Bulbbul did a fantastic job showing how innately wrong and sick the idea of marrying a little girl to a grown man is. The reason the movie did that, and the reason it chose to use the trappings of classic film/literature is because the classical colonial period is full of accepted and even romanticized images of child marriages, especially child brides. Equally important, there is an effort to grossly rewrite Indian history and call both plural marriages and child marriages “Muslim” traditions. That is simply categorically absolutely NOT TRUE. They are Indian traditions, practiced across cultures and religions.
Child marriage as a concept on its own is not necessarily super bad to me. If you accept arranged marriages, then child marriages are only a small step beyond. It’s often more a “child engagement” than a “child marriage”. And that has been the case all over the world, if you need a marriage to happen for the purposes of a treaty or a business deal, you get it solidified and solemnized ASAP and worry about the actual sex and childbirth and stuff part of it later, when the kids are grown up. You can even have child brides of grown men where it is a similar system, for treaty purposes or otherwise you get the marriage down on paper, but the 6 year old girl and 20 year old man don’t actually live together.
And there are voluntary non-arranged marriages between men and woman with large age gaps all the time. The Lovings, the couple that went to the Supreme Court as a test case to break the anti cross-racial marriage laws in America, had a 6 year age gap and started dating when she was in her teens and he was in his early 20s. Elvis Presley started dating Priscilla when she was only 15 and he was 24, although they did not get serious until two years later when she was 17. Heck, my next door neighbor growing up eloped with his girlfriend when she was 16 and he was 20.
I say all of this because it is easy for us to look at things and translate them to what we find comfortable. We look at a child marriage and say “well, it was just on paper, it didn’t mean anything, they were only married in a legal sense”. Or we look at them and translate them to relationships between teenage girls and 20 year old men with just a few years between, as happens all the time. But that’s just not the reality. We can look at established confirmed historical fact from within even the past 100 years and see that child marriages were not just accepted, but the norm. And they were real true marriages between children and adults.
I’m going to use two examples that I happen to know about and which are recorded. You can make sweeping statements about how “it wasn’t that common” or “it was part of the culture”. But let’s look at real true facts of a couple of real true lives and see if we can cut through all those assumptions.
When Rabindrinath was 7 years older, his 19 year old brother married a 9 year old girl, Kadanberi Devi. It was a reformist marriage, Rabindrinath’s father was on the forefront of the Bengali reform movement. What that meant was she was the daughter of a servant of the household, and after marriage she would be encouraged in her education. That was reform, to take in your new daughter-in-law and train her up to be educated and proper. The idea of not marrying a grown man to a little girl was too big of a reform leap for anyone to imagine.
Rabindrinath and Kadanberi grew up together as playmates. That is what his recollections describe, and that is simple common sense as well, if they were two years apart they would have been playmates and equals. And yet TO THIS DAY sentimental accounts of their relationship describe her as a “second mother” to him. Because that is the blindness to the reality of the situation required to make it palatable, trying to rewrite this little girl to be equal to his big brother (her husband), to rewrite their relationship as mother and child instead of equals, because otherwise you have to think about a little girl being married to a grown man and the obscenity of her being called a “mother” to a little boy just two years younger.
At age 22, Rabindrinath married a little girl of either 9 or 11 (accounts vary). Two months later, Kadanberi took opium and killed herself. Rabindrinath’s wife gave birth 2 years later, at either 12 or 14. Meaning at the best, the marriage was consummated when she was 13 and her husband was 24. At the worst, she was 11 and he was 24. Looking at those ages, it appears most likely consummation waited until her first period but no longer. She had 4 children before she was 20 (either between ages 12 and 17, or 14 and 19). She had a 5th child at age 22/24. At age 29 or 27, she married off both her daughters (14 and 10). A year later, she died for reasons no doctor could explain.
I think a little girl who was married at age 9 to a man 10 years older than her, and then, 17 years later, saw her closest friend marry another little girl has a lot of reasons to want to kill herself. And I think a woman who had 4 children before her body had finished developing, and then was forced to send away her daughters before they had grown up, has a lot of reasons to fade away and find her body failing at age 30.
To be fair to Tagore, his own writings struggled with the tragedy of these brides. And when he married off his son (decades after having sent away his child bride daughters), he married him to a grown woman, a widow. Of 17.
Raja Man Singh
Raja Man Singh was born in 1912, he went on to be ruler of Jaipur. More importantly, he was the husband of Gayatri Devi, one of the most popular and powerful political/social figures of post-Independence India. He also had 3 wives, the first 12 years older, the next 5 years younger, and the last (Gayatri) the only one married to him when they were both fully grown adults, and married for love.
His first two wives were both marriages of treaties, encouraged by the British. Man Singh became ruler of Jaipur at age 10. The British, and other forces, were very interested in him being the kind of ruler they wanted. Part of that was marrying him young to an “experienced” woman who could guide him, and who could give him an alliance with a powerful family. A few years later, they decided they needed to strengthen that alliance, so Man Singh was married again, to the niece of his first wife.
The date of his first marriage has been neatly removed from most sources, the closest I can find suggests he might have been 14 and his wife 26. But what you can’t remove is the date of his first child, born in 1929 when he would have been 16 going on 17. Meaning she was conceived when he was 15, and his wife was 27. His second marriage, also hard to find a date for exactly. But his first child by that marriage was born when he was 21, and his wife was 16 or 15.
And then there is his shocking third marriage. When he was 27, married twice and with 4 children at home, having traveled the world, been educated in Europe, sophisticated and forward thinking, he met a young woman of another royal family who had been raised with great freedom and modernity, Gayatri Devi. Like Man Singh, she had traveled the world, she was educated, she loved to ride and dance and have fun. And she was 20 years old. THIS relationship was the scandal. Young people weren’t supposed to fall in love with other young people with whom they had things in common, they were supposed to marry across vast gaps of age and experience. Man Singh’s prior two wives had been raised to have children and stay home and take care of the palace while he went off having adventures alone. To want a wife who could be his life partner, who could stay by him and be with him whatever he did, that was shocking.
And so, after much objection from all involved, they married. And were very very happy together. They only had one child, born when Gayatri was 30 years old and her husband was 37. Man Singh died at age 58, Gayatri lived to be 90. I don’t know when his first two wives died, because no sources seem to find that important enough to note down.
I don’t really have a point here, beyond saying that truth and facts matter. Next time you here some romantic claptrap about how good the olden days were with their poetry and romance, or (even worse) how the noble Hindus had perfect marriages and the bad Muslims did not, remember these two random examples also existed, and were not considered unusual or shocking within the society where they occurred.