Mirabai in song and memory: Anjali Panjabi's film explores how people on the margins embraced poet-mystic

  • Anjali Panjabi’s film A Few Things I Know About Her examines how marginalised communities and women embraced Mira, who was ostracised by her own clan.

  • The Meghwals, who are called Bhaats, Bhils, Meerasis and Manganiyars are among the communities who revere Mira through music.

  • For many lower caste communities, the point of identification to Mirabai is through her mentor Ravidas, who was a shoemaker.

‘Among the Sisodiyas of Chittor, she [Mira] is the unmentionable one. Too rapt and too fierce to be claimed, her name missing from family chronicles, her memory denied, her songs forbidden… How is her person so faint when her poems are etched so strong and unembarrassed in a book I hold 500 years later?’

A Few Things I Know About Her, by Anjali Panjabi

The image that many associate with Mirabai is of a woman immersed in devotion, dressed in all-white or the ascetic’s saffron, playing an iktara. She is defined by her love for and complete surrender to Krishna, and remembered by the songs where she described this love. She is a simile for bhakti (‘loving/beckoning like Mira’) and the very embodiment of it.

Some women have believed themselves to be Mira, and many derive strength from her story. But she wasn’t always held in such high regard.

A Rajput princess born to Ratan Singh Rathore, she was eventually married off to the crown prince of Mewar as part of a strategic alliance. But this was not the man she loved; she had chosen Krishna – a choice that endangered her life and eventually caused her to leave the palace. She would go on to travel and wander alone as a mystic – unthinkable for women in those times, especially women from royal families.

But Mirabai was soon embraced by many communities in Rajasthan, particularly women and the marginalised. Anjali Panjabi’s film A Few Things I Know About Her (Films Division of India) and subsequent work examines the ways in which these communities remember and honour her through their songs. For them, she is not divinity but a spiritual figure whose struggles resemble their own. “They see her as a human being who they can relate to, someone who is on a path much tougher than their own. Some of them described her as their spiritual guide,” says Panjabi in an interview with Firstpost.

Panjabi’s tryst with the subject began 20 years ago when her father, a photojournalist, returned home with music about Mira from Rajasthan. “It was very different and earthy; the lyrics described experiences that I didn’t think would be part of Mira’s repertoire.”

 Mirabai in song and memory: Anjali Panjabis film explores how people on the margins embraced poet-mystic

A Rajasthani painting of Mira. Wikimedia Commons

Not much is known about this poet-mystic in the historical sense, though she does find mention in two places – a 19th-century manuscript and a 16th-century document at a museum in Jodhpur, says Panjabi. “To look historically is a valid exercise, and many people have undertaken it. There has been some evidence, but I think after a point, the power of Mira is that she sustains in our cultural imagination. It’s not because she existed historically, but what she stands for,” she adds.

The corpus of Mira songs includes works about her and what are ostensibly songs by her. Whether the songs attributed to her were really written by her has been debated, but Panjabi says there are certain characteristics that define her poems: the style of the refrain, the voice, and a certain spiritual turn. “The notion central to Mira’s poetry is ‘I want to be seen as me’. Organised religion perhaps does not allow for this, but the more democratic Bhakti movement did,” Panjabi explains. Some details about her life can also be gleaned from these poems, such as the place of her birth, Merta, since she refers to herself as ‘Mertani’.

That she loved Krishna and didn’t want to enter into a conventional marriage, that her marital clan was not happy with her breaking norms, and that she chose a life of austerity has endeared her to those who live on the margins.

A woman in A Few Things I Know About Her looks at her as a guiding force. Just as Mira set up a shrine in her quarters in the palace, this woman too prayed at her in-laws’ home when she wasn’t allowed to go to the temple. In another shot, a gathering of women hails Mira, Radha and Krishna, describing the mystic as an exemplar of devotion to God – an ideal they believe they could never emulate.

For many lower caste communities, the point of identification to Mirabai is through her mentor Ravidas. A woman in Panjabi’s film explains that Ravidas was a shoemaker and tanned hides. Learning from Ravidas was a conscious decision Mira took, knowing that it would earn her the ire of society and that she would have to visit the quarters of the city where his community lived. “He was well known in some way as a teacher. She chose him, and he refused initially because of their caste difference. But she persisted,” Panjabi explains.

In their imagining of the mentor-student relationship, these communities see Ravidas as performing their own occupations – weaving, making shoes, and so on, she adds. They often depict Mira as a commoner who performs everyday actions, like drawing water from a well.

The Meghwals, who are called Bhaats, Bhils, Meerasis and Manganiyars, are among the communities who revere Mira through music. Panjabi was witness to large gatherings of people who would recite stories of Mira during sessions that go on all night. “These sessions are usually held at someone’s house or in the courtyard of a mandir. They involve singing songs and conversation… They also sang songs by poets like Kabir and Gorakhnath,” says Panjabi. Some musician castes are also called bhajanis, she added.

The poet-mystic’s presence is felt in far-flung corners of Rajasthan’s desert. Pemaram, who transports water among other jobs, sings her songs. A woman in another village prides herself on being the only woman to sing bhajans in her community.

“The liberation of becoming Mira lies in how the actions that society previously did not allow, are now deemed acceptable,” says Panjabi. The pride with which the musicians featured in the film, such as Pemaram and Padmaram Meghwal, declare that they sing Mira songs tells us about how she has both shaped their identity and empowered them.

That there was opposition to Mira is evident from the numerous stories that describe assassination attempts: by poison, a basket with a snake in it, and the demand she drown herself. There is another legend where her husband Rana is said to have rushed to her with a dagger. These stories usually end with a miracle resulting from her devotion to Krishna; the snake turns into an idol of Krishna, she floats on water instead of drowning in it.

In the written records of the wives of Rajput nobility, there is but one reference to Mira. Featured in A Few Things I Know About Her is a man who works in an archive, who explains that she finds mention in a book about Rani Mammo; she is described as Ratan Singh’s daughter, born in 1555. Additionally, for many centuries, families did not name their daughters after the mystic for fear that they may abandon their domestic lives or that they may have to face the same struggles.

Oral traditions play a pivotal role in the documentation and remembrance of figures like Mira, who were erased from mainstream narratives. “In our culture, oral traditions have always coexisted with the written one…. As we are given to understand, she was not given much support from her family, but the fact that we remember her still, despite the silence, means that the oral tradition has played a very big part,” Panjabi says. Orally preserved stories have charted the story of her life, about how she was the size of a seed at birth, how people celebrated her birth, and how Ravidas became her guru.

“Difficult women are those who strive to remain on the path they’ve chosen,” says Panjabi. Would Mira have been so ostracised if she was a man? “The trajectory of a man who may have taken to a life like Mira’s would have been different. It was much more difficult for a woman,” she says.

Anjali Panjabi’s talk ‘The Living Traditions of Mirabai’ was a part of Junoon’s Mumbai Local series titled Difficult Women

Updated Date: Jul 22, 2019 08:34:22 IST