Rani Padmavati shall not dance. But why?

"Padmavati" starring Deepika Padukone, Ranveer Singh and Shahid Kapoor, has been facing protests from various groups in India. Photograph:( Zee News Network )

Noida, Uttar Pradesh, India Nov 20, 2017, 11.55 AM (IST) Madhumita Saha

The controversy around the film Padmavati refuses to die down. Even without waiting for the Censor Board's decision on the film, the Madhya Pradesh government has banned it today. This was preceded by weeks of violent protest by the Karni Sena, a Rajput caste organisation who claims to uphold the goal of national unity.

The members went so far as to issue physical threats against both Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Deepika Padukone, the director and heroine respectively. The jealous defenders of Rajput pride and Hindu nationalism consider the film to be inappropriate. The allegation is the film has a scene where the famed Rajput sati-queen is shown to be dancing in front of the brutal Muslim invader Alauddin Khalji.

It was a very common practise among the nationalists of the Swadeshi Age to eulogise Rani Padmini and other Rajput/Maratha icons who resisted Muslims as national heroes and defenders of Indian tradition.
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The repeated denials issued by Sanjay so far has failed to pacify the agitators. Consequently, the producers of Padmavati has decided to postpone the release date of the film.

Whereas those protesting the immoral portrayal of Padmavati feel all righteous about their celebrated cause, there are many in India who doesn't see how such a hullabaloo can be created over the celluloid portrayal of a mythical character. The latter are annoyed with such display of intolerance and goes on to blame the Indian government for the lack of support it has shown so far to defend Deepika and Sanjay.

Veteran actress Shabana Azmi has taken a strong stand today, issuing a clarion call in support of boycotting IFFI. Incidentally, India's most prestigious film festival is scheduled to be inaugurated today at Goa.

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As the nation awaits this violence and vandalism around Padmavati to wane quickly, the intensity of the responses of those who felt that Padmavati has been dishonoured in the film needs closer probing. 

Why are so many people riled up? Even the state governments are not showing restraint as it clear from Madhya Pradesh's decision to ban the film even before its release. Honestly, this kind of response from one or the other of the BJP-ruled state was not entirely unexpected because of the prudish line they have taken in the past. But what they are saying in defense of their action is what I find reprehensible.

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First of all, the 50 BJP MLAs who have lodged their resentment against the movie have not seen the movie. They have, in fact, demanded, a 'thorough' screening of the movie before it is released. And what is the basis of their demand? The protesting MLAs are against any 'distortion of historical facts'.

So far, all articulations that Padmavati is most possibly a mythical figure, the subject of poems and songs of local bards who drew inspiration from Sufi poet Muhammad Jayasi's work has fallen on deaf ears. The Higher Education Minister of Madhya Pradesh, who ought to have known better, has also pointed out that Padmavati was "not only a queen but a symbol of Jauhar".

The replacement of history by myth is a pretty old practise in India. In the days of anti-colonial struggle, such historicisation of myth served the purpose of inspiring a nascent national community to structure its identity around few chosen icons. These icons, mostly culled from Hindu past, were historically shown to put up a resistance against Muslim tyranny.

Thus, when Rabindranath Tagore's nephew, the famous artist Abanindranath Tagore wrote Rajkahini, he portrayed Padmavati (Rani Padmini) as the heart and soul of Rajput resistance against the treacherous attack of Alauddin Khalji.

It was a very common practise among the nationalists of the Swadeshi Age to eulogise Rani Padmini and other Rajput and Maratha icons who resisted Muslims as national heroes and defenders of Indian tradition. Thus, Padmini was simply transported from the pages of fiction and given a new lease of life as historical figures of flesh and blood.

If Padmavati was a symbol of resistance for the anti-colonialist firebrand youths of India, she has transformed into a revered symbol of chastity and womanhood under the current political regime.
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In their struggle against the oppressive colonial regime, the inspiring Sannyasi rebels of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay's Anandamath as well as Rani Padmini provided the young revolutionary nationalists a moral and ideological sustenance.

If Padmavati was a symbol of resistance for the anti-colonialist firebrand youths of India, she has transformed into a revered symbol of chastity and womanhood under the current political regime.

In the current time when the fervour of nationalism runs rather high, the ideologically conservative camp and its many constituent groups are hellbent on creating a sacrosanct image of India where the line between myth and history are purposefully kept blurred to serve the political purpose. In the name of cultural nationalism, we are harping on the glory of being a woman of chastity.

All Hindu woman, to be counted as a Hindu woman, needs to be virtuous. The litmus test of virtue, as we all know, is self-sacrifice in face of dishonour as have been done by Sita, by Padmini.

Within this moral trope, Padmavati's observance of jauhar vrata becomes an act of resistance against lustful Muslim men. Padmini fought the invaders with her body through sacrificing it. The sacrifice makes Padmini holy, her body becomes the site where chastity and patriotism become perfectly blended. How can such a body, which is an embodiment of a defiant spirit, succumb to earthly pleasure. Such (human) being can't dance, can't seek pleasure, can't cringe in pain.

It is, therefore, redundant to ask whether Rani Padmavati historically existed or not. She has become, for all intent purpose, a symbol. The universal symbol of all chaste Hindu women. That is the reason Padmavati shall not dance. Not even in a celluloid dream sequence.

Madhumita Saha

The writer is an academic-turned journalist. She taught history at Drexel University and New York University before joining WION.