, single narrative, and to give it the status of History, while denying alternative tellings that status. (The Rajput-centered tellings are already in print and circulated as ‘history’ by the community, so I am unclear what the author means when she characterizes this version as ‘oral’ history.) To suggest that criticism of the Rajput Karni Sena and BJP’s narrative is just another narrative in a plurality of narratives and must be respected as such is to ignore the obvious fact that these groups are the ones trying to silence all other voices.

    Furthermore, the implied comparison between the position of the right wing protestors and that of subalterns like the Dongria Kondh is ludicrous. The members of the RKS and BJP are decidedly NOT subaltern, and their voices have not been suppressed historically, nor are they being suppressed today. The Rajputs have wielded an amount of political power in Rajasthan that is totally out of proportion to the size of their community– and have done so by suppressing the voices and political aspirations of others. The BJP controls the Central and most state governments– and is ruthless about attacking political adversaries. Does the author genuinely believe that these groups are victims of political or cultural marginalization?

    This kind of relativistic navel-gazing has to stop. It is precisely this relativistic thinking that allows space for racists, casteists, and fascists to occupy and take over the public sphere. The problem isn’t ‘Left-Liberals’ (the perennial boogeymen of soft conservatives and right-wingers alike) who are arguing for a director’s right to make and share a film; it’s the people who are currently burning, breaking, and threatening violence so that the voice of the director (and everyone who helped make the film) will not be heard.

    The argument of the historians is simple: history gives us no basis on which to claim an empirically-grounded narrative of Padmavati, so multiple narratives are fine. The RKS and BJP argument is the opposite: Padmavati was historical, so only one narrative, our narrative, is correct. The historians are calling for historical consciousness. The RKS and BJP are calling for peoples’ noses and heads to be cut off.

  12. This is a beautifully articulated article. First there are articles coming out claiming Padmavati never existed. Second, the same people are arguing Alauddin Khalji was a benevolent ruler, a brilliant general and a reformer. The critics gloss over the fact that actions of Alauddin Khilji would be considered genocidal by todays standard. He killed 15000 people outside Delhi on suspicion of treason. He executed 30000 people in Chittor. Khalji imprisoned queen of Gujarat after sacking King Karna and later married Kamala Devi. This help us come to conclusion that atlas one of the motives of Alauddin Khalji behind attacking Chittor could be acquiring Rani Padmavati. Those who question existence of the queen, cannot deny testimony of Royals of Mewar who claim Rani was their ancestor. There exist a Padmavati Mahal at Chiittorgarh fort, there exist a jauhar kund. Unless these monuments came out much later, there is no evidence to that effect, one cannot deny existence of Rani Padmavati. History says three jauhars happened in Chittor. One in 14th century and two in 16th century. Only Padmavati remains etched in mind of people, more than 700 years later, may suggest some extraordinary tale of bravery. History is written by victors. Historians that accompanied Alauddin Khalji may not record facts that did not go as per plan of the Sultan. Oral tradition of story telling have kept story of Rani Padmavati alive across length and breadth of India.

  13. Overall, a sensible read – except for the adamancy with which the author confuses Jauhar with Sati. Oh! well, one can’t expect them to let go of their agenda – can we?

  14. If there is any logic to protest against or ban this movie or any other form of expression like a book, there is an equally persuasive case to ban Ramayana by worshippers of ravana. Just because 10 or100 million have an opinion about an issue, it does not make it right. India is indeed regressing on this count.

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