The contested historiography of the 1857 rebellion and its importance in shaping the Indian nationalist imagination make it an excellent entry point into an investigation of nationalist pasts and their archival bases. This paper examines a concatenation of influential narratives of different genres that have become critical sources for a history of the rebel leader Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi and for configuring her as an icon of heroic Indian womanhood. It places each of these sources, ranging from late nineteenth-century Marathi texts to mid-twentieth-century Hindi narratives, within their specific spatiotemporal setting and highlights the contradictory regional projects underlying apparently smooth nationalist narratives. Through a close examination of the making of the Lakshmibai archive, the author argues that a consideration of the editorial and textual practices that went into the making of reliable and usable archives for a modern historiography is critical to the unpacking of nationalist historiographies.
Of the many rebel leaders of the Great Rebellion in 1857–58 against the East India Company's rule, perhaps the most enigmatic is the rani (queen) of the small state of Jhansi, Lakshmibai. Lakshmibai lost her kingdom to the Company under Lord Dalhousie's doctrine of lapse when her husband, Gangadharrao, died in 1853 with only an adopted heir. When Company soldiers stationed in Jhansi rebelled and killed all the Europeans in June 1857, Lakshmibai took charge of the state. A few months later, she joined the rebels Nanasaheb and Tatya Tope in fighting the British and died in battle in early 1858.
The historiography of the rebellion is well known for the polarity of positions about its status as a mutiny or political revolt and for the sheer volume of source material, ranging from official documents to personal narratives. Personalities of the rebellion, such as the Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar (Dalrymple 2006) or the rebel sepoy Mangal Pandey (Mehta 2005; Mukherjee 2005), continue to fuel scholarly and popular debate about their motives and actions. The rebellion's representations are also remarkable for the British and Indian nationalist imaginations that they have fired from its immediate aftermath to this day. The historiographical intensity of this episode makes it an excellent entry point into an examination of nationalist historiographies and the making of authoritative archives for the narration of momentous events and pasts.
I undertake such an examination in this paper by considering closely the historiography on Rani Lakshmibai, who is prominent in these nationalist imaginations. Colonial discourses presented her as an Orientalized Jezebel who justified the brutal peace that Britain established after the rebellion (Jerinic 1997; Sharpe 1993; Singh 2002). In the dominant Indian nationalist narrative, she has emerged as a heroic mother battling for her son's patrimony, an iconic figure in the gendered representations of the modern Indian nation. Layers of these representations have encrusted around the figure of Lakshmibai for a century and a half.1 I attempt here to peel back these layers to peer closely at some of the intellectual practices and political contexts that have produced this powerful nationalist narrative on Lakshmibai. Rather than a quest for the “original Lakshmibai,” I seek instead to point to the contradictions that underlie such a search. This paper is not a survey of all the major works, scholarly and popular, on Lakshmibai or Jhansi. Instead of dwelling on the most well-known representations, such as V. D. Savarkar's Indian War of Independence (1909) or Subhadra Kumari Chauhan's rousing Hindi poem Khoob ladi mardani woh to jhansiwali rani thi,2 this paper takes up a particular concatenation of influential prose writings in Hindi and Marathi to examine closely the transmission of information about Lakshmibai. This archival excavation, accordingly, begins with the more recent representations and digs its way back to some formative writings of the late nineteenth century. In so doing, it places each layer in its own spatiotemporal context and calls into question the apparent smoothness and gradual accumulation of objective knowledge about Lakshmibai's life and actions. Through a close examination of the making of an archive about this particular moment in history, I wish to highlight here more broadly the multiple and often discordant projects that underlie such apparently coherent pasts, along with their very archival building blocks.
Vrindavanlal Varma, Jhansi ki Rani (1946)
Among the most powerful representations of Lakshmibai is the Hindi novel Jhansi ki Rani (The Queen of Jhansi) by Vrindavanlal Varma (1889–1969), a progressive nationalist and lawyer and one of the most prolific novelists of the twentieth century. A native of Jhansi whose grandfather fought with the rebels, Varma was a constitutional moderate and active in Jhansi's local politics from the 1920s, and although he began writing at this time, much of his well-known work was produced from the 1940s onward.3 His numerous historical novels all celebrated events, personalities, and battles from central India and gave a modern historical coherence to the cultural region called Bundelkhand. Indeed, seeking and bringing to light this “Bundelkhandi” past was the overarching theme binding all of Varma's novels, but his novel on Jhansi was his magnum opus. As it is one of the most influential of the nonscholarly layers on the revolt in Jhansi and its queen, let us begin with this novel.4
Stirring writings about Lakshmibai's valor had appeared in Hindi from at least the 1880s.5 Varma's novel, however, successfully normalized Lakshmibai as a nationalist heroine. She was one among many female heroic characters in his novels who represented an idealized Indian womanhood and was constructed as the gendered site par excellence of a progressive Indian modernity with deep roots in tradition.6 Indeed, his novel served to produce the local depth and national contours of this tradition, even as it historicized the heroic figure of Lakshmibai. A principal feature of the modern historical novel in many Indian languages was that its creators saw their task as being simultaneously historical and literary. Historical novelists sought not only to contribute to literature but also to enrich the historical record. Varma was the pioneer of this form in Hindi and, like many of his contemporaries in other languages, approached the past with a mixture of conviction and curiosity. He was dismayed at biased colonial sources that revealed only fragments of Lakshmibai: Diplomatic correspondence suggested that she had negotiated for peace with the company until the very end, while many memoirs blamed her for the massacre of British women and children. Neither explained why she decided to arm against the company or how had she become a skilled horsewoman and military strategist in spite of being a Brahman widow. Varma sought sources and answers to these questions that would enable him to narrate a fuller, fleshed out story that he was sure existed: Along with colonial archives, he also sought Indian perspectives. He relied heavily on D. B. Parasnis's Marathi biography of Rani Lakshmibai for basic information. He also used a memoir by Vishnubhat Godse, a Marathi Brahman man who was in Jhansi in early 1858 and wrote in detail about its siege and recapture by the British. In Varma's own words, he harassed countless old men for their memories. His creative talents, then, would be harnessed to bring these fading memories, attractive for their immediacy and presumed as authentic, to historical light. These archival efforts would later serve both as preface and as appendix, and as the armor of authenticity for the novel. Indeed, it is this claim to verisimilitude that underwrites the novel's authority as a historical source.
Varma placed Lakshmibai within both an immediate and a long-term historical context. He began with a brisk genealogy of the Marathi-speaking chiefs of Jhansi, who had migrated to central India as part of the military expansion by the eighteenth-century Maratha state of the Deccan and set up many such small principalities. The last head of this empire, the Peshwa Bajirao II, had himself settled in Bundelkhand after the British defeated the Marathas in 1818; Lakshmibai's father was part of the retinue that moved there with him. Born in 1832, she grew up with the Peshwa's adopted son, Nanasaheb, the other infamous rebel of 1857.
Throughout the novel, Lakshmibai invokes a genealogy of resistance that spans both this longer Maratha history as well as a more local past. She worships both heroic Maratha rulers such as Shivaji as well as those from Bundelkhand such as Chhatrasal, who resisted Mughal expansion into their territories. She is, like them, an Indian patriot, part of a common history. Through this genealogy, Varma gives her actions in 1857 roots and meaning. He also explains small empirical details within a larger nationalist framework. For instance, a Mr. Martin wrote from Agra to Lakshmibai's son, Damodarrao, well after the revolt, declaring that she had had no hand in the massacre of Europeans at Jhansi. This letter, first used by D. B. Parasnis in 1894 after he acquired it from Damodarrao, was regularly quoted thereafter as proof of Lakshmibai's innocence in later nationalist histories. Historians, however, were not able to ascertain how Mr. Martin had known of Lakshmibai's innocence or how he had managed to escape the massacre, thus casting some doubt on the letter's reliability. In Varma's novel, all is explained:
The battle raged on the second day as well. By evening the British had nothing left to eat. They scoured every inch of the fort but found nothing…. They sent word to the Rani pleading hunger.
The Rani had rotis prepared. She told Kashibai, “You must take these to the British somehow. You know all the secret routes. Take only Sundar and Mundar with you. Light a torch wherever necessary.
The women knew of the Rani's benevolence, but hadn't seen how limitless it was. Kashi asked respectfully, “My lady, would the British have helped us had we been in their place?”
The Rani replied, “Why become like them? Moreover, I don't want to spoil our future plans by starving them now.” She smiled….
The three friends loaded the food on to their backs and took them through the tunnels to the British…. One of them was a man named Martin, who had seen where they came from. When they came again the next day with food, he quietly followed them, and then escaped to Agra. They didn't even realize that he had done so. (1946, 179)
Varma, therefore, presents Lakshmibai as humane, and he emphasizes this humanity as a mark of her difference from the British colonialists, even as he explains how Martin knew of her innocence of the massacre. Other such examples abound in the novel.7 Establishing this coherence in the narrative of the past, achieved through the creation of imaginary but appropriate characters, conversations, and plot situations, is certainly one of the primary objectives—and chief attractions—of the historical novel and one of the reasons that its historicity has to be studied together with its literary qualities.
If clarifying cause and effect is one means through which this fullness is achieved, another is by rendering historical events and personalities quotidian, palpable, and familiar. Varma treated small bits of information in the archival record as points of entry into a more elaborate world, emphasizing these traces as tantalizing glimpses of what must have been. First, this brought the people of the time into sharper relief: In the novel, Lakshmibai's attendants smile, joke, and get infatuated with rebels, and when ordinary Jhansi residents are not burning with the desire for rebellion, they pray, listen to music, and appreciate the beauty of spring. Second, this technique powerfully brought home the poverty of the archival record, even as Varma relied heavily on it to buttress the novel's own flights of imagination and his own analysis. For example, he interpreted a surviving letter from Lakshmibai asking colonial officials for permission to conduct her son's thread ceremony as being, “in reality,” a cover for a political meeting of rebel leaders (Varma 1946, 116–17, 151–53). Without this explanation, the letter meant little; at the same time, it served as the ultimate, elusive proof of Lakshmibai's strategic plans for revolt.
Varma expertly used the device of conversations in regional dialects and colloquial expressions to discuss social attitudes, enabling readers to “hear” voices from the past. The novel peoples the past, as it were, with all the diversity of Bundelkhand: Varma's characters belong to different castes and religions and speak in different dialects. This, needless to say, also gave the rebellion deep popular roots. Through these conversations, Varma critiqued both colonial racism as well as the feudalism of many native princes. He criticized Lakshmibai's husband's arbitrary rule: Gangadharrao callously pokes fun at the efforts of the lower castes to adopt the sacred thread and banishes a Brahman man and an untouchable woman from his kingdom for conducting a scandalous love affair (Varma 1946, 34–47). Gangadharrao is a typically decadent feudal chief in the novel, preoccupied with the stage, dancers, and playacting in general.
Lakshmibai articulates, by contrast, Varma's own vision of anticolonial utopian possibilities, albeit from a reformist, middle-class Hindu position. Jhansi is also imagined as a space of interreligious harmony in the novel under her benevolent rule. Hindus and Muslims in Jhansi do not clash for public space during religious processions, and they are equally loyal to the queen, who is deeply pious herself but respectful of all faiths (Varma 1946, 208–9). At the end of the novel, it is a Muslim soldier who protects the spot of her cremation from being desecrated by calling it the site of a holy Muslim saint (338).
Although Varma placed Lakshmibai within an unproblematic Indian nationalist genealogy of medieval patriots, the novel nevertheless had to negotiate some thorny questions of regional particularities and national unity. Part of this had to do with Varma's own modernist and democratic discomfort with the rebel sepoys’ dreams of restoring the empire. Indeed, the idea of the “people,” and the power of their aspirations to goad princely rulers into rebellion against colonialism, is a prominent theme throughout the novel. Elsewhere, Varma also tried to rationalize the rebels’ invocation of Mughal rule in the early twentieth-century vocabulary of centralized government and provincial autonomy:
[Tatya Tope told the Rani,] “I met a lot of eager Muslims; they say that the Empire should be established again in Hindustan. I said, ‘Swarajya’ [self-rule] and Empire can actually co-exist. When they asked, how, I said that people would establish their own rule in their regions and provinces, and while the Emperor could certainly intervene in them, his seal would be on inter-provincial issues and big matters. His own rule would extend only to the areas around Delhi. All the provinces and regions will fight jointly in the name of self-rule and the Emperor against a common outside enemy, and this is how together, they will govern Hindustan.” (1946, 129)
Nation and region, however, were also negotiated through the figure of Lakshmibai. Although she lived and ruled in Bundelkhand, Lakshmibai's immediate social world was peopled with Marathi Brahmans and their customs. Delighted that a Marathi drama company would be visiting Jhansi, the queen's attendant Mundar says,
“My lady, the play will be in Marathi!”
The Rani said, “Marathi in Jhansi! It is true that there are Maharashtrians in large numbers, that is fine, and those people may well have a play staged for their entertainment; but the company will find royal patronage only if they stage the play in Hindi. I might have been born in a Maharashtrian family myself, but I think of myself not as a Maharashtrian but as a Vindhyakhandi. Hindi is the language of my Jhansi. The play will happen if it is in Hindi, I won't tolerate it if it isn't. This is my decision.” (1946, 230)
Given his location in the “Hindi heartland” of India, Varma's brisk pruning of Lakshmibai's Marathi roots would seem to point to the familiar demand for homogeneity and assimilation that the nation makes on its regions. By placing her within the Maratha genealogy of Shivaji and the Peshwas, Varma certainly appropriated this regional history for the wider Indian nation and dissolved her complex roots in it. Nevertheless, this passage also reveals residual local anxieties about Jhansi and Bundelkhand's own claims to her. Rather than simply see Varma's novel as an assimilatory nationalist narrative, it also has to be understood as expressing its own regional vision of the Indian nationalist past.
Critics have lauded the strong women characters in Varma's fiction and his insistent focus on the physical courage of Lakshmibai in particular. One of the achievements of the novel was its successful straddling of the masculine world of the battlefield and the feminine world of the queen's boudoir. Building on fragmentary historical references to women's contributions to the rebel military effort at Jhansi, Varma detailed Lakshmibai's plans to train all her attendants for battle, and throughout, these ordinary women fight alongside the men, even as they giggle and fuss over flowers. Lakshmibai shows an unusual interest in military matters and statecraft, which her doting father indulges from her childhood. At the same time, she is a maternal figure for all around her, and she finds the time to cook special dishes and feed her son amid all the strategic planning.
Varma's depiction of Lakshmibai was informed by the progressive, Hindu reformist approach described earlier, which allowed him to project into the past both the need for social reform as well as the proper limits of such reform. His elaboration of the carefree childhood that nurtures Lakshmibai's interests underscores the necessity of female education and the importance of cherishing daughters alongside sons. Through Lakshmibai's contempt for her husband's frivolities, Varma also underlines her independence of thought and conviction. And yet, the novelist disciplines Lakshmibai into a model, if progressive and educated, nationalist widow whose likes and preferences are in the service of a higher political cause and who is unwavering in her chastity and devotion.8 Her abrupt transformation from excitable tomboy to determined mother after a brief marriage to a man several years her senior is accepted as natural in the text. This traumatic thrusting into adulthood through early marriage and childbirth was a common experience for young Marathi Brahman girls of the mid-nineteenth century, including for Chimabai, the girl whom Lakshmibai's father, Moropant Tambe, married at the same time that she married Gangadharrao. In glossing over the painful realities of early marriage and enforced widowhood with Lakshmibai's own eager austerity and political determination, Varma drew on a century-long moderate, reformist Hindu discourse that advocated ascetic widowhood as a desirable, and suitably progressive, middle ground between the radical poles of immolation (sati) and the right to remarriage (Chakravarti 1989, 1998; O'Hanlon 1991).
Vrindavanlal Varma, then, rendered existing fragmentary narratives into coherent and pleasurable yet historical common sense about Lakshmibai, Jhansi, and the rebellion. It is, to reiterate, the novel's powerful claim to verisimilitude that has rendered his work just as authentic, and yet more authoritative, than the stirring poetry of Chauhan, which invoked local Bundela ballads as its claim to truth. Fact and fiction have blurred not only in the novel but also in its enthusiastic reception, and Varma has emerged as one of the central authoritative figures on the subject, with fiction writers and biographers after him explicitly citing him as a biographical source for their narratives on Lakshmibai.9 Imagining a utopian past within an explicitly realist frame, the novel is an excellent example of how the modern historical novel in different Indian languages did the work of history, in terms of authoritatively depicting the past as it (surely) had been while simultaneously molding it to fit a desired nationalist imagination.
D. B. Parasnis, Jhanshi Sansthanchya Maharani Lakshmibaisaheb yanche Charitra (1894, 1938)
The next layer in this excavation of the Lakshmibai archive is Dattatraya Balawant Parasnis's Marathi biography of Lakshmibai, Jhanshi Sansthanchya Maharani Lakshmibaisaheb yanche Charitra (A Biography of Queen Lakshmibai of Jhansi), published in 1894. The first detailed study of Lakshmibai in Marathi, this text served as a crucial source for information, as well as a point of departure, for Varma's novel. Parasnis was a participant in the new discourse on history among Western-educated intellectuals in late nineteenth-century Maharashtra that sought to create a modern Marathi historiography based on patriotism, pride, and positivism (Deshpande 2007). Parasnis was a leader in collecting and editing materials as well as in fashioning self-consciously modern narratives out of them.10
Fear of colonial reprisal had prevented anybody from attempting a truthful history of Lakshmibai before him, Parasnis noted, but several “nasty rumors” about her in both colonial sources and their native imitators had spurred him to write an authoritative biography (1894, 2–3). The heavy reliance on a mixture of sarcasm and unctuous loyalism in his critique of British and Indian actions during 1857 suggests that this fear of reprisal was still present when Parasnis wrote. His main argument in the biography was that the British had misunderstood Lakshmibai. She had taken charge of Jhansi not as a rebel but to rule in the Company's name. Although forced to defend her city when colonial forces besieged it in March 1858, she had never meant to oppose the Company in the first place. Indians seeking their glorious past had to take pride in her courage, he argued, but also contest colonial historians who painted her as a scheming rebel (17–28). Varma would completely reverse Parasnis's argument in his novel, even as he relied heavily on the information in it.
Studied alongside its Hindi translation (1938), this late nineteenth-century Marathi text enables us to examine closely the textual transmission of historical sources and the anticolonial and regional-linguistic frameworks informing it. Parasnis's historical method fell on the cusp between existing Marathi historical writing and new Western practices. For instance, he provided extensive footnotes, most of which discussed the reliability of his sources and how he had procured them. However, he also quoted liberally from secondary sources or important treaties within the main text, often without any accompanying citations (Parasnis 1894, 3–4, 68–80). In so doing, he was continuing the earlier practice of Marathi bakhars (historical prose narratives) in seamlessly transmitting earlier sources into newer ones (Deshpande 2007, 28–32, 114–17). These notes reveal an emergent historical imagination through the experimentation with techniques of history writing and changing attitudes toward questions of transmission. Parasnis went back and forth between an older method of claiming authority through a respectable informant and Rankean empiricism. Therefore, in some places he cited Lakshmibai's son Damodarrao as his informant, whose authority derived simply from the fact of who he was. However, Parasnis's trump card for establishing Lakshmibai's innocence in the massacre of Europeans was that no documentary proof pointed to her involvement (1894, 121, 125–26).
Parasnis's attention to his sources was both intellectual, in terms of their importance for a modern historical method, and political, as an Indian counterpoint to colonial narratives of 1857. Eyewitness accounts were powerful in underwriting the authority of colonial histories. Constructing an alternative narrative of 1857, therefore, also involved constructing an authoritative archive: Parasnis mentioned a few narratives he acquired from “knowledgeable and intelligent” people in Gwalior, Indore, and Jhansi, in addition to information supplied by Damodarrao. He also paraphrased extensively from the as yet unpublished memoir of Vishnubhat Godse, who had been in Jhansi during the revolt. Parasnis did not mention Godse by name even once but simply described the source of the information variously as “a native gentleman,” “a well-read and intelligent man,” and “an old servant of the Rani's who witnessed these events” (1894, 13, 147, 190). At several points where he cited a source as being an “Ujjain manuscript,” he was also, in fact, quoting from Godse (152, 154, 194). It is possible that Parasnis kept Godse's name private in order to avoid bringing any undue attention to him from the colonial authorities. However, this anonymity and the different descriptions of the same text also conveyed the impression that his sources were many and varied and, moreover, that they were authoritative and eyewitness accounts. Godse's account formed the backbone of the latter half of Parasnis's biography and allowed him to claim an authoritative archive for his analysis.
Parasnis also took up “unfounded rumors” about Lakshmibai's husband Gangadharrao's alleged effeminacy. (As noted earlier, Varma's novel was to obliquely summarize these as an inordinate fondness for playacting.) He dismissed them, arguing lack of proof:
A lot of people have a lot of opinions about Maharaj Gangadharrao. However, after perusing the matter carefully we realize that because Maharani Lakshmibaisaheb turned out so courageous, people have cast aspersions on her husband. It is natural that a woman's bravery will cause people to suspect her husband of lack of potency or manliness. But this does not warrant unfounded accusations. We have no proof as to the veracity of the stories about [Gangadharrao]. What's more, there appears to be a misunderstanding. Some say he wore bangles! The truth is that he often said, “Now all of us princes [defeated by the Company] have to wear bangles.” (Parasnis 1894, 38–39)
Such a quip to the British resident about how the Company had disempowered all the Indian kings, he went on, had simply been blown out of proportion. Parasnis, therefore, not only dismissed any bazaar gossip about Gangadharrao but also turned to Lakshmibai's femininity to quash any rumors of her husband's alleged effeminacy.
Parasnis also harnessed Lakshmibai's battlefield skills to a specific regional politics of caste and masculinity. The regeneration of masculinity, of course, was critical to anticolonial nationalism more generally (Chowdhury 1998; Sinha 1995). However, asserting martial courage among Brahmans in particular, especially through the historical exploits of the Peshwai, also figured prominently in the writings of Marathi Brahman nationalist historians of the late nineteenth century, in the face of both colonial and, increasingly, non-Brahman discourses that identified Maratha military skills with kshatriya (warrior) qualities (Deshpande 2007, 177–95). Parasnis's text repeatedly described Lakshmibai's overwhelming kshatriya-ness, even as it upheld her as a Marathi Brahman chieftain, thus claiming this legacy of martial qualities not only for Maharashtra but also for its Brahmans (1894, 177–82, 331, 346).
Unfortunately, the Hindi translation of Parasnis's biography provides no information about the translator, and it is a good hundred pages shorter (Parasnis 1938). There are no explanations in the text for this condensation, but a close reading of the two versions of the biography reveals the different temporal and regional contexts within which Lakshmibai's story was invoked. The abbreviated translation smoothed out some of the historiographical “scaffolding” in Parasnis's original and its ambivalence about the relative reliability of sources by simply removing his discussion of the existing literature and many of the footnotes. Where the original had been unsure about some facts, the Hindi translation was now quite certain.11 Published at the height of the nationalist movement, more than thirty years after the original and nearly a century after the rebellion, it was much more forthright in its criticism of British motives and actions during and after 1857.
The Hindi translation also placed much less emphasis on the broader Maratha history of the two previous centuries. In the Marathi original, Parasnis expressed dismay that Lakshmibai's story had gone unheard in Maharashtra, when Marathi people had “special reasons to feel affectionately towards [her]” (1894, 5). Reclaiming Lakshmibai's heroism not just for an Indian national but also a Marathi regional narrative of pride was one of the themes running through Parasnis's work; to this end, he placed Jhansi's eighteenth-century history and its changing fortunes under the Company within a wider history of Maratha expansion and decline. The Maratha conquest of central India became, in this narrative, part of a national Hindu resistance against Mughal rule, yet Parasnis was also keen to argue that these expansions “demonstrated to everyone that we Maharashtrians were radiant, valorous and had pride in our dharma” (12). When the rebels captured Gwalior in 1858, the ruler Shinde, who had remained loyal to the Company, fled, and Raosaheb Peshwa proclaimed the revival of the Peshwai itself. The rebels, however, quickly lost this advantage when Shinde brought in reinforcements, and Lakshmibai was killed in the battle that followed. Although Parasnis was careful to laud the eventual colonial victory, he dwelt at length on this Peshwa revival, invoking past campaigns and glories in detail through Lakshmibai's own voice and even lauding Shinde's loyalty to his sworn lord, the Company (276–77).
The Hindi translation was untroubled by these specific Marathi historical demands, but it did have some of its own. It severely abbreviated Parasnis's excursions into Maratha history and recast some of his arguments. The Maratha arrival into Bundelkhand thus appeared here as the result of the local ruler Chhatrasal's generosity in giving them land for helping him fight the Mughals (Parasnis 1938, 25–26). Similarly, while it acknowledged the Peshwa's “national” service, it was much more straightforward in its criticism of Shinde's decision not to rebel in 1857 than the Marathi original had been:
Had the ruler of Gwalior cared to recall the long, cordial relationship of service to the Peshwa since the beginning … he would have helped him. But he did not. He ignored the pleas of Raosaheb, the descendant of the glorious Peshwa who established self-rule and protected his faith; instead he honored his relationship with foreigners and those of foreign faiths and protected his own rule. This matter is worth considering carefully in India's history. (1938, 206)
The 1938 Hindi translation of Parasnis's biography, then, was much more than the simple transfer of content to another language, but it is this abridged version that many scholars of 1857 and the events in Jhansi have referenced in their works, albeit without any discussion of these divergences.12 And yet, diverge it did; it bore the marks of the passage of time and a more stridently anticolonial political environment, emerging more confident in its assertions. Its incorporation into a Hindi regional-linguistic domain also imprinted Bundelkhand's local claims to nationalist history more strongly on it than the Maratha legacy that the original text had invoked. Lakshmibai's heroism-cum-vulnerability served in the Hindi version to illuminate a generically Indian or Hindu womanhood, glossing over the Marathi original's caste-inflected anxieties about effeminacy. As such, the translation served as another smoothing layer in the accumulating nationalist narrative about Lakshmibai, Jhansi, and 1857.
Chintamanrao Vaidya, ed. Maza Pravaas: San Athrashesattavan Saalchya Bandachi Hakikat (1907)
We now turn to the memoir by Vishnubhat Godse, the Marathi Brahman who was present in Jhansi in 1857–58, which would prove a crucial source of information for both Parasnis's and Varma's narratives. It was another modern Marathi historian, Chintamanrao Vaidya, who commissioned this memoir in the first place and brought it to Parasnis, then edited and published it in 1907 as “My Travels: A History of The 1857 Revolt.” Godse was Vaidya's family priest. Vaidya asked Godse to write down his experiences in 1884 in exchange for a hundred rupees.13
We cannot ascertain what Vaidya's brief to Godse was, or the extent to which it influenced Godse's composition. The edits that Vaidya made to Godse's narrative when he did publish it, however, suggest that even if both had agreed on either a memoir of his travels or a history of the rebellion, there remained a considerable gap between Vaidya's expectations and Godse's submission.14 In his introduction to the text, Vaidya pointed out that eyewitness accounts by Indians were critical to a future, truthful history of 1857 and to counter biased British sources. He went on to clarify,
I must say that I have made very few changes to the original text. I have corrected the language in some places and written it according to contemporary usage, and I have edited out some places where I felt the information was excessive. But on the whole one may say that the text remains the original. Only in two places I have added five or ten sentences of my own, and those two are in keeping with the original text. (Vaidya 1907, 3)
A closer look reveals that this was at best a conservative, and at worst a disingenuous description. Vaidya's sweeping changes alert us not only to the deep nationalist impulses underlying modern historiographic practice in India, they also force us to consider more carefully the methodological complexities through which manuscripts identified as primary sources entered a modern, authoritative archive for South Asian history.
Vaidya corrected Godse's prose for grammar as he transcribed the manuscript from the longhand Modi into the print-friendly Nagari script, and, along with chapter divisions and titles, he also inserted Sanskrit couplets as epigraphs and Marathi couplets within the text. He heavily embellished descriptions and added excited utterances. He inserted details of Lakshmibai's horse-riding skills and elaborated on the grandeur of her palace. Vaidya despaired at the preoccupation with ritual in the Marathi Brahman world in central India. Criticizing the rebels’ reliance on astrologers for their battle plans, he editorialized (in Godse's voice) that this superstition had definitely declined in recent decades:
There is no doubt that twenty-five years ago the condition of Hinduism and people's faith in it were quite different. And it is also true that today such a formidable rebellion would not have erupted just over the issue of cartridges. It would indeed seem strange today that when British battalions were marching from the South and rushing from all directions and on tree after tree guilty and innocent dead bodies were swinging, people were thinking of feeding Brahmans and occupied with calculating the arithmetic in long rolls of horoscopes to find out auspicious dates. But then religious belief was so firm back then that people trusted the sacred fire to the sharpness of the sword and were convinced that the auspicious moment would take care of the enemy. (Vaidya 1907, 30–31)
Although critical of its superstitious excesses, Vaidya was struck by this world's grandeur and envious of Godse for having glimpsed it. To the description of a Brahman gathering in Gwalior, he added, “I got to see these extraordinary gatherings of scholars, which was quite an elusive privilege” (25).
Vaidya was thus attracted and repelled by the very recent, and yet very distant, history of the people he understood to be his own ancestors. In several places, he changed Godse's “Hindustan” to “uttar Hindustan,” reflecting the expansion of this geographic-cultural category in his own nationalist imagination. Most importantly, Vaidya transformed the manuscript into an eyewitness memoir of the rebellion. He rearranged and edited the chapters to foreground the section on Jhansi and altered the text to suggest Godse's own presence at various events, even where Godse revealed other sources for his information (Vaidya 1907, 28).
Vaidya abbreviated Godse's descriptions of Gangadharrao, retaining only the king's quip to the resident about the general loss of power among Indian chiefs that Parasnis, too, had discussed, and a throwaway reference to his impotence (1907, 48). His approach to Lakshmibai, however, was rather more complex. Although he embellished Godse's descriptions of Lakshmibai to emphasize her essential vulnerability in spite of all her courage (80–81), he did not celebrate her austerity and patriotism in an idealized widowhood. Instead, Vaidya focused on her unhappy and loveless marriage. He interpreted her widowhood as “freedom,” emphasizing that it was her husband's death and the release from his restrictive bondage that allowed her innate leadership qualities to find true expression (56–61). Vaidya's interpretation thus remained imbricated in contemporary constructions of devoted, nationalist womanhood, and yet it allowed Lakshmibai's widowhood itself to serve as a site for imagining anticolonial, modern possibilities, and for rejecting the feudal degeneracy and oppression that her husband stood for. In later nationalist representations, the emancipatory possibilities of Lakshmibai's widowhood would be foreclosed in the face of their disciplinary potential, as writers such as Varma would harness her widowhood to emphasize nationalist devotion, chastity, and austerity.
In 1948, it was this heavily edited version of Godse's travelogue that the novelist Amritlal Nagar translated into Hindi. The title that Nagar gave it, Ankhon Dekha Gadar (An Eyewitness to the Revolt), suggests that Vaidya succeeded in his effort to produce Godse's text as an authoritative source for the rebellion. Like Varma, Nagar, too, sought sources of the rebellion that would allow him to navigate an acceptable middle path between narratives of fanatical mutineers and of nationalist wars of independence.15 His search anticipated the subalternist approaches to the rebellion, and he was delighted with the vividness and energy of Godse's memoir, albeit as presented by Chintamanrao Vaidya. Nagar's translation made very minimal changes to the Godse/Vaidya text, occasionally smoothing details of village and caste that Godse had provided for some people in Jhansi and simplifying them into “Marathas” (Nagar 1948, 51). He did, however, remove even the fleeting reference to Gangadharrao's impotence, as well as Godse's observation that the prevalence of impotence in Bundelkhand, a result of the poor quality of the water, had turned the local women toward adultery (Nagar 1948, 54; Vaidya 1907, 51). Regional-national considerations underlay Nagar's approach to the text as well. He retained a lot of the Marathi vocabulary and idiom in his Hindi translation, and he defended this in the preface as a means of both retaining fidelity to the original and of enriching the national language (Hindi) itself (Nagar 1948, 8). Nagar's translation was to prove a landmark event, as it was through his Hindi version that most of the later scholarship on the rebellion in Hindi and English would access Godse's remarkable text and make it the preeminent primary source from an Indian perspective of the events across Bundelkhand at the time.
Vishnubhat Godse, Maza Pravaas: Athrashesattavan Bandachi Hakikat (1884, 1966)
And so to the final layer in our excavation, Vishnubhat Godse's unabridged Maza Pravaas, which Datto Vaman Potdar published in 1966.16 A poor young Brahman from the town of Varsai, Godse's family had been in service with the Peshwai but ridden with debt. Godse traveled north to Gwalior with his uncle in March 1857 in search of income from a religious ceremony to relieve this debt burden. Instead, he found himself amid the great upheaval. His text, written over two decades after he returned to Varsai, defies easy classification. A chronological account of his travels, it is also an analysis of the rebellion. Unfolding events shape his itinerary, but so does the urge for pilgrimage. His prose is rich with emotion with not infrequent touches of humor and irony. His own voice, constructed as that of a disinterested observer caught up in events not of his making, comes startlingly close to that of a modern travelogue. Yet Godse's overall conception of the rationale for his journey, his political analysis, and his narrative prose remain firmly rooted in an older world that was changing rapidly under colonialism by the time he wrote. He was a penniless traveler outside colonial power structures, with a worldview that was aware of political shifts yet unclear about their wider implications. At the same time, as a Marathi Brahman, he had relatively privileged access to a century-long network of pilgrimage and migration in the Gangetic plain. Indeed, the rebellion was by no means the narrative's organizing principle; the last section of the text, which Vaidya was to exclude, focused almost exclusively on his pilgrimage to various holy places.
Godse went north with a mixture of nervousness and excitement. Although the Gwalior ceremony was cancelled, he headed to Jhansi and found patronage with Lakshmibai. Godse witnessed General Hugh Rose's capture of Jhansi in March 1858 and nearly lost his life to the invading soldiers. He left Jhansi frightened and penniless for Kalpi to the north, only to witness Rose capture this city as well. From there, Godse and his uncle went to Bithur, then to Chitrakoot, but they were robbed a couple of times. In Banda, they narrowly escaped being hanged as rebels, then traveled with Tatya Tope's retinue for a while, and then completed the sacred pilgrimage to Prayag, Kashi, and Ayodhya, also visiting Lucknow. In early 1860, he returned home after nearly three years.
Godse drew heavily on the narrative tradition of the Marathi bakhar, a prose genre that sought to make narrative sense of the past (Deshpande 2007, 19–39). In keeping with the form's descriptive strategies, he crafted plausible conversations between his characters and embellished them with emotional outbursts in direct speech. He harnessed his literary talents to convey particular moods or the horror of events, regularly emplotting important events in well-known mythical tales. For example, he plotted Nanasaheb Peshwa's flight from Bithur following the Kanpur massacre in the idiom of Rama's exile from Ayodhya, describing the entire city in mourning at his departure, underscoring both the tragedy of the event and Nanasaheb's charisma (Godse 1966, 49–52). Along with his own experiences, Godse also included details of rebel actions from other places and cited his sources through familiar bakhar categories of “knowledgeable people” or “well-spoken, intelligent Brahmans” (32, 36, 56, 140–41). His detailed description of the siege and of the atmosphere of death and fear after the British sacking of Jhansi is graphic and very moving.
Godse interpreted the rebellion as a dharmic response to British interference in Hindu and Muslim religion and inheritance. He was awestruck by Lakshmibai and waxed eloquent about her efficient administration as well as her love of long baths (Godse 1966, 60–67). His assessment of the rebellion's outcome was, like the conclusions of many bakhars, a moral one:
[Nanasaheb said that] he would not give the order for the women and children to be killed. In no time or kingdom has the practice of killing women been sanctioned. Hearing this speech, however, the soldiers couldn't contain themselves and rushing to the prison these cruel Chandalas killed all the women and children will swords and guns. They sent letters ordering that the women and children of the whites that were under capture should be killed…. And so in Jhansi, Delhi, Agra and elsewhere the white women and children were killed. At that time the great wise and old men began saying that this time we had hoped that the black people would be victorious and the whites would go back to vilayet and Hindu-Musalmani would reign once again. But those hopes have now been dashed because the Vedas and the Shastras forbid the killing of women. Instead this cruel act has ensured the failure of the black people. (43–44)
Exonerating Nanasaheb Peshwa of the massacre, Godse nevertheless laid the blame for the failure of the revolt squarely on the rebels themselves. Jhansi, in his view, suffered especially because of the long-term moral pollution generated in the town:
This is how I understood it. There are too many impotent men in Bundelkhand. Either for that reason or because of the soil itself, the women are adulterous. Plus, what with Jhansi being the capital, it had become very polluted. Recall the episode I narrated earlier about the sweeper woman. But through Lakshmibai's leadership, the Lord ensured that the city was purified. Now the earlier disabilities no longer remain. (107)
Godse had heard a story from local priests about an affair between a local Brahman and a sweeper woman from the days of Madhavrao Peshwa (in the late eighteenth century). With the Brahman's help, the sweeper woman seduces all the Brahmans in town and retains evidence of their affairs with her; when her liaison with the first Brahman is uncovered and they face imprisonment, she defiantly unfurls the evidence, thus casting the entire Brahman community into shame. Afraid that the Peshwa will find out and pronounce a heavy penance, the two principal offenders are cast out of the city and the rest purified with appropriate ceremonies (Godse 1966, 68–72). It was this episode that he invoked as a moral transgression when trying to make sense of the chaos all around him in Jhansi.17
Godse also speculated about Gangadharrao's alleged impotence and elaborated in some detail his fondness for dressing and living as a woman for several days every month, complete with saris, jewelry, wigs, and menstrual segregation. He described a conversation between the Jhansi chief and the British resident, who asked him about his unusual behavior. In a quip that has been alluded to earlier, Gangadharrao told the resident that this was nothing strange, as the British arrival had led all the big rulers of the subcontinent to wear bangles; he was but a small chief! Godse did not relate this alleged effeminacy or impotence to Lakshmibai's masculine qualities of battlefield bravery. He noted that despite the freedom available to her, Lakshmibai remained chaste and devout, but her fondness for male dress and her status as ruler generated no special commentary in the text. It was in describing her desperate situation after escaping from the Jhansi siege that Godse turned to her femininity. Just a few miles outside Kalpi, he tells us, Lakshmibai got her period while on the road. She had no money or clothes and was unsure about how to approach Raosaheb Peshwa for help; at such a time, it was not surprising that she would burst into tears (Godse 1966, 96–97). Despite Godse's formulaic descriptions of various women as chaste and dutiful or his speculations about adulterous Bundelkhandi women, Lakshmibai's individual personality is not reduced in his narrative to a template of idealized womanhood, whether Marathi, Bundelkhandi, or Indian. Although he takes literary recourse to her femininity to emphasize her helplessness, she emerges primarily as a benevolent ruler and strategist.
Godse clearly viewed Hindustan as a cultural sphere distinct from his own. He didn't speak the language well and relied heavily on “our people” (Dakshini Brahmans, in his words). At the same time, he was aware that the holy places on the Ganga that he visited were within a shared sacred geography as the Narmada and Godavari closer to his own home, and he was familiar with the history that had produced this Marathi network in Bundelkhand. He employed colonial administrative terms and knew of British suzerainty. Yet he also traveled almost exclusively within the older Maratha world of patronage to Brahmans and the memory of Peshwa power. He identified people by loose geographic-cultural regions, but his negotiation of these regional differences was not, as it was to be in later narratives by Parasnis, Vaidya, and Varma, in a nationalist vocabulary of an overarching, subcontinental Indian-ness. Instead, it was closer to Indo-Persian theories of moral ecology, with the very water available in Bundelkhand generating sexual and political impotence, and thereby both moral and political decline in his analysis (Bayly 1996, 25–26; 1998).
Godse returned after his travails with only a large pitcher of Ganga water and very little money. He wrote down this astonishing narrative in 1884 at Vaidya's behest, but he died without receiving the money he had been promised. Conducting its own rather remarkable travels through various textual expressions over the last century or more, however, his memoir has come to serve as an important foundational text for a nationalist archive and imagination of 1857. This is a fulfillment that Godse himself almost certainly never would have imagined. Maza Pravaas provided an on-the-spot, documented view of Jhansi in revolt and the suffering of ordinary people. Most importantly, his details of Lakshmibai's everyday routine helped nationalist discourse “rescue” her from obscurity as well as condemnation in colonial documents as a defeated, cruel feudal chief. She could, with his text produced in the archive as an authoritative Indian eyewitness primary source, be fixed not just in legend and memory but also in history as a benevolent and patriotic queen.
In uncovering these particular layers of the Lakshmibai narrative, it is easy to dismiss Vaidya's editing of Godse's text as a young nationalist's fabrication of a document to fit his political ends, to criticize Parasnis for exaggerating the extent of his sources, or to fume at a shoddy, abridged translation of Parasnis's detailed biography. Parasnis's own contemporaries, in particular, were none too sure about his scruples in gathering sources (Khobrekar 1972; Sarkar 1955). Taken individually, each of these examples could be critiqued as simply being bad scholarship, but I would venture to suggest that taken together, these practices were more ambiguous and invite deeper exploration of the emergence of an archivally based Indian historiography.
Before colonial education, scribal transmission necessarily involved the updating of texts for form and content, adapting them to current circumstances, and incorporating older texts into new ones. The notion of authorship encompassed both composer and copyist. However, led by Indological scholarship in the mid-nineteenth century, modern scholars sought to break with older scribal methods; the idea of a pure text shifted from refining its content to a complete lack of interference with it, with a split between author and copyist/editor (Novetzke 2003). The modern idea of an original manuscript and author, the importance of fidelity to this original through quotations, citations, and the careful mapping of separate manuscript versions, dates, and copyists in editing and commentary gained currency.
Yet the world of manuscript gathering, editing, and printing remained much more diverse, at least in Maharashtra and arguably in other regions as well. As nationalists hunted out all manner of documents for publication, this decentralized and unregulated research activity took many different forms. Editors chose from multiple copies to create master documents and gave long, dense manuscripts titles and chapter divisions. In keeping with earlier scribal practices, they often “corrected” language and expression. Others published documents with legal affidavits attached as to their pristine, untouched condition (Deshpande 2007, 114–24).
The search for authentic documents matched the hunt for desirable documents that, nationalist historians were convinced, were out there. This search generated impatience with documents when they didn't conform to the real narrative that was firmly believed to exist outside the text and underlined the argument that it was just a question of the proper document being brought to light. It was in this wider environment that Chintamanrao Vaidya edited Godse's text; historical methods and imperatives from different sides of the colonial divide collided in his approach to it. Although his desire to turn Godse's narrative into a reliable primary source stemmed from a colonial-modern environment, Vaidya used older scribal methods in order to achieve this goal. In this he was not alone; in 1892, Kashinath Pandurang Parab issued the fifth edition of the Marathi translation of James Grant Duff's famous 1826 work, History of the Mahrattas. Writing well after Marathi historians had unearthed fresh information and critiqued a number of Duff's arguments, Parab wished to incorporate these changes to “improve” the text. He lamented, however, that the Director of Public Instruction's stipulation that the original could not be altered had prevented him from doing so; he only corrected the spelling of a few names, which he went on to list.18 The Hindi translation of Parasnis's biography, too, “updated” it for current times and for its own regional audience. As we have seen, it recast and pruned many of Parasnis's excursions into Maratha history; many of the Marathi couplets that had adorned the original were also replaced with Hindi ones throughout the text in the translation. While circulated and used within a firmly modern historiographical environment in the 1930s, it continued to employ an older method that this modern historiography consciously attempted to supersede.
Historical novels were critical to the normalization of nationalist pasts into historical common sense. Straddling historiographical and literary spheres, many novels simultaneously created the narratives they firmly believed existed outside the available archival record. Varma's creative yoking of his wider imaginative reconstruction to visible traces in the historical record underlined the idea that the archives were only the tip of the iceberg, that with the right combination of conviction and creativity toward these traces, the truth in all its detail would be revealed. These documentary traces continued to anchor imaginative stories, but their ultimate authority was also undercut, as they were deemed incapable of fully revealing the past. Nationalist fictions and convictions, then, could trump historical proof, even as they successfully sought to contribute to this broader reconstruction of the past. That such convictions have shaped, and continue to shape, South Asian politics in recent decades, from Somnath to Ayodhya within India and beyond, is well known (Thapar 2005).
Varma's Hindi novel on Jhansi and the Hindi version of Parasnis's biography, when contrasted with the Marathi writers and materials, also serve to highlight here the multiple local and regional contexts that produced self-consciously nationalist expressions. Varma sought to simultaneously localize and nationalize the events of 1857–58 in Jhansi. He gave the rebellion a deeper social and linguistic texture even as he elevated a local chief into a nationalist heroic pantheon, as many “Walter Scotts” in other Indian languages were doing with similar local chiefs and heroic histories.19 This process of localizing the national and vice versa, however, was fraught with anxieties; it involved negotiations between the contested claims of different regions and communities to specific narratives and figures.
These claims have expanded in recent decades to include those of Dalits in Uttar Pradesh through the figures of lower-caste viranganas (women heroes) who fought British forces during the revolt. The most prominent of these is Jhalkaribai, a woman of the Kori caste in Lakshmibai's entourage, believed to have served as Lakshmibai's look-alike and decoy, thus enabling the queen to successfully escape during the siege. Seeking archival basis for these counternarratives of 1857, Dalit representations of Jhalkaribai have invoked Godse and Varma as proof of her historicity (Gupta 2007, 1743; Narayan 2006, 119). Yet she is absent from all the incarnations of Godse's text, which only refer generally to Lakshmibai's female servants. It was Vrindavanlal Varma's novel that first evoked Jhalkari textually as a loyal companion, one who dutifully served her queen by putting her own life in danger. He, too, tapped into existing local memories of Lakshmibai's dramatic escape, some of which undoubtedly included the Jhalkari story. He learned about the popularity of Jhalkari's exploits among the Kori community and mentioned having met her own grandson (Varma 1946, 344). Her caste status and dialect formed part of the Bundelkhandi social and linguistic landscape that he sought to present. As noted earlier, Varma's statements about collecting these local memories are generalized, making it difficult to match any one recollection or its source to a particular event in the novel. However, it is testimony both to the success of his historical-literary project and to the importance of the historical novel within nationalist narratives more broadly that, rather than cast a cloud of doubt on the novel as a whole, this ambiguity has enveloped the entire text with the aura of truth. As Gupta and Narayan have shown, much of the later twentieth-century Dalit literature on Jhalkaribai retained Varma's basic nationalist kernel of the Jhalkari story but inverted it—in this Dalit discourse, it is Jhalkari's patriotism, her masculine valor, and her initiative that enable Lakshmibai and Jhansi to rebel.
Finally, the approach in the different texts with regard to Lakshmibai's womanhood suggests the complex and shifting transactions between gender and community—regional, caste-based, or national—in the construction of heroic histories.20 Later texts annexed particular fragments from Godse's descriptions of the individual personalities of Lakshmibai and Gangadharrao to larger arguments, albeit with contradictory, discordant notes. Vaidya's detailing of an essential femininity through Lakshmibai's vulnerability nevertheless saw an emancipatory potential in her widowhood. Parasnis emphasized her bravery to counter suspicion of her husband's impotence, but he also employed her womanhood to underwrite her innocence in the rebellion. Varma, by contrast, determinedly smoothed her widowhood and unconventionality into a single-minded, devout nationalism. All these representations erased any hint not only of Lakshmibai's sexuality but also that of Gangadharrao, whose lifestyle as described in Godse's text became, in later narratives, at best a misunderstanding, and at worst a marker of feudal decadence.21
Scholarship on the emergence of a modern Indian historiography has emphasized the deep epistemological break that came with colonialism and the dominance of statist and majoritarian concerns in nationalist narratives (Chatterjee 1993; Lal 2004; Nandy 1995). Although precolonial narrative traditions have received close attention in the context of their creative heyday (Guha 2004; Rao, Shulman, and Subrahmanyam 2003; Wagoner 1993) and Orientalist underpinnings and governmental practices (Dirks 2001), their impact on nationalist historiographies, as well as the complexities of editorial method in the making of usable sources, have received much less attention. This paper has identified three kinds of textual transmission that went into the making of a nationalist archive and an enduring, popular history of Rani Lakshmibai and Jhansi during 1857: the editing and publication of a narrative identified as a primary source, the translation of a published history into another language, and the absorption of historical materials into a creative work of fiction. These narrative practices, self-consciously undertaken as both modern and nationalist, have informed the emergence of modern historiography since the nineteenth century and have been critical to the creation of a valuable, usable corpus of narrative sources from previous centuries in many different Indian languages. In probing closely some of the contradictions that informed this dispersal of historical ideas and truths about Jhansi and 1857, I have argued for a more textured transition from early modern to colonial-modern forms of historiography and the complex intersection of the local, regional-linguistic, and national in shaping an Indian nationalist narrative.
For a partial list, see Durga Prasad Mishra (1884), Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (1909), Mahasweta Devi (1956), D. V. Tamhankar (1958), Joyce Lebra-Chapman (1986), and Tapti Roy (2006). There are numerous other works in different Indian languages, including two films in Hindi and one in Telugu (Modi 1953; Gautam 1956, Sathyanand 1988).
See Subhadra Kumari Chauhan (2000, 56–65): “Bravely she fought, the queen of Jhansi!” This long ballad on Lakshmibai by Chauhan (1904–48), the poet famous for her rhythmic and rousing nationalist verse, is the most oft-quoted of her writings and the most well known of Lakshmibai's popular representations. The collected works do not specify the date when it was composed.
As a member of the Liberal Party, Varma was a critic of Gandhian civil disobedience. He participated in the loyalist Aman Sabhas that proliferated across the United Provinces after World War I and served on the Jhansi district local board from 1936 to 1952. Varma contested the national elections in 1952 from Jhansi but lost. On the Aman Sabhas, see Peter D. Reeves (1966). For a detailed overview of Varma's politics, literary outlook, and oeuvre, see Shashi Bhushan Singhal (1989).
Many later historical and fictional works in Hindi and Marathi, too numerous to list here, draw extensively on Varma. I have chosen his novel as exemplary of a popular historical imagination precisely for the influential role it has played in the last few decades.
The earliest that I have found is by Durga Prasad Mishra (editor of the weekly Uchit Vakta, the “cheapest Hindi newspaper in the world … with enormous circulation”), who emphasized the Rani's bravery and the uniqueness of a beautiful young woman battling British rule (1884). The author's name also appears as Durga Prasad Sharma on one of the front pages. Early texts such as this one in Hindi and other languages may, of course, be examined for their anticolonial or nationalist content and are important to the wider development of nationalist perspectives about 1857. For reasons of space, and to sharpen the focus on how particular writings and sources became critical to the nationalist narrative about Lakshmibai, this paper restricts its analysis to the texts by Varma, Parasnis, Vaidya, and Godse.
Many of Varma's novels were titled after heroic women from central India, such as Virata ki Padmini (1933), Mrignayani (1950), Ahilyabai (1955), Maharani Durgavati (1961), and Ramgarh ki Rani (1961).
The reason for the massacre led by the daroga Bakshish Ali, for instance, is explained as revenge for a humiliating public beating from a British officer (Varma 1946, 180). Similarly, Lakshmibai and other leaders set the date for simultaneous rebellion across northern India for May 31, 1857 in the novel, but the sepoy Mangal Pandey's “unfortunate hurry to rebel” (by firing at his British officer at the Barrackpore cantonment on March 29) destabilizes these plans (173–74).
The one reference to the regular ritual head shaving required of Brahman widows at this time is also harnessed to Lakshmibai's political goals. She wishes to have her head shaved so that she can wear male dress more comfortably, but colonial officials refuse to allow her to travel to Benares for the ceremony (Varma 1946, 150).
Many Hindi critics have treated Varma's text as biography (Singhal 1989, 81). A recent English example is Tapti Roy's Raj of the Rani (2006). Roy seeks to narrate both the life and the legend of Lakshmibai together, and Varma's novel uncritically forms the backbone for the sections that have no archival sources.
Parasnis wrote several books in English and Marathi, including Sri Mahapurush Brahmendraswami Dhavadshikar: Charitra va Patravyavahara (1900), Musalmani Amadanitila Marathe Sardar (1900), The Sangli State (1917), and he coauthored, with C. A. Kincaid, the multivolume History of the Maratha People (1918–25).
For example, Parasnis is not sure about whether the jail daroga’s name was Bakshish Ali; the translation, however, simply states it as such (1938, 54).
Recent scholarship has pointed to the power relations that inform translation practices more generally and the complex functions of abridgment and erasure in making literary texts accessible to a new readership (Sadana 2007; Niranjana 1992). Acknowledging and closely examining the distance traveled by translations from original texts and their ideological environments is particularly critical for historical narratives pivotal to the archival knowledge of particular, momentous events, and debates about their historicity (Eaton 2003).
Vaidya was the author of The Mahabharata: A Criticism (1904), The Riddle of the Ramayana (1906), and The Downfall of Hindu India (1928), among other works in English and Marathi. According to Vaidya, the lawyer Mahadev Apte advised him in 1884 against publishing Godse's text in order to avoid any government reprisal while Godse was still alive. He shelved the project until 1907, after Godse had died, and paid his son the promised hundred rupees (Godse 1966, xxi–xxii).
In this article, this heavily edited version of Godse's text is cited as (Vaidya 1907), and the unedited text, issued by Datto Vaman Potdar, is cited as (Godse 1966).
This is now a rich strand of analysis in rebellion historiography (Bhadra 1985; Mukherjee 1985; Roy 1994), emphasizing in the main the multiple motives for revolt among different classes and in different regions across northern India. An early biographical text in this approach was the Bengali novelized biography by Mahasweta Devi (1956). Nagar himself published an account of the stories he collected across Awadh about the rebellion (1957).
The original Modi manuscript is preserved at the Bharat Itihasa Sanshodhak Mandal, Pune, where Chintamanrao Vaidya deposited it in 1922.
This story is similar to the one in Varma's novel about the banished intercaste couple who became Lakshmibai's spies during the rebellion. This would suggest that Varma might have had access to Godse's original manuscript. It is more likely that both drew from stories retold in the Jhansi area and recast them for their own historical explanations (Varma 1946, 36–40).
This introduction was appended to the preface of the sixth edition that Parab issued in 1916, adding that it had been published “exactly as before,” without making “any important changes” (Parab 1892).
Laudatory biographies of several pioneering historical novelists in India usually label them the “Walter Scott” of their language, as was the case with Bankimchandra Chatterjee in Bengali or Hari Narayan Apte in Marathi. At least two critics refer to Varma as Hindi's Walter Scott (Saxena 1982, 75; Sahay 1982, 653).
As Charu Gupta has pointed out, contemporary Dalit histories of 1857 foregrounding the viranganas continue these shifting transactions. They not only disrupt dominant nationalist constructions of gender and community identity by displacing the Brahman queen with her Dalit counterpart, but also they have the potential for allowing Dalit women themselves to stake stronger, feminist positions and to critique caste as well as patriarchal oppression in society, including within Dalit communities (Gupta 2007, 1744).
Godse's narration of local memories and rumors of Gangadharrao's lifestyle resonate with Abdul Halim Sharar's description of the nawab of Awadh Nasir-ud-din Haidar (r. 1827–37) as an effeminate man given to dressing and living as a woman (Sharar 1975, 57). While Sharar's account draws heavily on nineteenth-century Orientalist depictions of Awadh's decadence and Godse's draws on local knowledge in Jhansi, it is notable that both rulers, shorn of their political authority by the Company in the years preceding the rebellion, are represented through these gendered images of emasculation. Given their geographic and temporal proximity, it is worth probing more deeply the links between such existing, local, precolonial interpretations of political decline in the vocabulary of physical impotence and Orientalist representations of native princes as effeminate and degenerate. In this sense, Parasnis and Vaidya may well have been correct in interpreting Godse's details about Gangadharrao as a metaphor of political impotence, even though their nationalist approach also led them to suppress these details from their own appropriations of Godse's text. I thank Manan Ahmed for bringing the Nasir-ud-din reference to my notice and for helping me clarify this point.