Rajo and feminism in Odia culture
Dr Gopa Nayak is a writer and an academician. She has a DPhil from the University of Oxford and her first Master’s degree is in Sociology from Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi. She writes in both Odia and English and her poems have been included in anthologies of poetry of women. She can be contacted at gopanayak[at].
As many have felt and few have recently written ‘Rajo’ is a festival typical to the Odia culture. If anything, this festival speaks volumes about how feminism is handled by people who live in this culture and hence are responsible for shaping it.
‘Rajo’ is a festival in which ‘fertility’ is celebrated. The three days celebration symbolizes mother earth’s menstruation cycle which unlike humans comes once a year. No one is supposed to hurt the mother earth in any possible manner. All agricultural activities come to a halt. Everyone participates in games and all kinds of fun. Swings are put up in every convenient place such as trees and pillars and with every possible resource such as ropes and bamboos. Women are not supposed to cut or cook food.
‘Poda Pitha’ literally translated as burnt cake is baked overnight and eaten on the first day. On the second day mutton is cooked; sometimes it comes from the temple where the animal is sacrificed to the deity and the meat is accepted as ‘prasad’. More recently with urbanization people get mutton from shops and all kinds of ‘pithas’ are available in eateries including temple and government outlets (pantha-nivas in Bhubaneswar used to have special menu when I went there during rajo).
With its ‘poda pitha’ and mutton curry, ‘Rajo’, as a festival is testimony to the Odia culture’s strong alliance to the primordial practice of baking and hunting. The fire kept the hearth alive and with it life and killing another life ensured that one’s own life is prospering. While the coastal culture of Odisha has much to do with the vegetarianism which is still very strong and vibrant, Odias seem to have made peace with the amalgamation of the coastal and the tribal. Thus not only is Odia culture unique in terms of food but also it has its own matchless cultural insignias such as feminism.
Rajo is symbolic of a very distinctive brand of feminism that Odia culture emanates today in spite of its contamination through standardization into the Indian-ness as well as modernization through westernization. What I mean by Indian-ness is the fact that almost all feminist literature coming out of India hammers at the lack of respect for women manifested in different forms. Rapes and honour killings are still very much the norm and discrimination of all kinds happening to women from all the different socio-economic backgrounds.
However, having grown up and lived in Odisha and other parts of the world I can vouch that the kind of respect that a typical Odia girl and later woman gets in her life time is perhaps unique both in India and the world beyond. The sheer fact that menstruation is a celebration and that the fertility of Mother Nature is synchronized to the procreating female is an exceptional ode to feminism.
Rajo is a festival which perhaps has its roots on the primordial instinct to appease the basic human drive to feed and procreate. This festival inadvertently sends out the message that the successful appeasement of both these urges are dependent on the effective handling of feminism. One through the mother earth which provides nourishment and the other through women who bear the progeny. This is a rare festival where the odd and at times impure manifestation of feminism in terms menstruation is celebrated. The care and concern that a menstruating woman deserves is unconsciously yet strongly drummed into the psyche of every thinking person. This in itself is a huge contribution of any culture to glorify feminism.
It is time, Odisha and Odias should be proud of their ‘Rajo festival’ which is a unique attribute of their culture to adore feminism. Through this festival, Odisha must boast about her exceptional contribution to Indian culture and to humanity at large where the most common and yet abhor able fact of menstruation has been so beautifully woven into the manifestations of nature through mother earth. ‘Rajo’ the word itself and the connotations around it glorify feminism in a subtle and surreal manner by bringing it within the purview of every human being and making a cause worth celebrating.