Like most children of my TV-less generation, I had also read the story of Rani Padmini’s jauhar first in Amar Chitra Katha comics. And for many, their lessons in history are still frozen in frames of children’s comics. This is not to denigrate the comics. They had actually triggered my futile quest for heroes and villains of history. Akbar and Ashoka were great, Rana Pratap was valorous and Padmini committed jauhar. Well, these were the dominant narratives of a nascent nation coming out of 200 years of colonial rule. Gandhi wasn’t yet a villain and members of the Viceroy’s Executive Council heroes. Liberalisation and new capital, foreign and domestic, in education and publishing have changed the public discourse beyond the narratives of Gandhian nationalism of the freedom movement. This new capital has created a new language in the cities, universities and publishing houses that is incomprehensible to the working classes and the countryside.
Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s costume dramas ought to be banned on aesthetic grounds. Even in the case of Padmavati, I am sure he would be generating all this heat simply to ensure a good first day collection at the box office. His filmography doesn’t betray any sign of intellectual or artistic genius to reimagine a 700-year-old idea, which makes it all the more sad to read the enlightened elite blowing Bhansali’s artistic trumpet and trying to drive some post-modern historicity into people who still “ji-hukum” those with better turbans and sport mega moustaches to claim manhood. Deep within, the turbaned and the moustachioed know that their forefathers hadn’t done enough to save Padmini. For them she is no longer a woman, nor even a character of folklore, but an idea which still inflicts a lot of pain and humiliation. Under layers of their collective consciousness over centuries, there lies an admission of failure, of complicity with invaders and colonial masters. They still have not pardoned their forefathers who had squabbled among themselves only to let the enemy in. But they don’t have the language to reach a rapprochement with their own past. The only one who probably understood this millennial hurt in many corners of the subcontinent and tried to articulate and marshal this rage against one’s own racial memory—positively and piously—was Gandhi. That too in an era when the colonial masters did their best to set up stereotypes to create two nations and many separate electorates out of one people. Peaceful and respectful coexistence was Gandhi’s idea of modernity, where racial humiliation was assimilated to lay the brickwork of a new society that accepts its past and heals its wounds.
Unfortunately, the post-liberalisation elite wants to build a new modernity, which tries to poke and ridicule the pre-modern, make them insecure, while reintroducing colonial values and airbrushing collaborators. Though this new modernity is the product of the elite comprador class, its beneficiaries are the political Right. The more the elite sniggers at pre-modern ideas like Sita or Hanuman or Saraswati and upholds someone like M.F. Husain’s right to disrobe Hindu icons, the more they are pushing the pre-modern masses into the waiting lap of the Hindu Right. The masses still haven’t understood the post-modern intellectual logic for Husain not disrobing his own prophet, while going after someone else’s. In the 25th year of the demolition of Babri Masjid, we ought to remember that it was but a dubious pre-modern idea that mobilised kar sevaks. The Hindutva project succeeded because the elite did not have the language to expose this idea or offer a counter-narrative.