Indian weddings are known for their intriguing rituals, colourful outfits and gregarious spirit. They continue to be entrenched in tradition, even as they embrace a modern aesthetic
Words: Ganesh V
In India, November marks the beginning of winter. More importantly, it brings with it one of the most exciting happenings of the season—weddings. Wedding fever escalates throughout the country, especially in north and west India. ‘Tis the season of shopping sprees, feverish planning, endless arrangements and, of course, love! It is the season when thousands of people enter an unsettling yet undoubtedly thrilling phase of their lives—marriage, and they begin this remarkable journey with a celebration of grand proportions.
In recent times though, the typical Indian wedding has undergone an interesting shift—it has embraced modern, Western influences in a uniquely Indian manner. Let’s follow the journey of the constantly evolving big, fat Indian wedding. . .
Large-Hearted Diverse Customs
Traditionally, Indian weddings have been colourful affairs and hold several traditions within their folds. They throw up enough anecdotes to regale several generations of the family.
In contrast to most weddings in Western nations, the Indian version, especially North of the Vindhyas, is a pointedly more convivial affair. Prosperous families from certain communities invite as many as a thousand or more people to their weddings! In the run-up to the big day, the house turns into a “shaadi ka ghar” (“house of wedding”), decked up like a bride itself. Children run amok and family members look suitably agitated as they supervise arrangements. During the three or four days of the wedding, friends become family and are pulled into the fun, frolic and frenzy that accompany this event. It is common to see relatives and friends being pressed into service as interim chauffeurs or messengers. Foreigners witnessing this spectacle are usually overwhelmed at first but gradually warm up to the experience.
Heterogeneity is another characteristic of Indian weddings. Given the large number of communities across the country, we find a wide range of interesting nuptial ceremonies and rituals. For instance, the kasi yatra (the groom embarking on a mock journey to Varanasi, supposedly renouncing the world) and oonjal (in which the couple sits on an ornate swing, while elders in the family bestow their blessings upon them and sing traditional songs) are two high points of Iyer weddings in Tamil Nadu, while North Indians eagerly look forward to the grand baraat (the wedding procession). Kashmiri Nath, a chef and food writer based in Guwahati, talks fondly of the juron. In an Assamese wedding, the groom’s family visits the bride’s house the day before the wedding for this ceremony. They hand over the wedding attire and jewellery to the bride, after which the groom’s mother applies sindoor (vermillion powder) on the bride’s forehead. This is followed by a grand feast. Surprisingly, the groom’s mother does not attend the wedding ceremony the next day. Instead, she waits at home and makes arrangements to receive the bride when she arrives post-wedding.
Today, a 5-star hotel or a seaside resort is as likely to host a wedding as a conventional marriage hall (or chatram, as they call it in the South). Much depends upon the budget for the wedding and the sensibilities of the families. Gargi Guha, Director of Public Relations at The Ritz-Carlton, Bengaluru, believes that more urban weddings are embracing Western ideas now. “For instance, some families want champagne-popping and cake-cutting included in the ceremonies, something that was unheard of even a decade ago.’ she says. Adds Srishti Arya, a wedding choreographer based in Mumbai, “Unlike earlier times, many Indian couples are stepping down from the wedding stage and mingling with the guests during the wedding.”
Indian cinema has influenced the way people perceive weddings these days. The choreographed dances, sets and props that one sees on the big screen could well be seen at your neighbour’s wedding too! This has spawned an entire industry centered on weddings, a fact that would have sounded bizarre two decades ago. Many weddings in the cities are done finely by a professional wedding planner, choreographer, décor stylist and make-up artist on-hand throughout the functions.
Themed parties and video shoots are the in thing. Says Srishti “I have organised board game nights, Sufi nights, casino nights and more, a day or two before the wedding.” Several families also insist that she choreograph Bollywood-inspired dances involving the family for the pre-nuptial functions such as sangeet (a musical program held by the bride for her guests) and mehendi (where henna is applied on the bride’s hands).
Changes are being rung-in on the dining table too. For instance, Shyamala and Achuthan, who got married recently, served a fully vegan lunch at their wedding. The latest fad is fusion food, where a kitschy mix of entrées is served to guests. Neetha Bhoopalam, a Bengaluru-based food consultant, says, “Menu planners and caterers can have a great time designing creative menus. Recently, I curated a menu that was mainly based on millets, a super-grain that is staging a comeback.”
Usually, the elders in the family want a more traditional affair, while the to-be-weds wish to experiment. Most often, they end up striking a balance. In mixed-community weddings, the wedding ceremony draws from both sets of traditions, usually resulting in a culturally enriching and enlightening experience for all involved.
My Wedding, My Way
Individualism is coming to the fore in urban weddings, with many couples being involved in the planning and preparation for the event. Reena Edward Alex, a wedding décor stylist in Bengaluru, has had some of her clients cite very definite preferences for the décor, food and other arrangements. “Couples want their wedding to reflect their personality and individual tastes.” One finds instances where the bride and groom have designed the invitation cards themselves, curated the food menu and even decided the guest list, something that was traditionally the parents’ prerogative. New-generation couples are keen to experiment with fun ideas. Kirti Samant, a Bengaluru-based wedding planner, recalls the case of a couple who brought in food trucks to serve lunch at their wedding! In another instance she narrates, a Punjabi groom brought his Tamil bride to the wedding hall in an auto that was plastered with a whimsical montage of images, including those of Rajinikanth, a Punjabi actor, butter chicken and so on.
And then, there are those who have a low-waste wedding, to minimise the ecologically unfriendly footprint of the event by opting for eco-friendly decoratives. At their wedding, Shyamala and Achuthan used cutlery that was made entirely of steel (so that it could be washed and reused). The cutlery itself was rented. There were no single-use disposables such as plastic cups, water was served from steel jugs and the leftover food was immediately donated to an orphanage. And finally, the organic waste generated was sent for composting.
These are interesting times for urban Indian weddings. They are contemporising themselves by marrying old customs with new ideas, underlining the fact that they are a clear reflection of a constantly-evolving society. At their very core though, they continue to be large-hearted, boisterous affairs.