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Thursday, May 19, 2022

The choices of Karva Chauth

Why are so many economically independent women keen to participate in rituals that would seem to treat men as superior beings?

Written by Sanjay Srivastava |
Updated: October 19, 2016 2:19:08 pm

While the origins of Karva Chauth,the one-day festival when married Hindu women fast from sunrise to moonrise for the well-being of their husbands, might be unclear, its place in the contemporary processes of Indian life makes for a fascinating lesson in cultural complexity. Notwithstanding critical commentary regarding its regressive gender politics,what was primarily a north Indian festival now appears to have found pan-Indian popularity. The increasing participation of young unmarried women is another interesting dimension.

The rise of the all-India Karva Chauth is at the heart of the making of a standardised model, where a certain set of rituals are now imagined to be at its core. Historically,ritual practices have varied not just from region to region but also between households. The standardised Karva Chauth owes a great deal to the influence of the media,particularly Bollywood and advertising.

In a post-liberalisation era when women are enthusiastic participants in consumer culture,the wild popularity of a festival that mainly positions them as dutiful and self-sacrificing wives might seem contradictory. However,Karva Chauth in our times is such an amalgam of desires,anxieties and aspirations that such contradictions are more apparent than real.

Consider the idea of romance,for example. While the proportion of the Indian population that is able to exercise choice over marriage partners remains tiny,the idea of choosing one’s spouse — and that of romantic relationships — finds great play in public and private imaginations of the ideal relationship. Karva Chauth, particularly in its media incarnations (think of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge), appears to provide the bridge between actual constraints and apparent freedom. One can be both romantic — implying choice and modernity — as well as comply with a situation where decisions regarding marriage partners are made by family elders. This aspect might particularly apply to unmarried young women,who are now enthusiastic participants.

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Sociality among women is an undeniable part of Karva Chauth, and, just as undeniably, a significant aspect of the pleasure that participation generates. But,given that this is itself nothing new,what accounts for its growing popularity across divergent class-fractions,professional backgrounds and linguistic-ethnic divides?

This year — as in previous ones — the gated communities of Gurgaon will play host to elaborately dressed IT professionals,corporate executives,call-centre managers and others of similar backgrounds taking part in a great deal of public activity related to the festival. Common spaces such as parks and gardens will be converted into those of collective ceremonial activity,and a variety of sieves (an essential part of the moon-sighting ritual) will be brandished throughout the evening. There is no easy explanation for why so many women — economically independent and apparently able to exert equality with their spouses — are keen to participate in rituals that would seem to treat men as superior beings,when,quite clearly,there is no reciprocity of this sentiment.

There might,however,be some complex reasons. The manner in which cultural globalisation is perceived is one of these. While we love the material products of globalisation,we are less certain about its cultural manifestations: as we purchase the latest foreign-brand mobile phones and other goods,we also carry the thought that “globalisation threatens our culture.” This scenario is perhaps no more sharply played out as in enclaves of trans-national lifestyles and among professionals who are at the cutting edge of the processes of globalisation. Karva Chauth — like many other festivals and rituals that were imagined to be disappearing — has become part of a search for “Indian heritage.” What constitutes,or should constitute,“Indian heritage”,goes to the heart of the debate over the version of gender relations represented by Karva Chauth.

Anecdotal evidence points to a “new” version of the festival where — as in Dilwale Dulhania — the husband also fasts. This,however,is far from common and the fasting woman remains the norm. The idea of the fasting husband does not,in any case,have a necessary link to gender equality: fasting husbands are unlikely to take over cooking or child-rearing duties. The symbolism of the fasting husband is that of a “generous” and caring man. However,it is a symbolism that is largely based upon an unequal domestic gender order. In folk tales,the king who becomes a beggar for a day is not advocating the abolition of the system of monarchy itself.

But what about those women who might both believe in as well as be able to achieve gender equality in their personal lives,but also choose to take part in Karva Chauth? This is not an atypical situation. There are,once again,no easy answers to this conundrum. It does,however,suggest that consumerist modernity,with its emphasis on choice,encourages us to construct identities from a wide menu of seemingly contradictory contexts. It also points to the ironic fact that the rise of the local and the “traditional” is fundamentally linked to the consolidation of the global in our lives. This is our Karva Chauth modernity.

The writer is a professor of sociology at Delhi University

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