‘Worst disservice to Wicca is internet’
It was 1986 when she declared herself to be a witch. There was utter frenzy as society struggled to accept this, and the media went on a dizzying overdrive. Ipsita Roy Chakraverti had burst onto the scene at a time when the conservative forces were still at play. But this young woman, who had chosen Wicca as her religion, wouldn’t bow down to pressure. Despite coming from a very well-connected family — her father was a senior diplomat and mother came from royal lineage — and also being married into royalty, Chakraverti still faced tremendous backlash. Protests, rallies and political boycott later, at a press conference, she went on to explain the tenets of this neo-Pagan faith, claiming that the witch-hunts and rampant killing of rural women in the name of black magic made her declare her faith.
Not only working with the women in rural Bengal, Chakraverti has also tried to educate society on Wicca. Making use of her “economic and social padding”, she worked towards greater acceptance, awareness and bringing a change in the mindset. She started the Wiccan Brigade in November 2006 with select membership, and then the Young Bengal Brigade in October 2013. But the doors opened and since May 2017, everyone can get an entry to her sessions which are held on certain Sundays in a month in Kolkata.
In this conversation, Chakraverti opens up about her personal supernatural experiences, on witchcraft and what it was like to openly declare herself a witch.
Growing up, what was your first exposure to magic or the supernatural?
I spent my childhood and early years in Montreal, Canada, where my father had a diplomatic posting. I must have been about 10 years old or perhaps less, when one winter evening, we had a special dinner guest. It was the celebrated scientist Dr Homi Bhabha. At that age, I was not aware of his work, but I recognised that he was someone very special, who seemed to carry something else within him. As I watched him across the dinner table, suddenly it seemed as if his face faded before my eyes and I saw another face. I heard a strange name whispered, as if someone only I could hear was conveying a secret message. I was confused. I described this as best I could to Dr Bhabha later. I stuttered over the whispered name, trying to pronounce it right, as he listened intently and nodded. It turned out that I had seen Heinrich Hertz, a German physicist, a pioneer in electromagnetic radiation. I think that was one of my first experiences of the supernatural.
In later years, I thought of how Dr Bhabha, a celebrated man of orthodox science, was interested in understanding about such an experience with the unexplained. He was a true pioneer, who understood that science and the supernatural walk hand in hand.
Tell us a bit about your initiation into the Wiccan faith.
I learnt Wicca when I was a young girl, at a chalet in the Laurentians in Canada. When I learnt it, it was an old tradition, handed down, through the years. It was a way of life which flowed from teacher to student. There were manuscripts from old abbeys and monasteries around the world. There were tests, which showed the mettle of a person. There was an attitude of scholarship, erudition and simplicity, which was imbibed. And above all, was the main factor, of whether Wicca would accept one or not. It was an unexplained x-factor which perhaps guided it all in the end. The priestess, who was the teacher along with a higher power, would come together to bestow this honour upon a successful student.
Along with my learning in Wicca, I also carried on my conventional and formal education in Montreal. Today, the chalet stands no more. Our teachers of old have passed on. I and some of the others who were part of that secret world, are in different countries. Today, when I look around, I laugh to myself when I see what gimmickry has brought about. I hear of people ‘learning’ Wicca online or on WhatsApp and being ‘ordained’ as this and that. I was a part of the true tradition from another time. That is what I try to carry on, via my lectures and classes.
Wiccan is a very fluid movement. How would you describe it to the layman?
Wicca goes back a long time, to more than 25,000 years when man first started worshipping Mother Goddess. Statues and carvings found the world over have given evidence of that. She was the complete woman, both warrior-like and strong, as well as compassionate and caring. She was the enchantress, the warrior, stateswoman, scholar, mother, wife and daughter. She epitomised strength of a woman complete in herself. Ancient Egypt knew her as the goddess Isis, she was Ishtar in Babylonia, Arinna in Turkey, Tara in Tibet and Ix Chel by the Mayans. In China, she was Kuan Yin, in Sumeria, she was called Inanna, while for the Navajo tradition, she was called Changing Woman. From pre-Vedic times, India has worshipped Durga and Kali. Every culture and every civilisation around the world has worshipped the female deity, who was a form of the great Mother Goddess. It was she, who was the first Witch.
But then with time came organised religion, led by a patriarchal system. A new class of priests arose, those who barred the women-led or priestess-led ways of old. Slowly, the old goddesses were either demolished, or projected as consorts of the male god, far more acceptable to a new class of priests. They did not want a woman to stand alone and strong. And thus it came about that the witch-goddesses of old began to be projected as the demons of the new. With that, came persecution and the maligning of an old tradition, and the abuse of women in the name of ‘witchcraft’.
Those interested in the movement, where can they begin?
For those who are in Kolkata, they can attend any of the general classes which I hold under the banner of The Young Bengal Brigade (or the Wiccan Brigade). Otherwise, the process of learning begins through books on mythology, comparative religion, history, occult lore and many more. One of the worst disservices done to Wicca has been the internet and the new-age portrayal of the subject. The internet gives sensationalised and inaccurate material.
Irrespective of your royal familial ties, you faced backlash. A common woman would face worse. What would be your advice?
A UPA cabinet minister’s wife once told me, “because you are good looking and come from a high family, no one dares to touch you. Any other woman in our country would have been burnt by now.” My advice to the common woman is, be daring and follow me!
- SREE SEN