Certain rituals and practices have remained part of Indian culture almost since the beginning of time, and remain unchallenged. As generations moved forward, the meaning behind their existence has since been lost, but they continue to be held sacred, and are practised religiously through various parts of the country.
But ever so often, in some part of the country, someone will question them. Earlier this month, the Shekhars, who belong to Patna, Bihar, did just that.
In a post shared on Twitter, Mimansa Shekhar, a journalist currently living in Delhi, wrote about how her parents made her break the tradition of a certain patriarchal ritual by making her perform a ceremony, which is otherwise done by the groom’s brother.
The meaning behind gurhathi
“The ritual, called gurhathi, is considered very important,” Bhavna Shekhar, Mimansa’s mother, tells The Better India. “Before the bride and groom enter the mandap for pheras, the bride is made to sit, and the groom’s elder brother presents gifts to her. It’s a way to display what all the groom’s family has brought for the bride in front of the society, and usually, these are clothes and jewellery. If the groom doesn’t have a brother, the ritual is performed by any elder male, including a cousin or an uncle. If no one in the family is available, an elder male neighbour would be brought in.”
For Bhavna, performing this ceremony would need a broader understanding of its meaning, and why it’s performed in the first place. “In olden times, especially in extremely traditional and patriarchal families, it was more important for the bride to be under the ghoonghat (veil) in front of her brother-in-law, as opposed to her father-in-law. This is because of the buri nazar (evil eye) that the groom’s brother would often have for her. This would often mean that she needed to be protected from him. So, in this ritual, the idea is that the groom takes this jewelry and these clothes and keeps them on the bride, to signify that he can only touch her once in his life. Gurhathi is performed to portray that he has now earned a respectable place in her life,” Bhavna explains.
But Bhavna is well aware that society has since progressed. “Today, our girls are flying fighter jets and going out to explore the world, how can we still believe they need to be protected? Earlier, they weren’t even allowed to enter cremation grounds, owing to the fear that they were weak-hearted and wouldn’t be able to stand the sight of a dead body. There have been so many traditions that we have since been done away with. Even dowry is unacceptable now, and even if it’s practiced, it’s met with shame, and done in secret. Besides, there are so many traditions that keep males at the forefront. Why is it so important that only they perform these rituals? When will we let the women step up, and who is to say they can’t?” she asks.
‘A sense of authority’
“I, myself, have seen this ritual being performed so many times,” Mimansa tells The Better India, adding, “And each time, it was done by a man. It was never even questioned as to why. It was the norm. But at my younger brother’s wedding, the idea was simple: the groom had an elder sister — me. So, why couldn’t I perform the ceremony?”
Even then, Mimansa quietly asked her mother if the ceremony should, in fact, be performed by a cousin, or even her own husband. But Bhavna’s response was a firm no. “If a relative, or anyone else, were to question this decision, my mother would handle it,” she says, adding, “She said, ‘We’re the parents, and we will take a call.’”
Many eyebrows were raised at this seemingly small gesture at the wedding. “The pandit pushed a gentle reminder forward that this ceremony is meant to be performed by a man,” Bhavna says, adding, “He was stunned. In a bid to lighten the mood, my daughter said, ‘Panditji, I’m the elder brother and the elder sister. Chalega? (Is it fine?)’. He didn’t take it well, but didn’t say anything else. I’d even told the bride’s family beforehand that Mimansa would perform the ceremony. They protested too, asserting that gurhathi is meant to be performed by a man. And of course, their query was that ‘log kya kahenge? (what will people say?)’ which is an extremely popular question in our country. I was firm, though, that they can’t interfere in this decision.”
When the time came, it was Mimansa who was made to perform the ritual. “It’s hard to describe what I felt while performing the ceremony,” she says, adding, “I knew I was part of some sort of change, and I was at the very core of the ceremony at that point. I felt a sense of authority, in fact, which made me realise how much the ritual is centred around giving a certain kind of respect to the man — I felt it myself. I’m sure every woman present at the ceremony felt this respect too. Everyone who was there said this was the first time they saw a woman perform gurhathi.”
For Bhavna, who has been a teacher most of her life, and a writer for the last 12 years, this was more than just about the small ceremony. “I believe a teacher’s responsibility moves beyond the confines of making young minds learn through textbooks,” she says, and adds, “It’s a teacher’s responsibility to initiate change, to have a different vision. Even when it comes to being a writer, the responsibility remains. Readers trust us, and so, we have a larger responsibility towards them to bring in this change.”
Bhavna shared another experience from her son’s wedding in a Facebook post. “Patriarchy hides behind the veil of these traditions that we continue to blindly follow. Times have changed, so how can we not move towards establishing new norms? I’m not afraid of being questioned about this, or any other similar choices I have made. In fact, I’m open to being questioned, because I believe this view should be shared by everyone. I can proudly say that we were one of the first families in Bihar to have made a daughter perform gurhathi,” she says.
Mimansa was brought up surrounded by this positivity and progressiveness. She says, “My brother and I were brought up as equals, and I think sometimes, I was given more leeway than even he was. My family was extremely supportive of my dream of being a journalist.” Mimansa adds that she was never stopped by her parents from exploring, studying what she wanted to, meeting who she wanted to, or being herself in general, just because she was a woman.
Meanwhile, Bhavna’s belief is simple. “These days, we vouch and fight a lot for women empowerment,” she says, and adds, “But this movement has to move beyond the confines of taking a flag and shouting slogans. It’s hard to bring this change, and I believe it can only be brought about when we start from our homes. The idea of being progressive remains just that, because at home, we continue to suppress women, even in these small ways. I don’t want to preach, I just wanted to set an example. People will automatically follow.”
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)