Taboos Are Funny Things-II

My wife loves wearing sleeveless dresses. In fact, it would be accurate to say that she has a fetish for them.  If she ever gets  salwar kameez with a long sleeve, she won’t wear it till it has been altered so that the sleeve is short enough for her comfort. I once gifted her a nice full-sleeved shirt and to my horror she wanted to mutilate it to sleevelessness. it took all my powers at emotional blackmail to dissuade her.

There is one exception, however. Once while discussing how she wanted a saree’s blouse to be stitched, I suggested a sleeveless blouse. She looked at me with disgust and said: “That is what whores wear!”.

My guess is that this is what happened. A generation back, the saree was the only dress for most people. In North India, fashionable women took to wearing sleeveless blouses. In  South India, they did not, and  wearing a sleeveless blouse was considered daring and mildly disreputable. Over a generation, young women over most of India have made the transition from sarees to other forms of dress. So, a woman in South India who wants to look fashionable will wear  a sleeveless kameez. This means that if you have grown up in a town in Karnataka, it is entirely possible that you have never seen a woman wearing a sleeveless blouse with a saree. The only exception would be whores. Of course, all this will change with the introduction of the Tata Nano.

Taboos Are Funny Things

There is a performing form of art called Yakshagana, prevalent in coastal Karnataka. In Yakshagana, women’s roles, called “stree vesha”, are usually performed by men. While this happens to be true for many folk art forms in India (and historically, it used to be true of operas and dramas even in the West), you have not really seen a man perform a woman’s role till you have seen it in a Yakshagana performance.

It used to be that Yakshagana was performed by professional troupes. A hundred years back, it used to be that women performing in professional troupes were reputed to be whores – and a reputation like this tends to be self-fulfilling. If the profession’s reputation is that only whores will work in it, only the kind of women who don’t mind that reputation will work in that profession. Yakshagana, unlike the Tamasha of Maharashtra, could not live with such a reputation, because it primarily depicted mythological themes and depended heavily on patronage from temples. Yakshagana performers carried low status, but not so low a status, if you get what I mean.

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