Archive for February 18th, 2013

Raja Ravi Varma, Goddess Saraswati

The recent and horrific gang rape of a young woman in Delhi who subsequently died from the injuries inflicted during her ordeal has catapulted India’s women into the headlines of media around the world. Someone recently asked me what I thought of this. Is this good for India or bad, she asked. She went on to say that she assumes it will be terrible for tourism. She, for one, would hesitate to go now.

I found myself having several concurrent and conflicting responses. There are so many things to think, it’s difficult to untangle them. As a person of Indian heritage, I felt my hackles rise in defense of a country that has so much culture, tradition, integrity, beauty and richness. Specifically as a woman of Indian heritage, I wanted to remind my friend that India, unlike many more “developed” nations, has in the past elected female prime ministers. As a practical, realistic person, I wanted to point out that this type of thing surely happens in India, and in other countries, much more than one wants to imagine. As a woman traveler, having felt the eyes and hands of strange men in buses and crowded streets in foreign (and not so foreign) countries, I understood her visceral fear.

Indians are trying hard to make the recent tragedy count for something. To that end, the extensive media coverage is a good thing. Public scrutiny, foreign scrutiny, internal scrutiny, these are what can really shake up the status quo. Add to that powerful awareness-building movements such as last week’s Feb 14th One Billion Rising and you have a recipe for change.

But how does one untangle India’s deep, long history of treating women as both sacred and profane? Of venerating female deities—among them Saraswati, goddess of knowledge, music, arts and science whose annual celebration, Saraswati Puja, was just two days ago—while denying some female children education? Of worshiping one’s own mother while copping a feel at someone else’s in the street? Of viewing female temple dancers as auspicious vessels of the divine, yet paying those temples for their more carnal services, as experienced by the central character in Faint Promise of Rain?

Perhaps one doesn’t untangle. One just acts. One takes what is good, and beautiful, and strong, and just, and one spreads it as best one can until it pushes out the rest. In a reversal of the last juxtaposition mentioned above, the New Light Foundation in Kolkata is working with (among others) the children of sex workers to empower them to find opportunities for themselves beyond the world their mothers have inhabited, and has included kathak dance classes as a means toward this empowerment. Kathak, the very dance that originated in those Hindu temples many hundreds of years ago. Pandit Chitresh Das, master kathak dancer and teacher, and the Kolkata branch of his school, has been involved with New Light:

Five years after this clip was shot, another was made with girls from New Light dancing, on the occasion of One Billion Rising. (Thanks to my mother Sara Mitter, author of Dharma’s Daughters who has worked with the New Light founder, Urmi Basu, for calling this to my attention.)

The videos speak for themselves. There are changes to be made. There are changes being made. So yes, I say to my friend. Absolutely. Go to India.

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