Posted by Shreya Sharma
Advertisements are notorious for propagating stereotypes among the masses. They are not harmless products of popular culture but are socially constructed images that are often one-dimensional and distorted in their portrayal of men and women. The manner in which men and women are represented in advertising also contribute to maintain and reinforce existing stereotypes of men and women. In addition, it is a critical agent of socialisation and influences the way adults and children view themselves and learn gender behaviours.
One particular advertisement by Camlin Company aired in 2007 has attracted 1.2 lakh views on YouTube and continues to be shared on social media. This Camlin Marker ad with the tagline, ‘A marker that can change your life’ is not limited to the product but has in itself, several layers of representing the rural class, castes, gender and its intersectional ties in over a minute.
The setting of the ad, a rural village in Rajasthan, is evident. There is a man lying inside the ‘jhopadi’ (house) and a woman, (probably his wife) is sitting near him and looking anxious. As soon as the diya blows, a group of women begin to cry loudly and run towards the woman whose husband has died. It seems that the burning out of diya indicates an inauspicious event for everybody and a life changing event for the wife of the man.
The plight of those who are paid to cry
These group of women shown crying in the video are the rudalis. Rudali is a custom of professional mourning among the lower caste women of rural Rajasthan for the deceased males of the upper castes. Their role is to publicly express grief on the behalf of the family members as being from upper caste, they are not allowed to display such extreme emotions. It is a profession which can be regarded as a site of contestation where gender, class, caste and economic status are intertwined which is also a concern of the socialist school of feminism. According to Mahuya (2015), the poverty induced by gender and caste that they are born into, forces rudalis to render personal emotions as saleable commodities that can be bought by the upper-caste men.
Hiring women for the job of weeping reflects patriarchal notion that women are weak. Their tears become something that a rich man can put price on. These women are segregated in society which also makes them vulnerable to exploitation. The children the Rudalis give birth to are of these men from upper-caste, which in turn keeps them in the marginalised sections of the society. This is evidence of the production and reproduction of inequalities. The performance of crying goes on for twelve days after a death. A longer mourning period better explains the family’s class stature and the more theatrical the act, the more it is spoken about in the neighbours’ homes. Thus, Rudalis can be seen to reflect a gendered position as they occupy a certain social position in a social structure. They are accustomed to follow the norm, a particular role of crying, wailing and beating their chests on male deaths is given to them. This path towards dire gendering of a woman’s bodily space covertly strengthens the patriarchial hegemony in the society.
Gender is also about the distribution of resources. This makes us question the situation Rudalis are in. They are paid Rs 5-7 per day by the upper caste men. This clearly indicates that the gender and class differentiation also leads to the unequal distribution of resources.
Traditional significance of Bangles and Mangalsutra
As shown in the video, we can see that the Rudalis are pulling the wife’s locket. In many Rajasthani traditions, women wear Madaliya (also known as Mangalsutra, a sacred thread/locket worn by married Hindu women), a norm that serves a purpose. It helps to ward of evil’s eye. As soon as the Madaliya is pulled off a woman’s body, it is a sign that she is a widow. According to Prem B. Bhalla, in his book Hindu Rites, Rituals, Customs and Traditions, it is a belief that a mangalsutra worn by a wife protects the husband from unfortunate and inauspicious events. If it is worn once, it can’t be taken off. The husband’s life is given precedence over the wife’s life. If it is lost or broken, it is not a good sign. This marital adornment is a result of a social structure that is deciding a woman’s position in the society. It is also deciding what and whom she is entitled to.
In many Rajasthani tribes married women have to wear ivory or plastic bangles. It is imperative to wear the bangles and they are never removed, not even during sleep. They are worn during a woman’s entire married life. They are believed to have a magical effect that protects them against the evil eye and eases birth pains. How an adornment such as a bangle becomes a norm to signify marital status while simultaneously obliging them to be mothers is worth questioning. The norm is that a married woman must wear 26 heavy bangles on each arm as a symbol of married life. One must reflect how a woman is obliged to wear such adornments on her body even if it’s making her uncomfortable while engaging in cumbersome domestic work.
Ek chutki sindoor
In the advertisement, one can see the woman ‘presenting’ the box of sindoor (vermillion) to the husband. It could be perceived as if the woman is giving the authority to him. The moment he brings the marker, she closes her eyes instead of registering surprise. She coyly accepts whatever manner in which her husband chooses to mark her. The moment he puts sindoor on her forehead, she opens her eyes and smiles. He shows his approval with laughter in the end. According to P Hussain’s work Evolving Semiotics of Adornment in Urban Indian Women, 2014, this implies that the body becomes ‘an inadvertent canvas of non-verbal communication through the presence of certain kinds of adornment and body marking’.
The woman’s body that has been adorned according to the customs of the particular culture becomes an entity layered with symbolic meanings for interpretation. The red colour of the ‘sindoor’ or vermillion signifies the colour of passion. Dasgupta mentions when a woman applies red sindoor, she is seen as sexually desirable and passionate. Does it indicate that the woman is sexually available for the husband since she is supposed to put sindoor everyday throughout her marriage? Does it also contribute to the issue of marital rape?
One can have ample evidences that unmarried women do not put sindoor or wear mangalsutra to beautify their bodies. When an unmarried woman or a girl goes to a jewellery shop or a cosmetics shop, does she buy a mangalsutra or sindoor just to beautify her appearance? While playing holi, does any random stranger or a friend or even a girl herself put red colour on her forehead or parting of the hair? The answer to this question is deeply embedded in the strong symbolism that is attached to a mangalsutra and sindoor.
Then, what is gender?
Here, where we see that gender differentiation is a product of certain norms that these women have to follow, such as wearing these adornments. They are not universal and vary from culture to culture. Also, these norms are set according to the temporal spatial dimension. A third person judges whether a woman is married or not by these norms (adornments) that they have to follow. Through this reproduction of social relationships, the women as well as men accept where they are and what they are—married, unmarried, upper caste men, Rudalis.
The social structure of these villages is deciding the position of married women in the family and in the society, that at the time of their husband’s death, they are supposed to give up all the ‘auspicious’ markers that protect them from the evil eye. Does that mean the women’s life can be good only when she is married?
In the video, gender is merely about docile acceptance of these norms by the women. The question is, are these prescriptive, enforced or internalised? Gender in this case, is not only deciding who belongs and who does not belong, but also when and when does not somebody belong to a public space according to specific time.
To conclude, one theme in particular stands out—the idea that the body is a territory that may be marked to claim ownership upon it. The adornments we have seen in the Camlin advertisement are part of the solaah shringar– sixteen adornments that symbolise the married status of a woman and which increase the allure of a woman for her husband. It is a social norm that a married woman must wear at least some of these. Another assumption is that once a woman wears these markers, she is excluded from the male gaze—the lustful gaze of the male who is not her husband. So, the logic which compels a woman to wear sindoor hinges on her husband’s well-being and her protection. Not wearing them invites social censure whether from family or larger society. So for most married women, especially adhering to the viri-local structure of marriage, she has no choice but to wear these adornments.
My contention here is that these adornments are no less than a superficial branding of the flesh. Animals and slaves are branded by their owners to ensure that everyone recognises these as the owner’s property. The slaves or animals have no choice in the matter. Let me bring to your notice here, the owner is never branded, his subservient is. Similarly, the husband does not ever have to wear any marker of marriage. Therefore, there is an asymmetry in the distribution of power. Who marks? Who is marked? Why must they be marked? If we delve into the semiotics of these symbolic adornments, we will find that sindoor is nothing but a symbol of ownership of the husband over the wife. A claiming of her body and being as his property. And this conscious or subconscious assumption of the wife as property to be treated as the husband pleases is what progresses to violence whether in the home or the marital bed.
So when Deepika’s character in Om Shanti Om asks the question, ‘ek chutki sindoor ki keemat tum kya jaano, Ramesh babu’, all we have to say is ‘keemat jo bhi ho, mehenga toh aurat ko hi padta hain.’
Bhalla, P. P. (2006). Hindu Rites, Rituals, Customs and Traditions: A to Z on the Hindu Way of Life. India: Pustak Mahal.
Bhaumik, Mahuya (2015). Rudali the Mourner: The ‘Cry’ of the Margin. Bharat College of Arts and Commerce, Badlapur, MMR, India, 4(1), pp. 83-86.
Das, M. (2010). Gender Role Portrayals in Indian Television Ads. Sex Roles, 64(3-4), pp.208-222.
Dasgupta, S. (2017). Semiotic Study of Sindoor.
Frueh, T., & McGhee, P. E. (1975). Traditional sex role development and amount of time spent watching television. Developmental Psychology, 11(1), 109. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0076133
Hussain, P. (2014). Evolving Semiotics of Adornment in Urban Indian Women. BS Publications, 624.
Shreya is a post graduate in Education (Early Childhood Care and Education) from Ambedkar University Delhi. She is currently working as a Content Head at Sachhi Saheli, an NGO working on menstrual awareness. She believes in change and envisions an equitable society. Her areas of interest are gender and education. She can be found on Instagram and LinkedIn.
Featured image source: SpeakTalkTell