Women in brightly coloured silk sarees with glittering jewels and men in dark suits were talking animatedly in a tent brightly lit up in two basic colours. Chairs and tables were scattered around in no particular order with people dragging chairs to make groups. While everyone chatted about this and that, they were all alert to the slightest hint about announcement of dinner. Waiters were serving hot frothy espresso coffee sprinkled with chocolate powder and orange, lemon and cola drinks in tiny glasses probably invented by some genius in economising. Several guests were bold enough to ask the waiters when dinner would be served and the information garnered was dutifully shared with others who waited as expectantly for the wedding repast.
Food seemed to be the main focus of the evening. Probably much more than the bride and groom who sat looking rather glum on tacky looking gold thrones set up on a stage at the centre of the tented space. Guests stood in line to wish the couple, handed over the mandatory envelope, wished the parents, posed for a picture and moved out of the stage. The duty of the wedding was over in 12 minutes, 10 minutes in the queue and 2 minutes wishing the family and the couple. Now to some real business - the wedding feast.
The moment the waiters arrived with hot tomato soup with crispy chunks of fried bread floating on top with a dollop of white cream in no nonsense white cups and saucers, everyone perked up and grabbed their soup.
This was one of my first wedding experiences in the early 1970s. My parents, considering me old enough to be taken to a wedding at age 8, put me in my prettiest frock, combed my hair neatly in two pigtails and I was ready to attend my first wedding party. My excitement was intense as I stepped out of our black Fiat into the brightly lit tent. After looking around in wonder at the bright lights, guests dressed in their finery, staring wide eyed at the bride and groom who reminded me of characters in our local Ramlila, I soon lost interest. Excitement gave way to boredom even though I was made to sit with other children my age.
We were given strict instructions not to run around or play rowdy games while our parents went about the routine of attending the function. The only source of interest was the unlimited supply of soft drinks that I consumed with relish, the consequence of which did not amuse my mother, who dressed in her fine silk saree, had to escort me to a smelly and wet toilet located several minutes away from the wedding. I learnt my first lesson about attending weddings aided strongly by the dressing down I received from my mother.
While the parents chatted, the kids grew restless and tried several games to keep ourselves occupied one of which was mixing the various coloured drinks to see the interesting concoction we could create. Our parents did not take kindly to our innocent game and we were all suitably reprimanded. Those were days when no indulgence was shown for kids acting their age! After twiddling my thumbs for what seemed like an eternity, I dared to venture towards the adults and asked my mother whether we could leave. Surprised at my temerity, she said that we would not leave till we had dinner so I had better find ways to fill my time.
The much awaited tomato soup, when it arrived, was the most delicious thing I had tasted. In those days, when eating out was few and far in between, anything cooked commercially, tasted absolutely wonderful. The moment dinner was announced, or maybe it was even before the formal announcement was made by the hosts, a long queue had formed around the buffet tables. A long wait in the line looking to fill the empty plates in our hands was what was next in my wedding experience.
All kids were briefed by parents to fill their plates to capacity as coming back for seconds would mean another long wait in the food queue. We did as told and precariously carried back our overflowing plates that were a mishmash of everything offered - a curry, a dal, two vegetable dishes, a raita and some condiments like pickle, chutney, onions with rice and 1-2 types of bread. This was considered lavish enough. A hot dessert in winters and a cold one in summers was all that was expected and relished by guests.
Once we had eaten till our stomachs were ready to burst and stood in another line to get our dessert, we were ready to leave. The conversation on the journey back was centred on food, what we liked best, what was good and what was not. There was of course a passing reference to how pretty the bride looked and the qualifications of the groom. My first wedding experience was rather disappointing.
Since then I have been to innumerable weddings, some simple, some ostentatious, but by and large the drill has remained the same. Queue up to wish the couple, hob nob with some people you may know and queue up again for the meal. There were indoor weddings in hotel banquet halls and community marriage halls, outdoor weddings in beautiful gardens or community centres, sombre day weddings at the temple or gurdwara and glittering night weddings… but the routine was almost the same. How I wished that Indian weddings would be more fun!
In my late teens I was exposed to Hollywood movies where the bride and groom exchanged solemn vows at the church followed by the bride, groom, family and friends having a merry time singing, dancing, eating and drinking. The wedding toasts were funny and touching, the dance of the newly-wed couple to "their" song was dreamy, father of the bride dancing with his daughter absolutely fascinating though alien. These wedding traditions impressed me deeply. The western bride's involvement in the wedding décor, card, music, dress were such refreshing concepts during my impressionable years in the early 1980s when Indian brides had no say in their own wedding, sometimes not even who they were getting married to! But that's another story for another time.
In the 1990s began a revolution in the Indian wedding scene. The immediate impetus was Sooraj Barjatya's blockbuster movie Hum Aapke Hain Kaun that created a furore with its simple and homely wedding backdrop with a good measure of song, dance, games, fun, family bonding, everlasting friendships thrown in. This was soon taken to the next level by Aditya Chopra and Karan Johar movies with their depiction of exuberant and vivacious weddings finding a permanent place in the hearts of hot blooded Indian females of all ages.
When Karan Johar introduced the concept of glamorous designer weddings, people sat up and took notice. Many, especially the wealthier Indians, began aping the weddings trending in Bollywood movies, some even succeeding in bettering them. The seeds of the new age wedding industry in India, that is currently estimated to be over Rs 100,000 crore and growing at 25 to 30 per cent annually, were sown during this period.
Reading about the new age weddings, mostly of the rich and famous, with interest in the initial years, I was quite fascinated though unsure about whether the wedding scene was moving in the right direction because they received a lot of flak for being loud and in bad taste. Called "Bollywood Weddings", they were looked down upon by many as non-classy affairs. Many frowned upon the bride dancing publicly at her own wedding because Indian brides were expected to be demure and shy.
The bride and groom dancing together was considered completely against Indian culture. However, movies like Karan Johar's Kal Ho Na Ho with its popular song Mahi Ve, where the families and friends of the bride and groom sing and dance together, stole the hearts of millions of Indians. Bollywood weddings soon percolated down to the upper middle and middle class as they too jumped on to the bandwagon of filmy wedding as they were unkindly called by their detractors. Parents of many brides and grooms decided that it was time to infuse some cheer and vitality in the weddings.
A few years back, in the mid-2000s, I was invited to the "sangeet" ceremony of a colleague's daughter. Given my history of having attended countless weddings, which is not different from any other Indian my age, I was expecting a regular forgettable get together where all the guests are put together in one space and allowed to eat, drink and socialise as they please. Nothing wrong with that but sometimes it gets tedious to make polite conversation with people you hardly know.
On the positive side, the quality of food at weddings had moved up many scales with the introduction of cuisines such as Chinese, Italian besides the regular Indian that never loses its popularity. Chaat and street food was at the top of the charts in popularity. Who can resist spicy golgappas or hot alu tikki and it was a genius who first thought of serving these at weddings!
Wedding décor too had moved north aesthetically with many erstwhile tentwallas turned decorators now using nicer colours, better drapes and innovative flower arrangements. There was usually something to appreciate and enjoy in the wedding décor although many time there were things to shudder at too.
So I went to this sangeet with my happy husband in tow as alcohol is usually served at these occasions, expecting a regular party with maybe a band singing Bollywood songs in keeping with the tradition of sangeet or a DJ with blaring Bollywood music urging everyone towards the dance floor. While my husband and I were enjoying the pleasant ambience, we were in for a surprise. The guests were to be treated to a dance performance by the bride and groom's families.
Sure, I had seen these in movies and read about them in high society magazines but now I was going to witness it first hand and that too in a regular wedding. The families of the bride and groom put up some fun performances, mostly group dances by the bride and her friends, groom and his friends, the parents and assorted close friends and relatives. Everyone seemed to be having a great time and so did we. There was not a dull moment and I was enthralled, more by the bonhomie and vitality rather than the actual skill of the dancers.
This felt like a real wedding where everyone was happy and enjoying themselves, the coming together of two people and two families! The family jollity was infectious and it got the guests dancing with abandon on the floor, including me, the ever-suffering wedding attender. It was the best wedding I had ever attended.
That was the turning point for me and weddings. I have attended many weddings since then, many of which I have really enjoyed. It warms my heart to see the parents of the bride having a good time instead of standing around looking worried and tense, to see the bride's dance of happiness, the young couple in love dancing to a Bollywood song, the friends and relatives shaking a leg and most of all the bride and groom's families bonding over dance and music.
I have attended weddings with toasts to the bride and groom (movie English Vinglish style) which have been so heartening, beautiful day weddings (movie Aisha style) and glamorous night weddings (movie Jawani Diwani style) and have had a gala time. The most important element for me, be it an economical wedding or a lavish one, is how much fun people are having. My experience is that if the bride, groom and their families are relaxed and enjoying themselves, then the guests too will have a rocking time.
Those who say that wedding should be dignified and a simple affair, somehow miss the whole point. It's a celebration for god's sake not a conference! A joining together of two people and families and it's a time of joy and bonhomie. Why should weddings not be full of merriment, song and dance? Budget or high cost, why should there be compromise on the fun element. For me the big fat Indian weddings are about being heaviest in the happiness quotient.