By Manik Sharma Dec. 13, 2018
At the Ambani wedding, other than a dance that absurdly spelled Gujju, there was little evidence of the Gujju-ness of it. And this stands true for all our shaadis. From the attire to the music, the great Indian wedding is increasingly flat and indistinct.
The star-studded cast of Avengers: Infinity War has met its match. But rather than fight an elephantine Thanos, this ensemble feeds the beast – or more embarrassingly dances to the tune of its chutkis. Even by the standard of celebrity weddings, the ludicrously loud pre-wedding ceremonies of Mukesh Ambani’s daughter Isha felt outlandish. Not because it over-elaborated its formats, or took itself too seriously, but because it was neither here nor there – neither a ceremony or a celebration.
Even the most reluctant recipients of slush in their inboxes such as me have had their heads turned in recent weeks. Watching the grainy videos has been an exercise in dinking scales either side of bewilderment. In summary, though, this furiously catapulted affair of money and muscle feels indicative of the way weddings across India are beginning to look the same – big, loud, flat, and forgettable.
It is no secret that Bollywood films – and actors – love and probably need marriage as much as the institution needs the fraternity to market it. It is a game where the referees play, and we, unknowingly are the participants who will play until the end of time without any chance of winning. So you are treated to Nick Jonas dropping a tear that makes you want to bite your own ear off or Ranveer Singh’s cushioning of everything from Deepika’s cheek to her toes, as if life is that one shrunk moment of overwhelming etiquette. Etiquette that louts like us haven’t thought of, know of or are too uncivil to carry out on our own.
But beyond the cautious manipulation, the astoundingly predictable scripts that the film industry seems to churn out for these ceremonies, it is clear that the event is undergoing Punjabification which bodes not too well for cultures seeking to hold onto tradition.
It is one thing to take your wedding party to a pub or a bar it is another to bring the pub into the wedding.
At a Punjabi wedding I recently attended in West Delhi this overpopulation of common ideas was evident. Of the many oddities a typically Punjabi wedding throws up, is the manner in which its simplicity and matter-of-factness is overwritten by the loudness of ceremonies that precede or follow it. A typically north-Indian Hindu wedding in comparison asks for commitments akin to living in bunkers for days. It is taxing, not by way of earnestness but by design itself. For some reason, though, the Punjabi wedding has shed its lightest load in favour of needlessly overweight commitments to spectacle. For a culture so rich in folk music and sangeet, the lengthiest tracks on its dance floors come from the garage of Honey Singh and Baadshah. I’ve witnessed this noise even at ceremonies in South India. Cumulatively, from the attire to the music, the great Indian wedding is increasingly becoming flat and indistinct. And nothing could better play into the hands of those setting the template.
Of course, tradition is tough to follow, and undergoes changes of its own. Yet, wedding ceremonies, regardless of geography, increasingly seem to be imposters of each other. At the Ambani wedding for example, other than a dance that absurdly spelled “GUJJU” (because how would we know) there was little evidence of the Gujju-ness of it. Even as my brain froze at the sight of Bollywood A-listers dancing behind people with dinosaur feet, it would have probably warmed at the sight of something authentic, that did not require narration. It’s absolutely all right to play demo scripts and templates – but with it what is lost is identity, even the mere impression of one.
As this analysis of recent celebrity weddings in India puts it, “The celebrations by all four couples appeared to be an attempt to signal their status as cultural ambassadors of a modern, increasingly global India. This was communicated not only through the careful choice of clothes but also via felicitous displays of affection and intimacy… they serve to ensure that their love story remains appealing to a global sensibility of interpersonal love.”
The Great Indian Wedding to the generation of our grandparents was special for two reasons. It accumulated love, in that large families found an excuse to come together and participate in a celebration of a new phase of life. The second being it ascertained tradition that though sporadic in our age, reaffirms a sense of belonging. To those disenfranchised by technology and a pace of life they simply cannot be kept up with, the learned steps of wedding – the only parties our grandparents went to – still hold meaning.
It is one thing to take your wedding party to a pub or a bar it is another to bring the pub into the wedding. The sight of grown men and women, who move with the flexibility of a polar bear, dancing awkwardly to songs they’d neither hear or follow, may be fodder for the comic in me. But to a man looking to experience something austere, or even deceptively original, it comes across as banal to the point that it stops being funny as soon as the music starts.
The film industry isn’t exactly known to celebrate nuance and that we are at a point where tradition and nuance may be seen as the same thing says much about how cultural assimilation works. We can celebrate Bollywood and the ceremonies it steers, but do we really need to emulate them in our own?