The Vermillion of Repression: The True Expression of Durga Pujo?

Bengal is prided as one of the most liberal and progressive regions in India. While Bengalis often express indignation when their community is stereotyped by the basic association with Rabindra sangeet, literature and rich culture, they secretly enjoy it. Indeed, it feels blessed to belong to a culture that had once nurtured stalwarts like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Satyajit Ray and the like. However, there are too many disguised ills that get caught red-handed when you observe closely.

With clay models being shaped by nimble fingers, humongous structures being built with years of dexterity, flight and train tickets being booked from places across the world, Bengal is brimming with the 400-year-old joy that never seems to get stale. However, it is in this self-same garb of celebration that poison is being rapidly spread to the core of societal living, as a result of which creating a toxic space for several.

On the last day of Durga Puja, Vijaydashami, married Bengali women engage in what in Bengali is called Sidoor Khela. It is a messy albeit fun “game” where married Bengali women often draped in their red bordered white sarees, resplendent in their finest jewelry smear vermillion powder on each other amidst intermittent episodes of offering sweets to the departing Goddess. The sea of smiling faces with hair plastered to them in a paste of red mess make up for a marvelous spectacle. However, underneath these smiling faces lies tacit agreement to years of false belief systems.

According to traditional belief and understanding of the world, marriage was seen in terms of transaction only. Women keep a fast and gape at the full moon longingly enough to expect their husbands to be gifted with a shield of safety and longevity all of a sudden. They smear vermillion powder all over another married woman expecting to have a happily married life and never bother about becoming a widow. This ritual has been practiced since ages as it is meant to symbolize womanhood in the ability of a woman to protect her children and husband from evil.

The patriarchal nature of the festival has not failed to be noticed by several. Bangladeshi-Swedish author Taslima Nasreen, has criticized this celebration for its over-emphasis on the marital status of women and the Goddess. While young girls watch married women partake in this playful festival, the urge to get married is often planted in the core of their beings. They begin to center their lives around marriage and go to extremes to ensure a happily married life by religiously following these superstitions. This in turn has a potential to create a regressive impact on them where they believe that happiness can be derived primarily from marriage.

Although it is good enough to have a festival solely for the womankind in a society that has kept them in the blind spot for ages, entitlement is something that defeats the purpose of them uniting in a celebratory fervor. The exclusive nature of this celebration has remained masked behind all the pompous merrymaking. I fail to understand as to why a sect of women are entitled to enjoy a festival by the mere virtue of their marital status. And what astounds me all the more is how this ritual has been allowed to run for ages, unchecked and unrevised.

Unmarried, widowed, bisexual, homosexual and basically all non-married women are principally barred from the celebration of this festival. I am confused as to how these labels make them any less of a “happy” woman because happiness is ultimately what this ritual, like any ritual promises, for the woman and her family. Why must a woman have to rely on a festival to ensure healthy functioning of her conjugal life?

The Indian marriage system is one that confuses me to no end. It is like the scratch on the roof of your mouth; you can keep tonguing it as long as you may wish to, but it won’t go away and it is frightening how its rules and norms have been unquestioningly ingrained in the minds of even seemingly aware and educated masses. Instead of emphasizing on the marital status of the warrior Goddess, perhaps we could shift our focus to how Durga Maa represents women empowerment. We must seek inspiration from how this lone female Goddess, single handedly defeated the buffalo demon, Mahishasur which none of the Devas could accomplish. Although these stories are embedded in the vast body of the Indian mythology, we could still try to pick the tales we should seek inspiration from.

Contributed by Sneha Dasgupta

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