Part 1: Exploring love and desire in Jayasi’s Padmavat through a new book

Published: June 26, 2018 - 17:31 Updated: June 28, 2018 - 16:58

In his book Padmavat: An Epic Love Story, Purushottam Agarwal takes us on a journey through and about Jayasi’s Padmavat, describes the salient points of the story, and demonstrates to us his mastery of language, poetry and his deep knowledge of Hinduism. This is the first part of a three-part series on the epic love poem.

It is commonly understood that lack of patronage, among other reasons, led to the decline of Sanskrit in India in the second millenia. The great Tulsidas reportedly said, Sanskrit hai koop jal aur Bhasha Bahta Neer, i.e Sanskrit is a stagnant water whereas Bhasha or the vernacular is a flowing river. However, as we know, Tulsidas was not untouched by Sanskrit, but rather so deeply informed by it that he re-fashioned Sanskrit poetics and themes in a new style. This myth of the stagnancy and decline of Sanskrit persists in spite of scholars such as Sheldon Pollock, who have shown the existence of a robust Sanskritic tradition, in India and in South East Asia, in the second millenium, including the rise of a ‘cosmopolitan vernacular.’ In North India, as has been recently demonstrated, even as there was substantial Mughal patronage accorded to Sanskrit, Sanskrit itself was refashioned in Braj and in Bhakha poetry. The century after Tulsidas produced thousands of critical works and style manuals which derived from Sanskrit theorists, but in the Braj language, the language of music par excellence. One of the greatest ‘new’ usages of Sanskrit can be found in Malik Mohammed Jayasi’s Padmavat (composed circa 1540s), the great poem which stands as a monumental work of linguistic, literary and civilisational synthesis.

As he makes clear in Padmavat itself, Jayasi was working in a specific poetic tradition, a tradition which is now called Sufi Premakhyans, or Sufi Love Poems. His predecessors, whom he extols, included Mulla Daud’s Chandayan, Qutban’s Mrigavati and Manjhan’s Madhu Malati. All of these were Muslim poets associated with courts where Persian was the hegemonic language. So how did they end up writing such long poems in Hindi, even in Sanskritised Hindi, which they themselves called Bhakha or Bhasha? These poems were mostly transcribed in the Persian script (as were works by master Braj poets such as Keshav, Surdas and Bihari). How come these poems were full of erotic themes and conventions derived from Sanskrit poetry? And how did they acquire such deep knowledge of the Vedas, the Puranas, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, as is shown in their poems? How did these poems become so immensely popular as to leave behind dozens of manuscripts, illustrated manuscripts at that, including translations in Persian. The Padmavat, for instance, was translated into Persian no less than 12 different times. Its verses were inscribed on buildings and ceramic vases, as far as the Deccan. Later, it had multiple Bengali and Urdu translations. One of the great Persianists of the 18th century, Anand Ram Mukhlis, made a Persian translation after he heard the tale orally recited by his Deccani servant! In his history of the reign of Akbar, Badauni writes about a Sufi who used to recite the Chandayan from the pulpit of a mosque. A tale in difficult Hindi, ostensibly extolling Hindu Gods, and full of explicit and erotic references to a woman’s body, being recited from the pulpit of a mosque. Clearly our understanding of cultural and religious practice in early modern India needs some revision.

We must be immensely thankful to Professor Purushottam Agarwal for re-introducing us to this masterpiece through his recent book Padmavat: An Epic Love Story (Rupa, 2018). Professor Agarwal is one of the most distinguished contemporary critics of Hindi and a renowned scholar of Kabir. He taught Padmavat for over 40 years and his tremendous love for the epic shows in his retelling of it. He takes us on a journey through and about Padmavat, describes the salient points of the story, and demonstrates to us Jayasi’s mastery of language, poetry and his deep knowledge of Hinduism. Above all, he restores to us the primacy of love and desire, of Prem and Shringara and Kama, and its many shades in Jayasi’s masterpiece. Since Kama is involved, therefore it perforce includes erotic love as well as the pain of separation and jealousy.

Padmavat has, of course, enjoyed a long afterlife. Apart from the 12 Persian retellings I mentioned above, it has had numerous Urdu tellings before emerging as a highly popular story in Bangla in the 19th century, where it was used, vicariously, to excite nationalist passions. Thereafter, it became a staple of the Parsi theatre and now has been turned into a Bollywood film. In the last 100 years alone, it has inspired several studies in Hindi, three different PhDs in prestigious Western Universities and two English translations to boot. Yet, in spite of its vaunted status for academics, it has slipped out of popular mind. Few read it for pleasure, fewer still for spirituality. Unlike his other contemporaries, say Tulsi or Kabir, I have never met anyone quoting Jayasi. Most know the epic for the story of Padmini and Alauddin, a minor episode in the work itself, as has been demonstrated by Ramya Sreenivasan’s study of the ‘uses’ of Padmini: The Many Lives of a Rajput Queen: Heroic Pasts in India c. 1500–1900. Professor Agarwal successfully puts, so to say, Alauddin, in his place and restores the wider import of the epic. His book is a story of Padmavat and of the complex poetic mores that produced it. Since it contains excerpts from the work in Hindi, it is a wonderful invitation for us to actually study the epic itself.

Ostensibly, Padmavat tells the story of Raja Ratansen of Chittor who hears of the peerless beauty of Padmavati, the princess of Singhaldeep. Captivated, he decides to win her in spite of his wife Nagmati’s foreboding and dissusasion. He becomes a Yogi and sets out on the mythical journey. On the way he meets many impediments, encounters many fabulous creatures, and after crossing the proverbial seven seas, he reaches Singhaldeep.

Singhaldeep is a veritable cornucopia, a paradise on earth. Padmavati and Ratansen fall in love with each other but her father, seeing Ratansen’s subaltern and unkempt appearance, declines to marry her. Helped by the greatest Yogi, Shankara himself, Ratansen besieges the fort of Gandharvasen, Padmavati’s father. After many tribulations, including Ratansen being taken to be hanged like Hallaj, the great Sufi martyr, they finally get married. Meanwhile Nagmati, separated from her husband sings a Barahmasa, a song of separation, lament and longing. When Ratansen hears it he returns home with Padmavati. The last third of the book is devoted to the shenanigans of Alauddin and to Raja Devpal’s underhand attempts to win Padmavati. Finally, as we know, Ratansen is killed in battle and Padmavati commits jauhar.

Professor Agarwal’s main contention is that although Jayasi was a practicing Sufi, Padmavat should be seen not as a Sufi text but as a great love poem. It contains no exhortations to convert or proselytise. Although Jayasi is singularly proud of being a pious Muslim, he is yet a Muslim who celebrates Hinduism in an uninhibited manner. In spite of being a formidable scholar, of India and of Arabo-Persian literature, Jayasi, he asserts, is a devotee of beauty and love, of prem and shringar. His great poem celebrates, among other things, erotic desire, women’s body, love making, longing, separation but also the local ecology and flora and fauna, food, jewellery, art, objects, weapons as well as philosophy, mythology and wisdom. It is a great love poem dedicated to Awadh, present day Uttar Pradesh, the region of its production and to India itself. It is possible, from Padmavat alone, to cull out a Jayasi Ramayan. However, while one deeply admires Professor Agarwal’s efforts to introduce Padmavat to a contemporary reader, which he has done beautifully, it is difficult to agree with his views about Padmavat’s provenance.

The word Hindi in this essay refers to a cluster of North Indian dialects in the medieval era and not to the Sanskritised Khari Boli we use today.

The author is a writer and director who is credited with the revival of Dastangoi, a 16th-century Urdu oral storytelling art form. He has also co-directed a critically acclaimed movie on farmers suicides in 2010, Peepli Live.

Read more stories by Mahmood Farooqui