Kanyadaan - A ritual past its time? New ad sparks debate

A new ad with the central theme of Kanyadaan has the internet and the society divided between age-old rituals and new-age thinking.

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Jitesh Surjiani | 23 Sep '21

A new ad by Manyavar, the traditional clothing store, was released this week. Another one among the tens more in India and hundreds more around the world that hoped to sell everything from clothes to cars. The ad was headlined by Alia Bhatt, an A-list Bollywood actress, which helped it stand out from the others and got the brand the required eyeballs.

With the onset of wedding 'season' in India, it was only natural for the ad to be centered around a wedding theme that struck at the viewer's heartstrings. Only this time, a few more emotions got wound up in the heartstrings, not all of which the makers bargained for - or maybe they did. Set in a rich, urban, Rajput gharana, the ad aesthetically depicts the trappings that exemplify a wedding in such a household - a majestic mandap, well-groomed adults in resplendent outfits, a statuesque and warmth-exuding mother, a father with all the gravitas befitting his years and most of all, and a fetching bride who is the celebrated centerpiece of the family and the messaging.

The first salvo is fired when the bride questions why her maternal house ceases to be hers after the wedding. The pun is not so subtle when a few moments later she reveals her lifelong feeling of othering as her father never questioned the custom of her being a "paraya dhan" (not your own asset). The underlying hurt is obvious when she is made to feel not one of the family and a dhan (asset) instead of a warm-blooded human. The societal paradox is challenged when she questions the inhumanity of giving her away as a paraya dhan. This is when the focus shifts from the bewitching bride and the ad comes fully into its own by challenging the ritual of kanyadaan as its core message. If taken literally, the word kanyadaan denotes giving away of a girl (kanya - girl, daan - giveaway). While the ad does have the endearing climax that showcases the obliging family's shift from kanyadaan (girl's giveaway) to kanyamaan (girl's respect), the pandora's box has been opened yet again.

The netizens, young and old alike, went up in arms immediately after the incandescent ad was released. Feminists were relatively quick on the take and jumped on the opportunity to question the age-old custom of kanyadaan. The custom was immediately associated with the patriarchal setup of Indian society where a bride yet needs to be given away to another man in an act of transfer of assets. Why does a woman need to be commoditized and not given the same stature and respect as that of the groom who remains his own individual and not an asset in the 'transaction' of marriage, they questioned. Sociologists too endorsed the growing resentment amongst women who no longer want to be considered an asset or a property. 
"There is a growing number of young women who are beginning to think about the issue, especially as an increasing number joins the workforce, has access to ideas (via social media, etc) that are critical of 'women as property' concept. This ad reflects that." - sociologist Sanjay Srivastava (as told to PTI).

There were parallels drawn with other feminists who successfully did away with the ritual of kanyadaan in their wedding. Given the Bollywood connect with protagonist Alia Bhatt, comparisons were made with Dia Mirza who not only did away with the ritual of kanyadaan in her wedding but stoically emphasized her agency by having a women priest perform the wedding rituals.

The other side whose voices were dinned in the noise comprised the parents, grandparents, custodians of Hindu faith like priests, etc. They too had their say, though in subtler voices and in human gatherings than on electronic battlefields like Twitter. People I spoke with privately lamented the manner in which the debate was being shaped and saw through the crass commercialism behind such ads that succeed in grabbing eyeballs but lack the maturity, sensibility, and willingness to appropriately represent such sensitive issues.

While there is no gainsaying that the 'literal translation' of the term kanyadaan is regressive for today's empowered generation, one needs to view such issues in the context in which they were framed generations ago, is their objective submission. If delved into, one will learn that kanyadaan in Hinduism doesn't mean "giving away of the female asset" but "giving up of something that you consider valuable. In the ritualistic act of kanyadaan, a father who has so far been the protector of his little girl willingly gives up his most prized belonging to another man who solemnly promises to take care of her as an equal partner in the seventh phera, with Lord Agni (fire) as a witness. It is not just kanyadaan, but Hinduism is rife with many such daans, each valid in its own right, as long as it is not subjected to 'literal etymological translation'.

vidyadaan or gyanadaan - sharing knowledge; annadaan - giving food to the needy; aushadhadaan - taking care of the sick and diseased; boodaan - donation of land by wealthy landlords to landless laborers; godaan - donation of a cow for divine blessings.

The "other side" claim they are as much feminists as the new-age torchbearers of feminism but also respect the cultural sentiments of the rituals and practice them in the symbolic context under which they were envisaged. Maybe we have become a trigger-happy society that no longer has the patience to analyze and consult before we reach out to our social media handles to assert our agency. Maybe it is this vulnerability within us that is being exploited by brands to increase their visibility, supported by complicit movie stars. Having movie stars as brand ambassadors, especially in a star-crazy nation as India, does help in amplifying a brand's message to a wider audience. These are the same stars, who endorse sugary drinks, fairness creams, and chemical-filled mouth freshener products to afford their lavish lifestyles. These are the same stars our children look up to as role models and who will not miss a heartbeat in knowingly misleading our children for their commercial interests.

The debate between the new-age feminists and the age-old traditionalists will not be settled with the cannonball that came wrapped in fancy ethnic wear this time. The issue of rituals vs modernist outlook runs deep and its answer lies not in endless “us vs them” debates but in our collective conscience. Until we face the next cannonball, let's take the time to delve a little bit deeper and hope to find the voice of reason which will become the starting point to create a well-balanced society that our progeny will be proud to inherit.


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Jitesh Surjiani

Jitesh Surjiani

Jitesh Surjiani is passionate about progressive change for India and its citizens. He writes about issues that are roadblocks in improving quality of life and interpersonal interactions as well as areas of public governance that fall short in intent and action.

Kanyadaan - A ritual past its time? New ad sparks debate Kanyadaan - A ritual past its time? New ad sparks debate
Kanyadaan - A ritual past its time? New ad sparks debate
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