Monday 13 July 2020

Z is for Zenana

India has never been a woman's world. Muslims have routinely locked them away, Buddhists regarded them as one of the snares which bind us again to our fleshy, suffering body, and Hindus seem to have ignored them completely. Hindu goddesses tend to be either beautiful pieces of furniture like Lakshmi, or cruel vamps like Kali. The female pantheon comes across like nothing so much as a bunch of fractious film stars. It is probably no coincidence that it is on the screen - large and small - that Indian women have made their greatest impact.

Wherever you go in India there are cinema hoardings, crude and garish posters which almost invariably depict buxom women in slight undress, either looking helpless - like Lakshmi - or wielding guns and whips as Kali might. And where the women, who are young and lissom, tend to look fraught and hysterical, the heroes - who are at least forty-five and probably wearing a corset - always look calm and suave.

One advantage female film-stars have is that they tend to sing more songs than the men. For this reason they are necessarily indispensable. Often it is the music which makes, indeed, justifies a film, and the power and fame of the unseen singers - who are rarely if ever the screen actresses - is gratifyingly great.

The singing is just as popular on the small screen. But at least on television women have managed to make a more positive contribution. Much of the news, together with many of the programme links, is presented by women. Partly this is due to television's obsessive desire to offer visually attractive images; but it is also an indication of the medium's greater liberalism. The women who appear are clearly very westernised, and speak the perfect English of the Indian intelligentsia.

For women of the lower classes and castes, the prospects are not so good. In the country and smaller towns, a woman's destiny is simply to become married and produce children, and to work. Passing them in the road it is hard to tell whether they are fourteen or forty-four. It is very noticeable that you never see young courting couples; any couple is married: courting as the west knows it seems either non-existent or coyly invisible. Yet being married is a totally public activity, as neutral as any other business. Judging by the advertisements in the daily papers for brides and bridegrooms, which detail the required characteristics of body and background, this is almost what it is.

Indian women seem good for only one thing: dying. The greatest building in India is a monument to a dead wife. While the Rajput warriors donned their saffron wedding robes of martyrdom and rode out of doomed fortresses like Chittorgarh to certain but glorious death, the women inside built huge funeral pyres and committed the mass suicide known as jauhar. And even Mrs Gandhi, perhaps the dominant formative influence on modern India, may one day be best remembered for her murder at the hands of Sikh extremists. Whether in life or through death, Indian women are conspicuous by their absence. For them, Indian history is the history of the zenana, the area in a Muslim household where they were hidden from the world.

A Partial India A to Z

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