In a fascinating and insightful new book The Shaadi Story (Pan Macmillan India, Rs 599), social entrepreneur Amita Nigam Sahaya looks at the history, religious traditions, societal attitudes, industry and modern adaptations of the North Indian Hindu wedding. In this excerpt from the book, she talks about the inherent patriarchy in the institution, what social reformers had to say about it, and signs of change among the younger generation.
By Amita Nigam Sahaya
Understanding how marriage plays out in reality, particularly in the Indian scenario, is a long and complex endeavour. It has tested the wits of intellectuals and philosophers, who have given us a few guidelines to aid our understanding of the matter.
Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, philosopher and the second president of India, held a feminist view of marriage, which he says is overwhelmingly loaded against women. He said, “Primitive marriage was based on the subjugation of woman, its durability rested on economic necessity not evanescent passion…”
He viewed marriage as a social institution, not merely to give birth and nurture progeny, but whose “main aim is the enrichment of the personality of husband and wife, through the fulfilment of their needs for a permanent comradeship.”
Swami Vivekananda’s view is more practical, shorn of all the romantic ideals. He says, “Marriage is not for a sense of enjoyment but to perpetuate the race.”
The contemporary world has pushed marriage into a greater loop of expectations as illustrated by this example from Promilla Kapur in her book Love, Marriage and Sex, where a young woman when asked about her expectations of marriage replies, “I wanted to marry… to have the satisfaction of material, physical and emotional needs, and to possess a husband, home, and children. I expected material comforts, physical satisfaction, love, companionship, sharing of interests…”
In a group discussion with young women and men living in Kolkata I posed nearly an identical question regarding their expectations of marriage, if they planned to marry in the first place. Aged between 23–26 years, they were all in their first jobs, earning between Rs 25,000 to Rs 40,000 per month.
Every one of them said that they would get married at some point in the future. Clearly, they were more focused on shaping their careers before getting married. Some of them didn’t give marriage too much importance, and instead considered it an individual’s choice.
But their expectations? The list ran along lines similar to that of Kapur’s respondent decades ago. Girls saw in marriage the possibility of children and family, financial stability, a sex partner, a good life, as they saw this happening with some of their relatives.
There was also the sense that it might affect their careers, with in-laws and husbands opposing their professional work. For men, happiness and responsibility seemed to be the two images of marriage that dominated their minds.
Though touted as the greatest adult institution by almost all major religions, marriage has come under fire as the ultimate bastion of patriarchy. Researchers and feminists find that traditional marriages are so biased towards men that women’s lives, instead of becoming happier or easier after marriage, become burdened with household chores and the care work, which fall disproportionately in her lot.
The unfair division of household work means that the outside spaces, which are linked to money and power, belong to the man. For women, it is the home with all its nurturing duties that becomes her world.
Care work as it is called, of children, the sick, the elderly, the household, finds no mention under the economically-driven activities that governments so painstakingly collect data about. It seems as if women do no work at all. Some researchers have indicated that this unequal distribution of wealth and power between men and women could lead to domestic violence, which may be exacerbated by marital concepts of entitlement and ownership.
Mahatma Gandhi, the great visionary, could see the imbalance between female and male roles within the family structure. He saw it as the foundation that perpetuated the subordination of women and wrote caustically, “Marriage is probably the oldest social institution and the most abused… In this unequal struggle of women against social tyrannies imposed on them, nothing has played so crucial a part as marriage. It is in fact the base from which the continuous attacks on them are made. For men it is a cloak which covers a multitude of their failings, the betrayals of their social obligations.”
Focusing on how this plays out in the desi scenario, we have Manu the misogynist saying that it was perfectly permissible for the woman to be subordinated by the man. In the sphere of religion and spiritual growth, he gives men the desire and the direction, while for a woman the worship of her husband was enough to transport her to the gates of heaven.
This version of the pati as parmeshwar (husband as God) has been cited so often in various commentaries of religious texts that women too have internalized the idea, creating in due course a deep divide between the sumangla, or the woman with a husband, and its binary the amangala, the widow, sans one.
The paranoia that centuries of rabid discrimination against widows foments isn’t just because of the colourless state of the widows of Vrindavan, chanting endless paeans to Lord Krishna as their saviour, but other stark images add to it. The denuding of colour and jewellery from a woman’s life in the wake of widowhood have deep psychological ramifications.
In order to stave off widowhood, women across the country observe various kinds of fasts like Karwa Chauth, Hartalika Teej, Karadaiyan Nonbu, Gowri Vratam, Monday and Thursday fasts, et cetera, to keep their husbands breathing longer.
Certain ornamentations too are imbued with the marks of the marriage, like sindoor, glass bangles, mangalsutra, taali, dejhoor in Kashmir, et cetera. The imbalance of power equations is reinforced during the wedding ceremony, where many communities across Bengal, Bihar, Assam, Orissa and others have the bride touch her husband’s feet.
However, things are changing. At a recent wedding that I attended, the bride (in her thirties), who worked in a senior position in a well-renowned company, and the groom were finally taking the pheras, much to everyone’s relief. On the completion of the seventh phera, which marked the end of the ceremony, the priest declared in stentorian tones, that the bride may now touch the groom’s feet, much in the manner of a kiss sealing the relationship in a Christian ceremony.
The bride’s response was an unexpected and emphatic refusal, which threw the priest into a tizzy. He began moralizing on the merits of the act, while an equally flustered mother tried to convince her daughter. To end the matter, the groom, a handsome nerd, much amused by the furore, offered to touch the bride’s feet instead.
In the southern states, higher literacy has made people aware of some overtly sexist terminology, for example, the kanyadaanam – a term which continues to be in vogue in north Indian weddings – was discarded in favour of the more descriptive panigraham, where the father gives away the bride.
Excerpted from The Shaadi Story (2020) with permission from Pan Macmillan India