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History and Popular Perceptions

Niharika Gupta

By Ramya Sreenivasan
Permanent Black, Ranikhet, 2007, pp. 286, Rs. 650.00


This study of texts relating to Padmini, legendary queen of Mewar, discusses a remarkable range of material in Avadhi, Bangla, English, Rajasthani, Sanskrit and Urdu, from Jayasi’s sixteenth-century tale of love to drama and histories produced during the nationalist movement in Bengal. The legend, current today, honours the queen as a martyr who committed jauhar to avoid capture by Alauddin Khalji, whose siege of Chitor (1303) is attributed to his desire for her. However, the narrative has been cast as comedy as well as tragedy, and the figure of the queen is sometimes shadowy. Sreenivasan seeks not to establish one story as history—no contemporary record mentions the queen—but to see what each says about its historical moment, and to trace its subsequent influence. She views her work as part of the endeavour of historians to reassess the popular perception of the medieval period as being dominated by religious conflict where Hindu women were particularly vulnerable, by examining the relation between an event and the competing recollections of it, and the relation between historical traditions and popular memory. The chapters explore connections between shifts of emphasis, the re-ascription of roles and the valences of words, and the political concerns of authors, patrons, informants and, where possible, audiences. These political interests are more than a matter of casting heroes: plot contrivances reflect contradictions structural to the polity (power equations between Rajput kings and chiefs); dialogue registers tensions unresolved in the public sphere (Hindu–Muslim relations during the Swadeshi movement).   This ambitious comparative exercise offers valuable insights into dis/continuities of meaning, the composite nature of identity and the changing significance of gender roles. The temporal span shows where interpretations are overlaid or dropped: an allegorical key added in 1696 undergirded readings of the Padmavat (1540–1) as a Sufi quest, but its symbology was not invoked in the Padmavat Urdu (1797). Simplifications in the loci of identity and lines of conflict also appear in relief: narratives composed under the patronage of Rajput chiefs invoke ‘khitrivat’ (kshatriya valour) in the context of chiefly fealty; the Bangla Padmini Upakhyan celebrates generic Rajput ‘birattva’. The sack of Chitor leaves James Tod appalled at the ‘remorseless barbarity by the Pathan emperor’; in Jayasi, as the author suggests, the statement that ‘Chitaur became Islam’ may be read as the triumph of Islam through love, rather than conquest, for the jauhar of the Rajputs is coded as fana, Sufi transcendence. ...

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