My mother had told me repeatedly from an early age, “You are not property to be given away.”
My mother married at 19 and moved to the Indian city of Kolkata from her ancestral home in Hooghly, a city about an hour away from the capital of West Bengal. Their wedding album is gorgeous—my mother in a stunning red Benarasi saree with intricately-patterned chandan art on her face, and my dashing father in dhoti-panjabi and topor (traditional headgear), unable to stop smiling. Their wedding was elaborate and traditional. It took hours with male priests chanting Sanskrit mantras no one, save a handful, understood. My mother’s late uncle conducted the “sampradan” (kanyadaan)—giving away the bride to her husband.
I had never thought or dreamed of marriage. I was too busy carving out a career. But, then I met a man, who made me first think of the possibility of a lifelong, equal partnership. The more we dated—meeting in different parts of the world, living continents apart—the more I realised I wanted to be with him. After he proposed at sunset on a picnic in Austin, the concept of marriage became real. My parents and I discussed guests, venue options, food choices (extremely important in Indian weddings), and more. Despite disagreements, we were all adamant on two things: I would not be given away, and outdated, patriarchal rituals would be chopped off.
“At 19, I followed tradition though I did not like certain rituals. If I could go back in time, I would not allow myself to be given away,” my mother, Mahua Chaudhuri (nee Mitra), emphasised. And so, she turned to a group of trailblazers.
The Fantastic Four
Nandini Bhowmik, Ruma Roy, Semonti Banerjee and Paulomi Chakraborty form a four-member group of women priestesses based in Kolkata. Called Shubhamastu (“let it prosper” loosely translated in Sanskrit), these four have been at the helm of challenging preconceived mindsets and bringing about social reform in Hindu weddings for close to a decade.
The right for a woman to own her body, not be dehumanised and objectified, has been a battle women have been fighting for eternity. This fight goes on even today, with a recent example in controlling a woman in the name of safety being an Indian state government’s plan to install cameras with artificial intelligence that are to automatically take a photo of a woman in distress on the basis of her facial expression. Another example, also in the name of women’s safety, has been the recent formulation of a police team to track porn searches.
Shubhamastu has one objective when conducting wedding rituals. “We are opposed to the concept of discrimination,” Bhowmik told VICE.
Bhowmik conducted her daughter’s wedding rituals in 2009. An academic, Indologist and theatre artist, Bhowmik and her college batchmate Roy, a Sanskrit professor and singer, used to make weekly visits to their mentor’s house, Gouri Dharmapal, to organise the famed Vedic scholar’s library. When they were close to finishing the project in 2008, Dharmapal asked if the duo would be keen on continuing what she had started: conducting weddings based on her Vedic research that she had simplified and created for easier understanding.
In 1991, Dharmapal had first conducted her niece’s wedding, the daughter of her younger sister Bani Basu, renowned Bengali author and critic. “She had translated a lot of poems and rituals from Sanskrit to Bengali, and compiled them to conduct my daughter’s wedding,” Basu told VICE. “She had also married director Aparna Sen’s elder daughter using her version of mantras.”
Bhowmik and Roy immediately agreed. After Bhowmik’s daughter’s wedding, the duo began conducting a few others’ using their mentor’s guidance. “We asked Gouri di (sister) if we could add new things to the script and she gave us her blessings,” Bhowmik recollected.
Banerjee, a musician and performer, and Chakraborty, a school teacher, singer and theatre actor, joined the duo two years after the initiative began. While Bhowmik and Roy dealt with research, translations, script writing, sometimes practising over long phone calls, Banerjee and Chakraborty selected Nobel Prize-winning poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore’s songs and weaved them into the ceremony, not just for the sake of music but to also use his words as mantras.
The group built upon the original script over the years but after a point, decided to completely start afresh. “We dived deeper into research, coming up with a new script and concept based solely on equality. While the original text had provisions for kanyadaan, we chose to not incorporate that. My scholar father, a grihi-sanyasi (householder), helped us and still aids with research for our ever-evolving script,” Bhowmik said. For example, during a personal visit to Allahabad (Prayagraj), they came across a parents’ ashirbad (blessings) mantra used at Indira Gandhi’s (former Prime Minister of India) wedding which they have incorporated into their fold. Additionally, eight new hymns and the couple praying for each other, instead of the onus solely falling on the girl to pray for her husband’s and in-laws’ health and well-being, have been added.
My wedding, like all Indians weddings, had many guests. However, unlike most Indian weddings where the food is of main concern, our guests were left enthralled by the ceremony. My partner and I had chosen not to follow the ‘biyer logno’ (auspicious time) or rigid norms of poush mash (inauspicious month to get married). Shubhamastu came to the rescue.
“We believe all days are good,” Banerjee told VICE. The group, that has burst into stardom in recent years with even a Bengali film made based on Bhowmik’s influence, did not initially have all good days. For the first few years, they barely had any engagements. It was tough to change the notion that a priest could be anything but a Brahmin male. “In an early engagement, we saw a male Brahmin priest conduct the rituals after we finished because the family felt we were not legitimate,” Banerjee said. “There were interviews where priests mentioned there could never be priestesses, bringing up impurity as a reason,” Bhowmik added.
But they could slowly effect change. “The fact that we have been able to change the mindset from ‘what will society think’ to ‘we only want you to conduct our ceremony’ is a big step,” Roy said. “Many parents and grandparents have told us they never liked patriarchal traditions but were too scared to complain.” Now, though, these families feel brave to voice their feelings. “Discrimination is so ingrained in society that to see positive acceptance of changes as we perform, is a welcome feeling,” Chakraborty said, adding that both families involved in the ceremony need to agree to Shubhamastu’s style and performance before they accept a booking.
For the group, performing these weddings is a work of passion, not their main vocation. Half the honorarium they charge for a ceremony, goes to charitable organisations. And they are disciplined and professional. The group immediately leaves the wedding after the ceremony, declining to partake in wedding feasts even if implored.
Something Old, Something New
On a chilly winter evening pre-Covid in Kolkata, my partner and I walked to the wedding mandap (pavilion/stage) holding hands, led by younger nieces and nephews showering the way with flower petals. “We emphasise partners doing every part of the ceremony together,” Bhowmik said. The four were already seated. They are always punctual, setting up and sound-checking half an hour before the start of the ceremony. And they were gorgeously dressed—matching saris, ceremonious makeup and jewellery (in current times, matching designer masks over N95s with personal microphones have been added). Their services have become so popular that they are booked till March 2022, sometimes conducting two ceremonies a day. Not just weddings, but also grihaprabesh (a ritual for housewarmings), memorial services, and annaprasan (a baby’s rice eating ceremony). Lockdowns had pushed back many engagements but they have resumed since November 2020, balancing their academic and theatre commitments.
Shubhamastu conducts weddings multilingually. Our ceremony was conducted in Sanskrit, Bengali and English for everyone present to understand; they use Hindi for non-Bengali ceremonies. “Every ceremony is a performance, but we never get tired of doing it,” Banerjee stated. The quartet’s passion for theatre is a big help because it helps in voice modulation and adds depth to each performance. Holding the rapt attention of a large audience is never easy.
The priestesses start by introducing both sets of parents, mother first, then the couple (caste, class, gender no bar), and finally themselves only by their first names so caste distinctions are not identified. As the modern ceremony progresses, the chants, drawn from Vedic influences, are explained so a layman can understand the reasoning behind each action; the couple’s vows are translated so all, including the duo, clearly get what they are committing to uphold; and the interjections of popular Tagore songs engage the audience to be part of the process.
“We do all the necessary rituals, but have chopped off all the unnecessary patriarchal, archaic ones,” Roy said. At our wedding, the sexist practice of kanyadaan did not take place because I do not exist just to be “given away”. We understood each vow we were committing to uphold together, from sharing household duties to always encouraging each other in life and career. The sindoor ceremony, the moment signifying a woman is married, was not one-sided. I smiled as I drew a vermillion tilak on my partner’s forehead first with the end of my wedding band, before he put the red powder on my hair parting. As Shubhamastu concluded the proceedings with Rabindrasangeet, we were showered with flower petals by family and friends.
It was the beginning of a beautiful life, starting with a social ceremony that was based on love, laughter and equality.
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