In instructing Sanjay Leela Bhansali to change the name of his film, from Padmavati to Padmaavat, the CBFC has inadvertently directed attention to the right place: the canonical medieval text upon which the legend of the beautiful and chaste queen has been built over centuries of re-interpretation. While censors are not expected to correct the skewered presentation of a medieval love song or the misappropriation of history in the garb of jingoistic hyper-nationalism, at the very least, the directive drives home the point that the legend of Padmavati is, in fact, based on a literary text. Historians may quibble over whether a Rajput queen by the name of Padmini or Padmavati did exist during the reign of Sultan Alauddin Khilji, and, whether the besotted sultan ransacked Chittor because he was enraptured by her beauty. But the literary historian suffers from no such uncertainty about Malik Muhammad Jayasi and his text. Venerated almost equally by scholars of early Hindi and Urdu literature, almost as much as Jayasi himself was by the Hindus and Muslims of Awadh who regarded him as a Sufi saint, the Padmavat is an uncontested witness to its times. Its language, its images, its concerns speak of its age and circumstance.
Composed in Awadhi (a dialect spoken in the qasbah of Awadh in Uttar Pradesh) and originally written in the Farsi rasmul khat in 1540 by Malik Muhammad Jayasi, under the patronage of Sher Shah, the Padmavat allows itself to be read at two levels: one, as a wondrous tale of a brave king, guided by a talking parrot, wooing a princess from a distant land, bringing her home, where an envious and discredited courtier, banished by the king, runs off to the sultan in Delhi and incites him to capture the lotus-like queen. The tale ends in tragedy: the queen commits jauhar, the king is killed in battle, and the sultan finds nothing but ashes in the captured fort. At another level, it can also be read as an allegorical tale containing a profoundly mystical message about all life being ephemeral. But nowhere does it provide the slightest latitude for the communal, polarised reading of an encounter between two opposing forces: chastity and lustfulness, purity and impurity, and, by extension, between “native” Hinduism and “foreign” Islam.
Drawing upon the existing tradition of premakhyanaka kavya or “poetry of the tales of love”, vivid with images associated with medieval Sufi poetry, Jayasi’s epic poem begins with a hamd, an invocation to the Almighty. That the hamd is replete with Hindu images and references to Hindu mythology is indicative of the pluralistic age it was written in, and the easy, almost organic familiarity, of its Muslim author with Hindu iconography. Moving almost seamlessly to a naat, a panegyric in praise of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions, it goes on to a glowing reference of Sher Shah, the author’s patron and the sultan of Delhi, and, finally, his own spiritual master, Saiyid Ashraf who belonged to the Chishtiya silsila. From the second canto itself, he gets down to telling his tale thus: “I sing the tale of Simhala-Dvipa and tell of the Perfect Woman.”
A close reading of Jayasi’s poem reveals several points of departure between the text and the many legends it spawned. Of a text running into 57 cantos, the conquest of Chittor is consigned to the last few. The bulk of the text is about the adventures of King Ratansen and the beauty of Padmavati. What is more, apart from the radiant beauty of the queen, the wily courtier, Raghava, incites the Sultan with the promise of five other gems in Chittor: the swan that picks up pearls; a gem impregnated with ambrosia that can dispel a serpent’s poison; the philosopher’s stone, paras, that can turn iron into gold; a hunting tiger that can seize all the elephants in a jungle; and, lastly, a hunting bird with a voice of thunder that can pounce upon its prey like a mighty hawk. So, the attack on Chittor is as much about seizing these priceless gems as the queen whose beauty was matchless. Also, Ratansen doesn’t die at the hands of the lustful sultan but the covetous Devapal, the prince of Kumbhalner, an inveterate enemy of Ratansen who, too, is desirous of possessing Padmavati. Entering a fortress filled with the ashes of the dead, the sultan exclaims “Earth is vanity!”, thus articulating a profound mystical truth.
The real message of the Padmavat, its philosophical essence, is contained in one paragraph in the epilogue which serves as a key to understanding the poem and its various dramatis personae: Chittor is the body; Ratansen is the mind; the heart is Singhala; the intellect is Padmavati; the parrot, Hiraman, is the spiritual guide who shows the way; Ratansen’s first wife, Nagmati, represents the cares of this world; Raghava is evil; and the sultan represents illusion. “Consider the love story in this manner,” concludes Jayasi, “receive instruction if you are able to receive it.” For, of all the sultans, messengers, kings and queens, none remains; only the story lives. The flower may die, Jayasi says, but its fragrance does not. The Karni Sena and assorted testosterone-driven vigilantes who read all manner of vanities in this simple tale are refusing to receive the instruction that the teller of this tale hoped to impart for centuries to come.
Rakhshanda Jalil is a Delhi-based author.