A treatise purporting to deal with the Indian Media’s, more specifically the Indian cinema’s treatment of women, cannot but take into account the background and history of the status of the Indian woman. The images we have of women and the roles that they play in society are not merely a biological or social development but are also a result of the myths, legends, culture and religion of the society we live in. This is more especially true of Indian culture. Although in the west, the Virgin Mary is revered and respected, she is however not presented as a role model who ought to be emulated. While in India legendary figures like Sita and Savitri are considered just that. The Indian woman has long been an object of fascination both to westerners and to Indians themselves. She has been the subject of countless works of art and literature, from the ancient epics and cave paintings and voluptuous statuary of the Ajanta and Ellora caves and the temple art of Khajuraho to the modern day novels, calendars and cinema. Whether bejeweled and ornamented or concealed behind a veil, revered as mother and goddess or despised as a widow, she has most often been portrayed as a graceful, sensuous and mysterious creature, loving and gentle, in need of protection and guidance, yet strong and hardworking, bearing with dignity and patience the cruel blows of fate. (a) HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
Research through ancient Hindu texts and traditions reveals that until 500 BC, women in India enjoyed considerable freedom in all spheres of life. The status of women in Hindu society at the start of what is called the “Vedic Age’ (c.2500 – 1500 BC) was much better than what we ordinarily expect it to have been. There was not much distinction between boys and girls. Girls were educated like boys. The marriageable age of girls was considered to be 16 or 17. Naturally educated girls of this age had an effective voice in the selection of their partners in life. There was practically no seclusion of women and there was complete freedom of movement. Women had an absolute equality with men in religious ceremonies and in fact held a prominent position in social and religious gatherings. The position of the wife was an honored one in the family as marriage was considered to be a religious necessity for both men and women and neither could reach heaven without the other. The custom of ‘sati’ whereby a widow had to immolate herself on her husband’s funeral pyre was not in vogue at all. In fact, a widow could if she liked, contract another marriage. From 1500 BC onwards gradual changes took place in the position of women. There was a steady decline in the education of women, the system of sending girls to learned teachers or famous centers of education began to be discouraged. Hence, this led to a decline in the religious education of women which in turn led to a curtailment of the privileges that a woman enjoyed in religious ceremonies. Although ‘Purdah’ (veil) was altogether unknown, women had practically stopped attending public meetings. By 500 AD, the position of women had deteriorated considerably. The marriageable age of girls was lowered to ten, which put an impediment in their higher education. In fact all education of girls was discouraged. Brides being too young and inexperienced thus had no say in the settlement of their marriages. Widow Remarriage was discouraged as well. Even worse, the custom of Sati was introduced. It started with the warrior classes but soon spread wider in society. From 500 AD onwards, women began to be considered inferior to men in all spheres of life. In the writings of this age, popularly known as the ‘Smriti Age’, was embedded the notion that a woman must always be subordinate to men. (Altekar, 1983) However, it is interesting to note that unlike Christianity, Judaism or Islam, the image of God in Hinduism is not exclusively male. The female principle compliments and completes the male. The polytheistic Hindu...
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