The unnecessary controversy regarding Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film Padmavati must be seen and understood against the backdrop of Persian mysticism, spirituality and poetry to get a comprehensive picture of the whole issue.
The sub-continental mystic-poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi wrote Padmavat in 1540 AD and deliberately created, or fabricated (?), a female character to be eventually deified in accordance with the Persian mystical traditions and also as one of the indispensable 16 rules of Persian spiritual poetry that were religiously followed by all Central Asian and sub-continental poets of Persian mysticism including Amir Khusro from Hindustan and Rumi, Hafiz, Sanaee etc. from Iran.
The language of Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s Padmavat was Awadhi, the dialect of Awadh, but the original script was Persian. Before descanting upon how and why Jayasi thought of concocting a character like Padmavati, it’s worthwhile to mention Dr Muhammad Iqbal’s letter to young Raghupati Sahay Firaq Gorakhpuri, which the former wrote to the latter in 1929 when Firaq was a young lecturer of English at Muir College, Allahabad.
Here’s that relevant passage: ‘For an Islamic mystic, woman is always a catalyst or a medium to reaching higher consciousness. She could also be his imaginary muse, unadulterated and unspoilt by thoughts and actions. She’s an indispensable character whether fictitious or real, but mostly the former because only a fabricated (male/female) character can be so divinely chaste. Jalaluddin Rumi’s Irfa, Nizami’s Nahila, Attar’s Qaneem, Hakim Sanai’s Aviara did never exist but they were woven and assimilated into the poetic plots by all mystics so beautifully that with the passage of time, they began to appear as real-life characters. Poetry, especially Islamic tasawwuf (mysticims) based poetry, always has a central or powerful clandestine female character, who’s often unreal.’
The invariable end of this fictitious character – as Padmvati’s jauhar (ritualistic self-immolation) in Jayasi’s Padmavat – is a symbol of the end of the last obscure vestiges of carnality necessary for the union with the universal mind, to quote Swanton. The inviolability of a woman’s character and her elevation to the highest pedestal can be seen in Jayasi’s Padmavat. It’s interesting to note that in Central Asian mystic traditions, self-immolation is un-Islamic. But Jayasi’s mysticism was rooted in the ethos of the sub-continent and he used jauhar as a symbol of coordinating and composite vein of Hindu-Muslim unity. Despite himself being a Muslim, Jayasi didn’t present Khilji in a positive fashion, though Khilji was never a lewd Sultan and all stories of his debauchery are apocryphal as well as later-day interpolations by unscrupulous historians.
The same spiritual poetic tradition was followed by the Iranian predecessors of Jayasi like Rumi, Hafiz, Jami, Bedil among others.
Persian mysticism looks at a woman as the ‘perfect symbol of purity’ (alamat-e-paakeezgi). She cannot be defiled just like Padmavati, who couldn’t be desecrated by the ‘lascivious’ Alauddin Khilji. Moreover, according to a rather dubious account mentioned by Colonel James Todd in his tome ‘Annals and antiquities of Rajasthan,‘ Jayasi was enamoured of one Rajput damsel Padma whom he got to see somewhere near Ajmer, Rajasthan. No further description is given in the book. It’s, therefore, surmised that he immortalised that Padma as Padmavati both as his spiritual muse and also as a necessary cog in the scheme of Persian mysticism.
Nowadays, we all tend to squabble over things without ever bothering to delve into the broader canvas. We’re living in exceedingly intolerant times when one spark is enough to flare up and burn down everything. This is indeed pitiable.