Historically, the female body has been a veritable battlefield for ideological, religious, and political wars, thereby leading to its frequent commodification and consequent dehumanisation — a classic example of which is the long-standing tussle over women's entry into Kerala's Sabarimala Temple. While the jury is still out on that, a group of women in Kolkata have assumed the mantle to challenge patriarchy in Hinduism, — which traditionally allows only Brahmin men to perform religious rites — by moonlighting as priestesses.
'Shubhamastu', a Kolkata-based collective led by Dr Nandini Bhowmik, Ruma Roy, Semanti Banerjee, and Paulomi Chakraborty, has been presiding over Hindu ceremonies of weddings, memorial services, housewarming rituals, among others, for over a decade now. The group was founded in 2009 by the 59-year-old Bhowmik, an Indologist and visiting faculty at Jadavpur University, along with her batchmate from college Ruma Roy, a professor of Sanskrit at a Calcutta University-affiliated college.
‘Shubhamastu’, a Sanskrit term that roughly translates to “let it prosper”, was a venture that took off from Bhowmik’s own home. “I was the one who did the rituals at my elder daughter’s wedding, which is where it all started. However, the germ was planted in our heads by Professor Gauri Dharmapal, who taught us at the department of Sanskrit in Lady Brabourne College,” Bhowmik says. Dharmapal had created a simplified version of Vedic rituals and chants that she herself used as a practicing priestess at various religious events, and later, passed on to a group of students she taught.
From left: Ruma Roy, Nandini Bhowmik, Paulomi Chakraborty, Semanti Banerjee, conducting the memorial services of the late Nabaneeta Dev Sen
“However, this initial period was followed by a long hiatus, when neither Gauri Di nor her students actively practised priestesshood. Soon after, circa 2009, Didi asked me and Ruma if we’d like to learn the simplified methods and chants from her, and practice as priestesses,” Bhowmik says, remembering the enthusiasm with which they grabbed the opportunity.
Predictably, the journey thereon was anything but easy. The duo, crusading to dismantle patriarchal status quo, was often met with blatant misogyny for elbowing their way into a ‘men only’ club. “We would barely get invited to any ceremony in the initial years,” says Roy. While some commitments — like weddings — would fall through at the last minute, owing to one side of the family pulling out, others would invite a male priest to redo the entire ceremony once the ladies were done. “Some members of some families couldn’t accept the fact that a group of women could get a couple married off; that the rituals we performed were genuine, and we were qualified to do them,” Bhowmik recalls.
Gradually, what began as a two-member enterprise expanded to include two more participants. When the now 67-year-old Semanti Banerjee — social worker and Vice President at the All India Women’s Conference — was approached by the duo to sing at the ceremonies they conducted, she was more than willing to partake in the novel initiative. “I am from Santiniketan, and have been a part of Shubhamastu for over eight years now. Paulomi and I started looking into the musical aspect of the job at the same time, while Ruma and Nandini dealt with the research in Sanskrit. It’s their area of expertise; neither me, nor Paulomi, can read Sanskrit!” she laughs. However, this was barely a handicap, as Shubhamastu’s performances include translations of the Sanskrit chants in English and Bengali, interspersed with Rabindrasangeet.
“This method was devised to be able to make the rituals and chants more accessible to the layperson, especially the youth. When a couple is getting married, they barely know the meanings of the words they’re being asked to repeat after the priest. What’s the point then?” Banerjee asks. “A marriage is supposed to be an exchange of vows, a beautiful beginning to a new partnership. Those words need to hold meaning for the ones saying them,” she says, adding that they even use Hindi translations of the chants while conducting weddings for Hindi-speaking families, with the Rabindrasangeet performed in their Hindi versions, instead of the originals.
“The whole idea is to break all kinds of boundaries — of gender, religion, language, caste. We aren’t rigid about dates and auspicious timing for performing rituals. We don’t subscribe to such notions,” Banerjee says. According to Chakraborty, who was inducted into the group through Banerjee’s reference, Tagore’s songs are as important as the rituals and chants in their performances. “Rabindranath [Tagore] has been a part of the process right from the beginning. But it becomes a little difficult to sing while presiding over a ceremony, due to which Semanti Di and I take care of the music. I’ve known Semanti Di and performed with her even before we joined Shubhamastu,” says the 28-year-old, who teaches at a primary school by day.
As per ancient Vedic literature — largely considered a canon codifying the philosophies and practices of classical Hinduism — women and men were ordained to hold identical socio-political positions, with rituals like kanyadaan (a father handing over his daughter to her newly-wedded husband) being left out of its purview. “Such archaic practices came into being much later, and were constructed to serve patriarchy,” Chakraborty points out. As a result, not only does Shubhamastu discourage sexist rituals like the kanyadaan, and donning of a ‘lojja-bostro’ (cloak of shame) by the Bengali bride when being smeared with vermillion, the priestesses also encourage the groom to sport vermillion on their foreheads during the wedding. “Why should ‘lojja’ or shame be associated with a woman getting married? Also, vermillion is the colour of the holy fire or agni, and looks splendid. We believe the man should be equally happy and proud of wearing it, marking an equal partnership,” Chakraborty says.
Weddings presided over by Shubhamastu begin with the ladies formally introducing themselves in Bengali (or Hindi) and English, followed by announcing the names of the bride, groom and their parents. In this instance, however, the names of the mothers precede the names of the fathers. “It’s the mother who’s primarily nurtured the child, isn’t it? Hence, logically, her name should be announced first. We introduced this step at a later stage, but did so consciously. We aren’t in a race against men, we are only trying to explain everything logically and patiently, and achieve the much-deserved equality for women,” Ruma Roy points out.
Images courtesy: YouTube screenshot
As the ceremony progresses, every chant and ritual is explained meticulously not just for the couple, but also for members of the audience. And all along, the accompanying songs help consolidate the emotions buttressing a prevenient vow or ritual. “Rabindranath’s appeal is universal in nature. His songs and poetry are no less valuable or relevant than the words in the Vedas/Upanishads. He’s saying the exact same things,” Bhowmik says. The Indologist stresses on the lack of rationale behind barring women from entering kitchens and sacred spaces during menstruation, labelling them as ‘untouchable’. She draws attention to the fact that if scholars and sages have equated work to worship, then “nothing should keep women from accessing any of these spaces”. “If I can teach and go to work while on my period, why can’t I enter the temple on those days? If work indeed is worship, why should places of worship be out of bounds for us when we are menstruating?” she asks.
The pathbreaking nature of their work, however, encountered its fair share of hostility from people casting aspersions on their merit and authenticity as custodians of faith. “People were unable to fathom as to how we managed to get couples from different religions, classes, and castes, married off so easily, without prejudice. But can you blame them? These beliefs and biases are extremely deep-rooted, and one can’t expect change to happen overnight,” Bhowmik says. Questions on their chastity as priestesses signalled a tectonic shift in status quo, with a society steeped in misogyny feeling visibly threatened by the women’s autonomy and conviction.
“If you’ve noticed, we don’t mention our surnames while introducing ourselves either,” Semanti Banerjee and Paulomi Chakraborty point out. Indeed. In an attempt to further challenge the Brahminical hegemony in Hindu society, the women of Shubhamastu reject the caste system in praxis. “I remember this one time when someone said to me that it’s easy for me to do and say what I do because I am a Brahmin. Ever since, the four of us decided to not mention our surnames while introducing ourselves at ceremonies,” Bhowmik informs. Subsequently, it’s a rather happy coincidence that not all members of Shubhamastu are Brahmins. “This didn’t happen consciously, but we are glad that it happened,” Banerjee says.
Image courtesy: YouTube screenshot
For Bhowmik, who primarily identifies as an educator, the idea of forbidding a 'lower-caste' individual from taking up priesthood is not only unethical, but untenable as well. "In the 21st century, being born into a Brahmin family should not be a free pass for anyone to do as they please. An individual should not only be deserving of their job and social status, but show an eagerness to maintain their positions as well,” the Indologist says.
Conventionally in Hindu society, while women have been employed to organise religious events and festivals, only men have been allowed to conduct rituals and offer prayers. Ruma Roy disputes such traditions by claiming that anyone who wishes to develop society is “qualified to be a priest or priestess.” “Traditionally, women are not allowed to watch their children’s wedding ceremony. Why should we make all the sacrifices? In older times, the responsibility of looking after guests fell squarely on the mothers’ shoulders. But with changing times, why should these parochial customs still be followed today?” she asks, adding that she and her compeers have received immense support from their respective families for presiding over religious ceremonies in their homes.
Besides their obvious appeal founded on dissent, Shubhamastu’s novelty also lies in their constant upgrading and reworking of “scripts”. The element of ‘performance’ in their ceremonies is undeniably strong. “It’s a constant work in progress for us. The four of us are always researching — while Semanti Di and Paulomi study the music, Ruma and I dig up whatever is available in the Sanskrit texts,” says Dr Bhowmik. Their approach marks a celebration of nature as prescribed in the Vedas, as opposed to idol worship, where achieving oneness with the environment is of utmost importance.
“The wedding script that you see us performing to now might change in the next six months,” Bhowmik says. “It’s really about following our instincts and consciousness together, when the four of us assemble to work on the scripts. For instance, if I wish to make a change or addition to the ‘grihoprobesh’ (housewarming ceremony) script, I tell Semanti Di that I am looking to tap into a certain kind of energy. She picks up the cue and names a couple of Rabindrasangeet. Whichever is the best fit, we go with that. It’s an organic process.”
The chants and rituals determine the choice of song, Roy informs, with Tagore’s vast musical repertoire providing them enough and more room to experiment. “Through our performances, we also try to assess just how much a particular song has been accepted or comprehended by the audience. If a song seems to lose relevance, we discard it and replace it with a different one. We also simplify some chants to keep the ceremony from becoming mundane,” she says. Owing to the prominence attributed to the aspect of performance in their ceremonies, Bhowmik mentions how accommodating new members in the collective is a difficult feat. “As we’ve achieved more and more recognition, our schedules have become tighter and tighter. Our dates are all blocked till 2021, and we feel terrible and helpless saying no to some people, who then suggest that we form a B-team. However, that’s difficult to accomplish at this stage. Since it’s so performance-oriented, we also give importance to a person’s talent. You either have it or you don’t,” she says. Having said that, Bhowmik also goes on to add that several among her students have expressed their interest in carrying the baton forward.
Image courtesy: YouTube screenshot
“I’ve promised them our scripts once we hang up our boots, and once they’ve matured a little!” laughs the academic, who, besides being a priestess, is also a thespian.
In 2019, while on one of their trips to Allahabad for a wedding, Shubhamastu made an interesting discovery at the Swaraj Bhavan and Anand Bhavan, which house the memorabilia of the Nehru family. They stumbled upon written records of the mantras that were chanted to bless Indira and Feroze Gandhi at their wedding. Subsequently, the group decided to incorporate them into their script.
“We keep making such wonderful additions to our repertoire. There’s nothing fixed, as we have to make room for different cultures,” Chakraborty says. “In certain cases, if a family insists on doing a ritual that we don’t agree with, we take a collective decision on whether we want to persuade them into understanding our rationale, or go ahead with their wishes, or not conduct the ceremony at all,” she adds.
Evidently, the group’s trailblazing accomplishments have finally received an indisputable acknowledgement through Brahma Janen Gopon Kommoti, a Bengali feature-film inspired by Nandini Bhowmik’s life, starring Ritabhari Chakraborty in the lead. “I’m on cloud nine! I couldn’t believe my ears when Aritra (Mukherjee), the director, came to me last year with the idea,” says Bhowmik about the film, which was released on the eve of Women’s Day this year. She believes that the far-reaching hands of cinema can help deliver their message against superstitions and misogyny in the interiors of India. “It lends a voice, and gives courage to thousands of women who continue to remain oppressed in the villages. We can only reach out to two families, not more. I mean, even as urban-folk, it was only after Satyajit Ray’s Ganashatru (1990) pointed out that the charanamrita shouldn’t be consumed, as it contained a lot of germs, that we were able to challenge the same in front of our families,” she observes.
Stills from the trailer of 'Brahma Janen Gopon Kommoti' (2020), starring Ritabhari Chakraborty. Images courtesy: YouTube screenshot
As the ladies gear up for yet another busy wedding season, memories of some past successes come rushing back as inspiration. One such incident occurred while presiding over a Bengali-South Indian wedding in Kolkata, when mid-ceremony, the priestesses suddenly noticed a few female members from the groom's family whispering to each other in an alien tongue. On enquiring about their concerns, the women answered in English, as to how delighted they felt watching the ceremony and listening to the songs. “They wished to sing some songs in their own language and join us! We handed over the microphone to them, and realised that it was a moment of triumph for us, and our cause,” Bhowmik says, underlining the message of equality, peace, and love, as conveyed by the term ‘shubhamastu’.