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The Dutch Black Pete and the Hindu Karwa Chauth

Making Sense of Forgotten History and the Scramble for Tradition

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Compelling arguments are put forward and intense efforts are made by people to justify certain regressive customs and festivities and somehow align them with the modern sensibilities of equality and humanism. A look at the tradition of Sinterklaas and Black Pete in the Netherlands and the much romanticised fast of Karwa Chauth observed by Hindu women in north India.

Ajita Vidyarthi (ajita.v@gmail.com ) has a Master’s degree in Social Anthropology of Development from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

Sinterklass and Black Pete

Sinterklaas (or Saint Nichols) arrives by boat from Spain to the Netherlands in December with gifts and goodies for young children. Accompanying him are his numerous helpers. School children clap and welcome the Saint and his bag of gifts. Young enthusiasts throng the streets and the event is broadcast on national television. The day is celebrated with grand feasts and much fervour.

Nothing wrong with tradition, one may suggest. The otherwise fun filled ritual however attains a sombre character with the addition of a few details.

Sinterklaas is an old white Saint who arrives by boat from Spain to the Netherlands in December with gifts and goodies for young children. Accompanying him are his numerous black servants, known as Zwarte Piet or Black Petes. School children clap and welcome the Saint and his bag of gifts. Young enthusiasts colour their faces black, wear wigs of curly hair and paint their lips bright red and the event is broadcast on national television. The day is celebrated alright.

A recent conference in Rotterdam that I participated in introduced me to the Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas in the Netherlands. A sensitive issue in the country, the ritual has been accused of being racist in its inception and colonial in its origins. Chairperson of a United Nations Human Rights Commission panel, Verene Shepherd, has condemned it as “a throwback to slavery” and many prominent Dutch thinkers and activists have made calls to make Zwarte Piete or Black Pete less black and less of a servant in popular imaginary. However, notwithstanding home grown and international reservations, the ritual remains a widely popular and accepted celebration of tradition. So much so that a recent Facebook page demanding the preservation of Black Pete received 1 million likes in a single day.

Perhaps because I am an outsider and alien to the emotions associated with having grown up loving Black Pete, I was able to immediately identify with the arguments that highlighted elements of discrimination in the annual event. A simple digging into its origins brought out some significant factors. To begin with, Zwarte Piet or Black Pete as imagined today was not a part of Dutch tradition since time immemorial. It was only in the year 1850 that a book titled Saint Nicholas and his Servant by Jan Schenkman introduced the idea of a Saint reaching the Dutch shores from Spain on a steamboat to deliver presents to children. He would be accompanied by his servants who would climb down chimneys to place gifts inside shoes that were put by the fireplace by anticipating children. These servants were described as being dark complexioned, with Moorish features. Controversy remains around whether they were slaves who were granted freedom but chose to stay back or helpers of the Saint. Folk tales and legends from earlier periods describe Saint Nicholas as travelling with an enslaved devil that would punish children who were ill-behaved. Correspondingly, the term Zwarte Piet was synonymous with evil in the Middle Ages.

Politically Correct Justifications
In 21st century Netherlands, where over 15% of the population comprises immigrants of non-European origin, it no longer seems to matter what the Black Pete was originally conceived as. The discourse has moved beyond slaves, servants and helpers and the modern interpretation of the ritual has taken a different hue wherein the blackness of the Saint’s helpers is explained as being caused by the soot of the chimneys that they descend. It is therefore the soot and not their African origin that makes the Black Petes black. No doubt, a politically correct explanation that goes well with the current multi-plural and multicultural society that Netherlands aspires to be, but one that nevertheless brushes aside very many questions. If indeed Black Petes are Europeans whose faces are blackened by chimney soot, then why are their lips bright red, hair a different texture and clothes a typical design? Could they have originally been slaves? And so has a seemingly obvious case of celebration of colonial might and slavery been skilfully turned around and indigenised into a popular Dutch tradition?

What amazed me then was not simply the continuation of an otherwise problematic tradition in Dutch liberal society, but the existence of a strong movement to somehow align it with modern sensibilities of equality and humanism. A dangerous sensibility that makes the suggestion that “if the blackness of Black Pete is problematic today, then let us explain it through the soot in our chimneys; let us however not revisit our colonial history or dig deep into questions of murder and plunder for that is part of the past which in no way influences our present”. Speaking to young Dutch students of humanism and human rights and hearing them earnestly explain how the notion of Black Pete was not racist at all but an integral part of Dutch tradition that they want to fondly remember, gave shape to the thoughts in this article. One student eloquently summed it up by sharing that “it really makes no difference if Black Pete is black, blue, red or green. He is very dear to us and will remain dear irrespective of his colour. It was always an honour to be Black Pete when we were in school. We would scramble around to have our faces painted black. I too got my face painted black! How does that translate into racial discrimination?” How, indeed!

Karwa Chauth: Ignoring the Uncomfortable

A question that seemed ridiculous to me then in its lack of historicity and political depth hit closer home when I returned to Delhi and was bombarded with Karwa Chauth messages, pictures and wishes this past week. Now, Karwa Chauth is a Hindu festival that is celebrated by married women through day-long fasting to ensure the longevity of their husbands. Popularised infinitely by Hindi cinema and television, it has been embraced by women from all walks of life in north India. Young, educated married ladies fast and then post photographs of their decked up selves on social media. Some husbands partake in the ritual by fasting together with their wives. Projected as a day of love and devotion where two souls come together and express their commitment to each other, there is no escaping this festival, especially if you belong to the married lot. Nothing wrong in expressing commitment, looking pretty and sharing it with friends on social media, one may suggest.

What gets left out in the discourse are the uncomfortable, not so pretty questions that everyone is more than happy to ignore. A reason is presented for every question as long as a heated confrontation can be avoided. For example, a question on whether there is any symbolism associated with the fact that the wife is expected to fast for the whole day and express her love and commitment while no such expectation is made from the husband is countered by new age husbands who now fast in unison, putting all fears of oppression at rest. Another question on the traditional positioning of the husband as the protector and lord of the wife and as someone who must be worshipped and revered, being upheld through this festival where after a day of fasting, wives worship the moon and follow this up with worshipping their husbands is brushed aside by romanticisation of ancient traditions and rituals. Karwa Chauth as a manifestation of the inequalities that exist between a husband and wife, as a reinforcement of power hierarchies and as a continuation of centuries of subjugated existence is today celebrated across classes and cultures, dressed up as a form of love and sold heartily in markets. Why create a ruckus as long as it is fun? Why cry foul if women willingly partake in this ritual?

Parallels between Unrelated Rituals

Much like Black Pete whose presence in Dutch society is rejoiced and celebrated, with white kids feeling honoured to have their faces painted black and lips drowned in deep red, many Hindu women grow up dreaming of being married and fasting for the long lives of their husbands. Dutch festivities and Hindu rituals bring people closer, it is suggested. While one has taken the form of national prestige and respect for tradition, the other is seen as instrumental in strengthening the bond between mothers and daughters in law.

How should the stark parallels between the two completely unrelated rituals be made sense of? The world will watch as modern representations of black slaves bring great cheer to Dutch children, much like the world watched as Indian women swore their loyalty and subordination to their husbands through forcing hunger upon themselves. In an increasingly plural and tolerant world, which allows Dutch children to be entertained by colonial folklore and Hindu women to express their reverence and devotion, surely a case can be put forward for bringing history and its lessons to the fore. If Black Pete was indeed a slave, kidnapped from the shores of Africa by the White Saint, then what does celebrating its presence in popular culture tantamount to? And if worshipping husbands and fasting for them is reminiscent of a society that was based on denial of equal rights to women, then what values are we continuing to foster? Camouflaging tough questions and bitter historical realities in sugar coated doses of carnival festivities in the Netherlands or purchase of new jewellery as an expression of love in India cannot help escape the harshness of the inequality that remains in our societies. The same inequalities transform into acts of crime and discrimination as indeed they have in the past through racist attacks on immigrants in Europe and dowry deaths and sexual harassment cases in India; a heavy price indeed to pay for preservation of constructed traditions, and a few moments of cheer and festivity.

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