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Mirabai temple at Chittor

Mirabai in Rajasthan
by Parita Mukta

“Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is
firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And the
enemy has not ceased to be victorious.

Walter Benjamin, “Illuminations”

THE legend of Mira, the sixteenth
century Rathori princess who took to the
life of an itinerant singer, has it that on
more than one occasion, she survived
attempts on her life by the ruling Sisodiya
family of Mewar into which she was
married. That Mira, who rejected marriage
to the Sisodiya prince and declared her
love for Krishna, was able to withstand
these threats to her life within her own
lifetime is remarkable enough. What is even
more remarkable is that the memory of Mira
has been kept safe and has continued to
be evoked through the centuries of
Sisodiya rule, in the midst of repression
by the Rajput rulers. There has been a
systematic attempt by the Rajput princely
family, and more generally the Rajput
community in Rajasthan, to blot out the
name of Mira within its own social fabric
and within the society over which it held
Women bhajniks in village Chandravads, district Jamnagar, Saurashtra
power. This was demonstrated to me time
and again by the various people I spoke you now.” experiences recounted, that those who
to and questioned in my attempt to Similar to the experience of Bhattnagarji were tied in a dependency, in different
reconstruct a social history of Mira. is the experience of Chothuji Bhat, who ways, to the dominant Rajput community,
Bhattnagarji belongs to a family of comes from a family of travelling had to tread warily and not evoke the
killedars who have been fortkeepers of puppetteers, and who for many years memory of Mira, for fear of losing their
Chittorgarh from the thirteenth century. earned his living by travelling and livelihood. That men from the dominant
Bhattnagarji continues living within the performing. About 15 years ago, he was Rajput community exercised this power to
fortress of Chittor, and his experience is travelling through Rajasthan, and called a attempt to suppress the memory of Mira is
an important indicator of the way Mira’s halt at Sisodiya Ka Kheda, a village near significant enough. It is also the case that
name was socially obliterated within the Chittorgarh. Chothuji did not then know women from within the Rajput communities
state of Mewar. He now works in the the social make-up of the area, and, as have expressed a hostility to what Mira
finance department of the collector’s was his custom, he began singing about stood for.
kacheri in the town of Chittor. Mira, in order to rally a crowd round him In a village called Dagla Ka Kheda near
He began by laughing about the irony to encourage them to gather and view his Chittorgarh, a group of Bhatti women were
of discussing the history of Mira within puppet show. “People round about started incensed when I asked whether one of
the state office where he was working. He shouting that if this is what you want to their daughters was called Mira and
was emphatic that it would not have been sing, you’d better leave the village. I was whether a girl child would ever be named
permissible to do so while working for the confused till an old man came to me and Mira. The negative answer was given in
princely state. He stated that no one with said, ‘You’re a poor man, come here to earn an outraged tone. Embedded in the name
any link to the princely state would have your keep. This is a Sisodiya village. of Mira for the majority of Rajputs even
dared utter the name of Mira. “No, we were Wherever there are Sisodiyas, you must today (though not for the middle class
not told not to. We knew not to. The not sing about Mira. They still think that Brahman and Bania communities of today
people who gave us jagirs, who paid me, Mira blemished their name.’ All this time, amongst whom the name of Mira is popular
remained silent on the history of Mira. I some people kept on shouting, that by in the same way that the name Puja or Arti
know that if anyone had dared to talk singing what I had (it was about Mira, I is) is a woman who was a widow, but who
about her, he would have been thrown out remember, I don’t remember, the exact refused the norms governing widowhood,
of state service. Sing Mira’s bhajans? How bhajan) I had humiliated them. (Yah hame a woman who laid aside the kul maryada,
can one sing or hear the bhajans of niche jhukane ki baat hai.) From that and who brought shame on her kul. The
someone whose name is not to be uttered? time on, I stopped singing Mira bhajans kul (and those with loyalties to that kul)
In earlier times, I myself would not have in that region.’’ have responded by attempting to obliterate
talked freely about Mira as I am doing to It is clear from these two, and other her existence.

NUMBER 50-51-52 (January-June 1989)

Mira leaving Chittor, by Kanu Desai, a
student at Gujarat Vidyapith, founded by
Gandhi. How then has Mira’s memory been
kept safe and alive in Mewar? And why?
It has been retained in a sphere of life over
which the rulers could not wield direct
power — the sphere of religious
expression, of bhakti and bhajan singing,
into which the rulers did not intrude.
These bhajan gatherings are
composed of women and men from
communities with similar social
backgrounds. They congregate of an
evening, after the day’s labour, to
participate in a collective bhajan sharing
under one roof. These gatherings take
place on particular occasions — at
Ekadashi, regularly in the months of
Sravan, Kartik, at the birth of a child, during Mira leaving Chittor, by Kanu Desai, a student at Gujarat Vidyapith, founded by
a period of mourning. Gandhi
Within these bhajan gatherings, it is — weavers, leather workers, Dangis, Patel, riches and her thereafter taking to a life of
not only Mira bhajans which are sung, of Jats, Dhakars, have collectively, in the poverty. This has led to an alignment with
course. But the singing of Mira becomes a singing of Mira bhajans, kept her memory her by the poor, who have seen in her
political act when it is sung, as it is in alive. action an alignment with their own
Mewar, by the subordinate sections, of Who will take the leading role in a conditions. Secondly, the ostracism and
peasant and artisan origin, who bhajan session, depends on a variety of harsh suffering Mira suffered at the hands
understand that to sing Mira is to flout factors; at the home of Huki Kodra Patel, of the Rana — the cup of poison and snake
ruling Rajput authority. The bhajniks of there were more women then men gathered, sent to destroy her, symbolishing the
Mewar are aware of the fact that they, and with the women very much in the forefront, repression she faced — have enabled
only they, have retained Mira. interjecting comments and discussing the those who were at the receiving end of the
Huki Kodra Patel, a 60 year old widow themes of the bkajans in the lull between. rule by the Ranas of Mewar to identify
who lived on her own, tilling nine bighas Usually, it is older married women or with her, and articulate through the Mira
of unirrigated land in the village of Pahara widows who participate with zest. Rarely bhajans the immorality (as they see it) of
near Kherwara, said at a bhajan gathering have I seen unmarried women do so. the Ranas’ rule. Thirdly, Mira’s acceptance
held in her house: “They sing only of their Sometimes the women are very visible, of Rohidas as guru, her breaking of caste
warriors and battles”, pointing in the forming half the gathering, but not taking and class boundaries, has made for an
general direction of Udaipur, “We sing part in the public singing or in the playing alliance between her and the Dalit
Mira.” “On the bus to Deolia, a group of of instruments — manjira, ektara. The older communities. Fourthly, Mira’s choice of a
Od women, brick kiln workers in Udaipur men would do so. relationship with Krishna, in sharp
who were on their way to Pratapgarh to In a society which does not give much opposition to the marriage to the Rana,
fetch someone recently widowed to her worth to the life of any individual woman, Mira’s refusal of the status of widowhood,
marital home, on being told my work, sang the upholding of Mira over more than 400 are all articulated through bhajans, which
a number of Mira bhajans with great years gives us a tradition of hope and contain strong statements on personal
intensity. One of them, Partapi Modhu Od, challenge in which a woman is remembered liberties for women. The bhajniks of
said: “Mirabai made Raidas, a Chamar, her to have survived for her own truth in the Mewar perceive the Rana of Mira’s songs
guru. Obviously the Rajputs could not face of a virulent opposition. as her husband. They sing some bhajans
tolerate this.” There are four elements to the bhajans which are not Mira compositions but are
Again and again, the bhajniks sung by the peasants and artisans of cast in a dialogic rnode between Mira and
reiterated that the “Thakurs” would never Mewar, which I can only briefly delineate other bhaktas. One such bhajan which
sing Mira. “They tried to kill her for having here, but which I hope to pursue more upholds the assertion of Mira runs like this:
brought shame on their name. Why should systematically in a forthcoming work. There is dust rising up in the distance,
they sing of her?” Both women and men Firstly, Mira’s rejection of the Rana as Mirabai, there is dust rising up in the
from the subordinate sections of Mewar husband, and her rejection of a life of distance. You are bound to the name of

Hari. immersed in a spiritual unity with Krishna,
and the dilution of the tensions inherent
It is a procession of jogis, Mirabai, it in her history.
is a procession of jogis. There is a lamp lit It was due to Tod too, that interest in
to Hari in every home. the fortress of Chittor arose. It was
renovated, so that what we see today is a
It is not a procession of jogis, Mirabai, nineteenth century renovation and
it is not a procession of jogis. There is a reconstruction. Within this century arose
lamp lit to Hari in every home. the myth that the temple in Chittorgarh near
the Kumbha Shyama temple, was built for
It is a marriage party from Mira by Rana Kumbha, deemed to be her
Chittorgarh which is arriving, Mirabai, husband. In this mythification, the Rana,
it is a marriage party from Chittorgarh Mira’s husband, is supportive of her
arriving. You are bound to the name of choice of a relationship with Krishna. This
Hari. choice is not seen as involving a negation
of marriage to the Rana, but as coexisting
Lay aside these tattered rags, Mirabai, harmoniously side by side with it.
lay aside these tattered rags. Drape Thus, Mira, so long reviled by the
yourself in the garment sent by the Rana. Sisodiyas, began to be incorporated in
their official history, with the challenge
Drape the garment round your contained in her message smoothed out.
slavegirl, Rana, drape the garment round It was not, however, until 1955 that a
your slavegirl. These tattered rags are in The cardboard cut-out of Mira in the cardboard cutout figure of Mira was
the name of Hari. inner sanctuary of the Mira temple at installed within the temple designated
Chittor “Mirabai mandir.” This was done with
Lay aside your garland of tulsi, would be to accept servitude to him. Her the official patronage of Lalsinha
Mirabai, lay aside the tulsi garland. Tie mocking of the wedding ritual by offering Shaktawat, a Sisodiya Rajput from village
on the necklace sent by the Rana. him her left hand (one can scarcely imagine Jagat at a stage of his political career, when
a greater insult in a society which deems he was an MLA, from 1952 to 1956. Thus
Tie the necklace round your slavegirl, the left hand dirty and inauspicious) is the Mira was reinstated in the bland cardboard
Ranaji, tie the necklace round your ultimate rejection of the Rana as groom, shape of a smiling devotee in the very
slavegirl. This tulsi garland is in the name and the ultimate flouting of his authority. fortress that she had sworn never to set
of Hari. The two oppositional spheres — the foot in again.
total rejection of Mira by the ruling This reinstatement of Mira took place
Join your left hand with me, Ranaji, Sisodiya family and the people’s after Mira had become a national symbol,
join your left hand with me. My right hand upholding of Mira in the midst of Sisodiya mainly through the importance placed on
is for Hari. rule — began, slowly, to come together in her by Gandhi through his political
the nineteenth century. It was a speeches and writings during the
The lord of Dwarka has married me, contradictory process though, and anticolonial struggle, in which he depicted
Ranaji, the lord of Dwarka has married remains riven with conflict even today. Mira as a “paramount satyagrahi.” Those
me. I have taken to saffron because of him. Colonel James Tod, the British Political Rajputs rapidly losing their power, and
Agent of Mewar from March 1818 to June showing a willingness to change
I have found a guru in Rohidas, I have 1822, began the process of the according to the political climate, could ill
found a guru in Rohidas. I am bound to romanticisation of Mira’s history. He wrote afford to (neither did they have the power
the name of Hari. the Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan to) deny Mira as strongly as they had done
in which he glorified dominant Rajput earlier. The history of Mewar became
The bhajan seems to reconstruct the martial values such as honour and linked to two very different symbols—
accepted version of Mira’s life, by making chivalry. In the Annals, Tod lauds Mira as Rana Pratap, and Bai Mira. Despite this
her a single woman who rejects marriage the “most celebrated princess of her time official recognition granted to Mira, as I
altogether, rather than a wife leaving her for beauty and romantic piety.” Tod have shown earlier, the Raj-puts at the
husband’s home, or a widow. Her taunting reduced Mira’s history to a “romance” and village level to this day continue to feel
advice to the Rana to give his gifts to his this paved the way for the idealisation of threatened by what Mira stood for.
slavegirl suggests that to accept them Mira solely as a mystical, romantic bhakta, Within the religious expression of the

NUMBER 50-51-52 (January-June 1989)

upper caste middle class, Mira is a recent beloved Mohan? I have become attached
phenomenon, of a depth of no more than to your face.
60 years or so. Gandhi, particularly in I married my loved one and achieved
Gujarat, but more widely in the cultural an indestructible relationship. I
revivalism that accompanied the political annihilated the fear of widowhood,
Struggle for independence, was crucial in beloved Mohan. I have become attached
elevating the image of Mira as the chaste to your face,
lover and ideal wife who quietly bore the Mirabai is blessed. My one hope rests
torture inflicted on her by her husband and in you. Oh, I am fortunate beloved Mohan.
who at last won him over to her truth by I have become attached to your face.”
her acts of “satyagraha”: In Gujarati, the bhajan is extremely
“...Mirabai...forsook her husband ...and powerful: “parni ne randavu pachhu...”
lived a life of absolute love. Her husband and “randavano bhay taadiyo re, Mohan
at last became her devotee.” (Collected pyara...” hit at the very raw nerve of
works of Mahatma Gandhi, Navajivan widowhood. The expurgated version in the
Trust, Ahmedabad, 1966, Vol. 13, p. 442)
Painting by Ravishankar Rawal
shows a Mira in white. The rela-
tionship Mira lived out and broke
away from her family for, is here
reduced to the household worship
of an image.

“Ecstasy” (left) and “Dedication”

(right) by Kanu Desai. Both in-
sidiously feed into the notion of
woman as seductive in her chas-

the Ashram Bhajnavali containing a

number of Mira bhajans. In this Ashram Bhajnawali sounds nothing like
Bhajnavali, one of the most popular and this, and it is possible that it was so
‘’Mirabai is said to have offended her critical of the Mira bhajans, still sung expurgated because the term used for
husband by following her own conscience, throughout Gujarat and Saurashtra, has widowhood is the same as the term for
was content to live in separation from him been edited in such a way as to remove prostitution (“randavu”) Be that as it may,
and bore with quiet dignity and the challenge it poses to the institutions the edited version involves not merely
resignation all the injuries that are said to of marriage and of widowhood. The still deletion of words, but obliteration of the
have been done to her in order to bend her popular and extant original bhajan is as critique of the institution of widowhood. I
to her husband’s will. Both Prahlad and follows: give below the translation contained in the
Mirabai practised satyagraha... “Ashram Bhajnaval”, (Collected Works
neither...had any ill will towards their “I have become attached to your face, of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 44, pp. 449-450.):
persecutors...Mirabai [is regarded as] a beloved Mohan, I have become attached “O dear Lord, I love Thy face, as soon as I
model wife.” (Ibid, Vol. 17, 152-153) to your face. saw Thy face, the world became useless
In the sphere of music, Vishnu I saw your face and the whole world to me and my mind became detached from
Digambar Paluskar did much to integrate appeared sour to me. My mind, though, it. The happiness that the world gives is
the singing of bhajans within the classical was illuminated. I have become attached like a mirage, one should move about
tradition and gave to the Mira bhakti a to your face. deeming it of no account. Mirabai says:
new form and a new social base. Paluskar’s The householder’s happiness is an Blessed Lord, my only hope is in Thee and
pupil, Narayan Moreshvar Khare, went to ephemeral one. ONE weds and becomes a I consider my-self fortunate (in that I have
reside at Gandhi’s ashram and he edited widow. Why should I go to his house, seen Thee face to face.) 11-11-1930.”

Gandhi, who “read a profound meaning distorted conceptions of woman as
in widowhood”, and whose message to supplicant, woman as dancer, woman as
widows was: “Look upon your widowhood pliable lover.
as sacred and live a life worthy of it,” The expression given to Mira by the
(Collected Works, Vol. 16, 1919-1920 women and men of the subordinate
Navajivan, pages 233 and 234) could not sections of society against the forces of
have accepted a total rejection of the state upper class and caste slander and
of widowhood. repression is now under a new threat. It is
In the sphere of the visual arts, there being eroded in the face of the onslaught
has been a similar attempt made to portray of a technologically orchestrated
Mira in a way which appeals to the religiosity, in the ubiquitous sale of
aspirations and the morality of the rising prerecorded cassettes, and in the steady
middle classes. Ravishankar Rawal and imposition of a monolithic religious
Kami Desai were two artists who did this ideology propagated by television and the
most prominently in Gujarat. Ravishankar state. The looser, less hierarchical, less
Rawal’s philosophy was to inculcate centralised and more egalitarian
through art an appreciation of his expression within which Mira has survived
interpretation of the moral values all these centuries needs to be actively
embodied in Gandhian ethics. Rawal’s supported and nurtured if we are to retain
philosophy, translated into paintings, an integral part of our past which can
depicted woman as seductive through her Cover of an LP record shows enable us to shape and evolve a future
chastity, appealing through her purity. Mira in widows’ white, denying encompassing the experiences of all those
Within this hypocritical portrayal, he also her the saffron. She is sub- who continue to suffer degradation, and
blended the image of Mira. Kanu Desai to whom Mira holds a particular meaning.
sumed into a Bhakti conducted
painted a folio on Gandhi — and, It is incumbent upon us all to fan the spark
separately, on Mira. Kanu Desai gives us by widows in the family. of hope in the past—and to keep the dead
an image of Mira which feeds into safe from the enemy.

NUMBER 50-51-52 (January-June 1989)