A revolution, like the idea of god, is easy to imagine but difficult to establish as an empirical and tangible experience. Historians describe a landmark shift in a nation’s life as a revolution. But were one to be alive in that period of history, it would be difficult to point out a decisive moment or a single shift as the “revolution”.
The fact is, a revolution involves hundreds of small, mostly invisible processes of change all of which culminate into a visible and sudden transformation in the outlook of the people involved. For us in India, the “Girl Power Revolution” happening before our eyes over the last century and a half has mostly remained an unfelt, unseen, and unrecognised historical event.
Perhaps, centuries from now, future historians will point out that the “women’s education” movement initiated by Savitribai Phule in the 1850s was an event far greater in significance for India than the 1857 clash between the East India Company and Indian soldiers. What has been happening since to women’s lives is a story of the greatest significance in the informal, unofficial “other India”. Here is a minor episode from that great story.
Some 20 years before Dr Amartya Sen pointed out the phenomenon of the millions of missing girls, Marathi dramatist Vijay Tendulkar wrote a controversial play, TheVultures. The play created ripples not just in the theatre world but in society as well. The reason was a scene in which the heroine comes on stage draped in blood-soaked clothes.
The controversy ended with a court directive to the director to change the colour of the blood-stained clothes from red to blue. That was in early 1970s. In the play, Tendulkar had exposed the links between the flesh trade in large cities and the centuries-old custom of turning the eldest girls in some families into jogtins (devadasis) of the Yellamma goddess.
Around that time, there lived in Nipani, a small town on the border of Karnataka and Maharashtra, a widow with three daughters. Her name was Kondutai; her daughters were Bani, Mali, and Sumi. She was pressured to push her eldest daughter into the dark world of jogtins, but she refused. Kondutai also had a son, her oldest child. The boy was asked to become a jogta. He too refused, but the constant pressure affected his wits and he lived the life of a semi-lunatic, pretending to be a desi doctor. My wife’s somewhat privileged family was their neighbour.
In 1966, when my wife was a high school student, she featured in the State matriculation merit list. Expressing joy, Kondutai said to her: “A day will come when daughters of mothers like me too will shine”.
Most members of Kondutai’s family are no more. Her unsung family and others like hers, Tendulkar’s play, and Amartya Sen’s concern voiced two decades later—they all form the thread of the story.
The Yellamma temple at Saundatti in Karnataka has a long history. The shrine there is believed to have come up in the 15th century. But archaeological relics found in the area point to a much older fertility ritual practice of nomadic pastoralists. The hilltop on which the shrine is situated, the Malaprabha river flowing quietly at its base, and the foothills around Saundatti look like a picture postcard at first glance.
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But the practices associated with Yellamma bhakti have been anything but serene and blissful. Myth says that Yellamma—the mother of all, or Jagadamaba—was Jamadagni’s wife. Doubting her loyalty, he asked his children to behead her. One of them, Parasuram, did so, but his other two sons hesitated. She was brought back to life. The Jagadamaba or Yellamma cult has since been associated with fertility, desire, chastity, and penance for wrongs.
The myth gave rise to the practice of a “chosen one” to be offered to Yellamma as a life-long jogtin in the case of females, and as “jogta or jogappa” in the case of males. The females had to serve the devotees of the goddess and the jogtas had to spend a life as castrated neuters. The practice, normalised over centuries, was not questioned until the mid-20th century. Annabhau Sathe, a great social reformer and writer, raised his voice against it first.
Two decades later, Tendulkar depicted the devadasi practice as linked to the urban sex trade. An outstanding Hindi film, Giddh, based on the play, featured Smita Patil in the lead role. It did not make big news in the mainstream cinema industry, but it made an impact on discerning audiences. Since then, many activists have tried to stop the practice, which is not easy in India’s faith-ridden society. But the efforts have continued.
- The Yellamma temple at Saundatti in Karnataka has a long history and is believed to have come up in the 15th century.
- The Yellamma cult has since been associated with fertility, desire, chastity, and penance for wrongs.
- The myth gave rise to the practice of a “chosen one” to be offered to Yellamma as a life-long jogtin in the case of females, and as “ jogta or jogappa” in the case of males.
- Anupama Hireholi of Saundatti scored 625 out of 625 in the SSLC examination. Her story is a major strand in the great revolution that India is passing through.
- The greatest of changes is that the condition of women, created by the inhuman prescriptions of the Manusmriti, has continued to improve even though still far from what it should be.
This year, half a century after Tendulkar’s play was first staged, the practice of sacrificing teenage girls to the deity has been challenged fully. No longer will Saundatti be known only as the Yellamma temple town; it will also be the town that gives the world brilliant girls.
Anupama Hireholi of Saundatti scored 625 out of 625 in the SSLC examination. She is one of the four students in Karnataka who have scored 100 per cent in all subjects. Her father, Shreeshail Hireholi, was an employee in the Yellamma temple. He died when Anupama was in class 9. Her mother Rajashree is a health worker in a private hospital. Some of her relatives suggested last year that Anupama drop out of school to support her younger brother’s education. She refused. Instead, she worked as a domestic helper to earn some money. There was no question of having tuitions, for there was no money for such things. But she excelled. Anupama’s aspiration now is to become a civil servant or join the IIT.
The results of the SSLC exam appeared in newspapers on the day the shrill and acrimonious election campaign in Karnataka ended.
I think the story of Anupama Hireholi is a major strand in the great revolution that India is passing through. In the last two centuries, India has crossed many barriers. The country has entered the modern age. It is an independent and sovereign nation, and has made impressive industrial progress.
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Yet, the greatest of changes is that the condition of women, created by the inhuman prescriptions of the Manusmriti, has continued to improve even though still far from what it should be. Family, society, state, and culture have erected a huge infrastructure of bias against women. Their struggle is often fought without the support of these institutions. Yet, so many Anupamas in India are carrying forward the struggle with superhuman will and moral strength.
Such courageous and outstanding women are, for me, the “Mother India” to whom we should bow down in reverence. They are India’s hope in times when the machismo chest-thumping of self-obsessed leaders is taking the country down the slope of superstition, false pride, and insensitivity. I like to believe that Anupama’s show of talent will have pleased Yellamma so much that she will no longer ask for any young girl to be yoked to the accursed life of a jogtin.
Ganesh Devy is Obaid Siddiqi Chair Professor, National Centre for Biological Sciences, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Bengaluru.