Nation Current Affairs 28 Nov 2017 What MT did to Unniy ...

What MT did to Unniyarcha

Published Nov 28, 2017, 12:58 am IST
Updated Nov 28, 2017, 12:58 am IST
Still from the movie Óru Vadakkan Veeragadha
 Still from the movie Óru Vadakkan Veeragadha

Unniyarcha, the famed warrior heroine of ‘vadakkanpaatu’, is the only female icon that Kerala has ever known. The passage of centuries and the paucity of written records have not dimmed the fascinating portrait of a woman who surpassed the men in valour and style. Passed down the ages by oral tradition, the northern ballads extol her beauty and bravery, her consummate skill in the art of kalaripayattu, her social consciousness and staunch pro-woman stance, her fierce independence and her terrible vendetta. Did she really exist? We don’t really know.

What the Bards Say

Unniyarcha belonged to the Puthuram family of Kadathanad, a warrior clan descended from a band of fighters brought in from Sri Lanka. Her father, Kannappa chekavar, was a veteran of 41 duels. Archa was trained in kalari from the age of seven and married to kalari asan Attumanamel Kunhira-man when she was fourteen. Her brother Aromal chekavar vanquished the invincible Aringodar in a duel, despite breaking his own sword, but he was killed by the treachery of Chandu, the orphan nephew of Kannappa chekavar. Egged on by Aromal, Unniyarcha had spurned Chandu - and this was his revenge.  

Unniyarcha, widowed at the age of 21, spent years training her only son, Aromalunni, and her nephew, Kannappanunni, to avenge her brother’s death.  Eventually, the Puthuram lads killed Chandu, brought back his severed head and placed it at Kannappa chekavar’s feet, thereby fulfilling a long cherished vendetta.   Years later, when Aromalunni decided to marry Chandu’s daughter, Unniyarcha reluctantly welcomed her daughter-in-law and then abruptly retired to the Omalur temple for seven days of fasting and prayer. Aromalunni offered to go with her but she refused saying - Pandum vendiyirunnilla ninte ammakku thuna (Your mother never needed your support). Come to the temple on the seventh day, she advised. When the son and daughter-in-law reached the temple, Unniyarcha’s lifeless body lay on the river bank.

MT’s Diabolic Twist

In 1989 M.T. Vasudevan Nair used his literary genius to strike at the very core of the ‘vadakkanpattu’. He made a mind-boggling film Oru Vadakkan Veera Gatha, presenting the saga of Unniyarcha with a diabolic twist, and earning a national award for best script. Mammooty won the best actor award for playing Chandu. The portrait of a deceitful and adulterous Unniyarcha etched by the doe-eyed Madhavi was insidiously imprinted on the public mind. MT redesigned the original story to suit patriarchal attitudes and, in an endeavour to absolve Chandu of guilt, mercilessly hacked Unniyarcha’s image. His film conveyed an unambiguous message: It is not the man who is treacherous – the real betrayer is always a woman. Chandu was proclaimed innocent because Unniyarcha had enticed him!

His brutal murder of Aromal was justified on the presumption that Unniyarcha would spurn his overtures once the duel with Aringodar was won by her brother. This reasoning was morally untenable as well as subversive. Moreover, the woman’s sexuality overshadowed her personality and diminished her courage and versatility. Thus Kerala’s cherished female icon, whose image had remained unsullied for centuries, suffered multiple distortions at the hands of a master storyteller. But thankfully no one called for MT’s nose to be cut off. No one placed a price on his head. 

In recent years more cock-and-bull stories have cropped up, among them Unniyarcha’s caste credentials and her capture by Tipu Sultan and seclusion in his harem. In Kunchacko’s 1961 film Unniyarcha, Ragini had played Unniyarcha, while superstars Sathyan and Prem Nazir had played Aromal and Kunhiraman. Chandu’s role went to the not-so-famous Kottayam Chellappan, signifying his mean status.  When Kunhiraman sang “Pullaan enikku ninte vaalmuna” the lyricist P. Bhaskaran was staying true to the original ballad which indicates that Kunhiraman was a kalari asan of no mean stature.

Unmatched Valour

The legend of Unniyarcha encompasses many anecdotes, the best known being her Nadapuram encounter. Prompted by a dream, Unniyarcha announced her intention to attend the festival at Allimalarkavu (Lokana-rkavu). Her husband and his mother tried to dissuade her, as she would have to pass through Nadapuram, a place notorious for hooligans. Unniyarcha countered, “Born in the famed Puthuram house, the daughter of Kannappa chekavar cannot hold back like a coward.” She tied the urumi round her waist and set out with Kunhiraman in tow. At Nadapuram they were surrounded by a hostile mob. Kunhiraman was fearful but Archa reproached him. “I, being a woman, do not tremble, why do you, a man, quiver at the sight of these fellows? I don’t care if there are thousands, for I belong to the Puthuram clan.”

Kunhiraman was overpowered and tied up but Unniyarcha brandished her urumi, gave a splendid demonstration of kalari techniques, and wounded many. Finally, her opponents prostrated and begged for mercy. In the history of Kerala, there is no example to match this. The moopan (chief) sent his wife with lavish gifts to placate Unniyarcha, but she refused. A messenger rushed to Aromal chekavar seeking his intervention. The dispute ended with the moopan begging forgiveness, and Unniyarcha accepting the offerings of gold coins and ornaments.

She extracted an assurance from the moopan that women would be treated with respect and allowed safe passage in his territory. Returning home, Archa handed over the booty to her mother-in-law and proudly announced that she had brought Kunhiraman back unharmed! The full and complete story of Unniyarcha is yet to be filmed. Currently there are more rumours doing the rounds than facts. Will someone please take the hint?

What Bhansali did to Padmavati 

We don’t know because we haven’t seen the film. But I’ll bet what Sanjay Leela Bhansali did to Padmavati won’t be half as bad as what MT did to Unniyarcha.   Bhansali was assaulted for the heinous crime of making the film. Deepika Padukone played Rani Padmavati and received a barrage of dire threats. A rumour that the film has a romantic scene between Padmavati and Alauddin Khilji triggered this hysterical response.  Can’t a man even dream in this country? U.P., Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat have banned the movie. The release has been deferred.

Poor Deepika! On the sets she is burnt alive and on the streets she is being roasted alive. The story of Padmavati raises some intriguing questions. How on earth did Khilji get to see Padmavati’s face in a mirror? How did the conservative Rajput clan allow such a viewing ceremony? And why was such a glorious martyrdom ignored by writers and historians until someone came up with Padmavati two and a half centuries later? Why did Amir Khusro fail to mention the 1303 jauhar at Chittor, though he had mentioned the 1301 jauhar at Ranthambore when it was overwhelmed by Khilji’s army?   How come he never mentioned Padmini/Padmavati if she was the primary reason for Khilji’s invasion?

And why is Rani Padmavati so sacred and inviolable? There were two other jauhar events at Chittor which the proud Rajputs are not even talking about. On 8th March 1535, some 13000 Rajput women led by Rani Karnavati, widow of Rana Sanga, blew themselves up with gunpowder when Bahadur Shah of Gujarat besieged the fort. In 1568 when Akbar vanquished Chittorgarh he entered the fort to discover “an immense crematorium”.   Mass suicide has been an integral part of warfare from time immemorial. When Alexander the Great invaded Hindustan in 326 B.C.E., the soldiers of the Arjunayana kingdom (in present day Pakistan), fought valiantly, and when defeat became inevitable, they torched their town, and 20,000 citizens died in the blaze.

A thousand years later, in 712 C.E. when the Arab armies of Muhammad bin Qasim attacked Sindh, and the ruler, Dahir, fell in battle, the queen defended the capital for several months, finally committing jauhar when food supplies ran out. Mewar was not the first, Mewar was not the last.  So what exactly is the Karni Sena cribbing about? Apparently, it’s not about distortion of history or misinterpretation of legend. It’s not about the honour of Rajputs. It’s about using intimidation tactics by a minority to silence the voices of the majority. This is India in the 21st century – that heaven of curtailed freedom, where the mind is full of fear, where the people are led backward in time by ever-narrowing thought and action.

Unniyarcha and Rani Padmavati

What did these two brave and beautiful women have in common? Why were they remembered and revered down the ages? There is no known historical record of their existence, but legends are aplenty. Both women came from reputed warrior clans – and interestingly, both have Lankan origins.  The story goes that Ratan Singh of Chittor brought Padmavati from Sri Lanka as his second wife. The Puthuram clan was descended from Sri Lankan warriors brought to Kadathanad. 

Both Unniyarcha and Padmavati lost their husbands in bloody duels. Both women died tragic deaths, carefully choosing their own method of exit. Unniyarcha went alone, Padmavati with a retinue. If Padmavati really did commit jauhar, it would have been in 1303 when Alauddin Khilji overran Chittor. The legend of Unniyarcha can perhaps be dated back to the 11th century. I wouldn’t bet on the last part, though.  

Location: India, Kerala


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