Sabarimala and 18 Shades of Black

J Devika | Updated on November 20, 2019

She says, she says: Sharmila Nair’s video campaign ‘18 Shades of Black’ smashes the claim that women have all the freedom they desire in secular spaces

Eighteen women from Kerala craft a fitting response to the misogyny apologists in a state divided by the Sabarimala temple entry issue

Exactly a year ago, social life in Kerala was being ripped apart by a group of people who believed that social amity and conviviality were nothing compared to the sacrosanct nature of beliefs and practices in Hindu temples, no matter how unfair they might be. This was the high-tide of the protests against the Supreme Court’s ruling that all women were to be allowed into the Sabarimala temple, where, previously, only men, girl children below puberty, and post-menopausal women were let in.

What hurt many of us most was that public display of shocking misogyny was supported in large measure by a group called the ‘Ready to Wait’. The members of this group were mostly very highly educated, empowered, well-travelled women, who, however, were only too keen to concede that the bodies of eleven-year-old girls (an age at which many girls here attain puberty) could disturb the spiritual concentration of the deity worshipped in the Sabarimala shrine, Ayyappa.

While they insisted that their concern was merely respect towards the sankalpa — the conceptualisation of the deity’s fundamental nature — they seemed to imagine that such a concession would have no consequences at all for women outside the space of worship.

The debate on Sabarimala divided families — it often set daughters against mothers. Watching it unfold, I worried for young Hindu women who aspired to interpret the faith according to their understanding of spiritual fulfilment. One such young woman I chanced to meet revealed how the debate became handy for conservative families to vent hitherto hidden frustrations about their daughters, destroying mutual trust and even affection. She is a young professional who had escaped a violent marriage and took along her toddler to settle with her parents. Life looked good till October 2018. Her parents seemed understanding; there were no barbs in everyday conversations about her choices; her career seemed to be thriving with their support. That changed over breakfast-time discussions about Sabarimala. Suddenly, she began to be called a shameless hussy, a family-wrecker hellbent on disrupting “age-old morals and traditions”. I think more happened there and not just a venting. Wounds that were healing slowly — and also minds that were perhaps slowly shedding their conservatism — now became thoroughly infected.

Each of us upper-caste-born Malayali women who live life claiming spiritual independence has a story to tell about what the right-wing upsurge of late-2018 did to the fragile, if real, bonds that we were working on with our families — bonding that would have changed both sides if it were uninterrupted. The pain lingers. The responses have been diverse. Some have chosen to move out or turn away; others have migrated.

But as time flowed, there have been powerful responses from young women — and one of these is Sharmila Nair’s ‘18 Shades of Black’, a video campaign that uses her work as a fashion designer. In it, 18 Malayali women from very diverse backgrounds, clad in black saris, speak of the restrictions they faced in their lives. It almost feels like a response to a taunt many of us heard during the tumult last year: “Can’t you just be happy with all the opportunities (in secular life) that you have now? Why are you so insistent that this particular restriction (non-entry to Sabarimala temple) must be removed?” Indeed, many ‘Ready to Wait’ women claimed exactly that — they were happy with the space they had gained in the secular world, they did not want to ‘desecrate’ tradition by claiming space there.

In the videos, the 18 women smash such claims. They talk of how misleading the question is — one that presupposes that women have all the freedom they desire in secular spaces. They reflect on restrictions ranging from the emotional baggage that women are forced to carry by parents, to the lack of consideration for female bodies in public space, to the enforced patterns of education that are deemed suitable for women. As if to indicate they had not forgotten the insults and injuries of 2018, they wear black saris — the attire worn by devotees making the pilgrimage to Sabarimala. The arduousness of the trek to the shrine through deep jungles is meant to be embraced as the path to spiritual elevation — kallum mullum kaalukku metha (stones and thorns are as soft beds to the feet), goes their chant.

Irrespective of whether they were Sabarimala pilgrims or not, all 18 women in Nair’s campaign are pilgrims of life who have bled, stepping on its thorns. They show the stigmata of experience — the depth of soul they have gained in taking on the unrelenting hardship of a woman’s life — to those who deny them full spiritual worth.

There could not have been a more fitting response. I take relief in this: That young women like Sharmila Nair are responding to evil with amazing grace.


J Devika is a historian and critic based in Thiruvananthapuram

Published on November 20, 2019

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