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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 10 New Delhi February 24, 2018

Patriarchy, Piety and Padmavat(i): The Sordid Story

Friday 23 February 2018

by Navneet Sharma and Anamica

“The film which distorts facts and disrespects ‘Rashtra Mata’ will not be allowed to screen...”

—Shivraj Singh Chouhan

“In Rajasthan 47 per cent of women are illiterate, 50 per cent of girls are mothers by the age of 19, 51 per cent of girls are married before legal age, only 883 girls are born for every 1000 boys......Save the honour of Rani Padmini.

  A WhatsApp message

“When a woman is raped, people say that she has lost her honour. How did she lose her honour? Her honour is not in her vagina. It is a patriarchal idea that her rape will defile the honour of her community.”

Kamla Bhasin

The feminist perspective of history has always critically perceived the discipline as his-story and the women’s narrative is dismissed as hearsay (her-say?!). Women may owe half of the sky and the earth but history has always relegated them to harems, petticoat-politics and jauhar. The contemporary times attempt hard to not let her break the glass ceiling of man’s hold over history-writing and historicity. The controversy and upheaval over Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s epic movie, Padmavat(i), which has captured the national consciousness more than any other concern pertaining to women, mirrors the same domination and monopoly of males even on narratives that are constructed around women. The film, Padmavat(i), has recently become a matter of national interest and all other issues, which actually demand the nation’s heed and scrutiny, have been sidelined.

Padmavat(i), which might be Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s most ambitious project, offended the Rajputs and their organisation, the Karni Sena, as they alleged that the movie distorts the ‘glorious’ history of the Rajputs. If Bhansali’s magnum opus is based on historical evidence or is just the imagination of a poet is altogether a different matter. What is even more important to point out in this fact or fiction debate is that whether real or work of art, the piece stenches of patriarchy. In this commentary we will not be engaging in the raging debate between history, facts and cinematic expression, but the sordid story of Padmavati and its cinematic translation, and how any re-telling of or re-visit to the meta-narrative, crafted by Jayasi as Padmavat, re-establishes and nurtures the patriarchy, patriarchal mindset and strengthens the caste and religion’s stranglehold on women and the individual woman.

Movie and the Politics of Protest

The little-known Rajput Karni Sabha has created a turmoil. We will not go into the merits of their protest and the ways of protest, as they hardly have any, but we will try to appreciate the arguments put forth. Since no one has seen the movie, as it is yet to get clearance from the CBFC aka the government which hardly has any understanding of women, womanhood or the individual woman, it is still evident that the movie reflects the ‘macho’ised psyche of the Bharat Mata and the proposed Akhand Rashtra. The recent action of the present-day dispensation, be it the ujjwalayojana or triple talaaq, also views and confines the woman through the prism of religion and kitchen only. The protestors’ first argument was that Padmavati has been shown dancing and playing ghoomar, which maharanis never did. Even if we believe this as a historical factoid, the question arises: why, why women of the Rajput community were not allowed to dance. Probably it’s lowly to dance (!!) or more, that a queen is not allowed to dance (express herself) for her own merriment and celebration, a control over a woman by the clan, family and being from the upper caste.

The second argument is based on a presumption that, in the movie, there is a dream sequence of Padmavati fantasising Ala-ud-din Khilji. One of the very ‘learned’ historians has observed that there cannot be any question about the truthfulness of the historical existence of Padmavati, as there might not be any queen by the name of Padmavati but there must have been a ‘Chief Queen’ of Chittor who would have committed and led the mass self-immolation aka jauhar. The same argument can be extended to the concocted issue of the dream sequence, if any. The chief queen must be sleeping like other individuals and as individuals do not have any control over what they do; so must the queen. But, women are not allowed to and must not dream, and even if they dare to dream they must not ‘fantasise’ about ‘other’ men (hum mar gaye hain kya-type of illogical contestation) and more so if they are the ‘other’ (Musalman) of the political narrative crafted by a cultural organi-sation based at Nagpur. Padmavati (if she was there?!) must have never slept and should have never had a dream, as god forbid this is below the dignity of Rajput women to sleep and dream.

The third and most puerile argument is that Padmavati committed jauhar to save the honour of the ‘country’ and Rajputana.Any reading of history, even non-serious, tells us that the idea of India evolved very late in the chronology of history. Moreover, it was another Rajput ruler, Devpal of Kumbhalner, who killed Ratan Singh —the husband of Padmavati. It is worth to note that this Rajput chieftain was also enchanted and enamoured by the beauty of Padmavati. It is ironical to mention that intra-caste/religion tussle/conflict for women as object/property is shared as a narrative for virility and masculinity and as soon as women take it to inter-caste/religion, it becomes an issue of Hindu vs Muslim, the native and outsider and love-jihad.It is more ironical to note that ‘Rajputs’ are fighting to save the honour of the icon penned and crafted by the poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi as the name tells—a Muslim who wrote in the 15th century. His writings definitely cannot be taken as historical documentation of the Khilji times and dynasty which had a battle with Chittor in the 13th century. But, the under-standing of history or India is hardly a require-ment for the Karni Sena to create ruckus and lumpenism.

Patriarchy and Piety 

It is crucial to understand the fundamentals of patriarchy in order to apprehend the skewed gender relations of our society which reinforce violence like self-immolation on Padmavati and other women. Patriarchy refers to the rule of the father or the eldest male of the family over the entire family which includes women, younger men, children and domestic help. Thus, patriarchy is a male-dominated system where men hold the power in society and women are debarred from it. According to this system, men are superior and women are subordinate to them and hence should be controlled by men. That is why, men in a patriarchal society control many aspects of the women’s lives, such as their mobility, labour, economic resources, reproduction and sexuality. The most pivotal among this is controlling women’s sexuality which is a pre-requisite for a patriarchal society in order to ensure their subjection and exploitation. The restraining and regulation of the women’s body and in turn their sexuality is critical for two reasons for the survival of patriarchy. The first reason is related to the public-private dichotomy; to restrict women in private spaces and ensure their domestication, control of their bodies is necessary. The second reason is more capitalistic in nature, to assure that economic resources are passed on to the legitimate male offspring of the man, constraining the sexuality of the women is required. Thus, a patriarchal society gives special importance to maintaining women’s chastity and piety. Women carry the sacred glass bowl of their purity, the frangible thing endowed to her as a woman and there should not be a single crack on that fragile, prized possession. Thus, an unmarried woman is supposed to protect her delicate virginity until she gets married and a married woman is obliged to limit her sexuality to just one man who is her husband in order to remain pious. The purity of men, however, whether married or unmarried, is not an imperative like that in the case of women.

Religion has a prime role in generation and propagation of this patriarchal ideology. Patri-archy and religion together have perpetuated the purity cultures which aim at restricting the sexuality of women. There are umpteen examples of pure and virgin women in religion, such as—Devaki got pregnant after eating a mango, Karna was born through the ears, Kaushalya was impregnated after having a beverage, payasam.Religious texts, like Apastamba Dahrma Sutra (6th century BC), declare that wives should be in control of husbands and they should ensure that she remains only his sexual property and she should not be allowed to have any other type of contact with other men. Patriarchy also fortifies this mechanism of control because women are seen as carriers of honour of their husbands, families and the entire community. Their body and sexuality is not their own but is also symbolic of the honour of others and especially the male members of her family. It is important to mark here that piety and honour are not sited in women as a whole but specifically at their sexual organ, vagina. Thus, women are overburdened by the pressure of maintenance of piety and to retain this purity there is a need of preserving their biology from other men rather than their psychology or sociology. If women overlook the virtue of sexuality, they bring dishonour to the family and that is exactly why their sexuality is perceived as a constant threat to the honour of others. Hence, men own the right of regulating women’s sexuality for protecting their honour which rests in women’s body and especially her sexual organ, vagina. This patriarchal society and purity culture have led to further oppression of women often through force and violence like rape. Rape is used as a tool by men not only to keep women subordinated and fearful for the survival of patriarchy but also to bring disgrace to other men whose honour is attached to those women. Thus, an act of rape on women is not only a form of sexual violence on her but it also strips off the raped woman and her fellow man of their honour and respectability which they have placed at the woman’s vagina. As women are held as responsible for guarding their purity and honour of the family, the culture of victim-blaming, instead of the perpetrator, gets intensified and supports the patriarchal repression and subjugation of women. Moreover, the stance that the assaulted or raped women’s death is better than their lives is also an example of the plague of patriarchy.

Padmavati’s story is also of patriarchy, women, honour (piety) and death. Padmavati, while committing jauhar is bound by the same moral imperative of safeguarding the honour of her community. In war, it is a tendency that when a king wins an estate, men of the defeated region are either enslaved or get killed whereas women of that area are kept as prizes for victory and often used for sexual fantasies of the victo-rious king and army. When Sultan Khilji conquered Ratan Singh’s Chittorgarh, it would have got the same consequence for Rani Padmavati. To escape the dishonor that Khilji’s lust and sexual fantasy for Padmavati would have brought to the Rajput community, she decided to burn herself to death along with fellow women. The rape of Rajput women by a foreign invader, especially a Muslim, would have been a blot on the Rajput’s bravery; ergo Padmavati’s jauhar is glorified and she is immortalised by the Rajputs. This act of self-immolation is guided by the patriarchal mindset that a man’s honour is paramount and is more important than even the life of a woman. So, for Padmavati to remain a pious woman in a patriarchal society, it is preferred to perpetrate jauhar and die than to face humiliation and rape by Khilji. The Karni Sena, which is professing to fight for the glory and honour of the women of her community, is actually ironically diseased by the rotten patriarchal mindset which reduces the worth of women to just their honour. But verily the story of Padmavati never brought glory; all she glorified was forms of violence that are internalised by women. That is why the film Padmavati suffers the prospect of glorifying the act of jauhar and fright that women may incorporate within them: that self-sacrifice is an essential component of being a ‘good Indian woman’. Hence, it is possible that Bhansali’s piece of art may not just tell a bygone story but also a modern-day tale of exploitation and suppression of women.

Padmavati Loses ‘i’

The Censor Board, dancing to the tune of the gallery and government, constituted a six-member panel to review Padmavati. (The credentials of the panel members is hardly an issue for the government which considers Gajendra Chauhan —whose only mentionable contribution to the world of cinema is that he played the role of Yuddhishthir in the tele-serial Mahabharat directed by B.R. Chopra—suitable enough to head the FTII, Pune.) The panel along with other suggestions has ‘advised’ to take away the ‘i’ and to name the movie as Padmavat. It is like taking away ‘i’ from the idea of India and an (a)nda — cipher is left. The woman hardly has an ‘i’ (identity) in a patriarchal society where her birth, growth, puberty, entry to religious places, virginity, marriage, producing progeny (sons!), widowhood and death are all governed by her caste, clan, religion and the man she is born or is married to. For the idea of India to survive we need to marginalise fanatics, fundamentalists and idiots in our electoral politics and praxis or better take the ‘i’ of idiots and leave them as dots or better dotted.


Bhardwaj, D. (2017, November 19), ‘The deafening silence of feminists in the Padmavati fracas’, The Print. Retrieved from

Bhasin, Kamla (1993), What is Patriarchy?, Hauz Khas, New Delhi: Kali for Women.

Bhasin, Kamla (2000), Understanding Gender, Sarvpriya Vihar, New Delhi: Women Unlimited.

Mehrotra, R. (Producer), and Thuvassery, P. (Director). (2013), My Sacred Glass Bowl, India: Prasar Bharati Corporation.

Navneet Sharma, Ph.D, is an Assistant Professor, Department of Teacher Education, School of Education, Central University of Himachal Pradesh, Dharamshala. He can be contacted at navneet sharma29[at]

Anamica is presently pursuing Masters in Education (M.Ed) from the Central Institute of Education, University of Delhi. She has done B.El.Ed from Lady Shri Ram College for Women, University of Delhi.

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