Something Happened to the Indian Wedding

Weddings in India are changing fast, especially the big fat ones.
Celebration
If there weren’t enough reasons to visit India, attending a wedding, wearing a sari, applying mehendi and dancing Bollywood-style have become part of the incredible India experience.

Kalyani Karandikar Kulkarni, a trusted wedding planner, is a misfit in a time when the last thing businesses want to do is feed sense into gullible clients. With siblings and relatives of the bride and groom living time zones away, the mammoth task of organising the Indian wedding circus falls on the wedding planner, the family member on hire. Although she loves her job, she finds the budgets obscene. In just four years, Kalyani has seen budgets double. In Mumbai, a typical affluent family spends Rs 60 to 70 lakh (not including jewellery and clothes) on a wedding. In Delhi, the figure is about twice as much. “I tell people don’t spend so much, donate if you want. But it’s their only son’s wedding, what am I supposed to say?”

The ever-increasing splendour of Indian weddings has spawned new professions in the country. Wedding planners, wedding cinematographers, and telemarketing agents who send mass reminders to guests before every function, are part of the army of professionals who make a living out of organising or enhancing giant marriage festivities.

The guest list has expanded. Foreigners in Indian wear mingle with hired guests like filmstars and singers. Local scribes who can make the wedding a Page 3 event are welcome. With bigger budgets come exotic locales and fancy sets. The opinions of the bride and groom now matter and they bring improvisations to traditional functions, even invent new ones.

As a wedding planner, hospitality is Kalyani’s biggest responsibility. Everyone must go home happy. This involves organising car pick-ups and drops, ensuring guests have time for shopping and naps, and hiring bouncers to tail the jewellery-clad janta. “I once got the security to chase two groups—the groom’s side running with his shoes and the girls chasing him.” She has also drafted elaborate letters to foreign guests about appropriate dressing. If there weren’t enough reasons to visit India, attending a wedding, wearing a sari, applying mehendi and dancing Bollywood-style have become part of the incredible India experience. Of late, Kalyani has seen business mix with family affairs a little too much. “It is common to invite business associates, people based in Shanghai, Antwerp, who you only interacted with professionally, to your child’s wedding. Their kids are included in the sangeet too.” Kalyani must hire hair and make-up artists for the foreigners, and advise them against the short, black dress or the hat they might want to wear.

Part of keeping everyone happy involves booking secret hotel rooms for the groom and his friends so that they can smoke and drink during functions, and including condoms in the vanity kit of the young ones. Alcohol, she finds, is the best cure for last minute jitters and painful encounters with past loves. She also supplies Party Smart, a herbal pill that prevents hangovers.

“I take the groom or bride to the ceremony. It’s a scary responsibility as sometimes people wonder if they actually love the person they’re marrying. One time, the baraat arrived and the bride was shaking with terror. She refused to go out, saying she wasn’t ready to get married. Her uncle standing nearby was dumbstruck. I tried everything. Don’t you love him?......

Didn’t you decide by yourself to marry him? Don’t let the diamonds you’re dripping with go to waste, don’t you want to show everyone how gorgeous you’re looking?” What worked was probably the last line. Thanks to aggressive marketing campaigns, diamonds have replaced gold in the dikhava culture.

Don’t be surprised if the next wedding you attend doesn’t have a stage in the reception, or the groom and bride are busy having shots with their mates, or the bride is wearing a Western-style gown, or if the actual ceremony sealing the union is briefer than you remember. Strange new things are happening at the Indian wedding. Brides don’t necessarily cry during their bidai, and the grooms refuse to break coconuts before entering the conjugal bedroom. Couples are fighting to make the Indian wedding their dream wedding, and not the parents’.

This just makes Kalyani’s job tougher. In a family, 20 people make decisions. Unfortunately, the person who’s paying for everything—the father— never gets consulted. “It is always better to have clients who know what they want. The ones who say, ‘do anything, budget is no constraint’ are the most dangerous. They are most likely to turn around and say ‘what is this, how can it cost so much’.” To ensure clarity, she gets a written agreement beforehand stating the budget and other requirements.

When Parthip Thyagarajan began the wedding portal weddingsutra.com, the site was aimed at giving information to the family. He soon figured that only brides were using the site and the focus of the portal shifted. For Parthip’s business partner Madhulika Mathur, wedding rituals are bride-centric, putting the girl in the spotlight. “And there is no girl who wouldn’t want to dress or look the part,” she says. It doesn’t come as a surprise if the only thing the new-age bride is interested in is herself. The groom’s involvement is restricted to choosing the engagement ring and honeymoon destination. His biggest concerns are whether there will be alcohol at the function and how long the puja will take. When it comes to choosing attire, he is still mummy’s boy or his wife’s husband.

There is one responsibility he can’t shirk though, which is proposing. Courtships are incomplete if they don’t end with the man going down on his knee. The moment must be a surprise. It must be romantic. If it isn’t, the groom is in trouble. Despite it being a love marriage, 27-year-old Mansi Mehta was annoyed with 27-year-old Suraj Choksi, her fiancé, as he didn’t officially go down on his knee and say the words she had waited to hear for years. In short, they were engaged, but he hadn’t proposed. “I don’t have a story to tell my friends,” she would nag him. So Suraj surprised Mansi by decorating a friend’s terrace with romantic notes, candles, and cooked Mansi a meal wearing an apron that said ‘Now you will have a story to tell’. Then he went down on his knee. After that, they got drunk.

There is a responsibility the couple’s best friends can’t shirk anymore—organising the bachelor and bachelorette parties. Hailed as the last night of singlehood, everyone involved in these events is sworn to secrecy. It is common to travel to Goa or abroad to cities like Bangkok, Amsterdam, London, even Rio Di Janeiro, places where one can go wild. Strippers are a regular feature in such parties. But bachelorettes tend to be cutesy, with games and naughty cakes. The cake is usually an erect phallus made of chocolate and marzipan with a vodka shot inside. In Mumbai, the Shiv Sena got wind of such cakes and protested. Since then, the cakes aren’t publicised, but still easily available to an enquiring young lady.

In the First World, the Indianness of Indian expats is fully expressed in their weddings. Mili Ghosh and her husband run a boutique wedding cinematography studio in the US. In less than five years, they have worked on around 45 weddings, mostly NRIs’. Concept films, or short films that are scripted, staged in true Bollywood fashion are what they are the best at. Replete with classic shots of the couple running behind each other in slow motion, the girl flicking her hair to look into the camera longingly, moments like the boy cooking for the girl, the couple watching Tom & Jerry together. Mili directs the videos describing the couple’s love story that premiere during the reception. Then, of course, there is the usual wedding video. She and her husband have detailed discussions with clients to understand their personalities and the relationship of the couples.

“Everyone has had a Bollywood experience at some point. If we haven’t had enough of Bollywood in our lives, we secretly want a little of that to happen, especially when we talk about love. I want to believe some of the unnatural scenes and plots,” says Mili. Her videos transform anonymous, everyday professionals into glamorous heroes and heroines who have no qualms about running on the beach, if not around trees. Her most expensive video cost the couple somewhere between $40,000 to $45,000, and it was shot in Udaipur.

Back in India, while parents don’t have a say on proposals and bachelor parties, they definitely have a huge influence over everything else. Shloka Nath, 26, got permission for her destination wedding with a relatively small guest list by pacifying her parents with a huge engagement party. It also helped that her husband is an NRI and there were no omnipresent in-laws to physically monitor the wedding preparations, putting the couple in the director’s seat. It took her husband Nishant Lalwani, 28, four months to plan the perfect proposal after the decision to marry struck him while he was in the peace of a Vipassana meditation. And after getting the answer, it took the couple one year to plan their dream wedding.

The couple married in Coorg, with a select guest list of 300 people. Besides the traditional functions were innovative ones like a cricket match. Respective fathers captained the Sindhis versus Punjabis match. Charu Sharma, who happens to be the bride’s uncle, was the commentator. The couple had their sangeet in an open-air amphitheatre with friends performing music, and there were sit-down dinners with toasts. Shloka kept it simple and wore her mother’s wedding sari for her wedding.

“In Mumbai, weddings are like dinner.... parties that you attend after work. I didn’t want a thousand people around who are there to pay their respects to my parents,” says Shloka. She promised herself that she’d enjoy her own wedding. She didn’t even cry at her bidai. “Nish was the one saying goodbye to his parents, not me.”

In some cases, the new Indian wedding is not about dikhava, but endearing austerity. Gauri Sarda and Shrikant Joshi, both 27, desired a simple wedding, without splurging their parents’ life savings and indulging in rituals that are meaningless for atheists like them. Shrikant spent sufficient time on Google researching Hindu customs to convince his parents how outdated some of them were, like making the mother-in-law wash the son-in-law’s feet, or the Kashi Yatra ritual, which he believes promotes incest as a first cousin must offer his daughter for marriage to dissuade the groom from leaving for Kashi. They opted for a court marriage. For the reception, Shrikant and Gauri sent out e-invitations to friends to save paper. They also stated that they didn’t want gifts. Instead, they wanted guests to donate to their favourite causes. “The majority of guests struck a deal that they would give token gifts and donate,” says Gauri.

Despite all this, some things about Indian marriages have not changed. Marriages in India remain ruthlessly practical affairs. “In India, relationships are still work oriented. Doctors marry doctors, software engineers marry software engineers. Models marry foreigners for some reason. People may have alliances across caste and religion, but no rich girl marries a poor boy, or vice versa,” says Parthip of weddingsutra.com.

Weddings are the most important event for a family, he explains. They are an expression of the father’s financial status, mother’s creativity and family’s networks. Couples find it easier to call off a marriage than a wedding, in his opinion. In India, weddings complete you as much as marriages. Not surprisingly, the detective is yet to become obsolete. In fact, he has probably become richer. Hiring detectives is now so popular that even matrimonial sites advertise them.

Every year, the number of pre-matrimonial cases that the 22-year-old detective Utpal Chaudhary receives increases by 15 to 20 per cent. Parents come to him before the rishta is fixed, sometimes the groom himself arrives, or even the bride. “Money has changed everything,” he says. “So-called big salaries and independence have led to hypocrisy. If I do something it’s okay, but if my partner does it, it’s not. Ego makes mountains out of molehills.” Just a stolen glance or one missed call can spark off suspicion. That suspicion doesn’t have a gender. He gets as many male as female clients.

If you choose to ignore the reality of married life, that whole thing which unfolds after a wedding, if you choose to imagine that the final scene in a love story is the wedding, then it is a happy ending. Kalyani feels privileged to be part of so many weddings. “I see a couple through bad moods, bad hair days, good moods, partying, drinking, bingeing. At some points, I feel like murdering my clients. But suddenly, after the wedding, they are completely different people. They are a unit. It’s such a beautiful moment. The girl is the most beautiful girl in the universe, you can’t beat the glow on her face. And the look of expectancy on his face when he finally sees her walking towards him. Block out everything, just look at the bride and groom.”