Monday, March 12, 2018

Status of women in the Syrian Christian society


The paper aims at showing the practices and procedures existing in the events of birth, marriage and death amidst the Syrian Christians of the state of Kerala in India. And the rituals and customs aimed at creating a mental and social divide in a patriarchal society with the place of women in the father's household and in her conjugal household after marriage. So also it will explore the elements of Syrian Christian wedding and the Indian practices customized exclusively for the women, and not the men to bear as symbols of devotion in a matrimonial relationship. 

The subject of analysis are the Syrian Christians of the state of Kerala in India, who believe that they were converted by St. Thomas, the apostle of Christ according to myths that date back to AD 52, but since 17th century have been divided into several different church denominations and traditions. The Orthodox and Jacobite syrian Christians are two of the segments of one denomination which split in 1912, with one paying allegiance to the patriarch of Antioch and the other to the Malankara metropolitan, the Catholicos.1
Kerala society in the earliest centuries was traditionally plural. It allowed for the portrayal and interaction of the Hindu, Christian, and Syrian codes which led to a later society inspired by all these schools of thought. There was an effective internal impetus towards reciprocal relativity among the various spheres of social life, and less of dominance or submission of any one in relation to the others. There had been the areas bound by a pluralistic system of values in which the other spheres of activity are accorded their due and place. It does not mean at all that the Syrian Christians did not have their private world. They did have their own private world. It related to their rituals and ecclesiastical life, “with the norms of endogamy determining the level of contact and intimacy between the individuals”. The Christian community, as the traditions of the Syrian Christians show, lived and developed and the Christian life grew on the pattern of temple-life of the Hindus.2 The community must have lived together as a caste, in villages or in towns, as is the ancient custom of India, and the church probably stood in a central place. Apart from the convenience for church-worship, the Christians considered it spiritually elevating to live near the churches, and this preference for living near the churches has continued in Kerala down to this day. They used to bring the sick to the church. The churches and the surrounding places were used as inns or Dharmashalas by the pilgrims.

1 A. R Sreedharan Menon, Cultural heritage of Kerala, An Introduction, p 57
2 A. M. Mundadan, History of Christianity in India, Vol. I, Bangalore, TPI, 1984, Pp. 1-21

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Pramila: Esther Victoria Abraham- The First woman to be crowned Miss India

“My husband asked me to choose between him and the theatre. And I chose the latter. After that he never came to the theatre. Never saw me either. That was it. I was pregnant then. There was no other meeting, no other conversation … that was the end of my family life …”

Esther was born in 1916 in Kolkata to Reuben Abraham, a businessman from Kolkata and Matilda Issac from Karachi. Her family was of the Baghdadi Jewish origins, that traces its routes to the Middle east and who settled primarily around the trade route ports around Indian ocean and the South Chinese sea.
She had three half siblings and six siblings from her parent’s own marriage.

Education and early life
Esther attended the Calcutta Girls high school but later shifted to St James which was a co-educational institution and had a reasonable fee structure which the family could afford due to its declining means. Esther learned that to be an all-rounder she had to to excel in both studies and sports and become better than the boys.
She was a hockey champion and had won many trophies in sports.
She had a penchant for drawing and on graduating from high school received an arts degree from Cambridge.
On completing her high school degree she went to become a kindergarten teacher at the Talmud Torah Boy’s school. Esther was pretty and the boys in her school would try and find all kinds of excuses to speak to their beautiful teacher. Despite having done a B Ed degree she didn’t want to teach and was drawn to the Hindi cinema.

From Esther to Pramila
Her family had keen interest in music and dance which attracted young Esther to cinema. Her entry into silent movies happened by a sheer stroke of luck.
In those days her first cousin Rose and her younger sister Sophie were a part of the Corinthian theatre.
Meanwhile she got married to a Marwari theatre personality and had a son Maurice Abraham. Her parents convinced her to annul the marriage and they brought up Maurice.
A chance visit to Bombay to visit her cousin Rose Ezra changed the course of her life. Director R S Chowdhari spotted her while she visited Rose who was acting in The Return of the Toofan Mail. The director thought that the tall and glamorous Esther would do greater justice to the role and she was signed after being put through a screen test.
The movie The Return of the Toofan Mail was never completed but this marked the beginning of Esther’s entry into Hindi cinema.
She stayed on in Bombay and started working with Irani’s Imperial company. In 1936, her first movie Bhikaran hit the theaters and her anglicized hindi was accepted and became a rage. After this movie she was given the screen name Pramila by director and producer Baburao Pendherkar.
She went on to act in movies like Ulti Ganga,Burra Nawab Sahib, Bijli,Shahzadi, Jhankar, Our Darling Daughter, Maha Maya among others that often saw her play a vamp and stunt star. She also became the first major woman film producer with 16 major films under her banner Silver Productions. Morarji Desai, the then Prime minister got her arrested for she was suspected to be a spy for as she often travelled to Pakistan. Later it was proved that her constant travels were aimed at promoting her films.

  • Return of the Toofan Mail, directed by R.S. Chaudhary (1935)
  • Bhikaran, directed by P.K. Atharti (1935)
  • Mahamaya, directed by Gunjal (1936)
  • Hamari Betiya / Our Darling Daughters, directed by R.S. Chaudhary (1936)
  • Saria, directed by Shanti Dave (1936)
  • Mere Lai, directed by Gunjal (1937)
  • Mother India, directed by Gunjal (1938)
  • Bijlee, directed by Balwant Bhatt (1939)
  • Hukum Ka Ekka, directed by Shanti Dave (1939)
  • Jungle King, directed by Nari Ghadialli (1939)
  • Kahan Hai Manzil Ten, directed by S.M. Yussuf (1939)
  • Sardar, directed by Dwarka Khosla (1940)
  • Kanchan, directed by Leela Chitnis (1941)
  • Shahzaadi, directed by J.P. Advani (1941)
  • Basant, directed by Amiya Chakrabarty (1942)
  • Jhankar, directed by S. Khalil (1942)
  • Saheli, directed by S.M. Yussuf (1942)
  • Ulti Ganga, directed by K. Dhaiber (1942)
  • Bade Nawab Saheb, directed by B.D. Vedi (1944)
  • Naseeb, directed by B.D. Vedi (1945)
  • Devar, directed by S.M. Yussuf (1946)
  • Nehle Pe Dehla, directed by S.M. Yussuf (1946)
  • Sal Gira, directed by K.S. Dariani (1946)
  • Shalimar, directed by Roop K. Shorey (1946)
  • Doosri Shaadi, directed by Ram Dariani (1947)
  • Aap Beeti, directed by M. Kumar (1948)
  • Beqasoor, directed by K. Amamath (1950)
  • Hamari Beti, directed by Shobhna Samarth (1950)
  • Dhoon, directed by M. Kumar (1953)
  • Majboori / Choti Bahen, directed by Ram Dariani (1954)
  • Badal Aur Bijlee, directed by Maurice Abraham (1956)
  • Fighting Queen, directed by Nari Ghadiali (1956)
  • Jungle King, directed by Masud (1959)
  • Bahana, directed by M. Kumar (1960)
  • Murad, directed by Nari Ghadiali (1961)
  • Thaang, directed by Amol Palekar (2006)

Friday, February 2, 2018

Is male objectification catering to gender parity?

A question that is doing the rounds in feminist circles nowadays is that do men get objectified just like women do, especially with feminism clearly addressing issues of misogyny and traditional patriarchy? The answer is yes, they do. But not the same as women.

Sexual objectification can be defined as the viewing of human beings as a sum total of their body parts with no regard to their personalities or feelings. Sexual objectification has made one person the agent and another person the object.

In our conception of heterosexual relationships, the man is considered to be the subject and woman the object. Sexual objectification does not give a person the freedom to choose what they want sexually.

Sexual objectification in our culture

Sexual objectification has a status quo attached to it, which has always made the woman the subject and this thinking is so deeply ingrained in our culture that items songs with scantily clad actresses have been used to sell movies to a male audience or female models have been presented as objects to sell products used by men. The target here is the sensuality of a man who will be attracted to female objectification and will buy the product.

Bollywood has successfully objectified women in movies, by making women actors expose their midriffs, cleavages and legs dancing to music with crude, sexist lyrics. Most women actors are presented as though they are to be devoured. Indeed sexual objectification of women runs the advertising industry and has sold thousands of products by effectively dehumanizing women.


Even in everyday life, girls are asked to cover up to avoid distracting their male friends and acquaintances which patriarchal powers in authority think will create “unsafe” circumstances for girls. Which they think can’t be controlled by imposing stricter rules on those who are complicit in making spaces unsafe for girls.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

14th February 2016, Aurora hall, Calgary

From the winter window
melting with human heat
in a strange city brimming with nameless life
I watch two people ensconced wearing each other's bodies
 like warm cardigans, twining their fingers like knitting needles
It's the festival of love, as love can be seen
plastered on walls of restaurants,
malls and the community hall in pink
 sealing the deal in sales
 or doled as discounts.

While in this part of my weary world,
 these two speak to a civilization
Torn by bombs, fractured by barbed wires
My lonely eyes capture the postcard greeting they give to the world
On a moonless night lit by silent street lamps.
Sipping slowly from my favourite mug with a happy picture
He gave on one such Valentine's day

I wonder,
Why do photos save moments
that will be forgotten?
As tears trickle down my face
I realize that I now prefer my coffee salted
 as my tongue gets used to the taste of
 wet memories.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Why should you watch Lipstick under my Burkha?

I usually don't make advance bookings for a movie, but this one was tempting. The kick-ass poster might have attracted many like me, a middle finger salutation on a feminine movie poster is hard to resist. 
I saw a few men inside the theatre, some accompanying their wives and girlfriends, others on their own. Curiosity brought them there. Perhaps some were present in the cinema hall, to make fun of a woman director who decided to walk the talk, and show the mirror to patriarchy.

Cast: Ratna Pathak Shah
Konkona Sen Sharma
Ahana Kumra
Plabita Borthakur
Vikrant Massey
Sushant Singh Rajput

Director: Alankrita Shrivastava

Running time: 2 hours 12 minutes

The movie talks about the lives of four women who are neighbours, and living in a small town in India. To rebel is a way of life for them, and these big and small acts of mutiny where they stand up for themselves is the unique selling point in the movie. Each woman is standing at a threshold of life, that is distinctive from the situation of the other woman. For example there is the college goer Rehana who is a die-hard fan of Miley Cyrus and is struggling to shun the burkha that her parents have used to camouflage her body and her dreams that revolve around becoming a singer. Or the mother of three children Shireen, played by Konkona Sen Sharma who has swallowed the atrocities that her dominant and perverted husband unveils on her everyday, without uttering a word. Else, take the example of Leela who is trying to establish a new business with her muslim boyfriend, oblivious of her fiance of her mother who is trying to pay off the debts her father left them with after his death. Then there is buaji the matriarch, who is the co-owner of  an ancient building in the heart of the city and a sweet shop. She feeds her sexual fantasies by indulging in sleazy novels.  
Each character has to put up with a lot to breathe in their sacred space, yet their willingness to listen to the voice of  their soul makes them special.

Spoilers ahead
Scenes where Shireen is raped every night on bed, and at the drop of a hat she is forced to pop a pill to avoid pregnancy to her dominating husband throwing away the condom to have sex with her make you cringe. This is the story of thousands of women in India who silently accept marital rape as their fate.
Buaji's battle to suppress her sexual needs within the pages of sleazy novels makes you rethink about how we have ignored elderly women and their sexual desires and why they are forced to hide behind the mask of traditions and religion, in this case buaji being a regular at the satsangs.
Leela's struggle to keep her hopes of  setting up a business alive to the way she is shown being torn between her fiance and boyfriend is the portrayal of a young women of India trying to shun marriage and putting up a brave front to let their dreams of a career live. 
The young college goer Rehana has very few dialogues but manages to impress with her silent yet powerful expressions particularly the acts where she tries to don western outfits to the reality locking horns with her dreams of pursuing a singing career.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Examining the sexism in Indian politics

As the poll trumpets blew during the assembly elections in the five states of Goa, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Manipur,  we saw many sexist politicians come out of their hiding holes. I was rattled by an insensitive comment by a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Vinay Katiyar who said that Priyanka Gandhi was not as beautiful as she was projected to be and that there were prettier women leaders in BJP like Smriti Irani who could pull crowds and give better speeches.
This was not the first time that an Indian politician had passed sexist regressive remarks about a woman politician. I cannot help but wonder: How long it will be before a woman politician is given importance and her potential as a politician not measured by her looks?
Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader Mayawati has also been a popular target from politicians. Once, BJP spokesperson Shaina NC made a jibe on her, saying that she didn't know if the BSP leader was a "he" or "she" – attacking Mayawati's gender identity based on outdated and regressive stereotypes of what constitutes "womanliness", which Mayawati might not conform to. Mayawati doesn't wear saris or salwar kameez in feminine colours  and the way she wears her hair has made her a victim of comments like these that question her appearance.
On another occasion BJP leader Dayashankar Singh said that Mayawati is worse than a prostitute who gives a seat to the person who pays the highest amount for it. His comments toward the Dalit woman leader were not only sexist but also casteist. A metaphor comparing a woman to a sex worker is every sexist's glorifying moment of machismo – disrespecting not only the woman in question but also the dignity of sex workers. Patriarchy feeds on the notion that a sex worker is the lowliest among the low in the society, since they have sex with tens and hundreds of men to earn their bread and butter. Patriarchy is the school of thought that restricts a woman's sexual agency, and in this case it has been difficult for leaders like Dayashankar Singh to come to terms with the fact that sex work is like any other profession and there is nothing condemnable about it. The same man lashed out at Mayawati again a few months later where he likened her to a dog and called her a coward. He said that "Mayawati is like a dog that chases speeding cars on roads, but steps back as and when the vehicle stops." He later took back his statement, saying that he meant that "she called us dogs."

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Dress codes and the stigma attached to it

An important lesson girls growing up in India are taught is to pull down the length of our skirts to lengthen them, for the fear and stigma attached to what we wear and how it can be provocative and attract the male gaze can make us appear scandalous and of questionable morals. 
I remember the carefree days as a young girl in India, when skirts and shorts hanging inside our closets didn't invite criticism from people. But, as our bodies started growing in size, covering it up became a necessity. 
My mother was never bothered about what I wear and did it in any way feed the sexual gaze of young boys or men. My favourite dress from childhood was a mini skirt resting below my thighs with white polka dots and golden buttons. The white shirt with ruffles and laces was the perfect match for this black skirt. Till this day, I vividly remember the colour and feel of the skirt and the top, and the memories it gave me. Another favourite piece of garment from my childhood was a yellow dress with huge flower motifs that made me look like a garden. It did grab a few eyeballs and people fed on unhealthy doses of patriarchy told me to not show off my hands, legs, shoulders or chest because girls from decent families should never show skin.