The Supreme Court asking courts to go “extremely slow” in curbing artistic expression comes as a much-needed shield for anybody pursuing a profession/past-time that involves creative expression. It comes at a time when the demands to have a Padmavati or An Insignificant Man banned are getting shriller and louder. Without getting into the merit of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s take on the legend of Rani Padmini, both historians and folklorists differ—not just with each other but also within their respective communities—on the historicity of the legend, including Padmini’s very existence. And such gaps in both historiography and interpretation of history are not uncommon, neither in India nor elsewhere. For instance, many regional and sectarian tellings of the Ramayana vary widely from what is canonical according to the Valmiki Ramayana. Similarly, Padmavati, written by Malik Muhammad Jayasi between 1521 and 1540, the fountainhead of the Padmavati/Padmini lore, varies from many tellings of the legend of the Rajput queen inside and outside Rajasthan.
The fact that the last NDA government rewrote school-level history textbooks should show how many narratives often don’t find space in the mainstream because of political and ideological reasons. Proving the historicity of a particular telling, or disproving the same, remains an academic concern. Thus, a Bhansali’s Padmavati is to be treated as mere fiction and not academic assertion or historiography. There are many examples of where art or creativity has drawn public ire, needlessly. From Odisha unofficially banning Asoka in 2001—distributors took down the film as protests against it grew—to the Catholic church rallying against Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code (both the book and its film adaptation), public opinion often ignores the fact that there must be space for contested histories and multiple narratives; otherwise, history ends up being what it has been so far—the victor’s narrative rather than a factual account.