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JHANSI'S MAID FINDS PLACE OF PRIDE 

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FROM YOGESH VAJPEYI   |   Jhansi   |   Published 11.06.02, 12:00 AM

Jhansi, June 11 :    Jhansi, June 11:  Macha Jhansi mein ghamasan, chahun aur machee kilkaree thee / Angrezon se loha lene, rana mein ladee Jhalkari thee (Amid the sound and fury of the battle of Jhansi, plunged Jhalkari to confront the British) The bards in the Bundelkhand region of Central India, which once reverberated with songs about the heroics of Bundela chieftains, Alha-Udal and Rani Laxmi Bai, are these days busy building up a new legend. Jhalkari Bai, a low caste maid who helped the Rani of Jhansi escape from the British siege during the 1857 uprising by taking her place, is their new icon. Ignored by mainstream historians, the myth of Jhalkari Bai has been resurrected from oblivion and superimposed on the Dalit psyche as an effective tool of mass mobilisation. Her life size statutes have come up in Jhansi and other Bundelkhand towns; hospitals and educational institutions have been named after her and a chapter on her heroic deeds added in the new history books of Uttar Pradesh schools. In an attempt to place her on an equal footing with Rani Laxmi Bai, local poet Chokhe Lal Verma has composed an epic poem on her and Bhawani Shankar Visharadhas come up with a new biography, Veerangana Jhalkari Bai. Dalit litterateur and former Arunachal Pradesh Governor Mata Prasad has depicted her contribution to India's first war of Independence in the form of a drama. 'U to Durga rahin (She was goddess Durga),' says Rajkumar Kori, who leads a troupe that sings Jbabi Kirtan, a popular cultural performance in the region. Euphoric crowds throng Bundelkhand villages wherever Rajkumar's troupe goes eulogising her bravery: 'Jai Jhalkari, Durga Kali, Jai Jai Ma / Angrezon ki garva tune choor choor kiya (Hail Jhalkari! Hail, hail mother Durga and Kali! You shattered the arrogance of the British)'. Written accounts of the 1857 uprising, like the diary of General Rose, who led the siege on Jhansi, or the British gazetteers of that period, are silent on Jhalkari Bai. But a later book, Majha Parvas, by Vishnurao Godse mentions her as Jhalkari Korin. Jhalkari Bai has survived in the memory of local people through folk stories and discussion in village chaupals. Eminent Hindi litterateur Brindaban Lal Verma gave a somewhat more detailed account of her exploits in his book, Jhansi Ki Rani (1975), after interviewing her grandson. According to the present generation of her descendants, who still live in Jhansi, she is said to have died sometime after 1890. Though her historic significance is never disputed, perceptions vary among different castes and communities in Bundelkhand. Ram Narayan Shukul, an old, illiterate inhabitant of Kachnara village in Hamirpur district, recalls that 'Jhalkari Bai koi khas nahin thi (She was nothing important)'. She was a Korin (low caste) and maid of Rani Laxmi Bai. The two resembled each other. Shukul describing Jhalkari as a mere Korin reflects the upper caste bias against her. The only role assigned to her in this version is that when the Rani came out of the fort to fight the British, Jhalkari dressed as the Rani to confuse the British about her true identity. Verma - who himself belonged to Bundelkhand - also addressed Jhalkari as a Korin. But he describes her as a soldier and Rani's close confidant and not a mere maid. An altogether different image of Jhalkari Bai is projected in the accounts of the Koris, the Lohars and other low-caste groups in Bundelkhand. To them, she was as brave as Rani Laxmi Bai and had an equally sharp insight of the events of the period. 'Her husband Poonam Kori was a topachi (canon operator) guarding the main gate of the fort and Rani had made her the chief of her Durgavahini (women's battalion),' remembers Gunjan Kori of Nagara. 'The Kori jaat (caste) had taken a leading part in Laxmi Bai's fight against the British,' Gunjan underlines. 'As a result of her proximity with the Rani, the upper caste employees in the palace despised her and conspired against her,' Lalata Prasad, an educated Kori youth of Bichawar village in Jhansi, takes the story further. Others in the village nod in support when Lalata Prasad refers to the treacherous role of an upper caste Thakur, Dulha Ju, in her arrest. Not a single low caste member in this version is shown as the fifth columnist. 'The memory of Jhalkari Bai, as it is prevalent among the depressed castes, has been revived after much modification,' says Badri Narain Tewari, a social historian. On capturing power in Uttar Pradesh, the BSP made deft use of reconstructing the history of the lower castes. During her first stint in power Mayavati renamed districts and invoked the memories of historical personalities like Buddha, Ambedkar, Sahuji Maharaj. But she soon realised there was no organic link between her party's middle class intellectuals and those living on the fringes of the community. To overcome this difficulty, she started systematic mythicisation of locally identifiable historical figures among the lower castes of the Hindi heartland. The myth of Jhalkari Bai, thus, became a tool for mobilising low castes in Bundelkhand, where they account for nearly 80 per cent of the population.    


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