Kartik and Gayatri recently got married in ‘Ase He Kanyadan’, a popular daily soap aired on Zee Marathi. Surprising as it may sound, it was a priestess who got them married off on the sets of the soap. And the best part, though it was meant to be for the reel, the priestess actually dons that profession in her real life too.
Meet 46 year old Manisha Shete, the Pune-based priestess who has been at the helm of affairs for the last eight years. She models herself on the two gurujis of her life, who taught her the way to perform rituals.
A Commerce graduate, Manisha pursued her Masters in Indology (an academic study of the history and cultures, languages and literature of the Indian subcontinent) and was happy doing research at Jnana Prabodhini at Pune in Maharastra when she was bit by the priestess bug. Jnana Prabodhini works in the fields of education, research, women power etc with a view to ‘change the face of India for better’.
I was quite impressed by the new course which was launched there to train people on the importance, significance of rituals and the reason behind us following them. Though atheists tend to dismiss Pujas as superstition, it is very fascinating to note that all rituals have a scientific reason behind them,
says Manisha. When she declared at home that she wants to get trained to become a priestess, her family was quite shocked. “They thought something was wrong with me. Why otherwise would I want to leave Research to get into something like this, a quite unpopular profession for women?” says Manisha. But it was her focus and determination and her ability to convince which won over all their doubts and she embarked on this unusual profession for good.
Her first assignment
Manisha’s first assignment as a priestess was to conduct last rites at a Pune family’s place. “I was very conscious of myself and eager that everything should be alright. I realized that I was under the scanner and concentrated on doing things right. I am glad that I managed to make an impressive debut. Mann shanth ho gaya, aisa logo ne kaha (they got peace of mind),” she recalls her first experience.
There has been no looking back ever since. From conducting naming ceremonies to thread ceremonies to marriages and last rites, Manisha does it all.
With a husband who is into the printing business and does not have a fixed income, Manisha has kind of taken the lead in being the breadwinner of her family. She has two children, a 21-year-old daughter pursuing her Masters and her younger child, a 17-year-old boy who is currently in Std 12.
Manisha’s rare distinction
Manisha has a rare distinction to her name as well – she conducts rituals in English too. “With globalization, families live in different parts of the world but still want to be connected to their roots. I therefore have trained myself to explain our rituals to them in English.” She says.
From a thread ceremony of a Hindu boy living in the US to inter-community and inter-culture marriages, Manisha has used English to explain the rituals to the families concerned. Needless to say, they were all pretty happy with the results. She has performed 25-odd weddings in English so far.
The perks of the profession
Whenever she goes to a place to perform a puja, she loves explaining the nitty-gritty’s of the rituals and the shlokas. “That way, everyone feels involved in a Puja performed at home,” says Manisha.
Once a mother wanted to give away her daughter to the groom and perform kanyadaan as she was not in good terms with her husband. “She approached me and expressed her eagerness to perform the kanyadaan knowing very well that it is a male-dominated society where fathers are expected to participate in this particular ritual. I assured her that it would not be an issue and believe me, after she did perform the kanyadaan, the mother had tears in her eyes,” recalls Manisha.
So far, Manisha has travelled to various parts of Maharashtra, apart from conducting rituals in Pune. She has been to Kolhapur, Nasik, Mumbai, Delhi, Indore, Jaipur, Bengaluru and even Gujarat to perform rituals.
There is however, one thing which clearly confounds Manisha. After all this talk of feminism and women’s independence, she clearly feels that women are still far removed from equal participation when it comes to rituals. “That is very unfair, women need to be given a more equal role, which will take her on par with men,” says this soft-spoken yet firm priestess.
Menstruation, she thinks has had a big role to play in this. “It is a natural process and unless it causes great discomfort to the body, it should be treated as something very normal – why make a hue and cry about it and prevent women from participating in rituals?” she asks.
Perhaps that is the reason she wants to continue being a priestess for at least ten more years, where she can dedicate herself to the cause of getting women better participation in ancient tradition, culture and rituals.
Manisha is also working on her thesis paper in Marathi, ‘Tortoise in Indian culture’ which looks closely at the significance of the tortoise’s presence in all temples.