Alauddin Khilji harassed a woman. Romanticising his story is an insult to women
Jayasi's work perceived as 'romantic poetry' says volumes about the perception of both 'love' and women in his eyes.
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It's a warm, cheery day and I am lying on a recliner trying to rest, but my mind keeps wandering to the news of the unfortunate attack on Sanjay Leela Bhansali for his film Padmavati. I couldn’t help but see the irony of resorting to violence — the way of the cowards and oppressive tyrants — by the hooligans who were allegedly angry at attempts of whitewashing the image of a tyrant, Alauddin Khilji, in the film.
As Ramchandra Guha noted in a tweet: “For someone’s community identity to be damaged by a mere film or book, shows fragility, insecurity, paranoia. Not courage or conviction" (sic).
I concur with this sentiment, no movie or book or TV debates can whitewash well-documented crimes against humanity by the likes of Khilji, Aurangzeb, Hitler and Spanish inquisitors.
But it would be wrong to say I am not worried about misrepresentation in the name of creative freedom. In fact, I’m deeply disturbed as a woman by the alleged portrayal of Khilji romancing Padmavati.
I was 15 when I had visited Chittorgarh Fort and that's where I first heard the story of “Padmavat”, on which Bhansali’s movie is based, which is a work of historical fiction by 16th century Indian poet, Malik Muhammad Jayasi.
Even as a child, Chittorgarh's tale of bravery in the face of adversity and sacrifice deeply affected me, but it's Rani Padmavati’s story that has stayed with me ever since.
The historical accuracy of this poem has been questioned several times so there may be little truth to it all, and yet, the poem and the story it tells, both are important.
It's important because it helps us understand and empathise with struggles of women of the time. Jayasi writes that Alauddin Khilji, second in line of barbaric emperors who were known for their ferocity and savagery, learns of the unparalleled beauty of Rani Padmavati through a musician who was banished from Chittor by Raja Ratansen.
Khilji, who believed himself to be invincible, and liked to be called "Sikander-i-Sani" (the second Alexander) is intrigued by the narration. So, he lays siege on Chittor and demands Rani Padmavati. Rani refuses but persuaded by circumstance, agrees to let Khilji see a reflection of herself in the mirror.
Jayasi narrates that Khilji, upon seeing the reflection, is overcome by the desire to “possess” Padmavati. But Chittorgarh Fort stands tall in the face of Khilji’s onslaught and he is unable to enter. Somehow Khilji manages to kidnap Raja Ratansen and demands Padmavati as ransom.
Chittor agrees and promises to “deliver” the Rani the next morning. Next morning, fort gates open and 150 palanquins are carried to Khilji’s camp from which Rajput soldiers hop out, slaughter the enemy and free Ratansen.
Angered by this, Khilji worsens the attack on the fort. Eventually, as rations start to run out, the remaining Rajput men step out to fight bravely and get martyred and when Khilji steps inside the fort, he finds only ashes of the Rajput women, including Padmavati who had chosen to self-immolate (Jauhar) when faced with the prospect of falling into the hands of tyrant Khilji.
Now, historicity notwithstanding, let's pause and think about this story as a commentary on the times for a second. In the poem, Rani Padmavati's objectification through Khilji's desire to “possess” Padmavati drives the entire narrative, and to think that this work was perceived as “romantic poetry” in the time it was written, says volumes about the perception of both "love" and women in Jayasi’s eyes.
So obsessed was Khilji with a desire to "possess" Padmavati and his arrogance so self-consuming that it drove him to make an important military decision of attacking Chittorgarh and put the lives of thousands of his own soldiers at stake. He lays siege on Chittor and demands Rani Padmavati to be sent over to his harem. Rani obviously refuses the marauder's demands, but when have men of Khilji's notoriety cared about a woman's consent?
So he goes ahead with the attack. Rani's steadfast resolve in asserting her choice till death is gut-wrenchingly brave, especially since the age she lived in was not an easy one to be a woman. In that era, women and young children captured as "war booty" from all over India, were brought to India's capital, and treated like chattel in royal harems, traded for favours and used for sexual entertainment of royalty and their guests and all this had "religious" sanction. One can read about the plight of Yazidi women, who were captured during the ISIS attack of Mt Sinjar in 2014, also known as the Yazidi genocide, for a contemporary understanding of what Delhi was like back then.
Jayasi's entire poem is a travesty in its own right, for all the male characters dominate the narrative and the main character Padmavati is reduced to nothing but an object to be desired and possessed. Her thoughts, her fears, her wishes, her hopes reduced to sidelines as a madman's lust overcomes him so much so to preside over wanton murder. Why? Because a woman cannot say "NO". Even if she does, it is of as little consequence then, as it is now.
It is a work of female objectification which I, as a woman, do not find romantic in any shape or form. Even when faced with the prospect of attack on her home and her people, the Rani says a vehement “NO”. But since a woman's "No means Yes" since time immemorial, that doesn’t dissuade “lover boy" Khilji, who wanted another “possession” for his harem, where he could rape her whenever he wanted, use her to entertain guests and perhaps even trade her like a material possession.
When faced with this spine-chilling prospect of ending up in the hands of Khilji, Rani Padmavati enforces her consent in the only way possible to her, by taking her own life.
There is no glory to be sought in Jauhar, no paeans to be written about it, for Jauhar is an act of the desperate women in desperate circumstances, trying to assert their will in the only way possible for them. Faced with the impossible decision of surrendering themselves to a life of sexual slavery versus death, these women chose to live their lives on their own terms.
It's a decision that no woman should ever have to make, but they made their choice and it shows the strength of their character that they chose to assert their will instead of resigning themselves to the slavery of barbarians. Jayasi didn't intend it to be, but his work is a heart-wrenching commentary on the status of women in an era where even women of royalty could only enforce their agency in one way, suicide.
Perhaps this is what passed for “love” in the medieval patriarchal mind of Jayasi and even for the villainous Khilji, but in 2017, this surely cannot pass for “love” and certainly not for a self-proclaimed feminist Kavita Krishnan, who tweeted:
Attack on #SanjayLeelaBhansali isnt due to concern for historical facts re Padmavati, only hate for Hindu-Muslim love in 21st century India— Kavita Krishnan (@kavita_krishnan) January 28, 2017
I am shocked that a 21st century feminist is oblivious to the concept of "consent". As such, I’m sorry Kavita Krishnan, you don’t deserve to be called a feminist.
We’re living in a world where even after making centuries of fighting for the rights of one half of humanity, we’re still struggling to explain the meaning of “consent”. We’re still fighting globally to take control over our own bodies, to make our own choices.
A world where girls from underprivileged communities are sold like cattle right in our backyard Pakistan, and where our other neighbour Bangladesh is about to pass a law that could force rape victims to marry their rapists.
Romanticising the story of a marauder who objectified, stalked and harassed a woman, driving her to take the extreme step of suicide, in such a world is not only a disservice, but an insult not only to Padmavati, not only to all victims of rape, harassment and stalking but to all women everywhere who fight everyday for the right to make their own choices, to assert their will and to get their consent acknowledged.
Rani may not have heard of feminism in her lifetime, but little did she know she would emerge as the inspiration of women worldwide, as the woman who did not buckle under pressure and asserted her choice, in every way she knew how.
Her body, her mind, her choice!