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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Gained in Translation: On Padmavati, a Kannaki cue

Tamil women will gladly give a piece of advice to their Rajasthan sisters. Hey, beware of myths. They are nothing but old feudal traps to catch us.

Written by Vaasanthi |
Updated: December 10, 2017 6:14:45 am
Padmavati poster. (File)

I have now stopped watching TV news bulletins. There are nothing but angry faces, ferocious voices and words of chilling, murderous intent. Colourful attires, turbans, sabres, almost like in a carnival. More the TV cameras, higher the pitch. The provocation? An imagined assault by a filmmaker who has woven a dream contrary to their own. Who dared to retell a myth. It is an assault on their pride; an insult to their women, on whose shoulders remained the honour of their clan, tribe, community. They, men and women, the custodians of a sentiment long revered, cannot take it lying low.

I am reminded of our own Kannaki, symbol of Tamil honour and the epitome of not merely a woman’s chastity but of Dravidian valour, veeram, and chivalrous righteousness, maanam.

Here is a poetic description of her:
Even the gods pay honour to the wife
Who worships no one save her husband,
Kannaki, pearl among all women of the Earth,
Is now goddess, and is highly honoured
By all the gods who dwell in Paradise.

The gods in Paradise may well have forgotten Kannaki, the heroine of the great Tamil classic Silappathikaaram, but M Karunanidhi, leader of the DMK, usurped her and made her the symbol of Tamil honour and a role model for Tamil women.

The third-century epic by Ilango Adigal, a Jain prince, tells the story of a young Kovalan who leaves his loyal wife Kannaki for the courtesan Madhavi. After several years, when he loses interest in the courtesan and returns to Kannaki, the faithful wife welcomes him back without rancour. Both proceed to Madurai, the capital of the Pandian king, to start life afresh. Kannaki gives one of her anklets to Kovalan to sell so that he can start a business with the money. Kovalan tries to sell it to a goldsmith but in turn is accused of stealing the queen’s anklet, which has been lost. The king is informed and Kovalan is hanged without a trial. Kannaki is outraged on hearing the news and goes to the king’s court, rebukes him for his callous deed and proves her husband’s innocence. The king and queen die from remorse, but Kannaki’s anger is not quenched and she burns the city.

With Kannaki elevated as a mythological goddess of chastity, temples were built for her — by king Gajabahu of Ceylon, by a Chola king at Uraiyur, another by the Chera king at Idukki district in Kerala.

To the DMK, she became a symbol of female sexual purity and the epitome of Tamil honour, maanam. Didn’t she, a mere woman, a padithaandaa pathini, one who had never stepped outside the threshold of her home, avenge her husband’s death? When Karunanidhi was PWD minister during the tenure of C N Annadurai, he got a statue of the fiery Kannaki installed on Marina Beach in Chennai. For several years Kannaki stood with her back to the ocean with an anklet in her outstretched arm. The statue came to be identified with Karunanidhi as a mark of his political power, and a solace when he was out of power, when Jayalalithaa became the chief minister in 2001. There was an understandable outcry when suddenly one morning the statue disappeared. The official reason for its removal was that it was a hindrance to traffic and had developed cracks. Rumour had it that Jayalalithaa’s astrologers and vaastu experts felt that it was inauspicious to have a raging goddess pointing an accusing arm towards the Secretariat at Fort St George.

The DMK fuelled the rumour, held protest marches, and rallies condemning the “insult” heaped on Kannaki. The agitation continued but Jayalalithaa didn’t budge, and Karunanidhi swallowed his pride and got another statue of Kannaki installed at the DMK headquarters.

To my great relief, when Kannaki’s statue disappeared from the shores of Marina, Tamil women did not raise an alarm or shake their fists in front of the TV cameras. They hardly reacted. Clearly, Kannaki was not their role model. Not a woman who condoned her husband, the cad. Not their goddess.

Tamil women will gladly give a piece of advice to their Rajasthan sisters. Hey, beware of myths. They are nothing but old feudal traps to catch us. Hear what they say: “When some one (sexually) assaults you, dear lady, you have no option except death.” Don’t yell before the cameras that your honour has been assaulted because somebody put your mythic queen on the wide screen, with swaying skirts to the Ghoomar song; in fact, he was glorifying your myth, for heaven’s sake. She was no Kali, the destroyer of evil, though. Padmavati did not die fighting; Kannaki was in fact better, an ordinary woman who argued her case in the king’s court and killed him with her words of righteous wrath. Padmavati gave up without a fight and entered jauhar, dragging the entire harem with her.

It was suicide; an act of despair.

The screams are shrill: “No Rajasthan queen dances!” Bah, what a boring life it would be, with no music, no dancing. Maybe the women entered jauhar out of sheer boredom.

Vaasanthi is a well-known Tamil writer and columnist. Her books in English include Cut-outs, Caste and Cine-stars: The World of Tamil Politics and Amma: Jayalalithaa's journey from Movie Star to Political Queen

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