Padmavati would be saddened by violence perpetrated in her name, says author of new book on queen

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By Rohini Nair

Even as the row over Sanjay Leela Bhansali's film Padmavati refuses to die down, with no scheduled release date on the horizon, a book on the queen of Chittor has made its way to bookstore (and e-book readers). Anuja Chandramouli, who has authored several works of mythological fiction, turned to the 'burning queen' for inspiration for her latest book: Rani Padmavati. Published by Juggernaut, Anuja's book traces the events that led up to Padmini's self-immolation (jauhar) in the face of Alauddin Khilji's invasion, and — as its synopsis states — narrates the story of "a remarkable woman who lived gently, loved passionately, and embraced her destiny with unmatched courage".

Anuja spoke with Firstpost about her book, why Padmini makes for a fascinating subject, and the ruckus over Bhansali's film.

When you first came across the legend of Padmavati, what drew you to the story, the character? 

As an author who writes books on mythology, history and fantasy, my debt to Amar Chitra Katha is huge. As a child, I was obsessed with reading as many of their titles as possible. It is thanks to Amar Chitra Katha that I got introduced to the legend of Padmavati. Even as a child, the story left a deep impression on me. I remember being horrified that it had all come down to her being burnt alive and (was) inexplicably mad that it was not a happy ending where valour carried the day. It was hard for me to comprehend that a woman would actually make the terrifying choice to enter a blazing pyre. I get nervous around oil lamps, so Padmavati’s decision — as far as I was concerned — was the very height of bravery. It is the sort of thing that boggles the mind and haunts you forever. I was in awe of her then and remain in awe of Rani Padmavati to this very day. It is such an honour and privilege to have got the opportunity to write her story.

Princess Padmavati circa 1765; Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris

Based on the different versions of the legend that exist — right from Malik Muhammad Jayasi's Padmavat to Rajput folklore to James Todd's retelling — what would your answer be to the question: Who was Padmavati/Rani Padmini?

Unfortunately, there is no consensus regarding the origins of Rani Padmavati. Some have opined that she was a Chauhan princess while more fanciful versions claimed she was Sinhalese. These glaring holes in the scant scholarly material available on the queen of Chittor, coupled with the fact that Rajput folklore has elevated her to the realm of myth and legend — which was reinforced by Todd’s highly romanticised retelling of it — have prompted historians to claim that she is entirely fictitious. On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who to this very day revere her the way they would a goddess. For me, Rani Padmavati is very real and more human than goddess... A young woman who, on discovering that her world was about to be destroyed, did everything possible to live her life as she saw fit and end it entirely on her own terms.

Are there any verses/lines from Padmavat that you find particularly lyrical or evocative?

While Jayasi’s Padmavat is truly charming, I preferred to base my research on scholarly as well as historical sources. Besides Padmavat reads very much like fiction given the fantastical, highly improbable elements woven into the narrative which includes — of all things — a talking parrot!

What did you find most compelling about the character of Rani Padmini, no matter which version of the story she was part of?

For me, the compelling thing about Rani Padmavati was that she was so much more than a beautiful face. It is impossible to capture the hearts of so many and continue to captivate people over the ages on the strength of good looks, heavily embellished saris and exquisitely wrought jewellery. What makes her special is that she did everything possible to save not just herself but her people from a marauding invader, who was known to be mercurial, cruel and ruthless. It was her simplicity, selflessness and bravery that made her truly special, inspirational and worthy of adulation.

Any interesting facts/stories/anecdotes you came across while researching the book that you might recount for our readers?

Ah! I love historical research simply because there is so much dirt you can dig up regarding people from different time periods. You will have to read my book for all the good stuff! However, I will share one thing which truly disturbed me: Padmavati, and many like her, chose jauhar for reasons they considered important. However, both before and after her time, the act of ascending the pyre — whether in the name of jauhar or sati — was not always voluntary. Young girls and even child brides were dosed with opiates or intoxicants and made to enter the flames when those in power decreed that it was the honourable thing to do — even if it was merely for less lofty reasons like petty rivalries, political expediency and jealousy.

What are your thoughts on the continuing devotion to Padmavati in Rajasthan...why does the Rajput community feel so strongly about her?

The fervent devotion for Rani Padmavati, not just in Rajasthan but also over the rest of India, defies explanation. With typical grace she seems to have made a place for herself in the hearts and collective psyche of a great nation for all time. That is a beautiful thing and it would have saddened her deeply that today there is so much ugliness, censorship and threats of violence being perpetuated in her name.

Anuja Chandramouli is the author of Rani Padmavati: The Burning Queen, published by Juggernaut Books

Would you comment on the controversy we've seen erupt over Sanjay Leela Bhansali's film?

Honestly, I am not really a fan of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s overwrought and overblown style of filmmaking that in my opinion is usually a triumph of style over substance. That said though, it is heart-breaking when an artist is put through the wringer with so many fighting so hard to make sure his film doesn’t see the light of day. I can never condone any attempt to interfere with freedom of expression. Those possessed of delicate sensibilities can opt not to watch the film or feel free to express their profound dislike for it by shouting from every available rooftop. However, calling for a ban, issuing threats, demanding changes and the rest of it is simply wrong and goes against everything our revered ancestors fought and died for when they struggled to throw off the yoke of tyranny and establish India as a democracy.

What is Padmavati is a symbol/metaphor of? Why is she such a fascinating figure, even in these modern times?

Padmavati symbolises the resilience of the feminine spirit that will always triumph over insurmountable odds, and even death. She bears testament to the fact that though goodness and grace may not always prevail over hatred and violence that is hardly reason enough to stop us from embracing the best within us and believing in the innate nobility of those who are part of our lives.

Lastly, what have been your own feelings for Padmavati, on finishing this process of researching and writing about her?

Writing this book has been an incredible journey and I am grateful for it. Rani Padmavati is a big source of inspiration for me, because like every woman out there, I know what it is like to feel trapped and overwhelmed by the troubles of the human condition. But I learned from the queen, that no matter how great the difficulties that surround us, we can deal with it by holding our heads high and refusing to give in to our fears... That there is always hope, and a chance for redemption even when there seems to be none.

Rani Padmavati by Anuja Chandramouli is published by Juggernaut Books

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