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A most unusual swayamvaram

Last updated on: January 31, 2013 12:06 IST

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S Saraswathi in Tiruchi, Tamil Nadu

On Sunday, a swayamvaram of the kind we have only heard of in ancient India took place at a college hall in Tamil Nadu.

The participants were an unusual group of people. S Saraswathi was present at the heart-warming occasion.

Sswayamvaram is well entrenched in our ancient texts. There is the famous one in the Ramayana, where Sita chooses her life partner, and in that other venerable text, the Mahabharata, Draupadi gets to do the same.

Many centuries later, Prithviraj Chauhan gallops off with Sanyogita from her swayamvaram in dashing style.

Recently, a most unusual organisation used this practice of choosing a future life partner for its members. The Leucoderma Awareness Movement in Chennai is founded by K Umapathy and now has 100,000 members.

According to Umapathy, who suffers from the condition himself, marriage is a hurdle people like him face. Thus the decision to hold a swayamvaram for the movement's members.

When he first announced the event, 500 people registered. He had to prune the list down to 100 and then to 40 as funds and space was limited.

A condition where the pigmentation of the skin is affected, leaving unsightly blotches on the face and other parts of the body, leucoderma is unfortunately a visible condition and people who have it are unnecessarily stigmatised or pitied.

The condition affects two per cent of the world's population. In India, the figure is double, at four per cent of the nation's population -- Tamil Nadu alone has 3.6 million leucoderma-affected people.

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Image: Participants present themselves on the stage
Photographs: A Ganesh Nadar/Rediff.com

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There was an air of festivity as befits a swayamvaram

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LAM does not accept donations in cash. So for this swayamvaram at the National College hall in Tiruchi, Tamil Nadu, someone provided the food, someone else provided the water, one person paid the subsidised rent and T-shirts provided by the Life Insurance Corporation.

"Don't worry, everyone will get a chance. There will be a swayamvaram in every district every three months," Umapathy assured the gathering.

At the 94-year-old college's large air-conditioned hall, 52 boys from the National Service Scheme wearing T-shirts that read 'Leucoderma is not a disease, heredity or contagious' had volunteered their services, together with students from the Bishop College, Tiruchi.

There was an air of festivity as befits a swayamvaram. Parents, siblings, nephews, nieces, all dressed in their colourful best, accompanied the spouse-seekers.

Jyotsna got the event off to a good start with a Bharata Natyam performance, followed by a boy who danced to the latest sensation 'Gangnam Style'.

The participants were then brought on stage and each one's age, qualification, job, and salary was announced. Also mentioned, for reasons unknown, was their blood group, height and weight.

Divya told us how she stopped going to church because people kept staring at her. She has also stopped taking medicines. "It stops when I take the medicine and starts the minute I stop. So what's the point?" she said of the patches that signal this condition.

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Image: Jyotsna enthralled the gathering with her Bharata Natyam performance.
Photographs: A Ganesh Nadar/Rediff.com

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'I want an understanding partner'

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She was advised to take Lukoskin, a herbal medicine developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation. The skin cream is supposed to be taken for 400 days. It does comes as a surprise that the DRDO makes medicines and not just missiles.

What do you want in your life partner? It's the question everyone asks.

The common answer was, "I want an understanding partner." The desire to be understood was universal and endearing, from people who get little understanding from a world that shuns anything different.

There were other, more familiar, demands too. One person wanted to marry only a vegetarian, another said he was looking out for a widow.

And then there was a 43-year-old man who did not have leucoderma, but wanted to marry someone who did. "I also have a shortcoming," he explained. "I cannot see beyond 30 metres and I cannot read without glasses."

But there was one condition: She had to be a Brahmin; his parents wouldn't accept anyone else, he said. Casteism was alive and kicking here too, it seems.

There was the very moving explanation from a woman about why she was present: "I am 31. I had an elder brother who registered my name for this event. He had vowed that he would marry only after I was married. Twenty-one days ago he died in an accident. The only reason I came here was because he registered my name."

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Image: Leucoderma Awareness Movement founder K Umapathy, centre.
Photographs: A Ganesh Nadar/Rediff.com

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'I have leucoderma, but my kids are fine'

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To prove that children of parents who have leucoderma do not get it, Umapathy brought his children onto the stage. "I have leucoderma, but my kids are fine," he announced.

Most of the participants were well educated and had good jobs. They were teachers, professors, engineers; one was the general manager at a bank. Salaries ranged from Rs 10,000 to Rs 40,000 a month.

Most of the men were over 30, but most of the girls were in their 20s.

Umapathy related a sad fact, "When this happens before marriage, it becomes a problem. After marriage, when it afflicts the man, nothing happens. The wife accepts it. But when the wife gets it, the husband ill-treats her. He uses that as an excuse to have extra-marital affairs or even another marriage."

The cruel reality of sexual inequality enacted here too. After everyone was introduced on stage the participants mingled. Lunch and tea was served, there was a mimicry item and a band played outside.

Amid all this festivity, nine couples decided that day to give it a chance.

They will meet again, probably look at horoscopes, their families will meet and then the final decision will be made.

Here, they had taken the first step, a step many may not have taken in the cruel world outside.

But here it was a swayamvaram, where you choose your own varan (spouse).


Image: Parents, siblings, nephews, nieces, all dressed in their colourful best, accompanied the spouse-seekers.
Photographs: A Ganesh Nadar/Rediff.com
Tags: Umapathy

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