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Rescuing Padmini: History, Hegemony And The Language Of Others


The scantiness of the archive, the obscuring effects of Eurocentrism, patriarchy and cosmopolitanism, make her almost irretrievable.

By Deepika Ahlawat

A few hours on a rather good road takes one from Udaipur to the old fort of Chittor, now full of the ruins of palaces, some still mired in the dust of their felling, others set in manicured lawns full of gardeners idling at the expense of the Archaeological Survey of India. There are also numerous temples here — still, empty shells, their deities either lost or desecrated.

Until very recently, Chittor was defined by its three and a half sake, a saka being a catastrophic event where the men rode out to their death in a last stand, while the women burned themselves rather than be captured as spoils of war. One of these sake was caused by Allaudin Khilji’s attack on the fort in 1303, which he conquered after a long siege, but only for a few years. According to the Padmavat, a 16th century work by Malik Muhammad Jaysi, Alauddin’s campaign was engendered by his lust for the peerless queen of the Mewar ruler, Padmini. As the controversy over fact and fiction rages on, this time more obstreperously, because it involves Bollywood and its ability to cast its version of history into Technicolour fact with incredible reach, surely a bigger question is not what the historical facts of this matter are, but what is, in fact, historical fact.

Consider the difficulty in giving a definitive account of what happened centuries ago on the basis of a few accounts, quite often not corroborated by any others, and scant material relics. The process is a difficult one, and one full of gaps so numerous that the bridging of them with a plausible narrative has to be a thing of wonder. Historians of the past tended not to acknowledge their tremendous dexterity in creating something out of nothing. They wrote, rather, with the peculiar, now almost obscene, confidence of the Great White Male, ensconced unproblematically at the centre of discourse creation.

Today’s historians, at least when writing for their peers, are less certain and more self-aware, and recognise that the discipline is, and has always been, a form of political narrative; a handmaiden in the service of power. More often than not, it represents not facts but elite hegemonic narratives that seek to push our complicated pasts into neat linear chronologies, highlighting certain events and erasing others.

It is now an established idea within academia that the construction of traditional ‘proper’ history and its constituting frameworks and rationales is built around an all pervasive Eurocentrism. Inevitably, it seems, subjects being historicised are also Europeanised as all aspects of their geography, time, space, theology, language and philosophy are appropriated and explained through the lens of European ideas.

Due to the extent and sophistication of propaganda produced by the colonial enterprise, and the later co-option of this discourse by nationalist Marxist narratives that sought to dismantle the mechanisms of feudal rule in the service of their ideology, the royals of Rajputana, as well as their histories, began to occupy a grey area between the elite and the oppressed.

Of course, this form of narrative hegemony is not the first to be imposed upon peripheral India. The imposition of a cosmopolitan Persian culture and language, and the ignominy of being seen only through the lens of the Persian archive, is one that has persisted for almost a millennium.

This is despite the fact that Islamic records are notoriously incomplete regarding the history of Rajputana. In fact, with a few notable exceptions, like the 11th century account of India by Al-Beruni, many histories written in and for Islamic courts make little mention of Hindu polities at all, unless in specific, often adversarial contexts.

Islamic imperial polities produced so much more documentation than the peripheries, that many historians, both in the colonial era and today, simply found it easier to engage with their texts and ideas without accessing, or even acknowledging local and vernacular voices. Also, because local histories were written in a different format than the ones traditional historians were willing to accept as legitimate, they were discounted as historical resources. The colonial chronicler of Rajputana, James Tod, for example, berated the paucity of historical texts in the region, going so far as to call the existing native sources ‘puerile’.  Yet, the bulk of his annals are compiled from local Rajput and Jain sources, only seeking corroboration (not always available), in Persian sources.

This is not to say that the Hindu kingdoms in Rajputana did not keep an extensive archival and administrative mechanism that later historians could use to construct ‘proper’ historical narrative. A vast array of this material from the 18th century onwards, including household and court records, exists in various archives, still largely unstudied. But for anything earlier, one must rely on non-textual material, because by the 16th century, most of the great Rajput citadels, also the sites of their histories and archives, had been destroyed.

In the absence of official textual accounts of the past, Charans, Bhats and other local communities, who were often only in nominal service of the court, appropriated the tools of making and retelling the history of their kings through the medium of song and oral tradition, which they could also edit at will. Such democratised vernacular history, composed and maintained by the non-elite, became the repository of regional identity and pride, at least in those areas where a hegemonic colonial culture did not overthrow all vernacular means of self-expression and understanding, and where traditional networks of patronage and kinship continued to exist.

Only recently have historians trained in the western academy begun to recognise the vernacular chronicles of Rajputana as a valid form of history telling, but much work remains to be done on such archives.

This effort is hindered by a persistent resistance to the academic study of vernacular languages of this area, as well as to the cosmopolitan language of this civilisation, Sanskrit. Yet, at least in the academic realm,  traditional, masculine, elitist, white person history (even if it is most earnestly expounded by its brown acolytes) is losing ground, and powerful voices have, for the past few decades, been calling for just such subaltern histories.

Advocates of subaltern histories recognise that power is measured, described and understood in the languages of domination, favouring the real over the symbolic, the material over the ideal, and thereby recreating exactly the circumstances which allowed elite historiography to miss entirely the narratives of vast swathes of humanity. How, then, to re/construct a historiography of a group when the hegemonic culture, and its historians, create and define all modes of success, ethics, identity and self-expression? In short, when the language of resistance and the definition of success, is created by the ‘elite’ oppositional, how can the subaltern, Padmini, have an inalienable existence in herself, and exist as a distinct subject agent?

Why, one may ask, is a history of Padmini not an elite historiography? The royal house of Mewar, was, naturally, the political elite in its own environment. Like other monarchies across the world, the Mewar royals commissioned historians, poets, and hagiographers to create and control the official and archival narrative around them. Yet, in relative terms, they lost their control over the narrative with the advent of colonialism and other cosmopolitan discourses. Even where colonialism was not able to exercise full political control (the rulers of Mewar retained various degrees of political independence under the Mughals and then under the East India Company and then the British Crown) it exercised its hegemony through the power of discourse.

This is particularly true in writing women’s histories, where discourse production faces the dual challenge of resisting the reproduction of not only Eurocentric and orientalist, but also of male gendered tropes.

The story or rather stories of Padmini are to be found in numerous sources, the earliest surviving one of which is Jaysi’s Padmavat. However, it is important to acknowledge that there is no contemporary manuscript source to mention this story does not in any way mean that it is an entirely invented episode. A  similar tale, dating only a few decades after Jaysi’s work is to be found in Jain sources in western India, and the story is also found in Rajput chronicles like the Khuman Raso, (composed and added to from the 8th century onwards) as well in later Mughal sources, like Abul Fazl’s Ain i Akbari, and in the 19th century, Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan by James Tod. I needn’t go into the corroborations, contradictions, and omissions to be found in the particulars of Padmini’s tales here — the historian Ramya Sreenivasan has, quite literally, written a book about it, which I recommend everyone interested in the subject to find and read. Perhaps the one thing from her study I will highlight here is that within this cultural context, Padmini was not just a name, but also a title given to a peerless beauty of her age. The existence of Padminis does not logically exclude the existence of a Padmini.

The scantiness of the archive, the obscuring effects of Eurocentrism, patriarchy and cosmopolitanism, as outlined above, make Padmini almost irretrievable. And yet, perhaps it is better to acknowledge the chasm of narrative and time that separates us, rather than to retrieve from behind the curtain of the past, a tawdry mountebank masquerading as the Mewari queen.

— Deepika Ahlawat is a museum curator and an art consultant. She lives in London.