Looking at the glorious confidence of a woman whose only coverings are her jewels and her hair, and whose sole props are a tablet and a pen, I wondered where it all went wrong. The change in this woman over time has been so dramatically regressive that I can only see it as the arrival of a dark age. Who is to say what culture is? Who decides? Does it go back a decade? A century? A millennium?
The woman in question has been variously described as the Lady Scholar, or the Woman Writing a Love Letter, an Indian sculpture in Khajuraho from the eleventh century, celebrated in a mural by my daughter, Shayona.
Before Pratibha Patil became the president of India, she created a furor, particularly among the Muslim clergy, for stating that the purdah (veil) was introduced in India during the Mughal rule “to save women from Mughal invaders…However, times have changed. India is now independent and hence, the systems should also change.” She was apparently referring to the Hindu women of Rajasthan in particular.
Whatever one may think of Patil, before donning the ceremonial title of the President of India, she certainly exhibited that she wore courage well. Patil’s assertion regarding the inception of the purdah was discounted by some historians. However, in his well-known book, ‘Mediaeval India’, renowned historian Satish Chandra writes that the Arabs and the Turks brought the custom to India, and consequently, it became widespread in north India. He continues, “The growth of purdah has been attributed to the fear of the Hindu women being captured by the invaders. In an age of violence, women were liable to be treated as prizes of war. Perhaps the most important factor for the growth of purdah was social – it became a symbol of the higher classes in society. And all those who wanted to be considered respectable tried to copy it. Also, religious justification was found for it.”
It always comes down to custom and culture cloaked in religion. The romantic notion of an ideal Indian woman behind a ghungat (Hindi for veil) covering her face dots many a page of Indian literature, scores of paintings from miniatures of yore to the modern, and music, classical and popular. The woman as the shy, the subservient, the subjugated, the obedient, the submissive, the secondary, or perhaps, the incidental, is surely not the woman in the sculpture above, who no doubt, was the norm, not the exception of her time.
Historian Kegan Paul inexplicably traces the custom of women in veils to the Vedic period. This is discounted by the minimal attire of the above beauty from centuries later and by the numerous erotic sculptures of the temples, where men and women experienced pleasure in each other, each an integral part of the same culture. Today, that culture is sadly defined by berating the expression of public love as an evil import of the West, and depicting an alluring woman as a gyrating half-clad damsel of a Hindi movie, her breast and midriff visible under wet apparel.
Ultimately, it always comes down to custom cloaked in culture cloaked in religion.