The idea of a large, close-knit family has been a part of the Indian social structure for centuries. Even today, many people are as close with grandparents and distant cousins as they are with their parents and siblings. In eras past, the joint family was a common one, with aunts, uncles, parents, and in-laws all living under one roof. But as times changed, so did the fundamental concept of family — ushering in the age of the nuclear family. But this didn’t completely destroy the joint family; rather, the concept adapted to this new era.
Until as recently as 50 years ago, joint families were extremely common — and it was a smart move all around. It was economical, as collective living brought down household expenditure, and the overall budget was supplemented by multiple sources of income. It also allowed for strong internal ties and a sense of belonging. Older members of the family were secure in the knowledge that they would always be cared for and, in case of a family emergency or tragedy, there were always close relatives to rely on. As such, the virtuous joint family was a heroic image in the Bollywood films of old. Media such as film and literature held the joint family in high regard, and touted it as a symbol of Indian values and tradition. Just look at the movie Hum Saath Saath Hain — a prime example. However, in recent years, we’ve seen a shift from these happy family films towards ones like Dil Dhadakne Do, which portray a more modern version of the Indian family. So what prompted this change, and have real-life joint families died out as quickly and thoroughly as their Bollywood counterparts?
You Can’t Live With Them
Urbanisation has been one of the biggest threats to the traditional joint family structure. The cities have always been a siren’s call, pulling individuals away from their established family structures and towards a more individualistic lifestyle. An urban lifestyle is usually a more western one as well, so it’s no surprise that most people have adopted the western idea of a nuclear family. With this new way of living, a person may have to travel across town to visit aunts and uncles, and elderly parents might split their time between the homes of their adult children. Even if a large family aspires to stay together, it’s difficult to have a sprawling home for an extended family in areas where space is a luxury. After all, cities expand upwards, not outwards.
Urbanisation has brought about a more intangible change as well — a shift in familial values. Tradition has given way to modernisation and, to some extent, a sense of self-reliance that goes against many of the core aspects of the joint family. Here, the single family unit is given importance over the collective whole, a shift that makes sense in the context of smaller nuclear families. This movement towards individualism, combined with the lack of space to truly spread out, has struck a blow to the joint family. However, it has not managed to completely extinguish it — instead, the concept has adapted to fit its new environment.
You Can’t Live Without Them
Far from quietly fading away, joint families have taken on a whole new avatar — each nucleus having their own home in the same apartment building. Family members have simply gone from being housemates to neighbours. To understand how this works, you have to know three fundamental things that define a joint family:
- Large size
- Joint property
- Co-operative organisation
Aspects of all three of these pillars can be found in this modern family structure, which melds the individuality of nuclear families with the community aspect of a joint family.
The new joint family is a collection of nuclear families. While each individual unit may comprise four or five members at most, if you include all the relatives in the same building, you’ll have a significant number of members from the same family. It is paradoxically large and small at the same time, which allows for a close-knit extended family while maintaining some level of privacy. This still gives family members the sense of belonging and security that comes from having a reliable network. In this new structure, large, joyfully chaotic family dinners are still the norm — they just might be in a different relative’s home each week!
Nowadays, joint families may choose a chic apartment building with a floor for each branch of the family instead of a sprawling bungalow. While the deeds of the properties might be under different names, the spirit of communal living still prevails. In the traditional setup, the concept of ‘different kitchens’ — the idea of multiple women being in charge of their individual kitchens or pre-determined mealtimes — allowed mothers and daughters-in-law to keep from stepping on each other’s toes in domestic matters. By expanding that concept to different houses altogether, families can preserve their individuality while still functioning like a cohesive unit.
Joint families may no longer share household chores, but the sense of teamwork and cooperation still remains. Whether it means driving the kids — all of the kids — to school in the morning or meeting in grandma’s kitchen once a week to help with dinner, everyone still has an important role to play in the overall family unit. This roster of filial responsibility has adapted to take into account individual needs, hobbies, and jobs as well — a secondary layer of household activities that still allows for some individuality of the single family unit.
Although we’ve come a long way from Hum Saath Saath Hain, the joint family is very much alive and thriving in today’s cities, combining modern lifestyles with traditional values. You just have to know where to look, because they’re often hiding in plain sight.