Who was Jayasi? Who was Padmini? And can the modern reader be guided, like Ratansen, across seas of forgetfulness? In a conversation with Sunil Menon, writer-scholar Purushottam Agrawal explains how his own Padmavat came about. Excerpts:
Interview by Sunil Menon (Managing Editor, Outlook Magazine) | Videography: Suresh Pandey | Video edited by Suraj Wadhwa
We are becoming a shallow, violent people, a people who have lost access to our own inner landscapes of beauty. Even when we go to them for source material, like with this film Padmavat, we translate it in our contemporary violent terms. Is that why you wrote this book?
Yes, that’s the main reason. You know, Jayasi was very ugly physically...he had a deformed body. He didn’t have eyesight in one eye and was also hard of hearing in one ear. He was conscious, painfully conscious of his deformities. And he used his poetry as an antidote to that. My concern is, are we conscious of the deformities of our own soul? And do we have any aesthetic and ethical antidote to those deformities? Or are we condemned to be a violent society, to be a fractured psyche, an imbecile intellect?
I’ve been working on early modern literature in Hindi, with Kabir at the centre of my explorations and research. But Jayasi cannot be far behind. As a book, Padmavat is one of my all-time favourites. I’ve been enamoured of it ever since I read it in my post-graduation in 1977-78. Then I had the good fortune of teaching it to MA students in JNU. I’ll never forget the impact it had in class. The faces of those young women and men. We used to be in tears. Professor, students…all of us! Jayasi himself wrote: Muhammad kavi prem ka, na tan rakat na maans/jei dekha tei hansaa, suna toh aaye aans. Muhammad the poet is ugly and frail; his appearance causes jeers and laughter. But listen to his poetry, and you cannot hold back your tears. He’s absolutely right. So when this controversy broke over the film, I wrote a magazine piece and then I was told, why not write a whole book? So people know exactly what Jayasi’s epic Padmavat is.
(Illustration: Devdutt Pattanaik)
Jayasi’s precondition…once you listen to the poetry…to experience that richness is vital. This book allows that access.
Yes, one of the things this book seeks to do is sensitise people to the richness of language…Hindi, Awadhi, the whole tradition. Contrary to popular perceptions, Jayasi and poets like him were also great scholars. He uses words extremely carefully. And today the situation...it’s not a question of Hindi or English or Tamil or Bengali...we’re losing that sense of language. We are forgetting that language is a layered structure. A word is not just a word. Its meaning is not exhausted with the literal connotation. There is a third meaning, a hidden meaning. As the great Bhartrhari reminded us, in dictionaries you find the definition of the word. The meaning lies in the sentence. The word has no meaning outside of that. I feel pained we are completely losing that sensitivity to language.
Your format is quite perfect for our present generations...half-deracinated, half-in, half-out. Writers used to seek out defamiliarisation as a literary effect. But we have defamiliarised ourselves, half-foreignised our landscapes…
(Laughs) ...through conscious effort!
Absolutely. We have not only foreignised, we have replaced all that with crude, vulgar understandings. A related example (and I’m happy my tweet on this was retweeted 1,000 times!): every Tom, Dick and Harry is described as Chanakya! Every immoral politician prides himself on being one. Chanakya, for god’s sake, was a first-rate political philosopher. He reflected on the nature of the State. That was his basic concern, not just the raja’s everyday functioning. But we trivialise Arthashastra, this very important political treatise, and reduce it to tactics and cunning.
Similarly, Padmavat is not just about a war. That’s a minor part of it. The war between Alauddin and Ratansen takes up less than one-third of the text. And it doesn’t glorify war at all. It reports war with pain, with anguish. In fact, Jayasi makes the victor, Alauddin, reflect on the futility of desire at the end of it. It’s Alauddin who says desire never goes away unless a man reaches the grave. That it’s desire which creates all the havoc.
(Photograph: Suresh Pandey)
A philosophical strand from the ‘oppressor’....
Being a first-rate poet, Jayasi also had a philosophical bent of mind. He also had a sense of the poignant moment. The defeated party reflecting on the futility of war means nothing. But the victor doing so, and thinking maybe this could have been avoided....
Almost like Ashoka....
Exactly! Or Yudhishthira at the end of Mahabharata. ‘We brothers fought like a pack of dogs for this?’ Bhartrhari too, as I recalled in the book, told us: “Trishna na jeerna, vayameva jeernah/ kaalo na yaato, vayameva yaatah”...time does not pass, we pass away. Desire never goes away, we go away. Jayasi puts things on that sensitive, reflective plane. Alauddin in history of course celebrated victory. His chroniclers celebrated victory.
Including Amir Khusro....
Yes, after all, he was a court chronicler.
But also Sufi, also a poet....
But that day, as today, if you are with the court, you are with power. Jayasi was respected by many kings, as we reconstruct his biography, but he was dependent on none. Just like Tulsidas and Kabir. Khusro, despite all his greatness, was a durbari.
(Illustration: Devdutt Pattanaik)
And who is Jayasi’s Alauddin?
The one who does not celebrate. The poet makes the victor reflect...that’s Padmavat for me. Yes, Jayasi’s Alauddin is a villain, cunning and negative, but he’s human. The difference between him and Ratansen is that Ratansen determines the consent of Padmavati. In spite of his courtiers and friends provoking him, he refuses to resort to the sword, saying that, in love, there can be no violence. Either she and her father accept me or I perish. On the other hand, Alauddin violates that. Jayasi is very clear on that. His sympathies are obviously with Ratansen and Padmavati. There’s an inherent subtext in Jayasi: you love a woman, perfectly fine. But maybe she does not love you. Please accept that. You have no business to force your will on her. Or to “punish” her for rejecting you.
But Jayasi’s Alauddin is not a monster. As we meet him, he’s shown reflecting on the vagaries of power. Those days Delhi was called Dhilli. We find Alauddin saying I can’t allow my grip over Dhilli to be dheeli (loose). And who does he recall here? Ravana! That when Ravana was careless, Lanka burned and everybody died...
I loved that quote about Ramayana...
It was Vasudeva Sharan Agrawal. His words were: “Padmavat se ek chhoti si Jayasi Ramayan nikali jaa sakti hai.” (A little Jayasi Ramayan can be carved out of Padmavat.) So many allusions, direct and indirect…the man is steeped in Ramkatha. His knowledge of Hindu ways of life, Hindu mythology, the Hindu sense of divinity is so deep and spontaneous, it will put to shame many of the self-appointed guardians of Hinduism. And he was a practising Muslim. A respected Sufi. In the tazkiras, he is described as the Muhaqqiq-e-Hind...the Indian seeker of truth.
It’s evident Jayasi’s world is not just one of tolerance. Not a mere absence of hostility. It’s a world of active sharing, almost commerce, the ease with which metaphors are traded…
In Aakhri Kalaam—actually his first work—he writes that there are as many ways to reach god as there are stars in the firmament or pores in our bodies. But, he says, ‘so far as I’m concerned, Islam is the best way’. See, he’s not secular. Not an atheist. Nor a strategic man. If you go strictly by Islamic theology, Jayasi is making a very objectionable statement. But he wasn’t accused of blasphemy. Nobody took any exception to it. This is the strength of South Asian Islam. As the great historian of Hindi literaure Ramchandra Shukla wrote in his introduction to Padmavat, Jayasi’s time, mid-16th century, was when Hindus and Muslims, after their initial confrontations, began to explore each other. Things had settled down. A South Asian Islam was evolving.
It makes for a rich semiotic field, one of double resonances, almost as if a cultural currency exchange has been established. Allah is addressed as Gosain! Narada is....
Iblis. Yes. These pairs...Narada and Iblis, Hatim and Karna. Bahisht is Kavilash (another form of Kailash). For Jayasi, Kailash and Bahisht become the same thing! He also seems to have a fascination for Hanuman, who plays a crucial role…when Ratansen opts to commit sati, it’s Hanuman who runs to Mahadevji. A wandering Mahadev-Parvati form a standard motif in north Indian folk culture. Jayasi uses this motif. He dips into myth, into the Nathpanthi tradition, into folk tropes…. This is his rootedness. He’s a pucca Muslim. But a South Asian Muslim. It’s knowledge born of direct experience. So many things Jayasi describes can be known only thus. When Ratansen leaves for Simhal, the good omens are described. A silver pot with curd, a woman approaching from that side…the other side would be apshagun. He’s aware of all that. He’s aware of sailor’s tales. He alludes to them.
Sitting in landlocked Awadh?
Yes...he’s quite aware. Also, his description of the feast organised by Ratansen for Alauddin. It’s considered a piece by itself in the annals of Hindi literature. Some scholars even feel irritated with it—the description of dishes and their preparation runs into seventy or seventy-five stanzas!
(Photograph: Suresh Pandey)
A bairagi on the one side....
No, no...he’s not a bairagi! In his personal life maybe, but he’s a man who celebrates all good things in life. This feast is described in such great detail that it seems he was a foodie and a chef. And maybe he was neither! No great literature is written simply from personal experience…rather, it’s empathy and gathered knowledge.
But again, he says at the end of the long description of the feast: Jaati parkaar rasoi bakhaani, tab bhayi jab paani so saani/ Paani mool parekho koi, paani bina sawaad na hoi/ Amrit paani na amrit aana, paani sau ghat rahe parag/ Paani doodh mein, paani gheuhu, paani ghat ghat rahe na jeevu..... That ‘all those dishes come about only after being touched by water. All taste depends on water. There is no nectar but water. Milk and ghee are but forms of water. Water holds life in the body. Water is unblemished, its touch washes scum away. And yet, water flows down politely, it is never haughty. Says Muhammad the poet, deep waters reach the ocean. Vessels and people filled to the full attain equanimity, the empty ones make a lot of noise.’ That’s how he finishes the section. The sensuous is cast on such a deep, philosophically reflective plane. I’m surprised scholars have missed this.
As an aside, could poetry and song and art have saved us? Did we err by choosing Gandhi over Tagore, talking of them as symbols?
I would agree, minus the binary. I don’t think Gandhi and Tagore are counterposed to each other. They are complementary. It’s a common mistake of perception that Gandhi was a very dry man with no patience for poetry and things like that. Gandhi is himself responsible for this image, but it’s a false image. He had very cultivated literary tastes…. Yes, we’d have had a saner society if we listened to poets more carefully. I’d say the mistake was not that we took too much of Gandhi. We took too little of Tagore. That was the mistake. And now we have reached a situation where “intellectual” is a term of abuse. We should have had a lot more of Tagore. A lot more of Premchand. A lot more of Subramania Bharati. Or whosoever. Unfortunately we did not. Tukaram, Kabirdas or Shankardev are not “classical” in the western sense. These poets do not belong to a bygone era for Indians. They are very much contemporary poets. Maybe you do not recall a single line from Ezhuthachan. But if you go to an ‘illiterate’ Malayali, he would immediately recite at least ten lines from Ezhuthachan’s Ramayanam.
The ‘literate’, in profound ways, are the most illiterate.
Exactly. Aapko na Kabir maloom hai, na Tulsi, na Meera maloom hai, na Tukaram, na Chandidas...Jayasi ka toh aapne naam tak nahin suna. (You do not know Kabir, Tulsidas, Meerabai, Tukaram, Chandidas...and you haven’t even heard of Jayasi.) In Hindi, in the late 19th century, there were a number of translations from Bengali, Marathi, Tamil.... Anand Math was available in Hindi within five years of its publication. There was a huge translation industry.
And as you write, Jayasi’s epic, within hundred years, goes to Bangla…
Yes. The credit of taking the legend of Padmini to Bengal goes to Jayasi. And from Bengal, in the 19th century, all these tales of Rajput valour start coming! Credit Jayasi.
(Illustration: Devdutt Pattanaik)
For the present generation, gazing at these half-familiar, half-foreign shapes, maybe you are Hiraman?
(Laughs) Thank you. If people think, yes there’s something we’ve been missing, and reflections exist in our heritage that, in spite of their historical limitations, are relevant today…and if this book is able to bring some of that to its readers, I’d consider myself more than satisfied. One, the message of Padmavat: not violence but equanimity, not aggression but dialogue, not ugliness but truth and beauty, are to be the epitome of life.
Two, language. I’ve taken the original Awadhi and translated. The only available English translation by A.G. Shirreff, done in 1944, is horrible. Firstly, that top-heavy English. Then he misses all the nuances, the cultural resonances. Grierson also tried, but gave up. I decided to keep the Hindi, so those who read can follow...
Medieval Awadhi, there’s a layer of semantic opacity. Here the descriptions precede it...
I’ve followed what I call the kathavachak model. There’s a katha, and I’m telling it, sitting on the aasan. I start with my preliminary remarks, then I quote, explain, go to the next one. So when you finish this slim book, you know the entire story, although the original is a thick book. You know my reading of it, and if you compare it with the original text, you’ll know what I’ve decided to omit, to emphasise. Not a single key incident or character has been left out. No vital detail. Jayasi knew things. He mentions Telangana and Jharkhand! This invasion of Chittor took place in 1303. Historically, it took just eight months. And Alauddin didn’t go back. Now Jayasi takes poetic liberties. According to him, the siege runs into eight years, Alauddin captures Ratansen, takes him to Delhi, then he’s freed...these don’t conform to historical truth. But Jayasi hints there was some trouble back in Delhi and therefore Alauddin was in a hurry....
Yes…Jayasi knew all that!
(Sunil Menon is Managing Editor, Outlook. He tweets at @kazhugan)