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Southern Lights: Vamsha Vriksha

A flashback to moments from the 1972 Kannada drama, the story of a widow who remakes her life

Baradwaj RanganBaradwaj Rangan

June 15, 2017 | 12:06 PM

Southern Lights: Vamsha Vriksha

Directors: B.V. Karanth, Girish Karnad

Cast: Venkata Rao Talegiri, L.V. Sharada Rao, B.V. Karanth, Girish Karnad

Can a man be both traditional and modern? Can a Brahmin believe in rites and rituals and the Hindu way of life (which, sometimes, can be terribly patriarchal), and yet understand others who want to snap free? Vamsha Vriksha (Family Tree), directed by B.V. Karanth and Girish Karnad, gives us Shrinivasa Shrothri, one look at whom paints a vivid picture of the man in the mind of the viewer. His forehead is smeared with stripes of ash. The sacred thread snakes across his torso. The hair is shaven in front, tufted at the back. A string of black beads hangs around his neck. We think we know the man.

But it turns out that we don’t quite. In some ways, Shrinivasa Shrothri does live up to the stereotype. As the film opens, he’s lost his son. The daughter-in-law, Kathyayani, has made the transition from coloured saris to white, and as she’s rocking her infant son to sleep, Shrinivasa Shrothri asks, “Have you been reading the Gita like I asked you to?” Kathyayani replies, “I tried reading it, but I just wasn’t interested.” He says, patiently, “Try again. You’ll develop an interest. Don’t lose hope.” She says, “What’s the use? I do not find peace of mind.” He says, “True. We cannot suffer for someone else’s sorrows. Pain is purely personal. By reading the Gita, you’ll realise this and find solace.”

Of the many instances that make us understand and appreciate Shrinivasa Shrothri, especially from the vantage of today’s intolerant times, it's her desire to study that stands out

The baby starts to cry and interrupts what is surely a most unusual conversation in this milieu. There’s a hint of rebellion in the white-clad woman we expect to be the docile daughter-in-law. She’s talking back, even if only in measured tones. She’s questioning the point of Hindu scripture. And yet, Shrinivasa Shrothri never raises his voice. Throughout the film, we will see him proffer his point of view, but never insist on it. “This is what I think, but you should do what you must.” Rarely in the movies do we see a man like him equipped with an attitude like this. The film is equally progressive. It doesn’t judge him, and it doesn’t judge her.

Of the many instances that make us understand and appreciate Shrinivasa Shrothri, especially from the vantage of today’s intolerant times, one stands out. Kathyayani expresses a desire to study further. “I am bored at home. If you agree, shall I go to college?” Shrinivasa Shrothri says, “Why? It’s better for you if you stay at home.” Kathyayani adopts what is possibly emotional blackmail, tailored to his worldview. “My husband wanted to finish his B.A. He couldn’t. If I study, his soul will rest in peace.” Shrinivasa Shrothri says, “What my son couldn’t do, my grandson will. That’s his duty. That’s the way the family tree should grow. Take my advice. Read the Gita. Read the Upanishads. For women like you, that should be enough.”

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For women like you. How awful this sounds, how insensitive and patronising. Kathyayani leaves, and the camera lingers on Shrinivasa Shrothri, who seems to be mulling over this exchange. Soon, we realise that he’s told his wife, and we now see her angry. “After all this tragedy, what’s the need for college? What does she know about this world? Whatever she wants, you say yes. Can’t she stay quietly at home?” She is sifting stones from rice, doing domestic chores, “housewifely” chores that do not require a college degree. She does not see why Kathyayani’s fate should be any different.

Shrinivasa Shrothri, who didn’t seem in a mood to debate the issue with his daughter-in-law, now does so with his wife. “I too felt similarly,” he says. “Then I thought: She is still young. Why should she be idle?” The wife says, “We too feel sorry for her. Had she shaved her head, there would be plenty of work. She could have performed pooja, helped in the kitchen, spent time usefully. You didn’t want it. If she’s bored now, how can we help it?” And we see that Shrinivasa Shrothri had a hand in saving Kathyayani from the ghastly rituals of widowhood, which would have “cleansed” her, allowed her to perform domestic chores like the rest of the women.

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He says, “Forcefully shaving her head would not have made anyone happy. Had she volunteered, these tensions wouldn’t have been there.” He still classifies the situation as “tense.” He’d have preferred it if Kathyayani had followed tradition, remained housebound. And yet, she needed to have volunteered to do so. He was never going to force her. This is a very, very big man.

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