It’s the day of the local elections in Jayas and the streets are busy. The town falls in the Gandhi bastion of Amethi and everybody here offers a Gandhi story without being asked. But if you want to know about poet-saint Malik Muhammad Jayasi, who is said to have written the first-known narrative of Rani Padmavati or Padmini of Chittor, you have to ask.
The town of about 30,000 residents, Jayas was once known as an important Sufi site of the Jaunpur sultanate. A 100-odd km drive from Lucknow past fields where farmers are burning crop stubbles, it is unremarkable but for a rather spectacularly built institute of petroleum technology named after Rajiv Gandhi. The memorial of Jayasi is a walk past goats in winter coats fashioned out of old sacks, a pair of ducks indiscriminate in their passion to peck passersby, and hoardings commemorating the Battle of Karbala.
Though it’s uncertain whether Jayasi was born in Jayas or came here later for religious education, the town lays a claim on him. In Jayas and its neighbourhood, Jayasi has lent his name to schools, colleges, a health centre, a near-defunct library and research centre — even a train running from here to Delhi is called the Padmavat Express.
Not everyone here is familiar with Jayasi’s work though. Children playing cricket in the rundown memorial that was built in 1988 during Rajiv Gandhi’s time, including one who studies in a school named after Jayasi, struggle to remember just what his claim to fame is.
Author of about 25 works, including Padmavat, Akhravat, Akhiri Kalam, and Kanhavat, which is based on Krishna, Jayasi, who wrote in Awadhi, is counted among the prominent writers of medieval classics. “Jayasi’s Padmavat is a canonical text. Common to both Hindi and Urdu classical texts, it is equally revered by both and often cited as a bridge between the two often warring languages which share a common literary tradition,” says Delhi-based writer Rakhshanda Jalil.
“Like Kabir, he got Hindus and Muslims together. The range of his works is vast, it tells you about the ordinary farmer, the fisherman, the changing seasons. In Padmavat, the way he compares the tears falling from Ratansen’s first wife Nagmati’s eyes to rain falling off slopes of a roof is so beautiful. Jayasi is a symbol of Amethi. Woh Amethi ke ek matra nayak hain (He is the only hero of Amethi),” says Jagdish Piyush, an Amethi-based writer and founder of the Awadhi Akademia.
Though biographic details of Jayasi are sketchy, he is said to have lost his parents early and been brought up by ascetics. He apparently lost an eye and had his face disfigured by smallpox. His works are probably the only real source of information on him. From them, can be gleaned the date of his birth and that he appears to have received instructions from two Sufi lineages, one of them being that of Saiyid Ashraf Jahangir Simnani.
A heroic romance, Padmavat recounts the story of Padmavati, daughter of the King of Singhal (Sri Lanka), and Ratansen of Chittor, who hearing of her beauty, launches on a journey and returns to Chittor with her. Meanwhile, Raghav Chetan, a Brahmin with magical powers, who Ratansen has banished from his court, seeks his revenge by telling Sultan Alauddin of Padmini’s beauty. The Sultan marches on to Chittor, where he sees a glimpse of the queen in a mirror. The story ends with Alauddin’s successful siege of the fort. Meanwhile, Ratansen has already died in combat with a rival Rajput ruler who had coveted his queen and Padmavati has immolated herself. Padmavat was written in 1540, over two centuries after Alauddin’s siege of Chittor.
“Yeh naya vivad toh meri samajh se pare hai (This new controversy is beyond me). In Padmavat, Alauddin sees Padmini in a mirror. Jayasi never shows them together, so what is the controversy over?” asks Piyush.
“Padmavat is an extraordinary example of literary history in the genre called premakhayan, or Sufi poetry of love. Ratansen’s fascination for Padamavati and the love between the two are portrayed as something akin to the kind of sacrifices endured by Sufis in their love for God. On the other hand, the Khalji Sultan’s alleged capture of Chittor represented the lustful ways of the world, which the Sufis wanted to steer clear of,” says Raziuddin Aquil, associate professor of history at Delhi University.
Though Padmavat is regarded as a Sufi tale of love, it borrows from other literary and spiritual conventions, including the Persian dastan. “Sufis borrowed ideas, languages and forms of narratives from a variety of sources to produce something in such a way that it blended both Islamic and non-Islamic cultural practices to make themselves intelligible to their followers. The Padmavat is, in fact, full of Ram katha and comes about thirty years before Tulsidas’s Ramcharit Manas,” says Aquil.
In the years since he wrote it, Padmavat has been retold and reshaped a number of times, by Sufi poets, Jain monks, Rajput story-tellers, British imperialists as well as Hindu nationalists. “The focus in Rajasthan was not on courting and marrying the queen—an emphasis that had been central to Jayasi’s Sufi ethic. Instead, these somewhat later narratives of Padmini focused on the exemplary honour of the Rajputs in defending their queen and kingdom against Sultan Alauddin Khalji,” writes Ramya Sreenivasan in her insightful book on the subject, The Many Lives of a Rajput Queen.
Then there were the Bengali narratives of the 19th century which, says Sreenivasan, “reinterpreted the legend yet again to celebrate a Hindu queen who had immolated herself to defend her chastity against a lustful, treacherous Muslim invader”.
But Padmini as an ideal of Indian womanhood that chooses death over dishnonour is perhaps what unites Jayas with faraway Chittor. “Nothing wrong should be shown about Padmini’s character. Jayasi didn’t, nobody else should,” says a young man in a crowd milling around a little tea shop in Jayas.
A road lined with green flags leads to the dargah of Jayasi, a few kilometres away, in Ramnagar. The silence of the late winter evening is broken intermittently by songs from Hindi films playing in this season of weddings. Saiyyed Muhammad Moin Shah, who administers the dargah, raises his voice over the contemporary hits to quote from Padmavat. “I first read it decades ago out of sheer interest… People haven’t read it and don’t understand it. If they did, there would be no issue. It talks of a mystical love, its characters personify things. In essence, it’s about atma and paramatma. The romance, the story are just a frame,” he says.
In his later years, Jayasi is said to have shifted to Ramnagar, where he got the patronage of its king. More than a century after his death, his name started appearing in hagiographies that portrayed him as a Sufi peer. Many in the region surrounding Amethi revere Jayasi more as peer than poet. “Come tomorrow, it’s a Thursday and people visit dargahs. See what he means to people here,” says Moin Shah.
The next day, the dargah is abuzz. Carts outside sell chaadars, shakarparas and flowers as offering. Inside, the smell of incense is thick with wishes and gratitude. The threads that devotees tie at dargahs when they make their wishes are missing here, replaced by strips made from plastic bags.
A 60-something Haqiqunissa from nearby Gauriganj says she has come here after 20 years. She doesn’t know anything about Jayasi’s poetry but is certain of his spiritual power. From a woman seeking divine intervention for her husband’s skin allergy to Laik Hawari who has just contested the local panchayat elections as an Independent, Jayasi’s dargah gets many visitors. “He is known for his karamat (miracles). The then Ramnagar king was initially reluctant to meet him but agreed once he saw how he could predict things. He was given a place to stay in the Sati maharani vatika where an erstwhile queen had committed sati,” says Hawari.
The local legend goes that Jayasi predicted his death at the hands of the Raja’s men, and on the appointed day, he turned into a tiger and was killed by them.
“He is known for his miracles. Jayasi once wrote about a lotus blooming in a pond and how a frog living in the pond just brushes past it while the bee comes to it from afar. Similarly, people from all over come here in search of Jayasi the writer but nearer home people are beginning to forget his literature,” smiles Moin Shah.
But still, he says, Jayasi’s work will survive him and the cast of his epic. He quotes from Padmavat to make his point. “Kahan so Ratansen ab raja?…/Kaha Alauddin Sultanu?/Kahn Saroop Padmavati rani/ Koi na raha, jag rahi kahani (Where is Raja Ratansen now? Where is Sultan Alauddin? Where is the beautiful Padmavati? They aren’t here, their story is).”