“What are the words that come to your mind when I say the word marriage?” Mahendra Naik asked the 70 young and old participants listening to him with intent.

The response from them came in a boisterous burst: hunda (dowry), mangalsutra (the necklace worn by married women), kande pohe (a tradition in arranged marriages in which a woman presents herself to a man), purohit (priest), jaat (caste).

On being probed further, the workshop audience added aheri (return gift), hall-booking, band-baaja (musical band), daaru (alcohol).

Prem (Love)?” prompted Mahendra Naik.

Some heads in the group nodded yes and the word was tacked to the end of the list.

The group was then asked to classify the words into things that were absolutely essential for a marriage and those that were not.

As the words fell into either column, Mahendra Naik told the audience that the young should initiate a dialogue with their parents on practices they do not want to be part of their marriage.

Aarti Naik, a government school teacher from Panvel in Navi Mumbai, was the head coordinator of the group that day. “The idea behind this mind-mapping exercise is to urge people to think about marriage and its practices,” she explained. “People often go about the rituals and traditions without reflecting on them.”

Wedded into debt

That interactive public workshop at Dhule’s Zulal Bhilajirao Patil College on October 8 was part of a new initiative of the 27-year-old anti-superstition organisation Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti.

Founded by Dr Narendra Dabholkar, who was murdered three years ago, MANS works to promote rationalist thought. One of its big successes was the Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Ordinance, which the Maharashtra government enacted in 2013.

The workshops aim to bring the young and their parents on a common platform.

They began around the time when the Marathi film Sairat, which highlights the grim reality of honour killings in Maharashtra, was released. The first workshop was held in Navi Mumbai in March, followed by five more in Mumbai, Nashik, Ahmednagar, Dhule and Aurangabad.

“I see the constructive discussions at the workshop as an extension of the message that Sairat conveys,” said Dr Abhinav Darwade, a Dhule-based paediatrician who attended the October 8 workshop.

A crucial motif of the workshops is the critique of expensive marriage norms and rituals that drive most rural poor families to incur heavy debt.

Dr Hamid Dabholkar, son of Dr Narendra Dabholkar, explained further the object of the initiative: “Marriage is a prominent area where many decisions continue to be based on irrationality, thereby propagating superstitions. Parents are victims of societal pressures too. With such constructive dialogue, even they start realising that there can be alternative.”

Caste, gender and sexuality

Another compelling subject addressed in the workshops is caste endogamy and its dire repercussions.

Since 2013, nine murders have been reported across Maharashtra as suspected cases of honour killings. In May, the National Council of Applied Economic Research released a survey which revealed that 95% of the couples in India have married within their caste.

Said Hamid Dabholkar: “We have observed that there is unrest among the youth due to the contradiction between the modern values they are being imparted through the education system and the restrictive marriage norms that they are forced to adopt. We, therefore, felt the need for structured guidance in this domain.”

To touch the last and vital mile in the endeavour to democratise the institution, the workshops also discuss how unjust and unequal marriage practices are for women.

“Women suffer the most in marriages,” said Aarti Naik, addressing the workshop, “be it due to change of their name, menstrual norms, decisions on conceiving children and even domestic violence. It is important that women lay stress on these issues and make their positions clear before getting married.”

Pratima Kamble, a 25-year-old Dombivli resident, who attended the workshops in Dhule and Aurangabad, was left deeply moved.

“There was nobody to talk to us on the topic of marriage in which gender discrimination is rampant,” she said. “I have learnt a lot from the workshops as well as from informal conversations with the organisers.”

The workshops also attempt to bring attention to the need for sex education and openness towards homosexuality through case studies drawn from real-life relationships.

Like-minded people

Under the aegis of Jodidarachi Viveki Nivad (Rational Choice of a Partner), MANS started WhatsApp groups where structured discussions around marriage and companionship take place. The groups – which have seen a membership of around 300 young people till date – are a platform for progressive, like-minded people to come together.

Three couples who got introduced to each other through these groups have decided to get married – all of which are inter-caste or inter-religious unions.

Aarti Naik clarified that the WhatsApp groups are not a marriage bureau.

“Our aim is creation of a rational society,” she said. “And, as the society starts with the family unit, we are focusing on the institution of marriage. It is a micro-approach, but it can lead to a huge change. People want alternatives too and response has been good so far.”

The core group of five professionals who are organising these workshops and Whatsapp groups – Mahendra and Aarti Naik, government school teachers; Sachin Thite, employee at the Reserve Bank of India; Diksha Kale, a college professor; and Nisha Phadtare, a social worker – are now seeking to expand to newer terrain in the state.