Tradition Without Condition: Even 400 Year-Old Customs Have to Change With the Times

There is so much loss that comes with divorce. For Swati Bhattacharya, chief creative officer of FCB Ulka, getting divorced also came with the realization that she could no longer participate in a beloved 400-year-old tradition, the Sindoor Khela, a Bengali Hindu ritual on the final day of Durga Pujo, the annual 10-day fall festival honoring the goddess Durga. On that day, married women celebrate the divinity with song and dance and paint each other with sindoor, the vermillion powder worn by married women along the parting of their hair. “It was my favorite ritual,” said Bhattacharya. “Till the day I got divorced.”

Bhattacharya had grown up taking part in the custom, which includes children and unmarried girls, but after her divorce, she suddenly realized she was no longer welcome. “I wanted to play with the same fervor, be a part of the gang that goes around the idol” and offers desserts and sindoor to the goddess, she said. “For the first time, I felt that I crossed over to be the ‘other.’”

Those feelings of rejection and exclusion inspired #noconditionsapply, a campaign for The Times of India’s Calcutta Times that aims to turn “a tradition of division” into a celebration of inclusivity. Partnering with Tridhara Sammilani, one of the largest Durga Pujo organizers in Kolkata, the newspaper and FCB Ulka created an all-inclusive Sindoor Khala, inviting women who traditionally would have been relegated to the sidelines to join in the festivities — the single, divorced, widowed, gay and transgender.

“Four hundred years back being married was the best thing a woman could do for herself, but now is that true?” asked Bhattacharya. “If we have all changed, why can’t we make the tradition more like us?” A festival that celebrates female strength should include every woman, not just the married, she reasoned. “What are we dividing ourselves for?”

The agency invited the women to the Kolkata festival and filmed them talking about what it has felt like to be excluded from the Sindoor Khala and their experiences finally taking part in the once-forbidden tradition. Two films have been released on social media as part of the campaign and have so far received a combined 4.6 million views. “Once when I tried to touch the goddess, some woman stopped me and said ‘how can you touch the goddess…you are not a woman,’” shares one woman in one of the films.

New Shindoor Khela - A day where labels don't matter

The bindi, the single red dot traditionally worn by married woman, was transformed to create a new symbol for the campaign—two red dots, first separated by a line, that disappears to represent unity among women. “It stands for female sisterhood,” said Bhattacharya. “It became a symbol between me and my sisters…and with that symbol we created an invitation card.”

 

Bollywood celebrities Vidya Balan and Rituparna Sengupta and LGBT activist Laxmi Narayan Tripathi have come out in support of the campaign. The hope is that a new tradition takes hold and the invitation to inclusivity spreads to festivals throughout India. “This has affected the big city of Calcutta. Now I want to go into the villages,” said Bhattacharya. “I want to reach everybody. This tradition without division should free up all the women. It would take a 400-year-old tradition and make it the most modern sisterhood ritual anywhere in the world.”

Play and dance helps eliminate divisions and invites solidarity. Once you dance together, she explained, you can never see the person you once thought of as different than you in the same way. “The beautiful thing about that word play means there will be another. Even the two dots, they are together on the forehead,” said Bhattacharya. “There are too many things against us. If we don’t dance together, there is no hope.”