Roundabout: Playing the role of women in the life of Maharaja Ranjit Singh
For most Punjabis, and Sikhs in particular, the golden period remains the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1801-1839) when the large state was ruled by the son of the soil who is referred to as Sher-e-Punjab (Lion of the Punjab). This was a time of progress and the glory of the land stretching from the borders of Tibet and touching the capital city of Delhi. The annexation of Punjab in 1849 by the East India company just 10 years after the passing away of the Maharaja was a sad blow as, among other things, the maharaja had stood for communal harmony and is lauded in the land and even across the border in Pakistan as the only Punjabi king the Land of the Five Rivers after King Porus who was defeated by Alexander in 326 BC.
Post Independence in 1947 Punjabi writers, scholars, historians and artistes have turned time and again to look into this period and rejoice in its glory as well as the sad fate that befell it and it was lost to the British colonizers. The dirge by the court poet Shah Mohammad still brings tears to the eyes of many: It spoke of the British slighting the Punjabis and taking away the Kohinoor diamond from Kunwar Dalip Singh, in whom rested the hopes of the community, to England.
Interestingly, the recent times have also seen recognition and celebration of the strong women in the court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.
Women of substance
In fact, much attention has been paid to Rani Jindan, the beautiful and somewhat scheming young queen of the ageing maharaja, and the reason for this was the resilience she showed against the British oppressors even in the worst of times. But there were others too like Rani Sada Kaur, mother-in-law of the maharaja, who played a pivotal role in the Maharaja’s rise to power. Yet another woman who showed her guts was the dancing girl of Lahore, the young and beautiful Moran of Hira Mandi who married the monarch on her own terms and remained true to Islam, the faith that she was born to, even as the consort of the Sikh ruler. This perhaps was due to the cultural panmixia of the border land in which people learned to live together in harmony even when they belonged to different faiths.
It is interesting indeed to talk to two veteran actors — Chandigarh’s own Rani Balbir Kaur and Amritsar bred Neeta Mohindra who now lives in Mumbai. Both have played queens of the then Punjab with Rani giving a memorable stage performance as Rani Jindan and Neeta acting out the political acumen of Rani Sada Kaur in a tele serial.
Why we mention them is because these days a 56-episode serial, Maharaja Ranjit, made in 2010-2011 at Amritsar, is being streamed again.
Role to remember
For Neeta it was a role to remember. Looking back, she says, “I was teaching those days in Amritsar and Raj Babbar asked me to help them in the local casting. In the course he asked me to do the role of Rani Sada Kaur. To be honest I had not heard of her but when I did get to know, I was amazed. The Rani mothered, trained and got her daughter married to the Maharaja because she saw that he was meant to be king. Not just that, she also marched into battlefields with him with a sword in hand, one of the rare women to do so in those times. Of course her end was somewhat tragic when she fell apart with the Maharaja and became a prisoner. But I loved her for her political acumen.”
These days when people are locked in at home, Neeta is watching the serial all over again. “Of course, watching it now I feel that I could have acted her character still better!”
Why not Neeta, one would love to a see a solo performance of Sada Kaur from you!
Rani as Rani Jindan
In the 1980s Rani Balbir Kaur gave a wonderful performance as Rani Jindan, perhaps one of her best in a play which toured abroad but was sadly banned for some reason by the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) in India. Of course such bans are now over and one has seen even a Shabana Azmi play Jindan in a film in recent years. But it was Rani who looked her part with her daughter-of-the soil good looks and majestic gait. Talking about the character of Rani Jindan, she says: “I was resurrecting history not just by playing a role and my connect with Gurbani was my greatest support because never mind her follies she was a religious and pious woman.” She adds that when she played the role she wept as Jindan and as Rani too for it was a matter of faith lost to fate.
Why not Moran?
What comes to the mind after all of this, however, is: Why has no one dramatised the character of Moran, the bewitching dancing girl of Lahore who was deeply rooted in faith and love? Will some young Punjaban this side of the border or that be brave enough to enact the role of Moran of the Pul Kanjri fame?