From shakkarpara to truffles

PRABEEN SINGH

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INDIAN weddings, like the women of the iconic Virginia Slims advertisement, ‘have come a long way, baby.’ Unpacking the tag line, whether for the American woman at whom the advertisement was aimed or Indian elites and the upwardly mobile whom this article discusses, reveals a rather murkier picture, but that is a task for another time. This article takes a more light-hearted look at how we have redefined age-old wedding traditions into party time, as the post liberalization redistribution of wealth, opening up of global markets and increased opportunities to develop ideas into lucrative businesses, has generated a financial surplus within that once highly budgeted middle class.

The new millionaires are loudly visible. The Marwaris of Shekhawati, having made their first million in the markets of Calcutta and Bombay in the 1920s and ’30s, displayed their significant rise in the mercantile world by painting the exterior walls of their havelis back home, thus announcing their status as men of power and wealth. This was in contrast to the old feudals who only painted the interior walls of the havelis.

The 21st century nabobs have taken this tomtomming to dizzying heights, aided and abetted by another new breed of fast growing entrepreneurs: wedding planners, event managers and lifestyle consultants who orchestrate large-scale ‘make overs’ catering to people’s aspirations to achieve a larger-than-life moment of fantasy: to stand up and be counted among the feudals and royals of yesteryears or keep up with Kapoors. Royalty’s extravagant indulgences included organizing the wedding of the favourite dogs; for today’s nabobs, the hole in the ozone layer appears designed to prove that the sky is no limit when planning weddings!

The overriding obsession is to have the world (well, their notion of the world, at any rate) acknowledge (and admire) the fact that no expense was spared for their child’s wedding. This obsession easily overrides any niggling doubt that maybe, just maybe, they are going a tad over the top. For those with a greater ambition than a healthy bank balance, saving money towards the wedding is an integral part of financial planning and financial investment consultants at all major banks even have special saving schemes for children’s weddings.

Wedding planning begins much earlier than the hunt for a suitable groom or bride as every other wedding attended is duly noted, and dissected! Themes and details are filed away as enviably desirable or delightfully gauche. Cards of event organizers and caterers are collected; names of exotic flowers, especially imported from distant lands, are noted.

 

The long reach of wedding planners holds captive all members of the family for six months to a year prior to the wedding. They become panaceas for the entire family: they are the doctors of all seasons as they soothe the bride’s emotional tantrums, gauge the mercurial changes in interpersonal dynamics of the primary stakeholders and prepare solutions to all problems – the modern day Mr. Fixit.

Wedding trousseaus were earlier collected almost from the birth of a daughter, styles and ‘good taste’ were a given, within the boundary of traditional must-haves. Today, however, the capriciousness of trendsetters and a deep interest in Bollywood star weddings, dictate what defines a handsome trousseau. Trends are dictated by the high priestess of the social circuit: the ones heard within their hushed circles saying how ‘naked’ they feel without their Dior glasses and Bottega Veneto handbags. Conscious of mispronouncing the more complicated European designer labels, the moneybags have discovered Louis Vuitton: ‘All her luggage is LV ji.’ Outfits for every occasion – including possible attendance at the Derby – are bought from designer boutiques here and abroad: what’s a quick shopping trip to Bangkok, Singapore or Europe, after all?

Jewellery is sourced from impoverished feudals and airily brushed away by saying, ‘Oh that belonged to my grandmother.’ A side benefit of weddings is the opportunity to buy into a lineage!

 

The wedding card, the first formal announcement, conspicuously proclaims what treats are in store for the guest. Cards now come in velvet-lined boxes accompanied by special handmade chocolates, sometimes heart-shaped with the initials of the bride and groom embossed on top. Accompanying these invitations are the now obligatory massive ghee-soaked ladoos or pure pista burfee – referring to traditions of yesteryear – or, for the more sophisticated, sugar-coated almonds or a special Himalayan honey in a crystal bottle snuggled in a velvet jewellery box.

Wedding cards are often designed like a book with each chapter describing a planned event or quoting sections from this or that religious text. There could be cut-outs of the bride and groom dressed as Radha and Krishna with the invitation rhymed to resemble an epic love poem. White on white with a hint of gold is just too simple and unimpressive for most (and not very lucrative for printers either!). Even amongst the minuscule number who insist on elegant simplicity, the poor Ganesh or some other precious religious motif, cannot escape their attention.

Gifts that accompany the invitation cards far exceed the traditional lena-dena as scores linked to business, politics, and social networking are settled through a ‘small gift’ in keeping with ‘our family tradition.’ In fact, matrons can be seen in the hushed portals of the Louis Vuitton shop at The Oberoi Hotel, rapidly running through their foot long lists of gifts as they peremptorily order ten of this and six of that, so that their largesse generously covers both those near and dear as well as Tom, Dick and Harry!

 

The only place where the maxim ‘less is more’ works is in the skimpy clothes worn by the bride and all the other nubile and not-so-nubile members of the bride’s and groom’s families. Five days of merrymaking require a minimum of twenty costume changes, from strapless dresses to reworkings of traditional lehengas into fishtail skirts with bustiers and an apology for a dupatta that reveals more than it covers. Even the saree has become a sexy, slinky thing made of gossamer-like chiffon. Ah, globalization. It has finally liberated the urban Indian bride from sexless, diaphanous lenghas, onerous temple sarees, old-fashioned non-revealing blouses and, of course, the horror of the ‘ghunghat’. After all, this is her day to party hard; who knows what tomorrow holds?

The globetrotters’ exposure (often via group tours) to different places and styles, the easy access to (and automatic emulation of) all things foreign and the hunger to show off to their peers this newly acquired veneer of sophistication, is most forcefully demonstrated in two major aspects of the wedding: flowers and food. (Also much in demand among urbanites from Mumbai to Jullundur to Chennai is the secretly planned bachelorette party. The internet is effectively sourced for ideas from locating kinky presents to grabbing the ‘hottest cutie’ – often an impoverished, but strapping village boy who has learnt to perform on demand for these uber sophisticates.)

The wedding will most often (unless there is serious ‘bad taste’ demonstrated by a demand for lowly orchids and gerbera) be ‘dressed’ in traditional Indian ritual flowers: marigold (naturally not the local variety that can purchased in the market, but the buttercup yellow ones specially flown in from Bengal or the blood orange ones from Bangalore) jasmine, tuberose and, for the ultimate indulgence, the Indian rose that come all the way from Kanauj. These flowers are ordered by the truckload: ‘We must have masses of flowers everywhere with not a bare corner in sight.’ The super rich wedding folk have their flowers flown in from the wholesale flower markets in Holland.

 

An army of workers toil through the day into the wee hours of the night to miraculously create yet another ‘look’, replete with a new colour scheme for the next day’s theme party. Theme events are minutely researched and planned in as much detail as a Bollywood production. For instance, a Middle Eastern evening will have the food, flowers and belly dancers (deemed to be authentically Middle Eastern) put together as a package. Since creative ideas are few and far between, the serial copycat event organiser, thanks to his mobile camera, will discreetly photograph all ‘new productions’. Unfortunately, between their limited creative talents and the further limitations of the client who desires something ‘different’, but lacks the vision to opt for complete originality, what is settled for is a tweaked version of what impressed them at several weddings attended in an earlier ‘season’.

The ultimate arbiter, the aspect that can make or break the reputation of the hosts, is the quality, quantity, variety and aesthetic display of the food served throughout the wedding, from the first pre-celebration party to the ultimate post-marriage dinner or lunch.

The anxiety to secure the best chef and the best caterers is as old as the first social wedding. The traditional vazwan, the big Bengali ritual wedding fare, those South Indian communities who still observe the purity of the food and the urban sophisticate host who wants to show off his world travelled palette: they all want the best cook to cater for them.

 

Thank God, the food gurus have taken over. They find genius chefs in remote villages and hungrily pore through their beloved manuscript of food cooked in Wajad Ali Shah’s chief groomsman’s house. They scour the retired old retainer of the Nawab of So-and-So or the Maharaja of Such and Such or the great cooks of the temples in Benaras, in their search for the authentic best. Search parties are sent much in advance: this is a one-year project of food tasting, planning and recreating menus. Tempers fly. The diva chef stages many walkouts and each time his fee is renegotiated, the number of helpers increase. (He will employ most in his village: a wonderful fallout of his elevated status.)

The space allocated to cuisine can be as large as a football field, each segment referred to as a station representing the states of not just the bride and groom and the mandatory ‘European fare’, but in the true essence of democracy, cuisines from other flavour-of-the-season states are also on display. All we need is a charming mini steam engine with dining rooms.

What is considered exotic is subjective: the dhobi will serve chowmein (almost always Maggi noodles); all pre-Anand Karaj Sikh wedding breakfasts serve fried eggs, sausages, baked beans and mashed potatoes… Of course, we immediately begin tinkering with these cuisines adding a few drops of that bane of good chefs everywhere – Tabasco sauce – or sprinkling Amul cheese on pasta: hey presto, ‘It is just like our food ji.’

The alcohol is imported, with nary a Sula or Grover in sight. (These are discreetly offered to the less privileged guest who, after all, hardly knows better.) Great pride is taken in the hundreds of gallons consumed and the surplus still left: proof, again, of the family’s wealth.

Not all super expensive weddings look over the top; ‘less is more’ has different connotations here. A champagne brunch serves Dom Perignon and fresh blood orange mimosas to guests sitting under beautiful tents in sumptuous fabrics. The sit down dinner features seven courses where each nibble is a taste of heaven, its ingredients flown in from across the world or, for the truly special occasion, a theme party, say Moroccan, where the guests are flown to Morocco!

 

And what of destination weddings, that new fad? Well, if you think about it, these are the oldest kind of weddings of all, harking back to when families and friends gathered together from far off provinces of the same state. Entertainment was a spontaneous affair of song and dance routines, with those assembled raising halfhearted protests at the raunchy flavour of some of the wedding songs. A well deserved release for the women after a long hard day of helping the hired team of cooks and their attendants chop and clean vegetables. (Predictably, the men contributed less, unless they went off for shikar and brought ample game for the pot. Fortunately the auspicious window for weddings often coincided with the open season for the hunt.) Songs were sung by those who could, just about everyone danced, gossiped and flirted, sometimes beyond the permissible form, leading to stories that would be passed around the family till the next wedding.

What remains constant is the gossip and spontaneous flirtations. The rest has changed. Destination weddings now happen at well-managed, exotic locations: from pristine beaches to palaces and forts that have been lucratively converted to heritage hotels so that the nabob’s daughter can feel like a princess, albeit for five days only. Archaic wedding rituals once considered regressive in newly independent India have now found centre place, as they are believed to be the rituals and practices of the romanticised rajahs and maharajahs. In the years to come will an event organiser somewhere be able to sell his clients on the ‘romance’ of the purdah system or the jenanah?

 

Better yet than a destination wedding is the inter-religious or inter-national wedding. Oh the excitement that grips the family! So many different ceremonies to experience on so many more glorious party days. If one’s lucky, each ceremony is in a different location: it’s a whole month of just getting married.

‘Orchestrated entertainment’ is the buzzword. The Lakshmi Mittals and the Chatwals have shown aspirants what is possible during weddings that are covered on prime time news. These are events of national importance, clearly, and certainly more conducive to soaring TRPs than political debates in the Lok Sabha. It was inevitable, then, that ‘lifestyle channels’ like NDTV Good Times would develop weekly shows such as The Big Fat Indian Wedding.

The entertainment ranges from Bhangra rap to rave parties. Cultural tours to shop-till-you-drop, with spare moments spent at beauty parlours and spas: very attractive R&R, especially if the host is picking up the tab and has alerted the event organizers about which guests need preferential treatment.

 

The cherry on the cake is, of course, the mujra. No, I don’t mean the women imported from across the border or the last of the families sourced from a remote village near Barabanki or Bhopal by resourceful event organisers; the tawaif disappeared around the same time as one iron lady stopped the privy purses. No, I refer to the bride, her sisters and friends. Sequentially, the solo number by the bride is performed last: the bharavi, but what a raunchy bharavi we have today! The multifaceted talents of the bride, accompanied at times by a sporting bridegroom, are displayed for all to see, even the hired staff. And preceding that are the item numbers performed by friends and relatives on both sides: choreographed in imitation of Bollywood favourites and months of training by yet another recent professional enterprise, the wedding dance masters.

SEZs have enabled the Jat farmer to actually have his son drop from the sky as helicopters are hired and temporary helipads erected at the wedding venue.

No wedding today is complete without the VVIP guests. Rahul Gandhi is, of course, the ultimate A-lister, but families will angle for other politicians, film stars or international celebrities – all of whom might be more important that the couple getting married!

So as globalization continues to grow to new heights and the big fat Indian wedding reaches obesity, buy a few more outfits and join the party, who cares about ever after.

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