“Bundele Harbolo ke mooh humnein suni kahani thi, khoob ladi mardani woh toh Jhansi waali rani thi.” The lines from the celebrated poem “Jhansi ki Rani” by Subhadra Kumari Chauhan translates as “from the bards of Bundela we have heard this story, she fought much valiantly, she was the queen of Jhansi.” Celebrated for her bravery and patriotism, the Queen of Jhansi, Rani Laxmibai’s name glitters in the pages of Indian history as one of the first instances of female heroism in the Indian nationalist uprising. Unsurprisingly, popular culture, be it in the form of songs, ballads, poems, art or theatre, has over and again glorified the valour of Laxmibai. Hindi film director, Radha Krishna Jagarlamudi, popularly known as Krish, is all set to release yet another piece of an artistic rendition of the queen in his latest film, “Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi.”
The film starring Kangana Ranaut began shooting last year and it had come under attack from a Brahmin outfit in Rajasthan called the Sarv Brahmin Mahasabha. The outfit claimed that the movie has an “indecent portrayal” of Rani Laxmibai, who was a Brahmin. The main objection was against an apparent depiction of the queen as represented in a book written by the London-based author, Jaishree Misra called ‘Rani’ which was banned in Uttar Pradesh in 2008 by the then Mayawati-led government. In the historical fiction written by Mishra, Laxmibai is shown to be involved in an affair with a British officer Robert Ellis. While the filmmaker denied any such portrayal of the queen that can hurt nationalist sentiments, the Sarv Brahmin Mahasabha was of the strong belief that the film will be detrimental to Brahmin sentiments and emotions.
The protest against Manikarnika came right after the recent similar controversy over director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmavat. However, unlike the character of Padmavati, there has never been any debate over the historicity of Rani Laxmibai. Her existence has been proven by historical records and so is her involvement in the fight against the British in the 1857 rebellion. Interestingly though, more than historical records, it is the popular culture that has always served as more potent in reconstructing the life and times of Rani Laxmibai. “In Indian history and culture, legend is often more important than fact, since legends proliferate spontaneously through their close connection withy folk or rustic culture and their lack of dependence on literary traditions,” writes historian Joyce Lebra-Chapman in her book, “The Rani of Jhansi: A study in female heroism in India.” In the case of Laxmibai therefore, it is her status as a legendary figure that fought against foreign rule, more than what we actually know of her life that serves as fodder for the creation of nationalist pride. The protest against the film, therefore, needs to be examined as a fight between popular notions of a legendary figure and the representation of aspects of her life in a book that goes against what is popularly believed about her.
Manikarnika, the legendary queen of Jhansi
Manikarnika or Manu Bai is the maiden name of Rani Laxmibai. She was born in November 1828 at Varanasi to a family of Maharashtrian Brahmins. Her rise to the peak of Indian historical glory, however, begins only after she gets married to the Maharaja of Jhansi, Raja Gangadhar Rao Newalkar and is renamed Laxmibai.
The legendary status attached to Laxmibai revolves around the 1857 revolt, in which she is known to have played a very active role. Popularly considered to be a turning point in the long history of British rule in India, the 1857 revolt is perhaps one of the most written about moments of modern Indian history. Heated debates have taken place over the years regarding whether it can be considered a case of sepoy mutiny or whether it marked the first phase of the Indian independence movement. Laxmibai’s role in this context emerges as pivotal, both because she was a native who actively coordinated efforts to defeat the British, and more so because she was a woman whose heroism was as usual peppered with elements of feminine honour.
The decade preceding the 1857 revolt, the British had annexed a number of princely states as part of the policy of “lapse”. As per the policy, the British could take control over those states in which the ruler died without a natural heir. Jhansi was one such case in which the Maharaja had died and Rani Laxmibai was left with her adopted son Damodar Rao, who could not be enthroned on account of the British policy. The annexation of these states by the British was widely resented by the Indian rulers as is evident from the memoirs of Laxmibai.
The Rani’s involvement in the 1857 revolt needs to be located in context of the annexation of Jhansi. Whether it was a case of nationalist uprising or that of a ruler protecting her territory has been debated by historians for years. Also, debated is the extent and nature of her role in the massacre of Englishmen. What is certain though, is the fact that from late March to June 1858, she was fiercely involved in battle in the forts of Jhansi, Kalpi and Gwalior, where she died fighting.
A fictional depiction of the queen in a banned book
In 2007, the London-based Indian author, Jaishree Misra wrote her fourth novel, Rani, based on the life of Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi. The rather slow-paced novel begins with Manikarnika in Varanasi, enjoying her childhood and reaches its climax with her transformation into a fiery ruler during British annexation of Jhansi. However, unlike most other accounts of historical figures associated with 1857, Misra’s book is an aesthetic collaboration between fact and fiction.
Reviews of “Rani” tell that the book is in fact very well researched. References to historical landmarks in Jhansi and elsewhere, as well as archived communication between the queen and British are scattered all across the novel, making it a strong piece of history writing. However, as is the case of most historical fictions, much of the book is also imaginative, done more as a means of achieving popular appeal than anything else.
The story of “Rani” depicts Laxmibai in a romantic affair with a British officer named Robert Ellis. While the names of both the characters are fact, the affair as admitted by the writer is purely fictional. The fictionalised account of the two characters in the background of 1857 was an attempt by the writer to imagine the human emotions involved in such politically charged instances. In a poignant analysis of the novel made by research scholar K. Varun Narayanan, he says that “the novel tries to explore the era through the eyes of two main characters – Rani Lakshmi Bai and Major Willis; the Reagent of East India Company at Jhansi. It tries to present the human face of the entire conflict; the trepidations and sufferings of individual people often forgotten in the glorified accounts of blood and valour in a war.”
Misra’s figment of the imagination, however, was unacceptable to many, resulting in the book being banned by the Mayawati-led government in Uttar Pradesh. There is no evidence as yet if the upcoming film, Manikarnika, is in any way based on the novel. What the political motivations could be for a protest against the film we are yet to know. What is certain though is that it was the imaginary depiction of the queen in a banned book that was being feared to disrupt her legendary status.