Nationalism and Representations of an Icon in Literature in Colonial India: Rani Lakshmibai in Modern Hindi Literature
The 1857 Revolt represents the most powerful anti-colonial movements which united the peasants and the landed sections , the Hindus and the Muslims and upper caste Hindus and lower caste Hindus against the ruthless East India Company rule. It is a widely written subject as hundreds of books have been written by British historians, Indian nationalist and Marxist historians and writers on how this great revolt had rocked the British East India Company rule in 1857-58. Pradip Saxena, a leading scholar of the rebellion, claims that sources spread over more than one and half lac pages on the rebellion are known to him. In this, he excludes Government records! Even if this claim is exaggerated, there is no doubt that fairly large amount of literature available in non-English languages remains somewhat ignored by historians so far. This paper seeks to use literary evidences to prepare an account of how Lakshmi Bai, the great queen of Jhansi was represented in modern Hindi literature. This representation was not uniform and the change in perception about the queen in literature took place around 1920. Before that, Hindi writers did not write about Lakshmibai favourably. It needs to be stated at the outset that this article does not deal with history of Lakshmibai and the focus is on how her history was represented in Hindi literary sources. It helps us in understanding how despite many historical claims that her contributions have been grossly exaggerated the nationalist appeal somehow remains intact and the functional value of her historic persona remains important even after 150 years. People still get emotional with the memory of the queen and, as Mahashweta Devi has mentioned, many people in Bundelkhand believe she is still alive ! Her story, as it comes to us, is very fascinating. The journey of a humble Marathi Brahmin official’s daughter Chhabili from a little tomboyish girl of nine years to the inspiring queen of Jhansi –Lakshmibai is part of folk-lore of Bundelkhand region. Her influence was so powerful that Tapti Roy, a biographer of Lakshmibai, says that "The 400-year-old town of Jhansi still feels that it owes its fame to a young Rani who ruled for four-and-a-half years.”[ii] So fresh and powerful image of Lakshmibai is in popular memory that recently when a chief minister of Rajasthan went to unveil the statue of Lakshmibai large number of people protested as the chief minister belonged to Scindhia family which had helped the British against the queen during the rebellion.
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The story of Laksmibai is a classic example of how popular perception of leaders of popular movements ultimately can be so overwhelming that the official historical versions become somewhat irrelevant. Simply speaking, we have three different versions of the story of Lakshmibai. The historical version tells us a history of Lakshmibai, a rebel who rose against the East India Company and threatened its existence first in Bundelkhand and then, by collaborating with other rebel leaders Nana Saheb and Kunwar Singh, in the North India. She died as a martyr after being defeated by the British. The other version comes to us through popular folk songs and plays of Bundelkhand which give us a heroic struggle of a queen who put up a strong resistance to save the dignity of Jhansi and to fight for independence of this country against the firangees ( foreigners). This is most fascinating area of research and historians have tried to understand how this remarkable young lady became so prominent in the popular imagination of Jhansi and other regions of Bundelkhand. The third version, the main concern of this paper, comes to us through Hindi literature. How this lady’s stories were taken up by Hindi intelligentsia and how the assessment of Lakshmibai changed in course of our national movement is discussed in this paper.
Hindi literary history tells us that Hindi emerged in a new form during the time of Bharatendu Harischandra in 1870s. A number of powerful literary personalities worked towards what is commonly referred as ‘Hindi renaissance’. This renaissance had its limitations but it can be said that primary concern of the writers associated with it was to see the progress of this country along modern lines. The writers were convinced that their duty was to arouse popular sentiments for national development. As Hindi emerged as a modern language in a post 1857 scenario the question of the writers’ attitude to 1857 is a good pointer to the ideological make up of the Hindi intelligentsia. The areas which were epi-centers of 1857 revolt could not forget the brutal suppression of all those who were seen as supporters and sympathizers of the revolt by a revengeful British government. But, the writers of this region remain silent on 1857 till 1920s. Scholars like Ramvilas Sharma, Bhagwan Das Mahore[iii], Karmendu Sishir and others have talked about the terror as the real reason of their silence. Certainly, the difficulty in talking about the revolt was a real one, but if we closely examine the writings of Hindi literature of the two important eras of Hindi literary history- Bharatendu era and Mahavir Prasad Dwivedi era we can say that mere fear factor does not explain the attitude of the Hindi intelligentsia towards 1857. It can be suggested that the writers did not appreciate the spirit of the rebels in going all out to oust British rule from Indian soil by showing a remarkable communal solidarity between the Hindus and the Muslims. To these writers 1857 was a ‘dangerous’ moment which brought bloodshed and ultimately misery to this country. It was only in 1920s that this ‘wrong moment’ became national moment.[iv] It is understandable that there is nothing on the great queen of Jhansi in Hindi literature till 1920. Before that it was not unusual to find Hindi writers using unkind words for the rebels in their journals. There are some embarrassing passages in the pages of Saraswati, the famous magazine edited by Mahavir Prasad Dwivedi, in which the queen was criticized and referred as ‘nrishansh hatyare’ ( ruthless murderers) along with Nana Saheb.[v] Even before that Sadanand Mishra, the famous editor of Sar Sudha Nidhi, had referred the rebels as sirfira (insane) and lootera ( grabbers) in 1880s.[vi]
The attitude towards 1857 changed afterwards in published literature. A leading authority on the relationship between 1857 and Hindi literature Bhagwandas Mahore observes that “ in published literature the entry point of 1857 as the struggle of independence was the mainly through the gate of Lakshmibai.”[vii] The first book on Lakshmibai was written by a Bengali writer Chandicharan Sen who wrote a fiction of about 350 pages in 1888. Its second edition came out in 1894 proved that it was received well by the readers. But, the book which truly launched the story of Lakshmibai in the Indian literary scene was the celebrated work of Dattatreya Balwant Parasnis ( 1870-1926) who wrote a book in Marathi, Jhansi Samstanchya Maharani Laksmibaisaheb Hayenchen Charitra in 1894.[viii] This became a source book of a large number of texts, both published and unpublished, on Rani of Jhansi which were in circulation in 1920s. Another Marathi book –Majha Pravas of Vishnubhat Godse ( 1827-1903), published in 1907, also narrated stories related to the heroic struggles of Laksmibai. Godse had written an eye-witness account of revolt days and he was imprisoned for a month at Jhansi during the revolt.[ix] These two books became references for many subsequent Hindi publications. Taking these accounts as historically valid descriptions writers added their imaginations to give various accounts of the life of Lakshmibai. In the next section a narrative is prepared to document how Lakshmibai was described in various Hindi writings of 1920s and thereafter. By 1895 the story of Lakshmibai had become a subject of creative imaginations of writers. Apart from the book of Parasnis, mentioned before, another play The Rani of Jhansi or the widowed queen’ written by an Englishman Alexander Rogers Westminister, came out in 1890s. This book is somewhat derogatory for the queen as she was seen luring a patriot Englishman who decided to sacrifice life rather than to get lured by blood thirsty queen Lakshmibai. This book, however, tried to show that the revolt had been a support of all nationalities of this country. When this play was published in 1890s showing Lakshmibai as a sexually driven queen out to lure an Englishman it received no protest from any quarter from Indians. But in 1930s when an English writer Phillip Cox wrote a play treating the queen similarly, nationalist raised a powerful protest against the book.Its copies were burnt and newspapers wrote against this kind of maligning writing resulted in the deletion of objectionable portions of the book and apology from its publisher.[x]
The saga of Laksmibai had undergone significant changes from time to time. In 1890s her struggle was interpreted differently by Indian and British writers but we find Lakshmibai as a queen who was victim of injustice who fought against the British with dignity and bravery. This continued in following decade also. Thakur Surya Kumar Verma wrote Maharani Lakshmi Bai ka Jivan Charit in 1909. It was based on Parasnis thesis that Lakshmi Bai was the victim of circumstances and she should be appreciated for her bravery and not for fighting against the British as a nationalist. In this book Surya Kumar mentions that as she fought against the British in the revolt which was a blemish (kala dag) in her story writers do not want to write about her. He says : “ Sipahi vidroh ke kalank ka tika unke mathe par lag jane ke karan unka jivan charit likhana mano apni dayamay British sarkar ke ram rajya ke viruddha lekhani chalakar apne sar par bhi ek kalank ka tika lagakar maha patak karna hai.”. He added that Lakshmi Bai was was the rebels due to some reasons but her bravery was to be appreciated. The view of Surya Kumar gets more clear when we consider his view expressed in his biography of another queen- Maharani Bayaji Bai Sandhia, a queen who was also ill-treated by the British but she had the wisdom to side with the British against the “ avichari vidrohi”.Surya Kumar appreciated this queen for her wisdom.
But, by 1920s the Lakshmi Bai story started getting some what different treatment. In some writings she was looked upon as a divine lady, an incarnation of various goddesses of Hindu faith and her struggle was seen as the struggle against evil forces which inspired meek Indians. A writer wrote in an important magazine in 1924 :
Bharatiya navayuvako ki jarjarit haddiyon mein khoon dalne walon mein pratah smaraniya maharani Lakshmibai hain. Angrez lekhakon nei unki kirti jyoti ko vyakta nahi kiya kyonki unhone swadesh aur swadharmartha Chandi rupa dharan karke apni bhayankar talwar ki dhar se anek yuddha pravin angrezi sena ko kai bar gajar muli ki tarah kat dala. Samay nahi beeta, sambhav hai ab bhi do char parthiv sharir dhari vidyaman hon jinhone maharani ke divya darshan kiye hon. Maharani ne sipahi vidroh mein angrezon ke viruddha apni katkari talwar kheenchi thi, wah apne liye nahi , waran Bharat mata ke karun krandan se vihwal hokar, usko dasata ke pash se mukta karne ke liye. Yeh bharat wasion ka durbhagya hai ki we Maharani ke jivan se anbhigya hain. Prabha ke pathakon aur vishesh kar navayuvakon ke liye vir ras ki murti shatru sanharini devi Chandi swarupa Lakshmibai ki nispaksha jivani di jati hai.[xi]
Prabha regularly published articles related to Lakshmibai to highlight her as an inspirational nationalist leader. It wrote :
Mansik patan aur dasata ka is se adhik ghrinopadak udaharan aur kya hoga ki Dayar ki murti ke liye Bharat wasion ki thailiyan khul pade aur bharatiya swatantrata ki murti, Bharatiya vipalva ki aadi pujarini maharani Lakshmibai ka gun gan na ho….1857 ki har ne humko british sarkar ka dasanudas bana kira-makora bana diya. Maharani ki mrity kya hui Bharat ki shri hi lupta ho gayi…. Bharatiya swatantrata ki is aawegmayi jwala ko aao ham sab milkar ek bar atyant lajja ke sath pranam karein.[xii]
Some more publications can be cited as examples of this new kind of writing. Balmukund Bajpeyi wrote a book Gora Cham Kale Kam which was published by Pratap Karyalaya, Kanpur in 1925. Since the Gadar Party’s foundation in America and publication of its organ Gadar since 1916-17 considerable literature had come out in print which considered 1857 as the first war of independence. [xiii]
One can notice that by late 1920s the attitude of writers towards the rebel leaders of 1857 had completely been changed and now these leaders were seen as national heroes. In 1928, in an article widely believed to be penned by Bhagat Singh, the Punjabis who had supported the British during the mutiny had been criticized. It was termed as a ‘betrayal’.[xiv] The respect for the sacrifices made by Lakshmibai was openly expressed and the need to work for independence of this country was termed as the real respect for the queen. An article of 1930 clearly expressed these sentiments :
Yadi we (Lakshmibai ) bharatiyon ka, apne deshwasion ka sath na dekar angrezon ki sahayata kartein to aaj koi unhein aadar ke sath smaran na karata….Unka yeh balidan ham kayaron ke hriday mein swatantrata ka bhav bhare. Jis rakchhasi pravitti ke karan unka is prakar ant hua, uska ant kar apne bharat ko swatantra karane mein unka yeh balidan hamari sahayata kare. Aur hamlog swatantra hokar unke prati aadar se mastak ooncha karein. Jab tak ham Bharat ko swatantra nahin karate, tab tak yeh sansar yehi kahega ki maharani ke balidan ka hamane uchit mulya nahi diya hai[xv].
Sundarlal’s famous history booj Bharat mein Angrezi Raj came out in 1928. This book produced a huge impact on contemporary Hindi intelligentsia. It was not an original history book and Sunderlal himself stated that his work was based on Major B. D. Basu’s works. Major Basu not only gave his permission to use his works but also saw manuscripts which Sundarlal showed him before publications. Sundarlal’s work soon became a major publication in Hindi world and it’s impact was so powerful that the British government banned it. The illegal editions of this book, however, remained in circulation among the nationalists and this was a widely respected source of history of 1857. This book gave a detailed history of the struggles of Lakshmibai. He quoted from D. B. Parasnis’s works to narrate how Laksmibai was wrongly treated by the British and how great she was but, he also quoted from English historians’ works and government papers like Jhansi papers to substantiate his story.
The first Hindi literary fiction, which dealt with 1857 situation without bothering much about the British government’s attitude, Gadar, written by Risabhcharan Jain, came out in 1932. In this novel the main protagonist is Ajimullah, dewan of Nana Saheb, who went to London to plead the case of his master. His personal experiences of witnessing the Crimean war convinced him that the real strength of British was its possession of India. In this novel Nana Saheb was depicted as a proud Maratha who fought valiantly against the British. An Englishman Charles had molested Nana Saheb’s daughter and the enraged Martha leader captured him and tore his chest and tasted his blood to fulfill his ‘pran’ (oath). This book was proscribed by the Government for obvious reasons.
Lakshmibai was theme of some plays and stories of 1920s also. But, these plays remained unpublished. These unpublished plays, however, give us a clear idea of how the queen was given a goddess like stature by writers of Bundelkhand before the mainstream Hindi writers gave her this status some years later. Ladliprasad Srivastava’s play ‘Jhansi ki Rani’ was written in 1924 and this play was proscribed by the Government before it could be published. According to Bhagwandas Mahore, who had consulted the unpublished text, in this play Lord Krishna emerged to show his respect for the great queen and took her atma (soul) with him to paradise. The queen’s surviving soldier Ghulam Khan became a faqir who spent his entire life looking after samadhi of the queen. This play was based on Parasnis’ book but these imaginative twists were added by Srivastava to pay his tribute to Lakshmibai. It was common among the folk songs and the stories narrated by the old people of Bundelkand to glorify the bravery of Lakshmibai. This could be confirmed by the most important Hindi poem, written by famous Subhadra Kumari Chauhan, which made Laksmibai a famous name among Hindi intelligentsia throughout India : “Bundele Harbolo ke humne suni kahani thi/ khoob ladi mardani wo to Jhansi wali rani thi.” About Chauhan’s poem we will discuss little later. Another play Prayschit ka phal written by Tulsidatta Shaida treated the heroes of 1857 sympathetically. In one of its three scenes, the atma of Gandhi was seen pained to ‘see’ the defeat and plight of the Indian rebels during the revolt of 1857.The Hindi literary journals started publishing one act plays, plays and poems related to 1857 since 1923. It began with Mangla Prasad Singh’s Sher Singh which was published in Prabha, a literary journal of repute, in July 1923.[xvi] Seth Govind Das’ play Siddhant Swatantrya, written in 1931, can also be considered in this tradition. This play impressed Munshi Premchand so much that he published it in his magazine in two fairly long instalments.
In late 1920s Lakshmibai had become a symbol of defiance to foreign rule and a goddess of liberty. In a major poetic tribute to Lakshmibai a poet Balkrishna Sitaram Tengshe wrote a text of five volumes in between 1925 and 1930. The division of these volumes clearly suggest the influence of Parasnis’ book on the story line but the poet had added the stories which he had learnt from his ancestors.[xvii] In this the goddess of liberty Lakshmibai said : “ Mera to kahana yeh hi hai aazad raho ya mar jao.”[xviii] Ramlal Pamdey, a teacher of Jhansi also wrote a poem in 1925 which was published in a magazine called Matribhumi.[xix]
Probably the most significant publication on Lakshmibai after Parasnis’ book was Subhadra Kumari Chauhan’s book of poems Jhansi ki Rani in 1928. This book was published first from Jabalpur’s Samalochak Karyalaya. After two years, in 1930 a Delhi publisher Bharat Book Agency published this poem which turned out to be one of the best known Hindi poems of all time which seemed to have immortalized Lakshmibai as a great queen and a symbol of liberty for the entire Hindi speaking region. Written by a woman of 22 year, this poem did not add any divinity to Laksmibai and gave details of the story in minimum words summing up the mood of 1857 days. The sheer poetic force was so overwhelming that the ultimate defeat of Laksmibai became somewhat immaterial and the spirit of 1857 loomed large as the reader finished the poem. This Hindi poem summed up the spirit of folk songs popular in Bundelkhand, gave rythmatic details of war, heroic acts of all great rebel leaders- Nana Saheb, Tantia Tope, Kunwar Singh and others and, gave a sense of moral victory of the rebels. To get a sense of the sheer force of a vir-rasa poetry these lines can be seen :
“Sinhasan hil uthey raajvanshon ney bhrukuti tani thi,budhey Bharat mein aayee phir se nayi jawani thi,gumee huee azadi ki keemat sabney pehchani thi, door phirangi ko karney ki sab ney man mein thani thi.Chamak uthi san sattavan mein, yeh talwar purani thi,Bundeley Harbolon key munh hamney suni kahani thi,Khoob ladi mardani woh to Jhansi wali Rani thi. This was a new kind of assessment which marks the advent of a new image of Lakshmibai as the queen of Jhansi who was fighting not for her own but for the people of Jhansi. This image was so far confined to popular songs and folk tales of Bundelkhand region. Now the literary world of Hindi was ready to accept this. We come across to many examples of poems written in 1930s along these lines. A poet Hayaran Mitra wrote : Lakshmi bai ki su smriti ka gata hoon anupam aakhyan / khoja karata hoon Durga ki pad raj pavan punya mahan.”.Another example : Dhanya dhanya Lakshmi maharani dhanya tera balidan tan man dhan nyochhavar karke rakha matribhoomi ka man.”
The most significant Hindi publication based on historical understanding of Lakshmibai came in 1946 when Vrindavan Lal Verma wrote Jhansi ki Rani Lakshmibai.Initially Verma wanted to write a book of history. Later he changed the idea and he used the materials collected for a long time for writing the novel. He writes that his grand mother had seen Lakshmi Bai fighting and she used to narrate the story of the great queen to the young Vrindavan. In this volume of 520 pages he successfully changed the image of Lakshmibai . In his narrative Lalshmi Bai was a popular leader who had consciously tried to ally with rebels to oust the foreigners from Indian soil. She was not a product of feudal culture and she was seen as a person who believed that the Britishers could be ousted by concerted efforts. She had been in close association with Nana Saheb and other rebel leaders as well as the Sanyasis and Fakirs who worked as a carrier of her ideas to her people who adored her. The plan of a nation wide revolt was secretly scheduled on 31 May . But, Mangal Pandey episode brought a premature beginning of the revolt much to the disadvantage of the rebel leaders. The army of Merrut revolted and reached to Delhi to announce Bahadurshah Zafar as the Badshah. When this news reached Jhansi army killed the Britishers who lived in Jhansi. The massacre was an act of the bagi sipahi and the queen had nothing to do with it. Lakshmi Bai had sent a letter to the British Commissioner to say that she was ruling Jhansi on behalf of the English government. But, in Verma’s narrative it was designed to dupe the British. The Britisers soon realiszed their mistake and asked for Lakshmi Bai’s surrender which the proud queen refused to accept. She was encircled by British forces but she pierced through the seize and reached Kalpi. There the feudal forces had been in the helm of affairs and she was worried that the people there were unable to realize the gravity of situation. Later, when Britishers came and Rani’s advice was sought she came forward to lead the defence. While in Kalapi she used to go to Baba Ganga Das’s cottage to discuss about the future of India. Baba advised her not to think too much about the result but to concentrate on her duties. Even if she failed she would be doing great service by becoming foundation stone (neev) of the palace of Swaraj. This inspired the queen and she decided to fight without bothering too much about the result.
This narrative was a continuation of nationalization of Lakshmibai something which Subhadra Kumari Chauhan had tried two decades ago. In this novel, full of local dialogues in which people’s appreciation to what Lakshmi Bai was doing[xx], the story of the struggle of Lakshmibai becomes the story of entire Jhansi : story of Sundar, Rashmi Bai, Bakshi, Jhalkar Bai ( a Koeri by caste), Joohi and Moti Bai ( daughters of a prostitute) all got woven together. The queen got perturbed not by the sight of war but by the destruction of the famous Jhansi library.
Since Vrindavan Lal Verma’s book which turned out to be a classic and hugely popular book the story of Lakshmi bai as a queen who was inspired by the ideals of nationalism Hindi literay world had acknowledged to the image the legends have carried for generations. The queen as a great symbol of Indian war of Independence had been decisively established . After independence a large number of books were written in Hindi which iconized the queen further.[xxi] Some of these books even claimed that the queen did not die and the orginal queen escaped to the Himalayas ! When legend meets history the former gets more prominence. Hindi literature had finally realized the need to saluate the legend of Lakshmibai carried by millions who continue to love this remarkable lady and get inspiration from it.
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