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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Indian Women and Marriage

Women all over India celebrate Karva Chauth, which comes on the fourth day after the autumn full moon. Married women of all ages fast for the whole day and only after sighting the moon on the eastern horizon, take their first sip of water from the hands of their husbands. To celebrate the sighting of the moon, they gather in well-decorated halls or homes of friends or relatives and share a memorable feast of sweets and savouries with their families. Legend says that Draupadi first observed this fast for the safety of Arjuna when he went to war with the Kauravas. Women all over India exchange gifts, dance to modern bands playing popular songs from films and remix albums.

Though Karva Chauth is essentially a North Indian festival for married women — who pray for the welfare and long life of their husbands on this day — it has become almost a ‘national’ festival for Indian women because of its attractive and extremely ornamental portrayal in popular films like Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Hum Aapke Dil Mein Rehte Hain. Ever since Bollywood films became virtual ‘wedding videos’, the observance of karva chauth has been glamorised so much, that women of all communities and regions in India have taken a fancy to it and celebrate it in a ‘filmi’ manner, dressed in the typical Punjabi red and gold chunaris worn over bridal ghagra-cholis or sarees. In more recent times, popular TV serials like Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, Kahani Ghar Ghar Ki and Kasauti Zindagi Kay have also popularised Karva Chauth celebrations.

Women’s festivals are not new to India. Haldi Kumkums, Haritalika, Mangalagauri and Vat Savitri are celebrated in Maharashtra and other southern states by women to pray for the welfare of their husbands. South Indian women celebrate Haldi Kumkums and Nombus for the same purpose. Gujarati women play the dandia and wear bridal finery for Navaratri Rajasthani women fast on Teej and was their bridal finery to celebrate the festival of Gangaur. Bengali women wear shakha pola — white bangles made from conch shells and red ones made from acrylic — to symbolise suhaag and celebrate Durga Pooja with a bath of sindoor and bright coloured auspicious sarees with red borders.

However, the great leveller for Indian women from the North to the South have been films, fashion and television serials. Wedding planners and contractors, jewellers, bridal shows and costume designers have contributed to this all-India revolution, which has made women everywhere — including in foreign countries where large populations of Indians live — celebrate their festivals and weddings with common features.

The Maharashtrian woman’s black beaded mangalsutra has become a national symbol of a married woman all over India. Weddings in all films are shown to include a ceremony in which the bridegroom ties the black beaded necklace around his bride’s neck. All present-day brides, therefore, buy a mangalsutra and the ceremony is included in all weddings. So are bangles or chudas, which could be Punjabi, Uttar Pradeshi, Maharashtrian, Bengali or South Indian in origin!

Wedding games and events too, have been regimented. Hiding the bridegroom’s shoes, playing with a ring dropped in red or white-coloured water, imprinting vermillion footprints of the bride of the floor when she enters her new home, mooh dikhaya or ‘seeing the bride for the first time’, the bride and groom sharing a sweet, holding a mehndi or sangeet parties — all these are customs from various parts of India. But they have now been incorporated in weddings everywhere, thanks to films and television. The exchange of festive and fast ideas also is noteworthy. If southern women observe Karva Chauth, women from the North have discovered. Vat Savitri — during which women worship the banyan tree to pray for the safety and growth of their families. Ganpati and Gauri, earlier worshipped on a grand scale by Maharashtrians, are now worshipped all over India. Durga Pooja ia no longer restricted to Bengal. Baisakhi is celebrated all over India.

Women’s events have become so attractive that in the recent elections in Maharashtra, haldi Kumkums were used as a platform for voters’ gatherings. Family planning, wealth creation, social progress and health issues are often intertwined with ‘women’s festivals’ for better reach and effectiveness. Is it right for films and TV serials to create such a strong impact of tradition and custom? As long as modern celebrations do not segregate widows and single women and give them a second-class status, the tool of ‘celebrations’ is good for bringing women together as equal citizens of India who must join mainstream social, political and economic activities. Women in India know that decorating themselves is their birthright and the market they create for clothes, jewellery, bindis, mehndi, services, etc gives employment to thousands of craftspersons, weavers, designers and embroiderers, caterers, decorators and florists.




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