According to the Oxford Dictionary, a national epic is a poem “embodying a nation’s concept of its past history”. At the start of this election year, I would like to propose the Sufi Poet Jayasi’s epic Padmavat for national status. I do so because after reading professor Purushottam Agrawal’s recently published commentary on the epic, Padmavat: An Epic Love Story. I agree with his belief that reading it “will help generate a liberal outlook and reconciliatory temperament”. Never will the creation of such a temperament be more necessary than after the election. During the campaign, the nation’s history will be bitterly contested. Afterwards, there must be a search for reconciliation.
Padmavat is well known and much loved and hence can have considerable influence. Ever since Ramchandra Shukla published his canonical version of the epic in 1924, it has been included in Hindi syllabi at school, undergraduate and postgraduate level. Purushottam Agrawal himself taught Padmavat to postgraduate students at JNU, and he recalls nostalgically the impact the lectures had on students. But the idea that reading Padmavat will lead to liberalism and reconciliation may seem absurdly optimistic because only just a year or so ago a film about the heroine, Padmavati, created aggressive, divisive demonstrations of casteism. Even before the film had been screened, Rajputs claimed that their sentiments had been hurt — a claim misused all too frequently to justify the banning of films, books, and art.
To discuss the potential of Padmavat, I must first tell the story briefly. The heroine, Padmavati, is a princess of the mythical island of Simhal. Stories of her beauty reach Chittor, which of course is not a mythical city. Its king, Ratansen, undergoes many hazards and hardships to reach Simhal and win the hand of Padmavati. They fall deeply in love. But then the sultan in Delhi, Alauddin, gets to hear of Padmavati. Overcome by lust, not love, he demands that Ratansen surrenders his wife. The king refuses and so war breaks out, ending with Chittor falling to the sultan, Ratansen killed , and Padmavati, along with Ratansen’s first wife, committing sati.
This tragic epic can symbolise different things to different people. Obviously some might see it in terms of a Muslim sultan defeating a Hindu king. For them, Padmavat would strengthen their sense of Hindu victimhood, of the Muslim as the outsider. But Jayasi’s Padmavat is actually evidence of India’s traditional pluralist culture with its ability to cope with diversity. Although Jayasi was a Muslim,a Sufi, his poem is rich in Puranic and Islamic idioms and metaphors. The hero is a Hindu ruler, the anti-hero a Muslim sultan. Jayasi himself says, “There are many paths to God as there are stars in the firmament, or pores in the body.”
The Rajputs, who were so agitated about the Padmavat film, see Padmavati as the ideal woman, symbolising the devotion of a wife. But many women today will see the sati not as an act of devotion but as an act enforced on the two wives by a rigidly patriarchal culture. Jayasi’s vivid descriptions of Padmavati and Ratansen making love will offend narrow-minded puritans, whereas they are a celebration of the Indian understanding of eroticism and its power to deepen love. The battle scenes might be taken as a glorification of martial valour. In the end, however, Alauddin realises the futility of war. Picking up a handful of ash from the sati pyre he says, “”I wanted to avoid all this.” He also realises that lust rather than love brings no satisfaction saying, “insatiable desire man continues to have till life is over and he reaches the grave”.
But at heart, Padmavat is a love story, the love of Padmavati and Ratansen. Commending Purushottam Agrawal’s commentary, another doyen of the world of Indian literature, Ashok Vajpeyi, has written, Padmavat is a tale of love of epic proportions with immense “humanising potential”. It’s that humanising potential which led me tohope that readers of Padmavat will strive to create “a liberal outlook and a conciliatory temperament” in India.