Look who's wearing the pagdi

Last Updated : 12 October 2012, 12:25 IST
Last Updated : 12 October 2012, 12:25 IST

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In a nondescript village of the State, a bereaved daughter recently rewrote a patriarchal tradition, paving the way for change. Abha Sharma reports.

In Rajasthan, the ‘pagdi’ is much more than a piece of fabric used to fashion the traditional headgear. It is synonymous with pride and honour; it is how guests are welcomed into homes; and after the demise of the male head of the family, it is the centrepiece of a ritual that declares the eldest son as successor.

In August this year, however, the nondescript village of Beechdi, nearly 20 kilometres outside Bundi district headquarters in southeastern Rajasthan, created ripples, when in a break from the prevalent patriarchal order, the ‘pagdi rasam’ was performed for a daughter. It was Dr Trishala Dhabhai, 36, a Ph.D in Psychology, who created history by going against the norms in her Gurjar community.

Bold step

As the eldest of the three daughters of the late Ram Singh Dhabhai, a hotelier by profession, she not only performed the last rites of her father but also had the ‘pagdi’ tied to her, thereby taking on the responsibility of the family and estate like a male heir.

This was indeed a very bold step. In Hindu society, in the absence of a son in the family, the ‘pagdi’ ritual is symbolically performed by a male member from the extended family.

While the chosen one doesn’t become the legal heir, this ceremony, performed in the presence of the entire community, has such a strong significance that he is then seen as the ‘social inheritor.’

Trishala, a single woman, who works with a research and consulting firm in Bangalore, decided to make the daring move with the support of her family — her mother, Amrita, and her sisters, Tashina, a Delhi-based software engineer and professional photographer, and Tarini, the youngest, who is pursuing her Masters degree in Sports Psychology.

“My immediate family was very firm and clear on going ahead with the rituals as per our personal beliefs. Since we were not doing anything illegal, I performed the last rites of my father,” says Trishala. Theirs is a close-knit family, even though the sisters live in different cities.

Trishala’s parents were both associated with the hotel industry and, therefore, had transferable jobs — her mother is posted in Goa, today. Her father’s family is into agriculture in their native Beechdi village. From his share in the ancestral property, Trishala’s father bought over 100 bighas of land in the village, built a farmhouse over it and leased out the land to local farmers. Initially, during the sowing and harvesting seasons, he used to take time off from work to supervise the farming activity, but later on he gave up his job and moved to the village permanently.

Her father has two brothers, who have sons. Therefore, when it was time to decide on who would perform Ram Singh’s last rites, the general expectation was that one of her male cousins would take on the duty. That, after all, would have been in accordance with the social and religious norms. But endowed with a progressive outlook, this educated family felt they could not blindly adhere to customs.

Of course, their decision did not go down well, either with the family elders or the larger village community. Even after Trishala performed the last rites, everyone was hoping that at the very least they would organise the ‘mrityu bhoj’, the customary feast to honour a dead family member, after the ‘pagdi’ ritual. The ‘mrityu bhoj’, though prohibited by law, is still an integral part of death rituals in many parts of Rajasthan, considered necessary to ensure eternal peace for the departed soul. A ban on this practise has been imposed because in most communities, members are forced to take huge loans and sell their small farmlands to arrange for the feast.

Trishala’s mother and sisters had a hard time getting the community to understand the reasoning behind their decision not to organise this feast. “My father was a simple man who was against the ‘mrityu bhoj.’ We simply respected his wishes, much to the annoyance of family and village elders. In cities, one goes by what is legal but in villages, social norms have more force than the law,” she observes.

Misused rituals

Due to the great significance that is accorded to anointing the new head of a family through the ‘pagdi’ ceremony, there have been instances where the ritual has been misused to fulfil ulterior motives. In many cases, young widows without children are forced to accept close relatives as their family successors following the ‘pagdi’ ceremony.

So, while conservative minds may take some time to digest this new awakening, certain enlightened community members see this as a “commendable and courageous” act.

Professor P S Verma, Former Dean, Science Faculty, University of Rajasthan, lauds this changing social order.  He says, “When we talk of no discrimination between sons and daughters, what then is the harm if a girl becomes a successor? It is particularly appreciable that such a bold beginning has been made from the rural belt, still considered quite backward.” Mohan Lal Verma, Editor of Dev Jyoti Darshan, a community news-magazine, also calls it a “constructive step” and “virtually all Gurjar community publications have appreciated it.”

A few days after Trishala was anointed the head of the Dhabhai family in Bundi, Jaipur’s Jyoti Mathur followed in her footsteps. Jyoti, the only daughter of Mukesh Behari Mathur, who passed away of cancer on August 10, 2012, got the ‘pagdi’ tied during a ceremony performed on the 12th day after her father’s death. Jyoti was lucky to have the support of her in-laws and her extended family.

Trishala is currently in her village along with her mother, beginning to get a “deeper understanding of agricultural processes like harvesting” with the help of the “adholis” (farm labourers). She also manages to do her professional job, thanks to a “cooperative office” and the Internet. Jyoti, on the other hand, is committed to looking after her mother, who is yet to recover from her bereavement.

In both these cases, while the circumstances may have been different, the common thread is education, something that gave both Trishala and Jyoti the confidence to set a new trend in feudalistic Rajasthan, a state infamous for its skewed sex ratio and high levels of sex selective abortions.

Published 12 October 2012, 12:25 IST

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