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Re-presenting An Icon

Amar Farooqui

By Harleen Singh
Cambridge University Press, New Delhi, 2014, pp. xi 189, Rs. 645.00


Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi is perhapsthe most prominent of the iconic figures of the revolt of 1857. Her outstanding heroism became the subject of alarge number of literary productions fromthe late nineteenth century onwards. It is atheme that continues to interest novelists,producers of comic-books, and film-makersdown to the present day. Lakshmi Bai’s pres-ence in literature (and since the 1950s incinema and the visual media) has reinforcedher iconic status. Harleen Singh’s study ex-amines the ways in which the Rani has beenrepresented in literature (novels, poetry,drama), mainly focussing on colonial andnationalist representations. She also devotessome space to Sohrab Modi’s 1953 filmJhansi ki Rani. Finally there is a discussionon the questioning of the Rani’s valour insome of the writings of recent years that haveattempted to present narratives of the revoltfrom a dalit perspective. Gillean’s The Rane (1887), Nisbet’s The Queen’s Desire (1893), and Rogers’s novel inverse The Rani of Jhansi (1895), are typical examples of colonial literary depictions of the revolt and of Lakshmi Bai. These derived from the authorized, official, historiography on the subject in which the British were portrayed as being brave and chivalrous while mutinous Indians were routinely shown as treach-erous, cowardly, brutal and malicious. In historical works such as J.W. Kaye’s influential History of the Sepoy War the valour of the British lay not merely in individual acts of courage—which of course were easily demonstrable—but in the justness of the cause for which they fought. British rule had put India on the path of progress and had the ‘mutiny’ been successful it would have relapsed into ignorance, superstition and obscurantism. The defeat of the rebels, through the superhuman sacrifice of white warriors,had ensured that India would continue to remain on the path of progress. This was a stirring tale indeed. The selfless rescue of Indians from forces of darkness, by British heroes, was a theme that could be used for producing literature (of a rather mediocre kind), piecing together raw material from innumerable historical accounts and memoirs, to ultimately tell the same story. Superficially characters and locales differed, reflecting the preferences of respective authors, but there was no significant variation. Not surprisingly, much of the ‘mutiny’ literature of this type tended to be monotonous. In this sense the writings of Gillean, Nisbet and Rogers are no exceptions. Specifically in the case of Lakshmi Bai,whose history created a ...

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