<b>Slice of life:</b> Where’s the change?
Evolution is the norm when it comes to professions: time changed what was once taboo into something ubercool. And yet you have occupations like domestic help which are still shackled in medieval times
Our attitudes, opinions and world-views are largely shaped by the culture that we grow up in, and are most familiar with. Society conditions us to behave in certain ways, follow specific norms and teaches us what is acceptable and what is not. It is also dependent on the era or time period that we live in. what was considered the norm, and acceptable 500 years ago, may not be acceptable in this day and age. We are an ever-growing, ever-evolving mass of humanity with change being the core of growth.
From 14th to 17th century in Europe, thousands of women were executed for practising witchcraft. They were tortured, stripped, tied up and burnt by angry mobs. They were thrown in unmarked graves, outside the city limits, and were punished for their “crimes” in terrible ways. When people had epileptic fits, medical science had not advanced enough to diagnose the cause of the problem and hence they explained it away by terms like “witchcraft” and “pact with the devil.”
It is fascinating how the societal perception of people in certain professions changes over time. An interesting podcast that I was listening to, called History of India by Kit Patrick had an episode called You will be now seen by the doctor about physicians in ancient India. Patrick speaks about modern day Indians in UK and US, and says that there is a stereotype about them wanting their children to be doctors. Patrick feels there is some truth in the stereotype as the percentage of Asian students in medicine is about four or five times more than the population of medical students from the general population.
Patrick observes that for a majority of Indian parents, there is social kudos if their children choose to study medicine and become doctors, as the medical community is seen as a highly respected profession. Though the vedas list medicine as a noble profession, in medieval India, the doctors were not revered or respected, and instead were looked upon with suspicion. Patrick feels, this might be because of the caste system, which was prevalent at that time, and the doctors treated every person, irrespective of their caste, which earned them the wrath of the Brahmins.
Another profession, which was highly respected in ancient India, was the devdasi system. Devdasis were highly skilled dancers and musicians who were pledged to the temples as young girls, by their parents. She would then learn dance and music under the tutelage of an older devdasi. She devoted her entire life in perfecting her art, and there was an element of divinity in the profession, as her dance was an offering to the temple deity. She was not forbidden from having sexual relationships, and she would often have children with one man. Her children would usually be dedicated to the temple too. This man would have another home, with a wife and he would have children by her. However, the children that he had with the devdasi too enjoyed equal rights.

Under the British rule however, this changed and devdasis were looked down upon as prostitutes. Many social workers and reformers worked with the British government to put an end to the devdasi custom, as they saw it as an exploitation of women.
In the 1940s and ’50s, barbers were considered lower caste. Most ancestral homes with joint families would have a barber who would come to their doorstep, carrying his chair, and his implements. All the male children and other men in the family who required hair-cuts and shaves would get it done, one after the other, outside the house, within the property premises. The barber wouldn’t be allowed entry into the house, as he was not considered an equal. There would be a separate glass to offer him water.
Contrast that with the modern day hair salons where people do not hesitate to pay thousands of rupees for a smart hairstylist. Today it is a lucrative and a glamourous profession to be in.
Sadly the one sector that has remained unchanged throughout the centuries is the most neglected workforce in India — the domestic help. They work long hours, without minimum wages and their fate depends entirely on the employer. The supply is more than the demand, and they work with no employment contracts. If a minimum wage is fixed for their services, and certain rules and regulations are brought in, it will be a step in the right direction that we take, towards social change.
Preeti Shenoy