When I got married in 1971, colour photography was virtually unknown, so the only pictures we have today to commemorate that historic occasion are some grainy B&W ones. In them my husband and I look like characters out of a village Ramlila, our heads covered with Almora-made tinsel 'crowns' (often lined with old newspapers advertising Zalim Lotion or Dalda vanaspati). Come to think of it, the scale and manner of most weddings in our time was that of a nukkad Ramlila. The food was homemade, and the house was decorated with terracotta diyas, mango-leaf garlands, and rice-paste alpana, its pattern unchanged through centuries.
Cut now to the year 1999: I had been chosen to play a small part in Mira Nair's Monsoon Wedding (probably because by now I was sufficiently fat and vulgar to play the part of an auntie at a Punjabi wedding a la Delhi). Wildly excited, I awaited the costume fittings—an ardent desire unfulfilled at my own modest wedding. The film's poncy designer took a bored look at my vital statistics and waved a languid hand at a bundle of old, faded saris: "There, darling, take your pick," he started to say, until his attention was grabbed by an assistant who had misplaced the heroine's falsies and he rushed off to attend to more important matters. I was left holding someone's aunt's cast-off Kanjeevaram sari.
This may have been the worm's eye view of The Big Fat Indian Wedding, but even I have realised by now that no one—barring Usha Uthup and Jayalalitha—wears Kanjeevarams at weddings today. They were thrown out a long time ago, along with multi-coloured shamianas and traditional aloo-pooris-kaddu feasts prepared by family cooks and elderly aunts.
The hurly burly—perhaps I should call it Hurley burley now—of traditional Indian weddings has now been taken over, Walmart ishtyle, by a new generation of event managers, costume designers and food consultants, scrambling to fulfil the aspirations and expectations of wannabe movers-and-shakers, NRIs, phoren guests and Page Three Glitterati. Someone has already brought out a Bride's Wedding Planner as a self-help guide, complete with a daily checklist. Just make sure the beauty parlour is booked in advance, you are told, because the haldi-ubtan thing is done only in Bhojpuri films now. There are professionals who specialise in gift-wrapping, and in organising bridal showers to ensure that you get just one—not 15—table lamps. I hear there are lawyers working on pre-nups. The tentwala has metamorphosed into a set-designer who comes calling with an album offering choices ranging from a Maharaja's palace to mind-boggling Arabian Nights extravaganzas. Shah Jahan's peacock throne has come back in a new avatar, and your newly-wed children can receive presents sitting on it. Even the pandit comes with a Sanskrit degree and promises simultaneous translations of shlokas for your foreign guests' benefit.
Just as Santoshi Mata arose from Bollywood studios to occupy a place in the neo-Hindu heavenly pantheon, variations dictated by event managers have jazzed up traditional Indian wedding rituals—they have been given exciting makeovers by dance teachers and songwriters specialising in 'waddings'. My mother once wryly observed: "Once we went to Ganeshji bearing laddoos before a wedding, now he comes to us with them." This, when someone brought a box of mithai, tinsel Ganesh stuck on its lid, with an invitation card for his daughter's wedding.
Look at the Nehrus, we were once told—at her wedding, Indira Gandhi wore a khadi sari woven from yarn spun by her father in jail and delicately beautiful flower jewellery made by the Anand Bhawan maali. So what happened to the understated elegance of the really classy Indian wedding?
I suppose you could call it the Amar Singh phenomenon (isn't it strange that he is present at every Big Fat Indian Wedding?). In short, the Big Fat Indian Wedding is the best way to claw your way into the Big Boys' Club. Never mind if you were born in Bhatinda and educated at the village—you can still knock the socks off everyone by wearing the flashiest diamonds, flying in a bunch of political bigwigs, and bhangra-ing with the Big B, Anil Ambani and Aishwarya Rai at your child's wedding. Don't you agree that long before he wrested Arcelor from the French, Lakshmi Mittal's Palace of Versailles wedding had established him as the new man of steel, right up there with the Sun King? And that rumours of the collapse of the Sahara empire stopped miraculously after that double wedding in Lucknow?
So, who says that the Indian maharajas have gone and with them the stories of their legendary spending? They have just been replaced by a new generation of brand ambassadors for India. You can call them the Chaturwals.
(Ira Pande is a writer and actress)