This study of texts relating to Padmini, legendary queen of Mewar, discusses a remarkable range of material in Avadhi, Bangla, English, Rajasthani, Sanskrit and Urdu, from Jayasi’s sixteenth-century tale of love to drama and histories produced during the nationalist movement in Bengal. The legend, current today, honours the queen as a martyr who committed jauhar to avoid capture by Alauddin Khalji, whose siege of Chitor (1303) is attributed to his desire for her. However, the narrative has been cast as comedy as well as tragedy, and the figure of the queen is sometimes shadowy. Sreenivasan seeks not to establish one story as history—no contemporary record mentions the queen—but to see what each says about its historical moment, and to trace its subsequent influence. She views her work as part of the endeavour of historians to reassess the popular perception of the medieval period as being dominated by religious conflict where Hindu women were particularly vulnerable, by examining the relation between an event and the competing recollections of it, and the relation between historical traditions and popular memory.
The chapters explore connections between shifts of emphasis, the re-ascription of roles and the valences of words, and the political concerns of authors, patrons, informants and, where possible, audiences. These political interests are more than a matter of casting heroes: plot contrivances reflect contradictions structural to the polity (power equations between Rajput kings and chiefs); dialogue registers tensions unresolved in the public sphere (Hindu–Muslim relations during the Swadeshi movement).
This ambitious comparative exercise offers valuable insights into dis/continuities of meaning, the composite nature of identity and the changing significance of gender roles. The temporal span shows where interpretations are overlaid or dropped: an allegorical key added in 1696 undergirded readings of the Padmavat (1540–1) as a Sufi quest, but its symbology was not invoked in the Padmavat Urdu (1797). Simplifications in the loci of identity and lines of conflict also appear in relief: narratives composed under the patronage of Rajput chiefs invoke ‘khitrivat’ (kshatriya valour) in the context of chiefly fealty; the Bangla Padmini Upakhyan celebrates generic Rajput ‘birattva’. The sack of Chitor leaves James Tod appalled at the ‘remorseless barbarity by the Pathan emperor’; in Jayasi, as the author suggests, the statement that ‘Chitaur became Islam’ may be read as the triumph of Islam through love, rather than conquest, for the jauhar of the Rajputs is coded as fana, Sufi transcendence. Chapters compare the versions of contemporaries sharing some coordinates of identity, but with different influences and allegiances, sometimes surmising the precedents available to them from the circulation of manuscripts and print histories. The vacillation of the Rajput king Ratansen in the poem by Jatmal Nahar (1623), a Jain from the Lahore region, contrasts with representations in seventeenth-century Jain texts from Mewar, which otherwise, however, subordinate the heroism of the king to that of the chiefs (unlike chronicles commissioned by Mewar kings); plot details suggest Jatmal is following Jayasi’s narrative, copies of which did reach that region. The author is also interested in how the ‘re-forming of gender relations’ was ‘integral to the constitution of other political collectivities’ besides the nation-state (p. 14). An author’s rhetorical expansion from his sources—on wifely duties in a Jain text, on the tragedy of jauhar in a bhadralok text—bespeaks investments in particular images of women. Drawing substantially on secondary literature in Hindi (also Rajasthani and Bangla), this book contains much to interest students of literature, history, Women’s Studies and Cultural Studies.
The theoretical issues are set out in the Introduction: the growth of interest in popular memory, as nationalist narratives encounter political challenges and the discipline of history meets postmodern critiques; the politics of memory; whether narratives of the past are illuminated by historical fact (which they may not have been expected to transmit), or by their dialogue with other narratives in their literary traditions. On the plea that the anonymity of the audiences of the Padmini narratives makes it hard to establish their sensitivity to what Rao et al. term the ‘texture’ of narrative that treats the past factually (p. 7),1 Sreenivasan side-steps discussion of whether the clues internal to the text sifted by these authors’ analyses suggest new entry-points into the narratives. She explains the need to go beyond contemporary divisions of region, language, performance vs. text to comprehend these traditions, though one later finds that she does not so much ‘trac[e] … the production’ of the manuscripts she consults (not all scribes are identified) or ‘explore … the actual circuits of transmission’ of the narratives (pp. 11–12), as use earlier research on manuscripts to flag by place and date where older traditions would have continued to find audiences. The Introduction’s last two sections locate the book within scholarly debates on community and gender (mentioning the difficulty of recovering evidence of resistant readings and her exclusion of oral narrations), and on the degree to which colonial intervention marked a rupture with earlier forms of knowledge.
Some non-specific references here raise questions in the reader’s mind, and arguably do injustice to what the book contributes. On p. 16, the phrase ‘much of this scholarship’ makes for avoidable lack of clarity: n44 (p. 21) could lead readers to infer that Mukherjee 1985 privileges colonial intervention as decisive for knowledge production; n48 cites the same work’s presentation of continuities with pre-colonial forms. Again, having cited scholarship on medieval India that has ‘overhauled our understanding of formations of religious community and the politics of religious affiliation’ (p. 5), when declaring subsequently that ‘Much of the historiography of medieval and early modern India compartmentalizes its political history and cultural practices into watertight and mutually antagonistic categories, “Hindu” and “Muslim”’ (p. 12, no citations), Sreenivasan appears to be taking on assumptions which some three decades of scholarship have worked to destabilize. Yet more sweeping is the observation that exploring the articulations between Sufi, Sunni, Vaishnavite, Nirgun bhakti and Nathpanth traditions in the Padmavat ‘may help us recognize more complicated histories of accommodation between traditions that are now invariably thought of as unconnected and mutually hostile’ (p. 13). One presumes this refers only to popular perceptions, since the Nath symbolism has been explored by White, de Bruijn and others cited by Sreenivasan in the chapter on Jayasi, which builds on their work to show how this Sufi allegory woven of multiple traditions is supple enough to emplot the contingencies of Jayasi’s socio-political context. Positing a pervasive belief in Hindu–Muslim antagonism only limits the terms of the exposition that follows (pp. 13–14), which conveys the impression of a rich work of creative syncretism being followed by narrowly partisan appropriations, emphasizing the demonization of the Muslim from eighteenth-century Rajasthan onwards. In fact, later chapters show how the treatment of Alauddin cannot be seen apart from other political interests at work in the texts (in one, the chiefs who defeat him are beheaded by the insecure king [p. 92]).
The first chapter comes to Jayasi after a discussion of the conflicting views of Alauddin among chroniclers and over a page on Jain communities, the relevance of much of which is not indicated and which probably the next chapter would have assimilated better. The author describes how Avadhi Sufi narratives acquired diverse audiences (courtly, urban, Sufi) and interpretations (not all translations retained the Padmavat’s mystical import), and also drew on diverse traditions (Sanskrit erotics, dastan heroics). Having dwelt on the polyvalence of the Padmavat’s divine invocation and allegorical allusions, she argues that its secular references also invoke values common to Rajput and Afghan elites, retracing which reveals a new coherence between spiritual quest and historical conflict. Thus, Ratansen’s companions in his quest and battle achieve material advancement, a trajectory familiar in north India’s military labour market. Sreenivasan discusses how elite gender-norms were reconciled with Sufism (a subsequent allegorical gloss on Ratansen’s polygyny) and echoed in the limitation of spiritual quests to men; the latter needs qualification, since Nath tradition is invoked when discouraging women from renunciation. One would have also liked more than just one example to establish the threat to elite women during conflict. The chapter concludes by arguing that the conjunction of mystical and political perspectives in the resolution challenges readings in terms of religious conflict: it is a Rajput who woos Padmini and kills Ratansen; moreover, the martyrs of ‘Chitaur’ (chit ura = mind heart) achieve spiritual triumph over Alauddin’s imperial ambitions.
The chapter on Rajput chronicles and verse narratives about or alluding to Padmini (1589–c. 1734) emphasizes how narratives are shaped by contexts of patronage rather than by the requirements of historical fidelity, given the blurred boundaries between tale and chronicle. Discussion of Rajput chiefs and their influence, the resources and rivalries bound up with royal polygyny, and late seventeenth-century Mewar’s disaffection from the Mughals is followed by biographical sketches of the authors—Jain monks patronized by Jain officials and the bards of the Sisodias. Sreenivasan traces in the narratives the preoccupations of their patrons, e.g., the bards’ stress on lineal continuity; the Jains’ projection of the chiefs as independent of the king, but bound by a personal ethic of courage and loyalty to rescue Chitor. Padmini, marginal in the chronicles, epitomizes Rajput values in Jain texts, though ambivalence about female sexuality is discernible in both monks and royal patriarchs. Some of the author’s larger contentions call for qualification or elaboration: her argument that bardic accounts like the Patnama do not feature threats to royal authority from within the household (p. 101) is at odds with earlier remarks on how this work shows chiefs (here also Padmini’s ‘brothers’) threatening the ruler’s authority (p. 90). And when Bhagyavijay’s poem (c. 1702) comparing the chief Gora to Angad and Padmini to Sita is used to argue the growth in both Padmini’s symbolic significance and the animus towards Alauddin (pp. 98, 103), readers need extended quotation to appreciate its differences from Hemratan’s poem (c. 1589), also described as employing the Hanuman analogy (p. 90). The chapter ends by looking at Jatmal’s narrative and Alaol’s Padmabati (focusing on Ratansen’s rapprochement with Alauddin, a departure from Jayasi).
Tod’s Annals of Rajasthan (1829–32) are located in the context of what British intervention in Rajput states meant for imperial interests and for Rajputs (monarchical power was consolidated at the expense of chiefs and queens). Tod’s remark that jauhar merits applause when the enemy is the ‘brutalized Tatar’ are in keeping with his assertions of Mughal oppression and of the state of the subcontinent ‘forc[ing]’ conquest on the Company. His selection from his sources recalls his curtailment of queenly agency: he follows the Khumman Raso in mentioning the plan to surrender Padmini, not in its description of her mustering support. Placing Tod within the discourses of the Enlightenment, Romanticism and Orientalism, the author notes how concepts alien to the Rajputs influenced Tod’s interpretation of their history (his allusions to their former ‘independence’ from Maratha rule), but also how he tried to enter their frame of reference (though concern with historical veracity led him to rely mostly on bardic sources, he includes fantastic incidents to which Rajputs give credence). Also discussed are a Brajbhasha manuscript (1849) and the Padmavat Urdu, whose benign representation of Alauddin is seen as coloured by nostalgia, with the waning of the empire centred at Delhi.
The chapter on adaptations of Tod, plays, and a children’s history produced in Bengal (1858–1907) reads these in the light of political developments, bhadralok investments in nationalist history and in the moral power of the private sphere where women were confined, and touches on their influence on Urdu versions. Shrewd points are made on how medieval Rajput traditions would not have downplayed the valour of the Sultan’s forces as does a Bangla text, as the enemy’s prowess would redound to their credit, and on how authors emphasizing Alauddin’s multiple wives insert a detail absent in Tod. However, a number of claims about text and context press connections that elide detail, and fuller analysis would modify her conclusions. When Jyotirindranath kills off Roshanara, in love with her Rajput captor, Sreenivasan reads the drama’s ‘continuity’ with the values of an audience hostile to the idea of Hindu–Muslim marriage (p. 167), yet the play never indicates that her love was reciprocated. Arguing that in bhadralok versions the queen who endangers the kingdom is ‘recuperated’ by speaking for the moral-political order, the author obscures the differences in Sarojini between Padmini (the king’s aunt), the queen, and Sarojini (p. 186), and the Euripidean conflict that leads the queen to confront the king. Mentioning an 1892 article objecting to Bankim’s and R.C. Dutt’s portrayal of Muslims, Sreenivasan adds that ‘such protests’ occurred elsewhere, citing Sumit Sarkar, whose actual reference was to later protests against the Hindu tone of Swadeshi festivals. Whereas with the Padmavat, the author explains its different levels of allusion, and tries to show how readers approached the various genres it draws on, the majority of quotations from the bhadralok texts are chosen as examples of anti-Muslim sentiment, and there is little, beyond Binodini’s recollections, on how they were received. The nature of Hindu dominance in literary production would have been better appreciated by setting out what information we have on the reception of texts, including such contemporary Muslim perspectives as are available. Had this chapter not constituted just a quarter of the ground covered by the book, the broad strokes painting bhadralok discourse could have been scumbled by details from other works by her authors (the issue of Hindu–Muslim marriage in Jyotirindranath’s later play, Ashrumati) and other texts from the period (while in her examples the emerging notion of the ‘sacred nation’ is constellated by Hindu sites alone, in 1892, N.C. Sen reveres as a ‘mahatirtho’ not just the site of the jauhar of the heroic wife Padmini, but also the grave of the dutiful daughter Jahanara).2 Concerned less to explore multiple interpretive or discursive possibilities than to highlight the range of appropriations (p. 190 observes how Tod’s work, intended to help consolidate Rajput monarchical power, later provided materials for a heroic national past, and buttressed a middle-caste group’s status claims), this study resembles the ‘barium meal’ to which Gosden and Knowles compare the retracing of colonial transactions using artifacts. Sreenivasan’s conclusions recall their contention that colonial culture was marked by experiment and instability, not the ‘top-down imposition of power’, as contact with ‘local cultural logics’ led to ‘new forms of difference’.3
The Conclusion recapitulates each chapter, the period it covers and its argument; it does not open new angles on them. However, some points concern details not given salience earlier (the impact of the centralization of authority on local elites in Jayasi’s time [p. 201]); others emphasize aspects not highlighted in the chapter (p. 202 says Rajput texts converge on the virtue of Padmini; p. 99 that they overlap in their ambivalence about her). An area the author reserves for future investigation but on which initial speculation would have been interesting is the engagement with the arcane signalled by the notes and glossary in reprints of Jayasi (p. 191). If this is an instance of what Ramanujan terms the printing press’ bifurcation of present and past,4 what do these in conjunction with the Urdu adaptations of the Padmavat as entertaining romance, shorn of allegory, suggest about how traditions were reclaimed? Sreenivasan ends by urging the importance of exploring reasons for the dominance of the bhadralok Padmini in the twentieth century, and outlines possible areas of enquiry, some very broad (new alignments of community, gender), some demanding disciplinary tools in addition to close reading (ethnography for tourism, the semiotics of visual culture). Such an enquiry would doubtless assume quite a different character, in that, to quote Barthes, myths are the more insidious when no longer stated in extended narratives, calling for the evaluation of levels of reification in the tangle of discourses didactic, political….5
Certain inconsistencies occur: the Introduction states that internal evidence suggests Jatmal’s familiarity with the Rajasthani tradition (p. 9); Chapter 3 says we do not know if Jatmal knew these narratives, whose dissimilarities to his version constitutes the focus of analysis (pp. 104–06). The observation that the queen’s role in defending the kingdom’s honour in bhadralok texts is ‘unlike Tod and his pre-colonial sources from Rajasthan’ (emphasis added) presumably refers to Tod’s use of these sources, as the paragraph continues, ‘As in early modern Rajasthan, the queen is once again made to articulate the moral norm for all Rajputs, both men and women’ (pp. 186–87), and she has earlier marked Tod’s departure from the Khumman Raso on the matter of the queen’s mobilization of support (p. 145).
Several arguments are undercut by movements back and forth in chronology: Jayasi’s anxieties about imperial expansion c. 1540 are accounted for by disparate events—from the 15th century, Humayun’s reign, the 17th century, the post-Aurangzeb period, from which it cuts back to Jayasi with a puzzling reference to ‘such ongoing negotiations’ (pp. 48–9). The schooling of the wife in Bhagyavijay’s poem, dated 1702, is suggested as indicative of ‘an intensifying regulation of women by the mid-eighteenth century’ (p. 98), with a view to upholding a political order more vulnerable ‘with the decline of Mughal authority’(i.e., after Aurangzeb’s death in 1707?).
The first appendix summarizes selected versions of the legend; the second is a useful collation of the details of known manuscripts/editions. A chronology is worth adding, especially given occasional discrepancies (Padmabati’s date of composition is given as 1660 on p. 68, as 1651 on p. 108; the critical edition gives the dates 1645–1652). The decision to have citations of the author-date form at the end of each chapter combined with the division of the bibliography by language and by type of source causes readers some inconvenience. Subsequent editions could consider further signposting (specifying in the Introduction that Alaol’s Padmabati is discussed in Chapter 2), remove repetition (a note on p. 61 re-appears on p. 226) and errata: the chapter on medieval Rajput narratives, numbered as 3 in the Contents, is referred to as Chapter 2 on p. 18, and as Chapter 3 on p. 139; on p. 153, n53 and n54 are obviously inaccurate; the dates for S.A.A Rizvi’s History of Sufism are given as 1978–83 in the text, but in the Bibliography as  1997.
Niharika Gupta is associated with the Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies.