On a Wing and a Prayer: How Women Priests Set New Standards
The option of simple wishes in Hindi, Bengali or English; songs by Rabindranath Tagore about love and devotion; no kanyadaan; no bidai; and a concluding note in which the two partners mark each other’s foreheads with sindoor – these are some of the changes that are standardized in wedding ceremonies, by women pujaris.
Although Hindu tradition does not prohibit women from serving as priests, there have been very few in India. Now the new women priests are not only increasing that number, they are also doing things differently.
Nandini, 60, who goes by only one name, has been a priest for over a decade and leads a collective of women priests called Shubhamastu (for May It Prosper in Sanskrit). Elsewhere, priests such as Suniti Gadgil and Sheela Atta officiate in Maharashtra and southern India respectively.
Atta was the officiant at actor Dia Mirza’s wedding in February. There was not kanyadaan, or “give” from the bride; no bidai where the bride leaves her paternal home while “paying her debt” to her parents by throwing grains of rice upside down as she leaves.
Sudipa Chakraborty, 32, a teacher from Rishra in West Bengal, had a similar ceremony, chaired by Nandini. “When she asked me to put the vermilion on my husband’s forehead first, as a sign of wishing him a good life, I felt so empowered. We felt we had crossed the barrier of years of patriarchal traditions, ”says Chakraborty.
IN THE NEW
Nandini began her life as a priest by officiating at her daughter’s wedding in 2010. She was a Sanskrit student, Sanskrit teacher and Indologist. “I have always been interested in rituals and ceremonies. In 2009, while teaching Sanskrit at a college in Kolkata, I met a former Sankrit teacher and scholar, Gouri Dharmapal, who had formulated a very concise and straightforward version of Indian Bengali Vedic marriage for priests and couples who wish, to follow, ”says Nandini. “She encouraged me to follow my passion for breaking the norms of patriarchy and suggested that I become a priest.”
The Vedic scriptures are the foundation of the approach of women priests, with an effort of harmony between the genders, a sharing of ritual actions, and a move away from gendered ideas, which is why, for example, Nandini does not perform the kanyadaan.
Incidentally, an increasing number of male priests also allow couples to redraw gender lines and revise rituals. But asking a female priest to perform a less gendered ceremony is often, for some couples, a powerful statement in itself.
Typically, it is young couples who approach female priests, sometimes facing resistance from family members. Rituparna Chakraborty Chatterjee, 27, a folk singer from Kolkata, was married by priests from Shubhamastu in July 2020. “Some people in my family asked questions, but when they saw it singing Shyamasangeet [hymns of devotion to the goddess Kali] were part of our ceremony, they were really impressed and convinced because we are a family of Kali devotees, ”she said.
A 2020 Bengali feature film titled Brahma Janen Gopon Kommoti (taken from a popular Bengali song; basically “Brahma Knows Your Secrets”), based on Nandini’s life, also helped break down barriers. “We are now booked until March 2022 and organize several ceremonies each month,” explains Nandini.
Many intercultural couples prefer this approach, adds Nandini. “We translate mantras into English, which helps overseas Bengalis who come to India to get married. The acceptance started to come from there at the beginning.
In a major move for Shubhamastu, his female priests will conduct Durga Puja rituals at 66 Pally Puja, a popular pandal in southern Calcutta, during the festivities that begin on October 11.
SLOW AND REGULAR
The journey was longer for Suniti Gadgil, 68, who trained at Shankar Seva Samiti in Pune in the 1980s.
The economics graduate has always been fascinated by puja rituals and wanted to spend her life performing them. But the first decade after her training was very difficult, she says. “Breaking what has been the norm for hundreds of years is not easy. What surprised me was that most of the resistance came from women, ”Gadgil says. “I accompanied the male priests to the pujas and I helped them. But it took me and my teachers years to convince families, especially women, to allow me to do pujas on my own.
Her first solo ceremony was a wedding in 1997. “It was an exciting experience. Since then, I have organized weddings in Dubai, Germany, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Gujarat.
64-year-old businesswoman Anita Kulkarni from Pune has known Gadgil for 25 years. “I first contacted her for my son’s thread ceremony. At that time, hiring a female priest was new, ”says Kulkarni. “But what sets her apart from all priests is her impeccable pronunciation. She takes great care to make the rituals simple and easy to understand even for children. She’s like a family priest now.
In December 2019, Kulkarni’s son married an American of Punjabi descent. “Sunitiji organized the wedding and asked a friend to translate everything into English. My daughter-in-law was delighted, especially with a female priest, ”says Kulkarni.
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