The release of the Indian historical romance film ‘BajiRao Mastani’, the story of the Maratha warrior Peshwa Bajirao I of the Maratha Empire and his love for his second wife, Mastani, brings into immediate focus the question of the ‘poly’ (many) nature of relationships and what it means in the Indian context. As the story goes, Bajirao had an intimate relationship with both his first wife KashiBai and Mastani, his second wife. Yet, though Bajirao was madly in love with Mastani, his mother and relatives did their utmost to destroy this relationship, because it went against societal norms and their own vested interests.
There are several terms that define ‘poly’ relationships, and so it is obvious that these relationships have existed over time. When a man has more than one wife, he is polygamous. Akbar and many kings like him, who had several wives, are examples of this. Polyandry is when a woman has more than one husband. Draupadi in the epic tale, The Mahabharata, married to the five Pandava brothers, is a celebrated example. Todas, a tribal people residing in the Nilgiris in South India once practiced polyandry. When a Toda woman married, she was automatically married to her husband's brothers as well.
While any kind of ‘poly’ relationships are not allowed legally in contemporary India, based on the societal assumption that humans are made to be ‘true to each other’ in a one man-one woman relationship, and that is the ‘norm’ to be followed, these relationships do exist.
Polyamory has been described as “consensual, ethical, and responsible non-monogamy.” In polyamory, a man or a woman has a physical and emotional relationship with more than one person, and does so openly. A contemporary example of this is the marriage of Raja Reddy (renowned Kuchipudi dancer) to Radha and Kaushalya, two sisters, where the relationship was declared, accepted in society, and an understanding was reached among the partners in order to make the relationship work. This had created waves, but was surprisingly, accepted by Indian society. The fact is that this relationship is maintained in the open.
Among Indians, where any kind of relationship is sanctioned only through marriage (which upholds monogamy), it is a well-known fact that extra-marital affairs are common. Such affairs are kept under cover, with things blowing out of proportion if the extra marital liaison gets discovered.
In a monogamous relationship, where one partner is having an affair, the other partner does not know of or refuses to acknowledge the existence of an outside relationship. Sometimes, even those who are in such relationships are in self-denial, calling it all kinds of names (e.g. a fling) rather than what it is, a stepping out of the contract of marriage and its terms, which requires either partner to be faithful.
It goes without saying that men are more open to the idea of polyamory in India, because while society does not condone such relationships, men can indulge in almost anything and get away with it, while women are restricted by society and their own inhibitions.
Polyamory may be considered to be a more open and healthy form of loving than one where one is monogamous but resorts to outside ‘affairs’ and cheats in a relationship. There may be a growing acceptance of polyamory in the coming years. It will take some time, especially in a closed society like India where hypocrisy and repressions prevail.