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Heroic Pasts in India, circa 1500-1900



"This wide-ranging monograph effortlessly traverses regions and genres to study the evolution of a historical memory. The Padmini story of a beautiful queen who is desired by a powerful enemy and who finally immolates herself rather than surrender has been current in South Asian folk and high literary traditions for over five centuries. In the colonial and post-colonial era it has been appropriated by Hindu nationalists as a narrative of purity and virtue. Rather than accept this recent retelling, Sreenivasan analyzes Padmini's story through its entire narrative trajectory, deploying at once the skills of a historian who combines an understanding of religious thought and social history and those of a literary scholar deeply familiar with gendered tropes in narrative and discourse.

The Padmini story featured largely in Tod's early colonial history. Sreenivasan goes beneath that colonial discourse to recover previous (and parallel) indigenous narratives, and she goes into the archive to show how James Tod and others actually worked. She tracks how nationalists -- both religious and secular -- have appropriated the same theme. Sreenivasan is never reductionist. She consistently locates and situates the texts she analyses in the conjunctures in and for which they were produced, whether by North Indian Sufis, Arakanese kings, Jain businessmen and literati, Rajput lords or Bengali bhadralok. She thereby undercuts the recent heroic narratives of the colonial and post-colonial era that have taken the Padmini story out of context in order to sustain the credibility of Hindu fundamentalism and the discourse of Islamic separatism."

"Ramya Sreenivasan’s study of the multiple narrative traditions surrounding Rajasthan’s legendary fourteenth-century queen Padmini is a masterful and admirable scholarly achievement. The tale of Padmini, as it is widely known in Indian popular culture, portrays a fabled beauty around whom a fatal chain of intrigue, plot, counterplot, and battle ultimately leads to massive heroic deaths, including the celebrated jauhar, or collective self-immolation, of Padmini and her female companions. In the end, the deluded sultan of Delhi, Alauddin, who sought to possess Padmini, attains only the ashes of victory when he finally enters Chitor. You can read this sad and dusty saga in the lobby of the Government Tourist Bungalow in Chitor, and—as Sreenivasan notes on her first page—in the Amar Chitra Katha comic book series as well. However, the plot soon thickens.

Sreenivasan’s singular accomplishment in this meticulously researched account is to demonstrate more convincingly and thoroughly than I have ever seen done before the wonderfully complex entanglements of literature and politics, of history and legend. She adroitly tracks the ways in which apparently infinite narrative permutations may both reflect and influence real events. Padmini herself probably never existed, as we learn in passing early on, but that is of little significance. The queen’s story in its “many lives”—as religious allegory, royal selfaggrandizement, colonial confabulation, nationalist inspiration, patriarchal parable—is likely more compelling than any actual historical personage’s ever could be." -- Ann Grodzins Gold, Journal of Asian Studies

Hardback / 286pp / ISBN 81-7824-185-4 / Rs 650 / Published in October 2007 for South Asia / Copublished by the University of Washington Press


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