Padmavathi legendary beauty vs. today’s Hindutva fury


Deepika Padukone as Padmavathi

By Lucien Rajakarunanayake

"Dakkoth Padmavathi – Aaley nokara baree"

‘If one sees Padmavathi – One cannot but love her’

This popular Sinhala song coming from Tower Hall days is based on the legend of Padmavathi, a princess from Sri Lanka – Singhal-dip, known for her captivating beauty who was married to Ratan Sen, the ruler of Chittor, and whose union was challenged by Alauddin Khalji, the Muslim Sultan of Delhi. Her name is now at the centre of political rivalry and threats of violence affecting Bollywood, the wider peace in India, and extending to the UK too.

Do those who campaigning against the screening of the new film ‘Padmavati’ have any idea the legendary princess, whose name and beauty has led to all the current rivalries, attacks on a respected film director, threats of beheading an outstanding cinema star, and other threats of violence, have to do with a non-Indian princess possibly from ‘Singhal-dip’ or Sri Lanka?

Legends do have an impact on history. This is the legend of a princess from Singhal-dip - a neighbour of Bharath – the story of whose enchanting beauty conveyed to her future lover and princely husband by her pet parrot, and later led to major military confrontations to win her hand, and the final self-immolation by her on the pyre of her loving husband.

The story of Padmavathi is part of the folklore of both India and Sri Lanka; a beautiful legend with no historical authenticity. What one sees in India today is how this legend of beauty has been turned into a deadly whirl of threats and violence, with more of it to follow, and the country’s rulers and leaders, having no courage to intervene in the cause of peace, art and culture; but shamefully giving into the forces of religious extremism, outrageous nationalism, raising major questions about the substance of democracy, in the world’s largest democracy.

The legend of Padmavathi is largely rooted in the epic poem by Indian poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi (1540 CE), based on a story from the 14th Century, who says Rani Padmini or Padmavathi was the daughter of Gandharv Sen, the king of the Singhal kingdom, as Sri Lanka was known. Sri Lanka has no records of this king or his daughter, but the legend has thrived in India, until today, when it is moving away from beauty and joy to ugly hatred, far away from the delight the legend has given through the centuries.

This has been adapted into several movies in India; including silent film ‘Kamonar Again’, the Tamil film ‘Chittoor Rani Padmini’ and the Hindi film ‘Maharani Padmini’. But the major controversy today on the new ‘Padmavati’ film has seen a senior BJP leader from Haryana offer a bounty of Rs. 10 crores for beheading the lead actress Deepika Padukone and the film’s director Sanjay Leela Bhansali. The bounty offer came from Suraj Pal Amu, a leading member in Haryana of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janatha Party (BJP) led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Suraj Pal Amu doubled an earlier bounty of Rs 5 crores, offered by another opponent of the film. A very vocal Hindu extremist group Rajput Karni Sena, which had attacked director Bhansali in Jaipur and vandalised a theatre in Noida, also threatens to harm the actress Deepika Padukone by warning of her nose being chopped, a threat coming from the Ramayana tradition.

Five Indian states – Rajastham, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, and now Gujarat, have announced a ban of any future release of ‘Padmavati’, unless portions they object to are censored. These relate to displays of romance between Queen Padmavathi and the Muslim Sultan of Delhi, which the film’s producers’ state is incorrect. There is also opposition to a dancing scene by Padmavathi, said to display her waist. These protests have come despite no one seeing the film, and not been shown to the Film Censors, as yet.

The ban in Gujarat, that came last week, shows the huge political impact of the ‘Padmavati’ dispute, with the major rivalry between the BJP and the Congress Party to gain control of the State Assembly in elections now in the final stages. The BJP controlled Gujarat for 22 years, with Narendra Modi, its Chief Minister before moving to be Prime Minister. Not surprisingly, the rival Congress Party also supports the proposed ban on the film. The Congress spokesperson Shaktisinh Gohli said the party will not tolerate any distortion of Rajput history or hurt the emotions of any community. "We will not allow the release of ‘Padmavathi’ on Gujarat at any cost", appealing to Hindu fanatics of Gujarat with a record of violence against Muslims.

This shows the depth of Hindu feeling, largely extremist and with intolerance of others feelings, making a major impact on Indian politics as well as social life in India today, and threatening the values of democracy that has stood strong in India for many decades, and are core values of its Secular Constitution.

The Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, who recently extended her support for ‘Padmavati’, calling for the film to be shown in her state, has also been threatened by the forces against the film. Haryana’s Suraj Pal Amu addressing a public meeting has said: "I got to know Mamata Banerjee has welcomed Sanjay Leela Bhansali (the director) to Kolkata. And I want to tell her that this is the land of Lord Ram’s brother, Lakshman. And I don’t need to mention what Lakshman did to Surpanaka." It is interesting that in the Ramayana, Surpanaka was the sister of Ravana, who is said to have attacked Sita, and whose nose was cut off by Rama’s brother Lakshmana – the Suparnaka punishment! Legends come to life with threatening consequences as myth moves to religious and racial belief with dangerous consequences, as we now see with ‘Padmavati’.

The present opposition to ‘Padmavathi’ is associated with recent criticisms and opposition to India’s great historic monument – The Taj Mahal- by Hindu voices. In October 2017, the BJP government of Uttar Pradesh, the largest state in India, deleted the Taj Mahal from the state’s tourism brochure, reflecting the BJP’s efforts to promote Hindutva, an ideology that seeks to place Hindu faith, culture, and history, at the core of Indian identity, and to show the period of Muslim dominance in many parts of India, along with British colonialism, as a period of slavery.

As a commentator in ‘The Atlantic’ recently reported: "The challenge to the Indian-ness of the Taj Mahal is a challenge to the Indian-ness of Muslims—a consistent theme in BJP rhetoric. In June, Yogi Adityanath, Chief Minster of Uttar Pradesh, remarked, "Foreign dignitaries visiting the country used to be gifted replicas of the Taj Mahal and other minarets which did not reflect Indian culture." He praised Modi for instead gifting copies of the Bhagavad Gita and Ramayana, sacred Hindu religious texts. Sangeet Som, a BJP politician, called the Taj Mahal a "blot" on India built by "traitors," adding, "Taj Mahal should have no place in Indian history" as Shah Jahan "wanted to wipe out Hindus." He even warned that, "If these people are part of our history, then it is very sad and we will change this history." Hindutva proponents have even argued the Taj Mahal was originally a 12th-century Hindu temple built by the Maharajah of Jaipur, with its name a distortion of the original Sanskrit, Tejo Mahalaya, meaning "The Great Abode of Tej" (a name for the Hindu God Shiva). (Comment by Harrison Akins of The Atlantic – Nov 27, 2017)

The ‘Padmavati’ dispute has now moved overseas, to the UK, a key location for Indian films. The British Board of Film Classification classified the film for its UK release with a 12A rating, implying the UK would see the film before India, and soon a threat was made against UK cinemas, on Indian national television.

As writer Sunnny Malik, stated in the Guardian (Nov 24, 20117)" It was breaking news on Indian TV channels. A Karni Sena leader went on Republic TV and said: "We will go to an international court and call for the film to be banned. I call on my Rajput brothers and Hindus in the UK to protest against screening the film there … I would have even gone myself to the UK, but let me tell you, whichever cinema screens the film will be burned."

"It’s shocking that a country we have such close ties with tolerates statements inciting violence against UK cinemas and UK citizens, and that our government hasn’t reacted… the (UK) government must clearly communicate to the Indian government that threats of this nature will not be tolerated. Neither will our freedom of choosing a film to watch be compromised due to local politics in India. (Sunny Malik is a freelance journalist and social media manager based in London, focusing on Bollywood films and Indian film stars)

History and legend are the sources for people and societies to understand themselves. These can be monuments and persons, and images of non-historical or story tale persons, who give messages, largely for good. The rejection of such stories, as presented by modern story tellers- in writing, drama or cinema, is a rejection of the realities of the past that inspired the writers and relaters of legends. It is breaking away of people and society from the realities of history, based on narrow extremism and racial or religious interests that pervade the politics and social convolution of today. ‘Padmavathi’ remains a legend of beauty that well depicts the joys and sufferings, wars and peace, love and enmity of the past. What is happening today points to the dangers facing Indian society, in a political battle for one major community to grab the history and identity of the country. Let the spirit of democracy and harmony prevail, making it possible to be "a beacon of democracy" as recently stated.

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