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Modern manners help transform India’s ritual past

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Modern manners help transform India’s ritual past


October 10, 2009


Sheetal Sharma watches as his wife Anu’s hands are decorated in Delhi. Photo: Graham Crouch

AT DUSK on one day each year, my neighbourhood comes alive with hungry wives dressed in fine saris waiting to see the moon.

The occasion is Karva Chauth, a Hindu festival during which married Hindu women rise before dawn, have a hearty breakfast and then refrain from eating or drinking again until moonrise. They hope their sacrifice will ensure long life and prosperity for their husbands.

India’s rapid economic expansion and modernisation has not dampened enthusiasm for festivals such as Karva Chauth, which was celebrated this week.

But in the subcontinent’s fast-growing cities, ancient Hindu rituals are being reinterpreted.

It is traditional for fasting women to wear a new sari, or even their wedding outfit, and to have intricate designs painted on their hands with henna, as they do for marriage.

But rites are becoming more sophisticated among the cashed-up middle classes. Modern beauty treatments – from manicures to day spas – are in huge demand in the lead-up to the festival.

Some women even have pre-festival cosmetic surgery. Beauty salons in the northern city of Chandigarh reported an unprecedented rush for Botox, filler injections, skin peeling and other cosmetic makeovers. One plastic surgeon had a 100 per cent increase in clients on Karva Chauth eve.

Once the preserve of married women, Karva Chauth is now being celebrated by the unmarried too.

These brides-to-be fast in the hope of finding a good man. ”Getting a good and supportive life partner is challenge these days,” said Karishna, a young woman on the fast.

”The nature of this festival is changing with time,” said Kiran, a skilful hand painter, who added that more and more of her Karva Chauth customers were single.

The marriage stakes in India are so high that some young women complain that their mothers force them to go without food and water on Karva Chauth. Not to do so would be tempting fate.

In a push for gender equity, some husbands now join their wives on the fast.

One of Kiran’s customers, Kandna Makkar, said she and her husband fasted together. ”It’s a symbol of our love,” she said.

Anshuman Kukreja, a shoe seller, watched his wife fast for three years then decided it was unfair she did it alone. ”I decided to keep fast for my beloved wife. It further increases our mutual understanding,” he says proudly.

This year, gay men have gone public about how they observe the fast of Karva Chauth for their partners.

A recent Supreme Court decision that overturned British Raj-era laws banning homosexuality has made it easier for these men to speak about how they interpret their Hindu heritage.

But male fasting is not the norm – Karva Chauth is unashamedly girly.

There was a festive mood across Delhi this week as groups of women gathered at traditional markets and modern shopping malls to have their hands painted and shop for bangles.

Gayatri Srivastava, a university teacher from Mumbai, went with her friend for a foot spa on Karva Chauth. ”We were both keeping the fast so we decided to go together and keep each other company,” she said.

By evening time the women offer puja, or worship, at local Hindu temples and await the moonrise at their homes.

Once the moon is spotted, hungry wives have a celebratory meal, often fed to them by their husbands.

For many, the chauvinist overtones of Karva Chauth seem to be overshadowed by its romance.

Gayatri Srivastava rejects any notion of sexism. ”I don’t subscribe to the idea that this festival

is about the subjugation of women,” she says. ”It breaks the monotony of everyday existence. It is one time in the year when you can do something special for others.”

Parminder Kaur says Karva Chauth brings energy to her relationship. ”My husband can go to work on Diwali [the festival of lights which also falls in October this year] or any other festival, but on Karva Chauth he is always with me. That’s the significance of this festival.”

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Written by gaybombay

October 10, 2009 at 2:05 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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