The all-powerful colour red that symbolizes Saubhagya or good luck in the Hindu context makes a distinction between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nuts’ among women.
Upon her husband’s demise, the Hindu widow is supposed to discard everything that is red. The red Tika, red Sindoor and red coloured clothes which she used to proudly wear are taken away from her. She is made to stand out in a crowd — a subject of pity, the ‘unfortunate bidhawa’.
What has the woman done to deserve this fate? A woman suffers enough when her life-partner dies without having the need to look different from the majority of women. This is particularly poignant when a young woman is widowed and is now expected to look drab and is denied the brighter colours of life.
Although not wearing red does not hurt the widow economically, it is the single most important item that distinguishes her from the rest of the women and makes her feel, somehow, inauspicious.
There is no basis for these rules in the Hindu shastras. The rules were most likely decreed by men to keep their women under control, including after the husbands die. The practice is now continued by the women themselves. The first time all the red is taken away from a woman is at the time of her husband’s death, when the tendency of a woman in shock is to accept everything without questioning. This, then, is to continue throughout her life, and deviation will only invite the danger of being a social outcast, particularly when she needs society’s help the most.
Women have to begin changing attitudes and practices. A widow should be encouraged to wear ‘red’ by family and friends. At the same time, the significance of the colour red should be de-emphasised by women by wearing it less often, particularly on occasions like weddings and religious festivals. Are more drastic measures needed to make changes? Should the Hindu practice of getting red sindoor from the husband at the time of the wedding be changed with the idea that what was not given by the husband cannot be taken away when the husband is gone? Should married women stop wearing sindoor and the red tika altogether so they don’t flaunt their ‘have husbandness’ at the ‘have-nots’?
Pandey is a physician.