Much ado about nothing

I was shocked to learn on Thursday morning that the office of the Tamil television channel ‘ >Puthiya Thalaimurai’ had been attacked for planning to air a show on March 8, International Women’s Day, debating the value of the thaali, a sacred necklace worn by married women, as part of its ‘Urakka Sollungal’ programme. That a 30-second promo for the TV show aired on the channel since March 5 in the run-up to the special episode could invite the wrath of a Hindu religious outfit is a little hard to digest, but happen it did. This is why before I proceed to discuss whether the ceremonial necklace itself must be worn or not, the subject of the proposed debate, a brief discussion of the content of the promo at the centre of the present controversy, is merited.

The promo

One version of the promo begins with a lady observing that tying a thaali around a woman’s neck is like tying a leash around a dog’s neck — the woman has no choice but to go in the direction in which the man pulls her. Another woman, who is married for nearly four decades, says the thaali around her neck produces feelings of guilt, as her marriage failed because her husband had an extra-marital affair. She wonders aloud why she must continue to carry this burden around her neck. Some women in the show say that they wouldn’t wear it at the time of getting married, but when the show’s anchor pops the question to single women in the audience, asking whether they would refuse to wear it when they marry, the audience remains silent. The show’s producer (who requested anonymity for security reasons) told The Hindu that during the shoot, several women admitted that though they wore the thaali as part of their marriage ceremony, they took it off while going to work as they did not feel obliged to wear it all the time.

As is obvious from the voices of the few women who spoke in the show, there are different emotions and opinions attached to the thaali, often coloured by the subjective experiences of women with regard to marriage. But would it not be too much to broad-brush the entire practice of wearing ceremonial necklaces as a sign of a woman’s enslavement, especially when there is a certain universality attached to the ritual of wearing or exchanging of ceremonial ornaments during weddings? Similar arguments have been made by commentators on the practice of Muslim women wearing the traditional head garment hijab or the garment covering the entire body niqab, as limiting their freedom or symbolising their enslavement, although not all Muslim women may endorse these views. And the ritual of tying thaalis is not a wedding custom peculiar to Hinduism. Even Syrian Christian weddings in Kerala have a ceremonial component involving the tying of the minnu, similar to a thaali, around the bride’s neck by the groom. In the West, a bride and a groom typically exchange wedding rings, which is meant to signify their loving bond as a couple. However, in Muslim weddings the symbolic ritual of wearing or exchanging ornaments is absent, as their weddings are more in the nature of the signing of a contract between the bride and the groom.

Define culture

As any social anthropologist is bound to tell you, all rituals have a symbolic meaning and are a part of what defines a culture, though the rituals themselves may vary in the manner in which they are observed. Some traditional thaalis carry motifs of the Shiva linga, which symbolises fertility or a tulsi leaf symbolising purity. The designs and motifs vary in different Hindu sub-sects, according to the Hindu God in whom the family believes. In fact, the translated text of the laws of Manu, originally written during the Vedic period, available with a commentary by ancient Indian writer Kallukabhatta and translated into English by Sir William Jones, has an entire chapter prescribing the laws of marriage and the different types of marriages permitted in Hindu culture, including marriages by force and child marriages (which are illegal now), but does not specifically mention anything regarding the ritual of tying the thaali itself.

And it is not as though modern marriage ceremonies strictly abide by ancient rules and customs laid down by Manu in these sacred texts. With time, many of these rituals have undergone changes too, including how people interpret as its significance. Also, Hindu women in unhappy marriages have enabling divorce laws in India to take recourse to in order to annul their wedding. The fact of having a traditional ornament around their neck is no longer an impediment for many of them.

Popular cinema has done a great deal to sentimentalise the thaali. I am reminded of a scene from the Tamil movie “Avvai Shanmughi” starring Kamal Hassan, in which, disguised as an elderly woman, he manages to convince his unhappy wife to wear again the thaali removed and locked away in a drawer, as part of efforts to woo her back to her marital home after she leaves him and shifts to her father’s house. Members of the Hindu majority who are currently taking offence at debating the idea of the thaali’s significance are perhaps more inspired by our movies than Vedic-era scriptures that remain ambiguous about them.

Unfortunately for us, in the melee that has followed the airing of the ‘Puthiya Thalaimurai’ episode’s trailer, what we have missed out on is an opportunity to tune into the voices of women and how they perceive this social custom. It is unthinkable that somebody would go to the lengths of bombing an office over debating the matter.

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Printable version | Sep 16, 2021 9:32:25 AM |

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