In a quiet by-lane of Rajasthan's Chittorgarh, home to India's largest fort, is a nondescript three-storey house. Nothing sets the house apart from its clones dotting the town except for its inhabitant, a Rajput woman who has waged a battle of morals against one of India's best-known actors who plays the role of a historical queen the former has grown up adoring.
Manjushree Bambori had exhausted almost every argument she could come up with to defend her rather irrational hostility towards actor Deepika Padukone. She had told me about the time a local vernacular daily published a picture of Padukone and actor Ranveer Singh walking out of an event, holding hands.
"The picture said, 'Padmavati leaves with Alauddin Khilji'. How can we be okay with that?" Bambori exclaimed.
We'd be locked in a similar argument, she and I, over and over again during our long conversation in Bambori's spacious home in Chittorgarh. It was two days since Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Padmaavat had released in most other states of the country. However, following sporadic bouts of violence, multiplex and cinema hall owners chose not to screen the film anywhere in Rajasthan. Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje, who routinely inaugurated the Jaipur Literature Festival, decided to skip it this year. And at Chittorgarh, about 300 kilometres from the capital city of Jaipur, Bambori and her friends were congratulating themselves over their "small victory".
In the days leading up to the weekend of Padmaavat's release, 48-year-old Bambori and dozens of Rajput women from Chittor stepped out of their homes for a very dramatic protest campaign - the first for most of them. Though the quote-happy men of Karni Sena, a caste group that shot to the limelight with their violent campaign against the film, grabbed most of the headlines with one absurd demand after another, a week before the film's release, these women managed to turn some attention their way by making a very lofty declaration - that they be allowed to commit 'jauhar', or mass self-immolation, if the central government decided to let Padmaavat be screened in theatres.
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Clad in a ruby red ghagra, kurti and odhni, Bambori spoke about the legend of Padmini with frenzied passion. She headed a group of women who identify themselves as members of an organisation called the 'Jauhar Kshatrani Manch'. Bambori is the president, 38-year-old Nirmala Rathod it's vice-president and Bambori's sister, Teena Sakhtawat, who is in her 30s, it's treasurer. All three are homemakers.
Rathod seemed slightly aloof and perhaps wary of interviews. Roughly a week before we met, Rathod was one of the women who threatened they'd kill themselves if the film was released. There are a couple of police personnel stationed outside her house since then and they keep a close watch on her movements, she said. The Kshatrani Manch was officially christened in 2014. However, the idea for it existed as long as the women have had access to WhatsApp – for nearly six or seven years. The women say they have not done an official count of the members of the WhatsApp group, but all Rajput women are welcome to be a part of it. Typically 256 members are allowed on WhatsApp groups in India.
There are a couple of police personnel stationed outside her house since then and they keep a close watch on her movements, she said.
"We started it to preserve our culture. We exchange notes about our traditional attires, jewellery. What to wear on what occasion, what to cook when and their recipes. We also talk about religious customs, ceremonies etc on that group. Essentially, we started this group to keep reminding ourselves of our past and our heritage," Bambori says. Then, in 2014, they found a name for it and turned it into an 'official' organisation of sorts.
The 'heritage' Bambori spoke about is closely tied to her caste – the practices typical of Rajput Kshatriyas. They aren't unaware of the discriminatory nature of caste hierarchies, but their matter-of-fact acceptance of it has become their natural way of living. During the conversation, occasionally, they resorted to comparisons of 'respect' and 'honour' as experienced by various castes in India.
They pointed out, without the slightest irony, that women from her caste received far more deference from people around them than those from any other castes. The decorum with which the Rajput Kshatriyas addressed other members is something they feel is not a mainstay in other communities.
"For example, people will call you by your name. They will never do that with a Kshatrani in Rajasthan, they'll call us 'baisa' and the men 'banna'," Rathod declared. 'Baisa', roughly translated to ma'am, is a Rajasthani word used to address women respectfully. There is no evidence that only Rajput Kshatriyas use the term but these women believe their stature is different from that of other women.
Sakhtawat attempted to illustrate it further by commenting that they don't even address newborns or children as 'tu' - an informal Hindi equivalent of 'you', usually used to address younger people and peers. "We call them 'aap'," she said. It is not clear if these women have properly reflected upon their caste pride — often discriminatory to others — but it's evident that their caste formed the backbone of their social identities.
In fact, this hubris is such an integral part of their life that one of the several issues they had with Bhansali's film was its depiction of one Rajput woman in a slightly negative light. In one sequence, the film shows Nagmati, Raja Ratan Singh's first wife asking Padmavati to go meet Khilji in order to bring peace to the country. A following sequence showed the Muslim wife of Khilji aiding her to flee the clutches of her husband.
"How can they show a Rajput woman in a negative light and Muslim woman as a good woman," all of them ask in a confused chorus. It doesn't matter to them that the entire film is a unbridled paean to Rajputs and is deeply Islamophobic itself.
"How can they show a Rajput woman in a negative light and Muslim woman as a good woman," all of them ask in a confused chorus.
The Kshatrani Manch is closely associated with the Johar Smriti Sansthan, a 70-year-old charitable organisation in Chittorgarh. Ninety-year-old Umed Singh is the president of the organisation, which he said, was set up to honour the memory of the three jauhars that took place in Chittor. The organisation runs a girl's hostel in the same premises that has a 'jauhar temple'. The temple is a small, new structure, perched atop a short fight of stairs. Three almost identical deities are placed on replica of a pyre, against a painting of dozens of women sitting amid flames.
Randhir Singh, a former vice-president of the organisation said that among other things, the organisation has been involved in 'correcting' the erroneous and false accounts of the legend of Rani Padmini doing the rounds of popular narratives. Twice the organisation had found the government of Rajasthan at 'fault' and complained about the erroneous information it had been spreading about Rani Padmini. The heroine of a 16th century tragic ballad written by Malik Muhammad Jayasi, Padmavati, is loosely based on the story of Padmini. Historians remain divided over Padmini's existence.
"One big mistake is there in the light-and-sound show that's screened at the Chittor fort. It says that Khilji saw Padmini in a mirror - that's wrong, mirrors didn't even exist at that time. They were only invented in 1835 and all this was taking place in the centuries before that. We have complained several times and the government has assured they will change the narrative. However, that may cost the government up to Rs 5 crore, so it will take time," he said.
On 8 November in 2017, Bambori led her first protest march and congregated at the Chittorgarh fort. Later, she and her friends had frequent gatherings in the premises of the Jauhar Smriti Sansthan. And finally, days after Supreme Court rejected Rajasthan's appeal to ban Padmavaat in the state, Bambori said, they were seized by a fit of 'passion' and declared they'd rather die than fail in their bid to 'save the honour' of their 'mother'.
Given their new-found fire for protests, what challenges did they think women in India face the most?
Sakhtawat told me dowry topped her list, followed by female foeticide. However, so far they've never held a public protest, they admitted, over these issues. Rajasthan had reported the highest numbers of child marriages in the country, ranked third in the number of rapes recorded, and had the lowest literacy rates for women.
"I mean, if we get to hear about any Rajput woman facing such problems, we will try to intervene and counsel all parties involved...," Rathod said. A somewhat confused silence followed her comment. Bambori quickly added that her daughter had once participated in protests in her college following the 16 December, 2012, gang-rape and murder of a woman on a moving bus in Delhi.
DEEPIKA PADUKONE AND PADMINI
Bambori has a masters degree in sociology and is a mother to three daughters and one son. She's fairly active on social media, but WhatsApp and Facebook are her favourite platforms for chronicling her daily life. And it is through the latter that she came of know of Bhansali's plans of making a film on Padmini.
"It'd be fine if he had made a proper religious film... but then we read he has roped in Deepika to play Padmini, we didn't like that at all."
"When Bhansali had come to Rajasthan to prepare for the shoot, we've been protesting since then... must be early 2016. He should have asked people from Padmini's lineage first, he didn't. Then we appealed to him that he shouldn't make a film on this subject, this involves our religious faith. It'd be fine if he had made a proper religious film... but then we read he has roped in Deepika to play Padmini, we didn't like that at all," Bambori railed.
On pointing out that Padukone is one of the finest actors of her generation, Bambori insisted that her acting mettle was irrelevant to them.
"Woh kya kar legi (What will she do?) She is all about glamour, and the film will not be religious at all, it will only be about glamour," Bambori said she thought to herself when the actor's name was announced to play the titular role. She and her friends, repeated at least half a dozen times within a span of few minutes that they didn't want the film to be made. Though Padmini doesn't figure in the legion of Hindu deities, it has not stopped the women of the Kshatrani Manch from deifying her.
"We have grown up listening to tales of Rani Padmini. We worship her, sing songs about her at weddings and other celebrations at home. She is our mother."
"We have grown up listening to tales of Rani Padmini. We worship her, sing songs about her at weddings and other celebrations at home. She is our mother," Bambori said.
So don't they want more people to know about a legend which they worship? "Yes, of course. But the show the true history, don't twist it to suit your commercial interests at least," Rathod argued.
Bambori brought up the name of cricketing legend Sachin Tendulkar as an analogy. "Suppose you are making a film on Sachin Tendulkar. Won't you meet his family, his friends and colleagues to get a sense of his true history? Same here. They had to ask us, how she was like, what she wore, how she conducted herself..." she said.
Chittorgarh is rife with conflicting versions of the legend of Padmini. Everyone I spoke to — shopkeepers, auto drivers, tour guides, locals and members of political organisations — like to believe their version of the story as the most authentic. Singh and Bambori insisted that Jayasi's poem 'Padmavat', penned by the Sufi poet in 1540 is a fictionalised, dramatised version of what they claimed is the 'true story'.
The poem has been a distinctive presence in the oral literary traditions of Rajasthan and some parts of India for decades, and is more frequently referred to in Chittorgarh itself. For example, when you walk into the Chittor fort which towers over the modest town with is 690-acre expanse, guides flocking around tourists will recount the version of the legend as presented in Jayasi's poem. By Singh's own admission, it's the same version that got made into the Rajasthan government-sponsored light-and-sound show at the fort. That's also the one Bhansali's film seems to have taken from. While the queen's 'real' name was Padmini, Jayasi's protagonist was called 'Padmavati', like Deepika is in Bhansali's film.
So how come Bambori and her ilk never objected to this version of Rani Padmini's legend taking a life of its own? Singh argued that it is clear that it's a work of fiction and people would know better. He added that it isn't 'that popular', though I found evidence to the contrary. Singh, however, noted that following the controversy, maybe Jayasi's poem will find new audience. Didn't the same logic — that it's a work of fiction — apply to Bhansali's 'Padmaavat'?
Rathod wanted me to believe it didn't. And strangely enough, that has got to do with Padukone and how her personal life unfurled in the media. When I pointed out that it wasn't Padukone's fault that a newspaper called her Padmini in a caption, Rathod betrayed impatience at arguments such as these.
Singh argued that it is clear that it's a work of fiction and people would know better. He added that it isn't 'that popular', though I found evidence to the contrary.
Teena Sakhtawat, a cheery, young woman who landed in Bambori's house with her two junior school-going boys, tried to explain Rathod's angst. "Say for example, young kids like my boys, when you have a film as huge as this and Deepika is playing Padmini, what if they start to associate Padmini only and only with her? The future generation will think she is Padmini, with all the pictures in papers and videos on the internet," Sakhtawat said.
Padukone is a great model to have, I countered. A smart, talented, hardworking woman, who's made a life for herself, what's wrong with aspiring to be her? Plus, we'd be underestimating children's intelligence in assuming they'd not be able to tell Padukone from a character from legends. If not now, they'd know in a few years.
But that'd be 'too late', the women felt. "Back in our time, we didn't have internet. We relished stories, listened to religious legends, lores and fables. However, kids these days log on to the internet unsupervised and consume whatever they can," Sakhtawat said. The women's problem seem to be the idea that if the kid's primary point of reference for Rani Padmini becomes Padukone and the film, they'd never be won over — like the women claim they were as children — by the 'real' Padmini.
Again, we are back to square one. Even if say the children put Padukone's face to the idea of Padmini, how would that compromise the queen's supposed greatness, I asked?
Slightly riled, Rathod hastily told me how the clothes Padukone wore off-screen and in other films were "unbecoming" of an honourable Rajput woman, and she played a very 'holy' one in 'Padmaavat'. "Kitne chhote chhote (how tiny)," she railed.
She pointed at herself and the women around her — in lehengas grazing the floor, odhnis (head scarves) trailing on the sofa and covered heads — to explain why she could not tolerate the idea of a woman who dressed as Padukone did to portray her 'mother' Padmini.
"Now how many films has she done? Has she done films with the same man? Each film is with a different man..." Rathod burst out. That'd be absurd if she didn't, considering she is an actor, I told her.
Which is when Bambori and Sakhtawat rush in to cut Rathod short, saying Padukone is free to do anything she wanted to with her life, only her ways are vastly different from the ways of Rajput women like them. And the idea that someone whose personal life doesn't reflect conservative Rajput values is playing a religious icon held in great respect by them, made them greatly uncomfortable.
"You know when my boys get married and have wives, those women may not follow our traditions if this Bollywood version of Padmini becomes the most compelling version of her," Sakhtawat tried to 'reason'.
Doesn't the nature of this attack on Padukone undermine their battle to uphold the honour of their 'mother'? After all, insulting one woman in order to protest the supposed insult of another, doesn't seem very right. Bambori enthusiastically told me how they had hanged the effigies of people associated with the film — Bhansali, Ranveer Singh, and of course Padukone — at the Chittor fort a few days back. The women would like to believe, theirs is not an attack on Padukone, it's a 'battle' to save their cultural icon's honour. "She should have thought about it as well, don't you think? That she may be hurting someone's sentiments?" Bambori said.
'HONOUR' AND WOMEN
Bambori and Sakhtawat tried to explain how 'maryada' — a loose translation of which in English would be 'honour' — isn't essentially a limiting experience for women. We've been talking for over an hour where Bambori and Sakhtawat listened with patience and occasionally argued with some passion. 'Maryada' for them is deeply associated with aspects like clothes, deference towards elders and husbands, religiousness and the body, in the case of a woman. They also seemed to have imbibed these ideas from a majority of women and men they grew up surrounded by – at home, in extended social circles mostly built around their caste.
At the heart of the glorification of Padmini, also, lies this exclusive association of 'honour' with the female body. A contemporary feminist reading of the tale may also make it seem deeply problematic - like several other fables and lores of all religions. Padmini's greatness, the legend emphasizes, lay in her act of leading a mass self-immolation so that Islamic invaders wouldn't even be able to set eyes on them, forget trying to control their bodies. Padmini also lives on for her beauty. According to local lore such was the fairness of her skin that one could see water course down her throat.
At the heart of the glorification of Padmini, also, lies this exclusive association of 'honour' with the female body.
"You may have burnt yourself while cooking or something, right? And how much it hurt... Imagine knowing how much it would hurt to be engulfed by fire, but still have the resolve to jump in it? Some women jumped into it with children, some were even pregnant," Bambori said, her voice lilting with fascination.
The women choose to believe jumping into the fire was horrific and the ability to have done that is what sets deities like Padmini apart from ordinary mortals. While it may be erroneous to look at 'jauhar' from the prism of progressive choices available to women in the 21st century, how does one remember it's legacy?
Perhaps through these women's unbridled devotion or with the awareness that it was, at the end of the day, an act spurred by desperation and put in motion by a grave threat of physical violence. Since it is said that women committed 'jauhar' only when a majority of their male kin had died in the battlefield or had been killed by plunderers, it may have been a case of them exercising their agency. However, it is indeed problematic to conflate suicide entirely with saving a clan's 'honour' than a more real threat of violence.
Bambori, who had mentioned that religion topped her list of priorities in her culture, would like to believe it's an act of courage. "Yes, they were threatened with violation and ended their lives. But many women didn't as well. It needs a special kind of courage to walk into a fire like that," she said. Then does that make Bambori and her organisation's threat of 'jauhar', over a film, a mockery of a 'grave and courageous' act of sacrifice?
The women take a moment to answer this. Singh had informed me prior to this that the women were merely caught in a moment of passion and made such a declaration. Singh, a former armed forces personnel, said, "Killing yourself isn't easy, you know. Suicide is not easy..."
Then does that make Bambori and her organisation's threat of 'jauhar', over a film, a mockery of a 'grave and courageous' act of sacrifice?
Sakhtawat said if they had not been stopped, she isn't sure what they would have done in the heat of the moment. She said they were so dejected and angry and the Supreme Court's decision to let the film run that they may have gotten carried away with their self-immolation threat. Incidentally the Karni Sena later demanded that Bhansali commit jauhar for making the film.
Rathod, who had been quiet for a while, chimed in now. "Yes, we declared it in a moment of passion, but we were serious. If they ask us to commit jauhar in order to get the film banned, we'd be happy to do it even now." Later, they wanted to write to the President, requesting the right to 'icchyamrityu' -- voluntary ending of life, which isn't suicide according to them.
Again, wouldn't that be just a mockery of thousands of women who felt compelled to kill themselves under very violent circumstances? Rathod, a mother of two, said they'd be actually honouring the legacy of Rani Padmini. "She died to save our honour. Now her honour is at stake. We'd be happy to give up our lives for that."
BODIES OR WAR ZONES?
One precise moment when all three women seemed to echo each other's anger and mirrored the disapproval of the men I spoke to prior to meeting them, was while referring to the song 'Ghoomar' in Bhansali's film. "Woh kaise thumka laga rahi hai (Did you see how is she shaking her body to the song)?" they said, referring to Padukone's performance in Ghoomar.
Sakhtawat offered to introduce me to Bambori's daughter – a young woman who held multiple educational degrees. A math teacher in a local school, Sakhtawat said Bambori's daughter travelled to work with her head and most of her body covered. "And here, Padukone's entire waist was on display," Bambori grumbled. "A Rajput queen would never do that, as she wouldn't dance in front of random people. Only servants danced for her," she added.
They fished out several videos of Bambori dancing to Rajasthani music. "Look, can you see my face, any part of my body except my lower arms?" She is clad in a gauzy yellow ghagra-choli in the video, her odhni pulled down to her neck.
This idea of 'honour' in their world also extended to forging a deferential relationship with men.
Bambori and Sakhtawat, both with degrees that'd easily find them employment, said they're homemakers by choice. "When we go shopping, we mostly go with our husband, and they pay for everything," Sakhtawat beams, with more than a hint of pride. Isn't it also a matter of pride if women work and pay for themselves? "Yes, they could, if her husband or father is in financial trouble...," Bambori said. She is married for nearly three decades to an employee of a mining giant.
Curiously enough, Bambori's own daughter is employed. She was in the living room for a fleeting moment.
Clad in a night suit with a dupatta draped over her upper body, she apologetically said she is dressed that way because she was at her mother's house. "You won't see her like this at her in-laws' or at her school," Sakhtawat said, as her pregnant niece nodded in agreement. Sakhtawat's husband is a compounder.
However, Sakhtawat, the youngest of the lot, and who had proudly declared moments ago that money was a man's territory, added that it was important that girls be educated. "If girls are educated and find jobs, no one can demand dowry of them," she said. I began to point out that demanding dowry in any case is a crime, but she repeated enthusiastically, "right now, this is more important than anything else. Girls should be educated." Bambori muttered in agreement.
"If girls are educated and find jobs, no one can demand dowry of them."
I took the moment to remind her that Padukone, who they've taken up cudgels against, is perhaps an example of exactly what they espoused. An educated woman earning her own living. "We actually don't have anything against her. It's not okay that the film distorted Padmini's life so much - Khilji was here to plunder the mineral wealth of Mewar and not chase Padmini, Padmini never went to Delhi to rescue her husband and she wasn't a commoner dancing to music. We were very hurt by this dismissive attitude towards something so close to us. We may have said certain things...," Rathod offered.
Bambori added that Padukone could have just kept quiet instead of joining the chorus of support for the film.
But why can't she voice her opinion, when Bambori and her peers can, I asked.
An uncomfortable silence filled the room.