Saturday, March 08, 2008

International Women's Day. What better moment to pay my respect to ...

The Widows of Vindravan

Despite India's rapid transformation into an economic superpower, there are still some horrific spectres in the closet from time to time rearing their ugly heads.

Say "Taj Mahal" and everyone goes gaga. Say "Vindravan" and everyone goes quiet, foreign tourists that is, for in Vindravan it is devout local tourists that set the tone. They visit the town because it was here that the Hindu God Krishna in his teenage years flirted with his gopis in the forest next to the riverbank. Yet it is not just local pilgrims visiting Vindravan. The town is also home to thousands and thousands of Hindu widows,women who are seen as social outcasts once their husbands are dead.

They flock to the tempels of Vindravan and stay in these so-called widow houses, where they dress in white, chant bhajans (devotional songs) for sustenance, and pray for salvation (Moksha).

Dutch photo journalist Karijn Kakebeeke put it as follows: "India's modern answer to sati, the funeral pyre on which widows were thrown in former times
." Studies show that more than of the Vindravan widows were married off at the age of twelve.

Vindravan - only three hours away from New Delhi by car and probably three days away by cow- is now home to no less than 16,000 Hindu widows.

It is this very plight of Hindu widows that catapulted Indian-Canadian Deepa Mehta into action in 1999/2000 to make the highly controversial "Water", a film about Chuyia, an 8-year-old widow in the India of 1938. She has barely met her husband but is banished by her parents to a widows' house on the edge of the Ganges. Chuyia is left there sobbing, in one of the most heart-wrenching scenes in the film, but she insists her parents will soon return for her.

The original cast of the film starred Shabana Azmi as one of Chuyia's protectors. But alas, it was not meant to be.
Hindu nationalists protested that the film was anti-Hindu.
Some 500 demonstrators took to the streets, ransacked the set and burned Mehta in effigy. She appealed to the state government for help, but fearing more violence, local officials asked the film crew to leave. In 2005 Mehta went ahead anyway. This time with a new cast. The film was shot in Sri Lanka. An absolute must-see!!!

Check out Fazal Sheikh's superb black and white photobook Moksha on the subject. They don't come any better than this. The B/W picture in this posting is one of Sheikh's pictures.

The colour pics are stills from the film Water by Deepa Metha