Hari Ram works part time as a domestic helper at my neighbor’s house back in India. He has three daughters, two of whom have been married. The third daughter is a spinster, long of marriageable age but still living at home. In his village, Hari is shunned for having an unmarried daughter. To make matters worse, he is up to his neck in debt from the expenses of his first two daughters’ marriages. For his daughters to be married, is as expected of a man of his status, Hari had to put together enough funds for his daughters’ dowries and elaborate wedding ceremonies. Hari has a loan of 15,000 rupees, roughly $350. For many, this may not be an exceptionally large sum, but for Hari the debt was an inescapable trap.
Hari’s story is not a rare one, nor is it particular to his social stratum. In India, parents start saving for their children’s weddings and dowries when the children are born. Parents with daughters bear the brunt of the burden: it’s customary for the bride’s family to bear the majority of the wedding expenses and provide the dowry. A richer father would have similar problems, only with larger numbers.
A regressive tradition in India, the “great Indian wedding” has become the newest addition to America’s “Top Ten Awesome Indian Things” list—closely trailing snake charmers, elephant rides, and maharajas. To Americans, it seems almost a fantasy: a week-long, all-expense-paid set of festivities for your extended family and friends.
Hollywood is working hard to add to the Indian wedding fairy tale. Last week, Katy Perry married Russell Brand in what US Weekly described as a “traditional Indian ceremony” at a Rajasthani tiger sanctuary. To fit her Hollywood-sized dreams, Perry’s Bollywood-style wedding was full of song-and-dance sequences and shopping sprees—not to mention Brand’s wedding procession of 21 camels, horses, and elephants la Indian royalty. Not satisfied with an ordinary British ceremony, Elizabeth Hurley also had a traditional Indian wedding complete with a palatial reception in Rajastan. (To be fair, she did marry Arun Nayar, an Indian textile heir.)
The idealization of the great Indian wedding has even trickled down to 5C students. Recently, I had an animated conversation with a girl from CMC who said that she had been invited to a “real Indian wedding” this winter. (I wanted to ask her what her idea of an “unreal Indian wedding” was, but I refrained.) “I’m sooo excited to go to India. I am going to be in Bangalore for a week,” she said. “Doesn’t it take, like, one whole week for people to get married there?” For this girl, attending a real Indian wedding was clearly a dream come true: she would witness an extravagant waste of money (by a man who could afford it) while wearing a $1,000 sari. She couldn’t have asked for more.
Americans, however, are not the only culprits in romanticizing the tradition. In 2006, the Indian branch of Discovery Travel and Living premiered a series titled “The Great Indian Wedding,” which showcased the glamorous weddings of high-profile Indian celebrities. A 2009 article in The Times of India noted the growth of wedding-planning agencies that modernize the traditional series of festivities into “seven-day stress release package[s].” These Americanized, nouveau riche versions of Indian weddings are as insidious as the traditional ceremonies.
At a time when India is opening its doors to the world, the romanticization of India’s social ills will only allow their roots to grow deeper. Building a positive image is difficult, but breaking a stereotype is even harder. Once a stereotype is established, it is perpetuated and further ingrained in the public consciousness. The pressure of social acceptance and the emulation of Indian weddings by affluent nationals and foreigners has made the masses in India adhere to a needless and pernicious tradition.
It takes courage to see through the glossy image if Indian weddings. The picture beneath doesn’t shine as bright, but it is the real picture. An American rejection of the “great Indian wedding” might not do much to rid India of its crippling tradition, but romanticizing it doesn’t do Indians or Americans any good. Look beneath the gloss: for every Katy Perry, there are a million Hari Rams.