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Raj of the Rani
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From the Back of the Book

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. In the uprising of 1857 which came to be known as the First War of Indian Independence, she was a singular figure in a gallery of heroes. Rani Lakshmi Bai also became the protagonist in a different kind of story-fiction by British writers to dramatize the horrific experience of the mutiny to which an Oriental queen, full of passion, added a thrilling dimension.

But despite her incredible, career it took eighty years for Indians to write a comprehensive description of Rani Lakshmi Bai's life. It was not because she was forgotten but that people who lived in her time did not leave any writing behind and the few who knew her were too afraid of reprisals to profess links with her.

How did a young Marathi woman come to wield so much influence in a strongly Rajput dominated region in the grip of an alien power?

The life of the warrior queen has inspired historians, writers and more recently, film makers. But for the first time, in biographer Tapti Roy' s vivid rendition, Laksnhmi Bai is Located within the Wider Context of her time and space.

About the Author

Tapti Roy has taught history in Kolkata, and in Dubai where she currently resides. She is the author of The Politics of Popular Uprising- Bundelkhand in 1857 and the article Disciplining the Printed Text: Colonial and Nationalist Surveillance of Bengali Literature, in texts of Power- Emerging Disciplines in Colonial Bengal. She used to write a weekly column titled Cause, Culture and History for the Asian Age.

Preface

They say in Jhansi that the best thing that ever happened to their town was Lakshmi Bai. This town, a major railways junction in the province of Uttar Pradesh that is close to 400 years old, and links western India with the east through a network of railway lines, still feels that it owes its fame to a young Rani who ruler for four-and-a- half years. Spread out of the shadow of the fort, Jhansi palpably keeps alive the memory of the Rani with her image on horseback imprinted all over. She is at crossroads, on hoardings splashed across the sky, in parks, at the base of the fort, her ubiquity confirming what people believed.

Association with her has also brought fame. Outside the railway station is the bust of Vrindavan Lal Verma, winner of the Padma Bhushan for his literary works in Hindu, who is best known for his novel based on the life of the queen. People quote him as the authority on the life and times of Lakshmi Bai. Verma, whose great-grandfather was killed in the war of 1858, was brought up on stories that his great-grandmother and grandmother told of the uprising and of Rani Lakshmi Bai. The novel, published in 1968, was his tribute to Anand Rao, his great-grandfather, and the queen Rao died fighting for.

Verma referred to Dattaraya Balwant Parasnis’s account of Lakshmi Bai as the only single authoritative biography; its Hindu translation appeared in 1938.

It may seem surprising that despite an incredible career, it took eight years for Indians to write a comprehensive description of her life. It was not because she was forgotten, but that people who lived during her time did not leave any writing behind. And, quite a few of those who knew her were too afraid of reprisals to profess links with her. Thus, in the first fifty years after her death, Lakshmi Bai’s memory remained veiled in silence. Silence offered a preface setting for apocryphal stories about the mysterious Rani who died on the battlefield in the cause of her land. People could not talk about her but nothing stopped them from remembering Lakshmi Bai in the image that they created-the self-sacrificing heroine and martyr.

In the subsequent decades of India’s freedom struggle, nationalist scholars acclaimed the uprising of 1857 as a fight of the people for their religion and their land, it become known as the ‘First War of Indian Independence’, which in some ways was true if we regard the endeavour to rid the country of white rule as the first sign of aspiring for freedom. The portrayal of Lakshmi Bai and what she stood for served the essential purpose of stirring nationalist fervour. While it was being recounted, however, the story of Rani and her personality stood taller than the lager narrative of the uprising of 1857. In many ways, she was alone in her magnificence, the singular figure in a gallery of heroes.

Rani Lakshmi Bai also become the protagonist in a different kind of story-fiction by British writers to dramatize the horrific experience of the mutiny in which an Oriental queen, full of passion, added a thrilling dimension. Invariably, she was both vengeful and lustful and in at least two out of three fictional writings, she is depicted as being in love with an Englishman. Lakshmi Bai become legendry on a different account, quite in the fashion of a heroine.

The first critical assessment of the uprising and therefore its chief champions, appeared a hundred years later to commemorate the centenary of 1857, Western-educated, middle-class urban Indians, who now wrote histories, found the form of protest by the rebels of 1857 outmoded compared to the modern party politics that they felt eventually won the nation its Independence. The rebellion of 1857 was regarded as regressive, one which, if successful, would have turned the clock back. It sought to empower feudal force of the zamindars and the rajas who acted in their own interests, which rarely extended beyond the boundaries of their own dominion. These modern studies rarely focussed attention on a single figure. Rani Lakshmi Bai become one of the many feudal overlords who resisted British intrusion onto her land and fought them become they invaded her kingdom. Parasnis was thus the first to write a full account of the Rani, using as much as he could of contemporary official and nonofficial sources. He uncovered the limitations of her resistance and the fact that she was helplessly pushed into war.

If British official correspondence is taken into account, it is impossible to overlook Lakshmi Bai’s constraints. Vrindavan Lal Verma took objection to Parasnis’s account and felt that such appraisals downplayed the Rani’s unique individuality and role. In order to correct such a depiction, he chose to write a novel where he would be unfettered by the need to cite sources. He indulged in literary licence whenever he felt it necessary to portray the Rani as the undaunted leader of her people determined to defy the British. If there were inconsistencies and contradictions, he chose to overlook them. Within the ambit of the novel, it made no difference.

In the 1960s, there were a number of other biographies written in English and India languages. After more than a hundred years, Rani Lakshmi Bai’s image found concrete shape as historians and scholars explored her life and the circumstances that made her what she was. The human face of the Rani emerged through these writings. However, the biographers had to walk the tightrope between adulation and objective study of her circumstances, and her achievements and limitations. Often, the first overtook the second concern.

In 1957, Amrit Lal Nagar translated a Marathi travelogue by Vishnubhatt Godse called Majha Pravas. Godse was the only writer who had met the Rani and was present during her most critical hours. Subsequently, Nagar’s translation become very popular and was widely used by scholars. Meanwhile, following Verma, the tradition of writing novels on the Rani continued. Even today in Jhansi, scholars like Mahendra Lal Verma and Om Shankar Asar, with extensive knowledge about Lakshmi Bai and her times, claim to be novelists with a penchant for history of the region and its Rani.

The legend of the Rani has been perpetuated in modern politics too. The stories that grew around her continue to offer a kind of moral and emotional sustenance to Bundelkhand, otherwise marginalized since its split and absorption into the larger provinces of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Neither has she escaped caste polities. One of the characters in Verma’s novel was a young woman called Jhalkari. She was supposed to have been born low and was married to a soldier in the Rani’s army. She had a strange resemblance to Lakshmi Bai and wad supposed to have fought while the Rani escaped. For quite some time, the British through she was Lakshmi Bai herself and the therefore did not pursue the real queen. There is a historical problem with this subplot in the large story. But today, scholars in Jhansi are divided over the authenticity of Jhalkari. It makes no difference to the broader theme but does contribute to the politics of caste and divisions between the higher and lover groups. The Rani was a Brahmin who was saved because a low-caste woman gave up her life.

What made Lakshmi Bai so singular? How did a young Marathi woman come to wield so much influence in a strongly Rajput-dominated region? It is not only Jhansi but the whole of Bundelkhand that seeks fame through her. How has she overshadowed the proud Bundelas? Or for that matter, how did she rise above her limitations to remain such a central figure both in her land and her times? There are no clear answers and in trying to look for them, one would be guilty of reducing history to predictable factors that are drawn from a different context.

In the present study, I have tried to locate Lakshmi Bai within the wider context of her time space. It is not my intention to debunk any opinion. For what people feel about her has contributed to the figure of Lakshmi Bai and it is impossible to separate the Rani from her image. It is not required either, for the image is as relevant as the historical person. I have therefore tried, where it seems relevant, to integrate authenticated incidents with imagined ones in the same narrative. There is very little information in the book that is not already known, as most of my sources are printed works by scholars. I have used archival sources, which are essentially British official correspondence, to underscore the wider circumstances in which she evolved and operated. The limitations of his biography are obvious for there is practically no first-hand account of her times except Godse’s. Even local scholars of Jhansi refer to Verma and Godse as the final word on the Rani.

There are twelve chapters to the book and the book and the first describes the place of her early life in Banaras, Bithur and Bundelkhand. In most of the accounts of Lakshmi Bai, descriptions are often too narrowly focussed on her. I feel if we pan the spotlight wider, the brilliance of the principal protagonist emerges brighter. It is worth studying, for example, how a small kingdom that was in a welter of crisis and hopelessly dependent on British support, emerges as the focus of national attention. This was not because of the soldiers who mutinied in 1857 but because of a young widowed Rani who refused to let matters lie in British hands.

The narrative continues up to the time when Lakshmi Bai’s world changes with the tragedy of the deaths of her son and husband. It not only transforms her world but also metamorphoses her form a widow to a warrior, determined and bold, who takes on the British without faltering or fear.

There years shape the individual that fascinated both the Indians and the British. The heroine is born. She is, however, unprepared for what is coming, the mutiny of soldiers in Jhansi, but when it occurs, she rises to the occasion. Much of the book is about 1857, the year Lakshmi Bai had not only to take affective charges of her town of Jhansi, but also protect her large kingdom.

Next is the year 1858, when the British march with their counter-insurgency forces upon Bundelkhand in what amounts to an invasion. Lakshmi Bai’s dilemma is whether she should support rebellion over the order that she has come to personify. Her hesitation is not because she is afraid but because she is uncertain.

In the interlocking of British and Indian narratives, Lakshmi Bai helplessly watches her town being torn asunder. Finally, there is a series of battles in Kunch, Kalpi and Gwalior that ends in the death of this indefatigable fighter.

Controversies chased Lakshmi Bai when she was alive; they continued even when she died. How much was she involved in the uprising? How much did she know? Was she responsible for the killing of the whites in Jhansi? How did she herself die? The British had no tangible proof of her complicity in the rebellion but were not sure if she should be allowed to go free. She was far too fiery to be completely innocent, they reasoned.

Lakshmi Bai died because her personality was too large for the contemporary British officials to contend with and trust. She became the victim of the very indomitable spirit that made her immortal.

Mine is a small effort to pay respect to this extraordinary woman in Indian history.

CONTENTS
  Acknowledgements ix
  Preface xiii
1 New Beginnings 1
2 Coming of Age 13
3 Martial Bliss, Shortlived 30
4 Year of Loss 45
5 Dethronement 61
6 A rebellion and a Massacre 86
7 Legendary Heroics 111
8 The Gathering Storm 126
9 Desperate Manoeuvres 145
10 The Siege 157
11 The Chase to the End 171
12 Queen Without a Kingdom 178
  Epilogue 207
  Notes 211
  Bibliography 228
  Index 233

Sample Page


Raj of the Rani

Item Code:
IDH505
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Edition:
2006
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ISBN:
0143062212
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7.8" X 5.1"
Pages:
236
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weight of book 247 gms
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From the Back of the Book

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. In the uprising of 1857 which came to be known as the First War of Indian Independence, she was a singular figure in a gallery of heroes. Rani Lakshmi Bai also became the protagonist in a different kind of story-fiction by British writers to dramatize the horrific experience of the mutiny to which an Oriental queen, full of passion, added a thrilling dimension.

But despite her incredible, career it took eighty years for Indians to write a comprehensive description of Rani Lakshmi Bai's life. It was not because she was forgotten but that people who lived in her time did not leave any writing behind and the few who knew her were too afraid of reprisals to profess links with her.

How did a young Marathi woman come to wield so much influence in a strongly Rajput dominated region in the grip of an alien power?

The life of the warrior queen has inspired historians, writers and more recently, film makers. But for the first time, in biographer Tapti Roy' s vivid rendition, Laksnhmi Bai is Located within the Wider Context of her time and space.

About the Author

Tapti Roy has taught history in Kolkata, and in Dubai where she currently resides. She is the author of The Politics of Popular Uprising- Bundelkhand in 1857 and the article Disciplining the Printed Text: Colonial and Nationalist Surveillance of Bengali Literature, in texts of Power- Emerging Disciplines in Colonial Bengal. She used to write a weekly column titled Cause, Culture and History for the Asian Age.

Preface

They say in Jhansi that the best thing that ever happened to their town was Lakshmi Bai. This town, a major railways junction in the province of Uttar Pradesh that is close to 400 years old, and links western India with the east through a network of railway lines, still feels that it owes its fame to a young Rani who ruler for four-and-a- half years. Spread out of the shadow of the fort, Jhansi palpably keeps alive the memory of the Rani with her image on horseback imprinted all over. She is at crossroads, on hoardings splashed across the sky, in parks, at the base of the fort, her ubiquity confirming what people believed.

Association with her has also brought fame. Outside the railway station is the bust of Vrindavan Lal Verma, winner of the Padma Bhushan for his literary works in Hindu, who is best known for his novel based on the life of the queen. People quote him as the authority on the life and times of Lakshmi Bai. Verma, whose great-grandfather was killed in the war of 1858, was brought up on stories that his great-grandmother and grandmother told of the uprising and of Rani Lakshmi Bai. The novel, published in 1968, was his tribute to Anand Rao, his great-grandfather, and the queen Rao died fighting for.

Verma referred to Dattaraya Balwant Parasnis’s account of Lakshmi Bai as the only single authoritative biography; its Hindu translation appeared in 1938.

It may seem surprising that despite an incredible career, it took eight years for Indians to write a comprehensive description of her life. It was not because she was forgotten, but that people who lived during her time did not leave any writing behind. And, quite a few of those who knew her were too afraid of reprisals to profess links with her. Thus, in the first fifty years after her death, Lakshmi Bai’s memory remained veiled in silence. Silence offered a preface setting for apocryphal stories about the mysterious Rani who died on the battlefield in the cause of her land. People could not talk about her but nothing stopped them from remembering Lakshmi Bai in the image that they created-the self-sacrificing heroine and martyr.

In the subsequent decades of India’s freedom struggle, nationalist scholars acclaimed the uprising of 1857 as a fight of the people for their religion and their land, it become known as the ‘First War of Indian Independence’, which in some ways was true if we regard the endeavour to rid the country of white rule as the first sign of aspiring for freedom. The portrayal of Lakshmi Bai and what she stood for served the essential purpose of stirring nationalist fervour. While it was being recounted, however, the story of Rani and her personality stood taller than the lager narrative of the uprising of 1857. In many ways, she was alone in her magnificence, the singular figure in a gallery of heroes.

Rani Lakshmi Bai also become the protagonist in a different kind of story-fiction by British writers to dramatize the horrific experience of the mutiny in which an Oriental queen, full of passion, added a thrilling dimension. Invariably, she was both vengeful and lustful and in at least two out of three fictional writings, she is depicted as being in love with an Englishman. Lakshmi Bai become legendry on a different account, quite in the fashion of a heroine.

The first critical assessment of the uprising and therefore its chief champions, appeared a hundred years later to commemorate the centenary of 1857, Western-educated, middle-class urban Indians, who now wrote histories, found the form of protest by the rebels of 1857 outmoded compared to the modern party politics that they felt eventually won the nation its Independence. The rebellion of 1857 was regarded as regressive, one which, if successful, would have turned the clock back. It sought to empower feudal force of the zamindars and the rajas who acted in their own interests, which rarely extended beyond the boundaries of their own dominion. These modern studies rarely focussed attention on a single figure. Rani Lakshmi Bai become one of the many feudal overlords who resisted British intrusion onto her land and fought them become they invaded her kingdom. Parasnis was thus the first to write a full account of the Rani, using as much as he could of contemporary official and nonofficial sources. He uncovered the limitations of her resistance and the fact that she was helplessly pushed into war.

If British official correspondence is taken into account, it is impossible to overlook Lakshmi Bai’s constraints. Vrindavan Lal Verma took objection to Parasnis’s account and felt that such appraisals downplayed the Rani’s unique individuality and role. In order to correct such a depiction, he chose to write a novel where he would be unfettered by the need to cite sources. He indulged in literary licence whenever he felt it necessary to portray the Rani as the undaunted leader of her people determined to defy the British. If there were inconsistencies and contradictions, he chose to overlook them. Within the ambit of the novel, it made no difference.

In the 1960s, there were a number of other biographies written in English and India languages. After more than a hundred years, Rani Lakshmi Bai’s image found concrete shape as historians and scholars explored her life and the circumstances that made her what she was. The human face of the Rani emerged through these writings. However, the biographers had to walk the tightrope between adulation and objective study of her circumstances, and her achievements and limitations. Often, the first overtook the second concern.

In 1957, Amrit Lal Nagar translated a Marathi travelogue by Vishnubhatt Godse called Majha Pravas. Godse was the only writer who had met the Rani and was present during her most critical hours. Subsequently, Nagar’s translation become very popular and was widely used by scholars. Meanwhile, following Verma, the tradition of writing novels on the Rani continued. Even today in Jhansi, scholars like Mahendra Lal Verma and Om Shankar Asar, with extensive knowledge about Lakshmi Bai and her times, claim to be novelists with a penchant for history of the region and its Rani.

The legend of the Rani has been perpetuated in modern politics too. The stories that grew around her continue to offer a kind of moral and emotional sustenance to Bundelkhand, otherwise marginalized since its split and absorption into the larger provinces of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Neither has she escaped caste polities. One of the characters in Verma’s novel was a young woman called Jhalkari. She was supposed to have been born low and was married to a soldier in the Rani’s army. She had a strange resemblance to Lakshmi Bai and wad supposed to have fought while the Rani escaped. For quite some time, the British through she was Lakshmi Bai herself and the therefore did not pursue the real queen. There is a historical problem with this subplot in the large story. But today, scholars in Jhansi are divided over the authenticity of Jhalkari. It makes no difference to the broader theme but does contribute to the politics of caste and divisions between the higher and lover groups. The Rani was a Brahmin who was saved because a low-caste woman gave up her life.

What made Lakshmi Bai so singular? How did a young Marathi woman come to wield so much influence in a strongly Rajput-dominated region? It is not only Jhansi but the whole of Bundelkhand that seeks fame through her. How has she overshadowed the proud Bundelas? Or for that matter, how did she rise above her limitations to remain such a central figure both in her land and her times? There are no clear answers and in trying to look for them, one would be guilty of reducing history to predictable factors that are drawn from a different context.

In the present study, I have tried to locate Lakshmi Bai within the wider context of her time space. It is not my intention to debunk any opinion. For what people feel about her has contributed to the figure of Lakshmi Bai and it is impossible to separate the Rani from her image. It is not required either, for the image is as relevant as the historical person. I have therefore tried, where it seems relevant, to integrate authenticated incidents with imagined ones in the same narrative. There is very little information in the book that is not already known, as most of my sources are printed works by scholars. I have used archival sources, which are essentially British official correspondence, to underscore the wider circumstances in which she evolved and operated. The limitations of his biography are obvious for there is practically no first-hand account of her times except Godse’s. Even local scholars of Jhansi refer to Verma and Godse as the final word on the Rani.

There are twelve chapters to the book and the book and the first describes the place of her early life in Banaras, Bithur and Bundelkhand. In most of the accounts of Lakshmi Bai, descriptions are often too narrowly focussed on her. I feel if we pan the spotlight wider, the brilliance of the principal protagonist emerges brighter. It is worth studying, for example, how a small kingdom that was in a welter of crisis and hopelessly dependent on British support, emerges as the focus of national attention. This was not because of the soldiers who mutinied in 1857 but because of a young widowed Rani who refused to let matters lie in British hands.

The narrative continues up to the time when Lakshmi Bai’s world changes with the tragedy of the deaths of her son and husband. It not only transforms her world but also metamorphoses her form a widow to a warrior, determined and bold, who takes on the British without faltering or fear.

There years shape the individual that fascinated both the Indians and the British. The heroine is born. She is, however, unprepared for what is coming, the mutiny of soldiers in Jhansi, but when it occurs, she rises to the occasion. Much of the book is about 1857, the year Lakshmi Bai had not only to take affective charges of her town of Jhansi, but also protect her large kingdom.

Next is the year 1858, when the British march with their counter-insurgency forces upon Bundelkhand in what amounts to an invasion. Lakshmi Bai’s dilemma is whether she should support rebellion over the order that she has come to personify. Her hesitation is not because she is afraid but because she is uncertain.

In the interlocking of British and Indian narratives, Lakshmi Bai helplessly watches her town being torn asunder. Finally, there is a series of battles in Kunch, Kalpi and Gwalior that ends in the death of this indefatigable fighter.

Controversies chased Lakshmi Bai when she was alive; they continued even when she died. How much was she involved in the uprising? How much did she know? Was she responsible for the killing of the whites in Jhansi? How did she herself die? The British had no tangible proof of her complicity in the rebellion but were not sure if she should be allowed to go free. She was far too fiery to be completely innocent, they reasoned.

Lakshmi Bai died because her personality was too large for the contemporary British officials to contend with and trust. She became the victim of the very indomitable spirit that made her immortal.

Mine is a small effort to pay respect to this extraordinary woman in Indian history.

CONTENTS
  Acknowledgements ix
  Preface xiii
1 New Beginnings 1
2 Coming of Age 13
3 Martial Bliss, Shortlived 30
4 Year of Loss 45
5 Dethronement 61
6 A rebellion and a Massacre 86
7 Legendary Heroics 111
8 The Gathering Storm 126
9 Desperate Manoeuvres 145
10 The Siege 157
11 The Chase to the End 171
12 Queen Without a Kingdom 178
  Epilogue 207
  Notes 211
  Bibliography 228
  Index 233

Sample Page


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