The recent acclaimed blockbuster, ‘Bajirao Mastani’, takes one back to an era of legends and historic injustices. Of identity, politics and violence. A time when love had to fight the same battles, as the winning of empires. The legendary story is now well known and poignantly captured in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s magnum opus. However, the movie only touched upon the other remarkable story, that’s an integral part of this saga. It was almost silenced. The story of the wronged Kashibai, the first wife of the fearless Bajirao (powerfully portrayed by Priyanka Chopra). Her profound, selfless love for him and innate humanism deserve a tribute in themselves. At a time when most women were repressed under patriarchal bondage, she lived a life of quiet strength and feminist courage. This was a time, when following her clan’s religious and social dictates was the status quo for women. And palace intrigues the order of the day. But Kashi defied them all.
There are many inspiring aspects to Kashibai’s life, which is probably why Chopra’s portrayal struck a chord and won accolades. Kashi transcended the barriers of ego and creed, despite seeing her beloved husband with another woman, to accept them. She remained secular and humanist to the core, despite being born in and surrounded by an ultra-orthodox society. She refused to participate in the cruel palace intrigues against Mastani and her innocent child. Her inner ethics, even led her to save her Mastani’s life, defying the wishes of her ‘sasural’ (husband’s household). An act of great courage, which many women in modern India still strive for. It’s all the more remarkable, as this was no ordinary household. It was the mighty Maratha clan, which even the Mughals trembled before.
The movie also didn’t do justice to another aspect of Kashi, which is historically recorded. She went to great lengths to protect Bajirao and Mastani’s orphaned child, bringing him up as her own against social and family pressures. He grew up to become the renowned warrior and Nawab of Banda, Shamsher Bahadur. His descendants continued the legacy of his parents and other brave Maratha warriors. It was Kashi’s open heartedness and strength which nurtured him and Bajirao-Mastani’s (secular) heritage. One would have expected the movie to end with this epilogue, but unfortunately it wasn’t mentioned at all. It would have been the perfect ending to a great message – and a tribute to Kashi’s role in history.
Additionally, the film didn’t touch upon what happened to Kashi after Bajirao-Mastani’s passing. She was one of the three, key protagonists in the love-story. At least, a brief follow-up or reference to her was called for. It’s well-known that in the conservative, patriarchal society of her time, atrocities against widows were severe. Deprived and stripped of basic human rights and dignity, they endure terrible cruelties even today. Historically, many women preferred to commit ‘sati’ than live these tortured lives. Kashibai not only lived through it with dignity, but brought up her own and Bajirao-Mastani’s son at the same time. It reflects a resilience and magnanimity of spirit, which would be hard for many women even today. However, her nobility and grace didn’t stem from external norms or pressures. It fought and defied social mores, like a spring of purity flowing from her inner core. What she must have endured, can only be imagined.
These facts also raise the eternal question, about the commoditization of women through history. What if a woman had married a second husband and brought him to her clan’s palace? Except for rare examples like Draupadi, our patriarchal world continues to denigrate women who attempt the same things as their male counterparts. Would the film still be made, if Kashi had married a second husband, in the presence of her first? Despite this, she remains the strong silent woman who holds her own against such a society.
She’s a role model for our times, epitomizing feminine strength, selflessness and humanism. At a time, when American presidential candidates denigrate women’s bodies and menstrual cycles, the legacy of Kashibai and unsung heroines may come full circle soon. It could manifest in the election of a female president of the most world’s most powerful country. In a world where most women still live as second-class citizens, the grace of Kashi symbolizes their fight for dignity against all odds. At a time when India’s secularism and tolerance are under attack by regressive force, Kashi reminds us of our liberal, humanist heritage. If only Bhansali’s movie had done full justice to her story.
By Lehar Sethi Zaidi