Bollywood’s Film Padmavat and Poet Alaol of Arakan

 Bollywood’s Film Padmavat and Poet Alaol of Arakan

Written By Aman Ullah

After facing a lot of controversies and death threats, the makers of magnum opus “Padmaavat” have finally screened the movie to a group of journalists in New Delhi. Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s magnum opus is all set for a worldwide today (January 25) release in Hindi, Telugu and Tamil. The film is based on 16th-century Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s epic poem “Padmaavat”. The flick has run into trouble since its inception, as members of several Rajput factions have accused the director of the film of distorting history. Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmavat starring Deepika Padukone, Shahid Kapoor, and Ranveer Singh that was initially known as Padmavati.
Culture and history have become new battlegrounds in India. Debates over the Taj Mahal’s position as a symbol of multicultural India have yet to be settled, yet the nation is already being torn apart further by another cultural controversy—this time, over a film.

The film, “Padmavati,” tells the story of an eponymous Rajput queen believed to have died, together with 16,000 other women of the Rajput warrior caste, by self-immolation in 1301, in order to avoid being captured alive by the invading Delhi Sultan Alauddin Khilji. Despite not even having been released, “Padmavati” has already inspired countless front-page stories and debates on the evening news, hysterical threats of violence, and a ban in four states governed by India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

The historical accuracy of Padmavati’s story is dubious: no contemporary account of Khilji’s attack on Chittorgarh, including by historians accompanying his forces, mentions the queen. Yet Padmavati has been a figure of legend since 1540, when the Sufi mystic poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi devoted his lyrical epic “Padmavat” to her story.

It has been suggested that Jayasi did not intend his tale to be taken literally, and that his work, instead, represented the Persian mystical-poetic tradition of using romance to represent humanity’s search for the divine. By this interpretation, the poem is an allegory for the union of mind and soul, under attack from external forces. Jayasi chose Khilji’s attack on Chittorgarh as a setting for his epic, because its name includes the word chit (consciousness).

But literature, once published, acquires a life of its own. Jayasi’s tale was retold countless times, by Bengali bards, Rajasthani folk-tellers, and even the English Colonel Tod, who included Padmavati’s tale in his compilation Annals and Antiquities of Rajputana.

This Padmavati was also composed by Alaol of Arakan by order of Magan Thakur in 1651 A.D. Magan Thakur was a Muslim and the then Prime Minister Of Arakan. He observed the poetic power of Alaol and hence asked him to write a Bengali version of Padmavati, and so poet Alaol rote the epic Padmavati.

The poet Alaol was the most prominent of all the poets of Roshang, in fact he was one of the greatest Bengali poets of the 17th century, and some scholars say that he was Rabindranath Thakur of the 17th century. From his own testimony, it is known that he was the son of a minister of Majlis Qutb of Fathabad in Bengal. He along with his father was going by boat, on the way they were met by Firingi pirates. The parties fought for some time, the father died a martyr, but the son, i.e. Alaol was made a captive and was taken to Roshang. Probably he was sold to the king of Arakan. First he was appointed a horseman in the army. While he was passing his days like this, he chanced to come across the Muslim ministers and high officials of the kingdom. Alaol was a learned man, he knew various languages, Bengali, Arabic, Persian, Hindi and Sanskrit and he was acquainted with famous literary works of those languages. He was also well-versed in vocal and instrumental music. When the ministers and other high officers came to know of his various qualities, they appointed him to teach their children and in this way he became well known to the learned and court circle. He was invited to attend the assemblies in the houses of ministers including the Prime Ministers. Magan Thakur, a leading Muslim of Roshang, who was minister and later Prime Minister under several kings took interest in him and patronized him in various ways. After Magan’s death, other ministers and Prime Ministers also patronized him. In this way, Alaol was in the limelight of Arakan social and literary circle for thirty years as a leading figure in the kingdom of Arakan.

With the patronage received from the ministers, Alaol wrote six books

(1) Padmavati
(2) Saiful Mulk Badiujjamal
(3) Haft Paikar (or Sapta Paikar)
(4) Thufa
(5) Sikandarnama, and
(6) Last part of Satimaina Lor Chandrani.

Padmavati was Alaol’s first book and perhaps his most famous works. It was originally written by Malik Muhammad Jayasi in Hindi, he started writing the book in 923 A.H./ 1520 A.D and he completed it in 1540 A.D in the reign of Sher Shah. Jaysi probably died in 1542 A.D. i.e. two years after completing the book. The story centered round Raja Ratna Sen of Chitore, the famous beautiful lady Padmini, the princess of Ceylon and King Alauddin Khalji of Delhi. Raja Ratna Sen was leading a happy life with his queen Nagmati, but one day he heard about the beauty of Padmini. The king went to Ceylon with his retinue in the guise of a Yogi, on the way he underwent inhuman sufferings, but at the end he was able to marry Padmini and lived there happily. Nagmati, on the other hand, was passing her days in grief at Chitore in the absence of the King Ratna Sen. Ratna Sen later came back to his capital and lived with the two queens, Nagmati and Padmini. Ratna Sen once turned out one of his courtiers Raghav Cehtan from his Court, the later went to Dehli, met Sultan Alauddin Khalji, and related to him the story of the beauty of Padmini. The Sultan attacked Chitore to Padmini, but in the meantime King Ratna Sen had died and the two queens, Nagmati and Padmini gave their life in the pyre of their husband. Alauddin came back without achieving anything. This is in short the story of Padmavati.

It may be mentioned that all these were poetical Bengali translations of books of the same name in other languages and written by great and renowned poets. But the translation was not literal but free, and Alaol maintained his poetical talents in all these books throughout. At times he became free from the text and his knowledge in various subjects has been very appropriately exposed. Dr. Muhammad Shahidullah writes in his praise as follows: “Alaol’s name stands very high among Bengali poets in the medieval period. He was a good scholar in Sanskrit, Bengali, Arabic, Persian and Hindi languages. In fact it may be said in great confidence that there was no poet in those days who was equal to this Muslim poet.”

Jaysai’s romantic epic was partly history and partly fictional, its central message was a mystical one: drawing a parallel between Divine love and gnosis (which are perpetual and everlasting), as opposed to worldly love and affection (which are temporal and limited). Unlike the Hindi original Alaol’s Bengali adoption of Padmavat (consisting of about 10,500 lines) conveyed more human and worldly message of love and activities.

Alaol made profuse use of Sanskrit and Hindu manners in this epic, so that Dr. Dinesh Chandra Sen writes, the reader will see how expert the poet Alaol was in the Sankrit Language and what experience he had about the Hindu rites and rituals. This epic would lead to the conclusion that it was a surprise for a Muslim to be so well-versed in Hindu culture.

Abdul Karim Sahitya Visharad discovered his manuscripts, brought the poet and his books from oblivion into the limelight of history by writing more than fifty articles in various Bengali journals. Before him some of Alaol’s books were published from Battala in Calcutta but these were not scientifically edited and so are not dependable for scholarly discussion. Abdul Karim Sahitya Visharad also edited the famous Padmavati of Alaol and Alaol was his most favourite poet. So his evaluation of Alaol is worth quoting:

“The great poet Alaol was genius in the Muslim society of Bengal. Apart from Daulat Qazi, the author of Satimaina, no second man like him in scholarship was born in this society. The statement is not an exaggeration. He is shining as the mid-day sun in Medieval Bengali literature. The whole Bengali literature has been illuminated by the light of his genius. On the one hand, he is seated on the golden throne of the great poets among the Muslims; on the other hand, among the contemporary Hindu poets also his position is very high. As he was well versed in Bengali and Sanskrit languages, so he was well-versed in Arabic and Persian languages. As he was a versatile genius in Hindu religion and literature so he was a great scholar in Muslim religion and Persian literature. Such erudition is not found in other Muslim poets. He was born with poetic genius of very high standard.”

 — reading Reading Rohingya Padmavati.