When weddings began the Periyar way

That was how Pasumpon and Isai Inban got married on November 9, 1991, with journalists clicking away at the newly married couple, and the police standing guard as uninvited but bemused guests.
When weddings began the Periyar way
Periyar (bottom left) at a self-respect marriage with India's first Finance Minister, RK Shanmukham (bottom right) in Coimbatore; (below) Dravidar Kazhagam chief K Veeramani (right) at Isai Inban and Pasumpon's self respect marriage in 1991

CHENNAI: Finding themselves detained inside a marriage hall for trying to stage a protest, one of them mused how it was a perfect setting for a marriage. After all, as Periyarists, it was but natural for them to be unconventional: they were wearing the trademark black and it was a Saturday, both inauspicious in Hindu customs, and, to top it all, there were no priests to officiate.

That was how Pasumpon and Isai Inban got married on November 9, 1991, with journalists clicking away at the newly married couple, and the police standing guard as uninvited but bemused guests.

Now, Pasumpon is the director of the Periyar Self-Respect Marriage Bureau functioning under Dravidar Kazhagam, which is organising the annual mass self-respect marriage event, ‘Manral’, at the Periyar Thidal on Sunday.

Self-respect marriage, which essentially solemnises marriages without the usual religious or cultural tropes like priests and thaali, has existed for several generations. But it became legal only in 1967, when the then Chief Minister CN Annadurai piloted an amendment to the Hindu Marriage Act.

“The draft of the amendment that Anna showed Periyar read, ‘… by each party to the marriage garlanding the other or putting a ring upon any finger of the other; and by the tying of the thaali’. Periyar immediately told Anna to replace ‘and’ with ‘or’ (making thaali optional),” says Prince Ennares, coordinator of ‘Manral’.

Prince says the history of self-respect marriages goes back to the early 1900s though records are available only from 1920s. “It is said that the first self-respect marriage, devoid of rituals, Sanskrit mantras and nuptial thread, happened in 1928,” he recalls.

There have been marriages officiated by Periyar himself, with nothing but a solemn promise to love and cherish each other.

“There have also been marriages where couples got married by just shaking their hands. No exchange of rings, garland, nuptial or thread, nothing. As per Periyar’s ideology, no one but the couple has a say in their relationship,” he adds.

In those times, as marriages were the only place where women and children gathered, Periyar used them as a stage to propagate his ideology. He believed that the institution of marriage should liberate the couple while ensuring equal rights and freedom. This stress on gender equality through self-respect marriage is popular among women in Tamil Nadu even today. Founded in 1974, the Periyar Self-Respect Marriage Bureau has conducted numerous weddings through the years, including several inter-caste and inter-religion weddings.

“The organisation strives to revolutionise ancient and irrelevant traditions, and spread the word of Periyar, by liberating one couple at a time,” says Pasumpon, director of the marriage bureau.

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