Diwali and the Return of Ram: the Coy Goddess and the Unrestrained

Diwali celebrations

“So many affectionate nicknames are been given to me, but I have never done anything about it. So, this Diwali, I have decided to dress up like this and realise my destiny. All those men who have given me this name, thank you so much. And a very happy Diwali!”

In 2016, a short film by Zivame titled “Person not Pataka” (translated into ‘person and not a firecracker’) circulated during Diwali. It brought important issues to the fore, addressing the problems of equating women to various types of firecrackers famous in the Global South. In so doing, the film pointed to the hidden issues of quotidian commodification of women and its casual relation to Diwali.

Here we see Sumukhi Suresh, actor, stand-up comedian, writer, and director from India, dressing up in various firecrackers. She adorns her hands with sau ki laari (ladies garlands), uses smoke bombs as earrings, wears a necklace made of charkhi (ground spinners) and adorns her forehead with a Laxmi Bomb (popper). She underlines how various men at various times in her life have called her by those names—sau ki laari, atom bomb, pathakha guddi (firecracker doll), laxmi bomb. As quoted above, she completes the film by thanking all these men and wishes them a very happy Diwali. The tone of sarcasm runs throughout the short visual, and ultimately culminates into delivering the pivotal message, it ends with the writing on a pink background— “#personnotpataka”. 

The patriarchal connotations of Diwali are well-known. Ram had returned to Ayodhya after fourteen years of exile. When he stayed away from home, he had waged a war with Ravana. Typically, drawing on the good versus evil dichotomy, Ram being the maryadapurushottam—the supreme man had defeated Ravana—the ten-headed King of Lanka. Ravana had kidnapped Ram’s wife Sita in the guise of a sage from Ram’s homestead in the forest. However, after the war, Ram forced Sita to prove her chastity. He arranged for a trial by fire. Only after Sita was able to prove her chastity, by not turning into ashes by the intensity of the fire that engulfed her, she could travel back to Ayodhya with Ram.

In religious narratives, this action-reaction of Ram is usually glorified. Nonetheless, the prioritisation of a woman’s chastity to buy her rights of movement simply reflects the conventional attitudes of assigning the inferior status to women. It is a sign of how androcentric history has denied women agency. 

However, there is a bigger tussle at sight. Diwali in India is marked by the worship of the ferocious goddess Kali in Bengal, whereas entire North India worships the coy goddess Laxmi. Laxmi is a household deity who is known to be calm and always at the service of her husband Vishnu. On the contrary, Kali is the unrestrained form of energy. She is naked and uses demon heads and amputated demon arms to adorn herself. She places one foot above the chest of her husband, Siva. Her husband lays under her foot to restrain her anger.

There is a significant division in the depiction of both the goddesses, one signifies tameness while the other is untamed. As if the festival, in the backdrop of its patriarchal history, aims to posit a choice—either be the accepting female who fears to question the threshold and limitations of her gender, that has been imposed by the society or be the ‘unconditioned’ version of the ‘second sex’. Surprisingly, Sita has been depicted as Griha Laxmi (Goddess Laxmi of the household) in varied mythologies. Hence, it is a call to decide if one would like to invert and reclaim history or stick to the ideas propagated by mythologies.

Amrita DasGupta is a SOAS Digital Ambassador and is completing a PhD in the Centre for Gender Studies at SOAS.

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