Practically Marzipan: The corruption of the swayamvar

This week’s column was swayamvar-based, since Rahul Dulhaniya Le Jayega had just ended (sadly before I’d ever seen an entire episode). Being sadly unoriginal, I stole a lot from this post I wrote a couple of years ago.

[An edited version was published in yesterday's New Indian Express]


Of the many things I admire about our rich and ancient culture (its excellence at building things, its fondness for good stories, its invention of the gol gappa) my favourite may just be the swayamvar. Let’s face it, our ancestors, in common with most ancestors the world over, have had a pretty dismal showing where women’s rights are concerned. Yet the swayamvar allowed women at least a nominal choice in who they would marry; an important decision in a world where (judging by the epics) your husband might be banished to the forest at any moment and you would have to tolerate living with him in the close confines of a hut.

In these degenerate times the men have it far too easy. All a man has to do is get a good engineering degree, it seems; no one cares whether he is the best archer in the room anymore. Whether or not being the best archer in the room is likely to be a useful skill is, of course, debatable (if a forest exile is on the cards then it might well be), but at least it allowed for the power equation to be temporarily reversed. This is not the case with the modern arranged marriage, where the female’s less-than-wheatish complexion is as likely to work against her as the groom’s PhD in English literature is to him.

Which is why I have watched with guarded hope the resurgence of the swayamvar in recent times. In the summer of 2008 a number of news sources reported that a “young tribal girl” (most of them don’t seem to have bothered with her name) had chosen her groom through a swayamvar in which her father had asked the hopeful young men philosophical questions. Then there was last year’s TV show Rakhi Ka Swayamvar, which, though dreadful in almost every imaginable way, did at least show us a number of (presumably) eligible men competing for the attention of a woman who their families would almost certainly disapprove of. Like the traditional Swayamvar these shows tested men on skills completely unrelated to normal life: does one want a husband who can answer philosophical questions and dance, or one who can negotiate Delhi traffic?

Unfortunately, all good things are made impure by our sinful and unregenerate world. The Americans (who I am frequently informed are the source of unregenerate behaviour) took our idea of the swayamvar and perverted it, creating a situation in which multiple women competed for one man. Programmes like Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire and The Bachelor were so influential as to make Indian producers forget their culture and create the monstrosity Rahul Dulhaniya Le Jayega which ended last week. It is a national shame.

Should I, at some point in the future, hold a swayamvar myself, I’d like to test prospective grooms on skills that would be useful to me. I would shut a contender into a room filled with books and empty bookcases and see what shelving system he used. I would quiz him on the home delivery numbers of restaurants I like. I would ask him to buy me shoes and test his ability to chop onions. If one must have a husband, he might as well be useful.


Yesterday I gave my boyfriend a book-shelving problem to solve. He failed miserably at it, suggesting that I sort my books by size rather than genre or author. I am rethinking this whole swayamvar thing.

I think Wilbur Sargunaraj has the best idea.

4 Comments to “Practically Marzipan: The corruption of the swayamvar”

  1. weel expressed! Keep going!

  2. Sorting books by size is almost as bad as sorting them by colour. How did he fare on the restaurant numbers, though?

  3. for an avid reader like me sorting by size works best, appeasing my thirst for orderliness

  4. Surbhi – Thanks

    KT – I haven't tested him on the numbers yet. And when I expressed horror at the book sorting and said he might as well sort by colour, he thought it was a good idea. Help!
    (I'm reminded of that lovely Ann Fadiman essay in Ex Libris where she and her husband nearly come to blows over how to organise the Shakespeare in her library).

    Idlichutney – I think most people who have the patience to read this blog are avid readers! Sorting by size remains barbaric.

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