Malathi Ramachandran's latest novel brings Mandu, the doomed romance of Sultan Baz Bahadur, Roopmati into focus again
For Mandu, Malathi Ramachandran's research spanned a wide number of sources: books commissioned by the Archaeological Survey of India, documents written by British historians, old maps of the fortress city, and Hindustani classical music
In the annals of Indian history, all love stories are not equal. While some, like Samir-Anarkali or Laila-Majnu have become part of our collective memory, others have not received the same attention.
One such lesser-known story is that of Baz Bahadur and Roopmati of Mandu, located in the Malwa region of present-day Madhya Pradesh. Part-fiction and part-fable, reminders of this doomed romance from the 16th century can still be found in Mandu: grand palaces, sweeping courtyards and arresting monuments, which evoke awe and wonder even today.
As per the legend, Baz, the last Sultan of Malwa, is smitten by the voice of a beautiful peasant girl, Roopmati. A common love of classical music brings them together, but a conspiracy to wedge them apart brings Roopmati to the notice of Emperor Akbar's general, Adham Khan. When Adham Khan overruns Malwa in 1561, Roopmati kills herself, and Baz dies soon after, bringing an end to their fairy-tale romance.
Author Malathi Ramachandran’s Mandu traces the romance of the Sultan of Malwa, Baz Bahadur, and singer Roopmati. On an off-the-beaten track trip, she discovered the abandoned fortress with its tragic story, and she brings it to life through her crisp narration.
In this conversation with Firstpost, she speaks about how creative liberties can aid the telling of a story, and why Baz Bahadur and Roopmati remain relevant, centuries after they were gone.
Why aren’t Roopmati and Baz Bahadur as well-known as other fabled love stories in the country?
Both Indian history and folk culture celebrate the love stories of Prithviraj-Samyukta, Soni-Mahiwal and Kovalan-Kannagi, to name just a few. The story of Baz and Roopmati is famous in its own region, that is Malwa, and is feted in its folk songs and stories. It is unfortunate that the story hardly exists in the written form, especially in English. Perhaps that is why this love story is not as well known all over the country as the others. Most people remember only the name Roopmati because of an eponymous feature film made as far back as the 1950s!
Could you describe what the process of writing this book was like?
First came the research, then creating the plot and characters, and finally, getting down to just the writing of the book! There are no shortcuts to writing a novel. It's hours and days and weeks and months of thinking and writing – and polishing. My books take from eight months to a year for the first draft to emerge. The rewriting and honing take another month or two.
Scheming mothers-in-law, doomed love and lots of music – isn’t this story tailor-made for a Sanjay Leela Bhansali movie?
[Laughs] Now that you say it, the novel does indeed seem to have all the essentials of a Bollywood potboiler! But seriously speaking, the story is built around two important facts that we glean from history: The first is that both the protagonists, Baz Bahadur and Roopmati, were passionate about poetry and music, and were past masters in Hindustani classical music. The other fact is that they fell in love with each other, and their love was doomed. I built the plot and characters around this basic material that was available to me. In 16th-century India, jealousy, rivalry and palace intrigue would have been a part of a sultan's life, especially if he was young and attractive. Therefore, my characters and situations were created accordingly.
What was the most difficult part of writing the book?
The research that I had to do before I started. The reason for this is that this legend comes to us mostly undocumented, so there is a lot of ambiguity in information available. I found different sources contradicting each other in facts, such as Roopmati's identity and her father's name, the location of palaces in Mandu Fort, the story behind the origin of Rewa Kund, and so on.
I accessed books commissioned by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and documents written by British historians in the 18th and 19th century, to get authentic and consistent facts. I read books on the Mughal empire to trace Akbar's siege of Malwa, studied old maps of Mandu to understand the layout of the fortress city and read extensively on the clothes and customs of central Hindustan during that era. Perhaps the most challenging part of my research was reading up on Hindustani classical music, because I have very little knowledge of it, and it is a highly specialised field!
In your research during the writing of the book, what sense did you get of the love story between Baz and Roopmati?
What my extensive research has shown is that Baz and Roopmati were two attractive young people who bonded over their common love for music and poetry. There are some versions of folk literature that speak of their romantic love, and others only of their love for music, but they all agree that Roopmati did not wish to leave Baz and be taken to Akbar's court in Agra. As a fiction writer, this gives me the leeway to imagine how their relationship would have been.
Also, how much of their story is fact and how much is fiction? What liberties have you taken with their story?
The novel is historical fiction. In my case, I take the bare framework of historical facts and build a story around it. The facts are the time period and dates and documented events, the fiction is the relationships and emotions and feelings of people who lived then.
So, in the book, I have stuck to the facts of history throughout, right up to the climax and denouement, but taken liberties with building the characters of Baz and Roopmati and their relationship. I also created new characters in the story as history does not mention any other individuals. I have been factual with descriptions of palaces and lakes but imagined what must have happened in and around them.
Historical romances have gained new popularity and acclaim of late in literature and film. What do you think is the reason for this?
I think the youth of today is hungry to discover our cultural heritage. To understand our mythology and our traditions and our folk culture. That is why books and films on famous characters of history are popular today, whether it is biopics on great men and women who built the idea of India, or historical romances on couples whose love stories changed the very path of history. But pure history itself is too dry for today's generation. That is where historical fiction with its human interest and emotions comes in, and becomes highly palatable.
Mandu isn’t much known to others. It doesn’t figure on the tourist circuit either – why is this?
Mandu is an abandoned fortress on the Malwa plateau, north of the Narmada river. To that extent, it is off the beaten track. Tourists usually on a pilgrimage may visit Ujjain and Maheshwar nearby, but may miss out on Mandu.
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