Hooghly : So, it’s okay for a male priest to conduct a religious ceremony to worship and honour the holy goddess and not a woman? Ask this question to Anita Mukhopadhyay, a humble Sanskrit teacher at the primary school in Kamarpukur, a small hamlet in West Bengal’s Hooghly district, here’s what she says, “I have read the Gita and some of the Vedas as well but nowhere has it been written that a woman cannot perform ‘puja’ (Hindu religious ceremony). The taboos have been created by our patriarchal society and I want to break this orthodox thinking.”

For some years now Mukhopadhyay, who is fondly called Anita ‘didimoni’ (sister), has been training to become a Hindu priest. It’s her dream to be able to lead a Durga Puja ceremony some day. But while she knows this is not going to be easy, challenges have never really deterred her from taking the road less travelled. Ever since childhood, she has done things her way, broken the rules. “I was infamous in my neighbourhood for my devil-may-care attitude. I loved playing sports and wanted to ride a motorbike. Everyone, even my peers, used to mock me and say that I behaved like a ‘boy’ but it never bothered me. I felt that girls were never less than boys and that there was no real need to conform to any gender specific role,” she remarks.

Mukhopadhyay continues to do things “her way” even today. She may be a quiet primary school teacher but this single woman certainly does not stick to the image of one – she is nowhere close to her usually staid and quite strict counterparts. She says, “My students love the fact that I interact with them freely; talk to them about my life and ambitions and ask them about theirs. I encourage them to play sports and even join them at times. And they are simply thrilled to see their teacher come to school on a motorcycle.” In fact, the sari-clad Mukhopadhyay always makes heads turn when she is zipping around Kamarpukur on her snazzy bike. “I clearly remember the day I bought my bike. There was such a hullaballoo in my locality. Everyone smirked and said, ‘How will you ride the bike? Wearing a sari?’ As always I let my actions do the talking,” says the confident woman.

From the beginning sports and ‘shlokas’ (religious verse) were her two passions. She learnt karate and was a state-level athlete and kho kho champion in school. But she had to stop playing once she entered Class 11 as studies and exam pressures took over. Nowadays, besides teaching Sanskrit, she doubles up as the head examiner of Physical Education in Hooghly district as she is the honorary member of the Hooghly District Higher Secondary School Board of Physical Education. As a coach she has mentored school-level girls athletics teams for state meets and had been appointed as the team manager of the West Bengal State Women Boxing team for the National Boxing championship in 2009. She has accompanied 30-35 member women’s boxing teams to Assam, Pune and Chhattisgarh.

Though sports has been the one constant in her life, she never really let go of her other aspiration – to become a full-fledged priest. Hailing from a Brahmin family, Mukhopadhyay always wondered why a Brahmin woman could not perform puja rituals and recite the ‘shlokas’. Once when she posed this question to her father he told her that as per the ‘shastra’ (religious texts) women were not allowed to perform puja publicly as they did not know the right way to go about it. She may not have been convinced with his logic at the time but she did not argue with him. But once her Class 12 exams ended, she decided to undertake an in-depth study of Sanskrit at the university. She eventually completed her Masters degree in Sanskrit from Burdwan University and then went on to do her Bachelors in Education from there.

Talking about her yearning to be a priest Mukhopadhyay says, “Despite the fact that the Supreme Court has passed an order in 2002 clearly stating that ‘Brahmins do not have monopoly over performing puja’ and that ‘anyone well-versed with the rituals can be a priest’, socially there is still no real acceptance for a female priest. However, ever since the Vitthoba Temple of Pandharpur appointed a woman as the priest, I have a strong feeling that it won’t be long before things change.” In anticipation of a positive attitudinal shift, she has prepared herself well. She has taken training to perform the Durga Puja rituals as well as the Nitya Puja karma. “Initially, I learnt the ropes by observing my father. Ever since I was 10, I used to make it a point to sit through all the pujas at our home and understand the prayers and incantations being recited.” Later, she sought tutelage from her mentor Pandit Jayanta Kushari, who runs the Sarba Bharatiya Prachya Vidya Academy.

Says Kushari, “I felt great when I saw Anita in my class. I have been giving Durga Puja training for past 11 years but she is my first female student. I know it will be some time before people are able to become comfortable with the idea of a woman priest. It’s unfortunate that though it’s the women who frequent temples they are not allowed to perform puja.”

Of course, Mukhopadhyay is no quitter. Over the last couple of years she has been trying hard to convince individual families as well as local Durga Puja committees to let her have a go at officially performing rituals. “I don’t want any ‘dakshina’ (money) to do puja; I just want to experience the joy and satisfaction of fulfilling my long cherished dream. I often imagine that I am performing puja in a big, beautifully decorated Durga Puja pandal (tented enclosure) and that people are chanting Sanskrit shlokas along with me. I want that to happen soon and if I do get any ‘dakshina’ I will distribute it among the poor,” she says.

For now, only her students have stepped up and supported her. She elaborates, “Some of the boys in my class once heard me recite mantras and one of them liked it so much that he convinced his parents to let me do the Satyanarayan puja in their home. It was then that another realisation dawned on me – that in order to change the regressive patriarchal social rules and build a gender just society, we would need the support of the men and boys in the family and community at large. I was proud of my students who had the courage to think out of the box.”

Recently, Mukhopadhyay visited the Vitthoba temple to catch up with India’s first woman priest. “That one meeting has reaffirmed my resolve. I am sure that soon Ma Durga will have a female priest invoking her blessings for peace and prosperity in the world,” she signs off, with hope in her heart and a prayer on her lips.

( Women's Feature Service)