Speak Easy: A Sahib in Awadhhttps://indianexpress.com/article/express-sunday-eye/speakeasy-a-sahib-in-awadh-5248685/

Speak Easy: A Sahib in Awadh

How a British bureaucrat breathed new life to the old tale of Malik Muhammad Jaisi’s Padmavati. A spate of prose retellings of the metrical epic on the Rajput queen followed on the heels of the controversy.

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Across time: AG Shireff’s translation of Padmavati.

Across time: AG Shireff’s translation of Padmavati.I have just been to Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest, and discovered that there is no truth in the matter. Everyone knows that there is no historical evidence that the outlaw ever lived. But then, there is no evidence that Jesus Christ ever lived, either. This is no deterrent. It is their stories that live, and are, therefore, true to the millions whose lives they have touched. Robin’s legend could be a conflation of the stories of people who rebelled against the arrival of feudalism in England, which stripped local communities of rights to forest produce and game. Therefore, it is essentially true, and never mind the details.

This much, everyone knows. But to walk in Sherwood Forest, which is now more like a carefully maintained ecosystem than a wilderness, and to find that there is no truth even in the Great Oak, is unbearable. This was the hollow tree in whose shelter the merry men met, in order to plan fresh harassments of the Sheriff of nearby Nottingham. A board beside the tree grimly reports that, in reality, the tree was used as a pit for cock-fighting. The birds were put in bags and hurled into the hollow of tree, presumably to enrage them. The one that staggered back out into the open after the turmoil was the winner. Simply dreadful, and utterly devoid of magic.

India’s best-known living story of doubtful historicity must be that of Padmini. Much of what the accredited guides show visitors in Chittorgarh is of contested authenticity. Even the building pointed out as Padmini’s pavilion, which Allauddin Khilji was allegedly allowed to gaze upon in a mirror (a new one has been thoughtfully provided by the government) has been dated to a time after the Khalji conquest. But the story of the queen is authentic in the mind, as the recent excitement over Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat showed.

A spate of prose retellings of Malik Muhammad Jaisi’s metrical epic on the Rajput queen followed on the heels of the controversy. They were largely unnecessary, since the definitive translation is much more readable and is online, with a PDF facsimile edition at the Internet Archive. Begun by Sir George Grierson and Pandit Sudhakar Dvivedi in 1896, it was completed by AG Shirreff with Grierson’s permission, and published by the Asiatic Society in 1944 in the Bibliotheca Indica series. The book was reissued in 2012 and remains in print, but it was overshadowed by newer and depressingly simpler retellings during the controversy.

Grierson, who proposed and headed the exhaustive 19-volume Linguistic Survey of India, was a formidable student of the Indian languages. But it was Shirreff, to whom the mantle of Padmavati passed, who made his translation definitive — in fact, it is ascribed to Shirreff rather than Grierson and Dvivedi. Shirreff, ICS, served as commissioner of Faizabad in the 1030s. Sultanpur was under his jurisdiction, and Jais was just a few miles beyond. In the course of his official duties, Shirreff picked up the local Awadhi vocabulary and forms of speech which, he wrote, had remained unchanged since the time of Babur. Living among people speaking the very language in which Padmavati was written uniquely equipped Shirreff to shed light on parts of the text which had seemed puzzling earlier, and also to indicate possible corruptions.

Here is one instance of a possible misreading, from the scene where Ratansen’s forces mobilise against the armies of Delhi: “It is becoming totally dark, in such measure does the dust arise. All the lakes and ponds and tanks are filled with dust, and so is the food.” To think of food when the troops are about to engage is indeed odd, both strategically and poetically. There are images which may appear odd to modern eyes, but were authentic at the time. Jaisi describes the Rajput cannon which, in that time, had names and personalities: “I will tell of the charms of these ladies. They drink powder like women who are addicted to liquor… Instead of vermilion there is fire upon their heads: their wheels are their ear-ornaments which flash as they go. Cannon balls are their breasts, attached in pairs to their bosoms.”

The line about powder and liquor contains a pun. Gunnery was awash in daru, which means alcohol in everyday speech. Gunpowder was known as biranyachi daru. Priming powder, which went into the touch-hole of the cannon, was ranjakichi daru. A blank was koradi daru. Shirreff’s translation is accompanied by copious footnotes on every page — yes, every one of over 300 pages — which explain the choices that he makes in the course of his translation.


They betray a range of knowledge that is extraordinary — the translator of a text 400 years old was required to have a vocabulary which ranged from artillery to botany, apart from the sacred texts. Without these notes, it would be impossible to appreciate the elegance of Jaisi’s intellect. The historicity of Padmini’s story may be in question — and this is for historians rather than believers to debate — but Shirreff’s rigour brought the story to vibrant life for new readers of an old tale.