Monday, August 26, 2019

The Warp and Weft of Life

Swathi Chaganty

For the last five years we have been seeing the resurgence of the small-town family stories in our Hindi film industry. And its success at the box office as well as the ratings from the critics indicates that we as a nation are willing to immerse ourselves in the stories of authentic characters and relationships.

And one such character that has evolved over the years is the female lead in these stories. Once characterised as one-dimensional village or small-town girl, supporting the male protagonist, a naïve prop, a damsel in distress, has now slowly evolved into educated, progressive, ambitious and somewhat idealistic young woman. Be it Jaya from Toilet Ek Prem Katha or Bittu from Bareilly Ki Barfi, be it Sandhya from Dum Laga Ke Haisha or Sugandha from Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, these women are strong, opinionated, assertive and a welcome sight on screen. However, on the other hand, we still do have female characters like Radhika Apte’s Gayatri from Padman from a small town in Madhya Pradesh who still believe that it is better to die in shame and silence then to disclose your discomfort of menstruation; and that is the truth of the matter, and depiction of these characters is also important for us to know the long road ahead of us in terms of addressing gender based issues. But then there is another character that graced the silver screen in 2017, Mamta from Sui Dhaaga. 

On cursory glance Mamta is anything but Jaya or Sandhya. She is the head covering, kitchen bound, hardworking daughter-in-law; someone we have seen before. So much so, Anushka Sharma who plays Mamta initially did not want to play this character despite loving the script. And when asked on FC Unfiltered by Anupama Chopra, Sharma replied that she was not confident that she would be able to convince the audience of the character of Mamta since she was quite the opposite in her real life.

So, what makes this character stand out, why does Mamta stand with the Jayas and Bittus of our new small town and village girls? She might follow the rules of the milieu, fulfil the responsibilities of the house, and look homely which lends authenticity to the character from a small town in India but there is strength in her quiet presence, and she is definitely not at loss for words when the need arises. She is not the “bechaari” that Harleen Madam, a ready-made garment manufacturing owner, an interesting rather one-dimensional foil for Mamta, thinks her to be.

She is self-respecting voice of reason when inherently jovial and unaware Mauji, her husband, is insulted at a wedding by his boss. She is a leader that encourages him to make his own path—as a tailor, a trade that was his and his family’s forte once upon a time. And it is her decisiveness and persuasion that actually leads the couple to compete in the Fashion Fund in the third act. While the movie rests on the shoulders of the hero’s story arc, his relationship with his cantankerous father and ailing mother, conflict with his brother, and his struggle to make it in the tailoring business, the story of the heroine is not left behind. Mamta is a brilliant negotiator and adept at marketing and advertising much to Mauji’s surprise; not because he was indifferent to her talent or contribution, but because the “milieu” of a working-class family does not offer them the time or the privacy to get to know each other, and neither does the conservative set up help them which the movie subtly presents to us. It is through this journey of having their own business that both the characters learn about each other and their relationship develops which is crucial for the characters to succeed in their endeavour.

While the story draws our attention to the dying art of handloom, and small-town professions like tailoring and weaving in presence of the ready-made garment factories and malls, it is the realness of the characters of Mauji and Mamta, their relationship, and their trials and tribulations that give us an insight into the lives of real artisans. More often than not these artisanal tradition runs in the family where both the husband and wife contribute to the product with their skills and the decline in any artisanal industry impacts both the men and women, more so women because of the lack of financial autonomy. Apart from the relationship of the two characters the movie sensitively shows their aspirations of recognition and furthering their art going unfulfilled, and their desperation and frustration as they see their inheritance being poached by computers and machines for printing on cheap textiles that will be flooded back into those very same malls and shops they pass by every day. Both Mamta and Mauji go through a journey that knocks their naiveté down but they rise up to the challenge and make their dream come true as partners.

While there is a long way for us to go in depicting different types of layered female characters and layered relationships vis a vis their male counterparts, Mamta definitely stands among the new age rural women shaping our country’s stories on screen and her relationship with Mauji reflects the thousands of relationships that already exist among our working-class and rural professions and industries.

Friday, August 9, 2019

The Many Colours of Indian Indigenous People

Dr. Shiny Varghese

Indigenous people are those who inherit and practice unique cultures. With 370 million such people living across 90 countries, they represent more than 5000 different cultures, and speak over 7000 languages in the world. Though they form less than 5 percent of the population, they account for 15 percent of the poorest in the world. What is noteworthy is that people have retained their social, cultural, economic and political characteristics which are distinct from the societies of which they are a part of. The closeness to environment, adherence to their own culture, customs and traditional beliefs make the life of indigenous people a distinguished one. Although they remain one of the most vulnerable and marginalized groups in India, the problems of these people remain more or less the same, across the world. The protection of their rights, the land they live in, limited or no access to essential resources and their identity are some of the major issues that needs to be addressed.

The tribes of India
In India, there are 705 ethnic groups or indigenous people who are notified as Scheduled Tribes (ST’s) spread across the States and Union Territories of India. As per census 2011, their population is 104.3 million and they comprise around 9% of the total population of India with most of them residing in rural areas. Women amount to almost half of the tribal population. The sex ratio is also favourable as compared to other social groups with 990 females for every 1000 males. There are various views surrounding the status of these women in India.  Some say that the status of the women in tribal societies seems to be better than as they are characterised by egalitarian principles while others are of the opinion that it is more or less similar to the women in the general society. One of the most important determinants has been whether the women live in a matriarchal or patriarchal society. The Garo and the Khasi tribes assign the women a higher position due to the matrilineal descent and inheritance of property through female line. Even in a patriarchal society, the husband doesn’t always play a dominant role. For instance the Gond woman enjoys equal status and freedom as men in the social life, whereas on the other hand, even though the Tharu have patrilocal system of residence, wives who are known to have the knowledge of sorcery and witchcraft are dominant in the relationships. In the domestic spheres, Juang women take part in the decision-making process; however she is not consulted during important decisions.

Bodh Tribe of Ladakh
As per a study done by Veena Bhasin (2007), tribal communities too have son preference but they do not discriminate against girls by female infanticide. Though boys and girls do not have similar inheritance laws, girls are not subjected to abuse, hatred or strict social norms. They are free to participate in social events, dancing and other recreational programmes. Among Bhutias of Sikkim and Bodhs of Ladakh, there is no distinction in terms of the work done by men and women, although heavier tasks are done by men. Both men and women run small businesses and women also work as porters. There are many other privileges enjoyed by some of the tribal women of India which include freedom in selection of life partner, contributing to the local economy by participating in agriculture and other sectors, possibility of remarriage after divorce or death of husband, freedom to talk to whom so ever they please, man or woman of any caste or creed, freedom to exercise their voting rights.

However, some of the drawbacks include that a woman’s supremacy is restricted within the family domain and does not extend to social or political spheres. The religious domain has also been primarily a field for male dominance and a strategy to deprive women of public authority.
The present condition of tribal women is not an accidental affair but has evolved due to several factors in the past. By contributing economically, women have acquired social freedom which is quite remarkable in its scope. These women also toil very hard sometimes more than men, however they are not considered backward and no men tell them what to do and what not do. Even the patriarchal society, conveys respect rather than envy between the genders. The women in these areas are far more independent and powerful than modern sub-wives.

It is inspiring to hear stories of Madhumati Debbarma, Sandhya Rani Chakhma and Hatlhing Doungel who have fought against the odds and have been elected as members of the male dominated district councils in the tribal areas of northeast India. They have had to struggle against patriarchal mindsets, to encourage women participation for overall development and welfare of women in their regions.

Katkari tribes of Maharashtra
Similarly, in the areas of Shahapur Thane, there are many tribal communities residing such as the Thakurs, Katkari, Koli Mahadeo, Kokana, however Thakurs and Katkari communities form the majority. Population First through its programme AMCHI has been working with these communities for over a decade and the experiences and insights gained through the regular interaction has been very inspiring. In tribal hamlets like Palichapada, where access to water was an issue for a very long time, women with a little handholding changed the face of the village with their persistent efforts. There have been instances where women groups in these hamlets have led to increased health and education outcomes too. It is interesting to witness that women are decision makers in most of these communities.

August 9th commemorates the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. It marks the beginning of the sessions on Indigenous Populations at the UN in 1982. It is fascinating to see how lessons and experiences from tribal areas can be taken to inculcate values and morals in terms of gender equity and equality in the modern urban societies. It is essential that we work towards revitalizing, preserving and promoting indigenous cultures and share good practices through various platforms.