I realized watching Made in Heaven that there are a lot of cultural bits of weddings that it is just assumed the viewer knows for most films, instead of having them explained. But why not explain them? Not for my desis, you already know this stuff and more, but for my non-desis who might be struggling a bit to figure out what makes a “Sangeet” different from the actually wedding.
Disclaimer: I am not desi, I have no special knowledge of culture or religious ceremonies or anything, this is just the basic level of knowledge you would expect to have when watching a film.
In her 1927 edition of Etiquette, Emily Post says “every wedding is necessarily a marriage, but not every marriage is a wedding”. This is a line that is true in every culture and every religion. There is the actual marriage ceremony, the centerpiece of all the events, and that is something special and holy. And then there is the wedding that surrounds it, or does not surround it, depending on how the families involved chose to celebrate.
Every religion that I know of has a special sacred way of solemnizing two people who vow to spend the rest of their lives together. But in Hinduism, marriage has slightly more importance than any other ceremony. It is the most sacred, most important moment in a person’s life, and the most sacred ceremony a person can attend. That is what is at the heart of the way marriage is treated in popular culture, it all springs from a holy center in which this ceremony is vitally important.
But that doesn’t mean that the events which rotate around the holy center are shallow and unimportant. While the ceremony itself is spiritual, the events around it are communal, are traditional, are part of building a great fabric of society and family and love and joy and so on. Everything has meaning.
The best comparison I have heard (not mine, a friend used this in an explanation to me) is that it is like Christmas in American/Western culture. In my family, for instance, we always go to the midnight service on Christmas Eve and we think about the story of Jesus’ birth and the Bible readings. We aren’t super religious, or even super Christian, but the holiday wouldn’t have much meaning for us if we didn’t have that holy center to it. On the other hand, there is also getting together as a family and seeing relatives we don’t usually see, the joy of buying/making gifts for each other, the memories around the familiar carols and traditions. None of that is related to the commercialization of Christmas, or prestige, or obligation, it’s all joyful and special. But half of it is joyful and special because it makes us feel closer to God, and half of it is joyful and special because it makes us feel closer to each other.
That’s weddings in Indian culture. I say “Indian” not “Hindi” because so far as I know this importance of marriage is universal across South Asia. There is the central ceremony which varies in details place to place, and around it there are the traditions and events and so on which also vary place to place. But the combination of the most important religious ceremony you can witness/participate in, and the biggest communal joyful moment you can witness/participate in, that is true everywhere.
Now, what does this look like specifically in Hindi films? It goes back to Yash Chopra. Yash Chopra was Punjabi, part of the large Punjabi refugee community that ended up in Bombay after Partition. He liked to make movies about big joyful moments, and complex emotions and family relationships. So weddings were perfect for him. And there is an idea of a “Yash Chopra Wedding” which kind of flowed into the film industry and changed how movies showed weddings. And in turn changed how weddings happen in reality because everyone is trying to make it look like a movie.
So, what is this new Hindi film wedding like? It starts with an engagement party. There is an older religious ceremony related to confirming the engagement, but as it looks now in films/life, it means that the two families host a large party for their friends, and in the middle of it and bride and groom exchange rings while everyone watches. It serves multiple functions, a public announcement and confirmation of this plan to be married, a slightly westernized ring exchange moment, and a party that can be whatever you want it to be. If this is a couple that is planning a small marriage ceremony, you can do a blow out engagement instead. If this is a couple that might have a destination wedding, you can do a local engagement party before the destination wedding. Or if you have to do a local wedding for convenience of the guests, you can do a destination engagement. The engagement can be the young people modern party, the wedding traditional. The engagement can be a placeholder, you do this big party and then spend 3 years waiting for the timing to be right for the actual wedding.
The engagement is also important if you are having a semi-arranged marriage. A pattern that is not uncommon is for the couple to meet, like each other, agree to get to know each other better with the expectation of marriage but not be really “engaged” until months later when the big engagement party happens. If at any point before the public engagement this couple decides not to marry, there is no social embarrassment or problem. Before that they are more “dating with the expectation and hope of an engagement”. If it is a fully arranged marriage (very rare in both movies and the upperclass urban Indian real world), then the engagement would be confirmed after that first meeting between the families. The difference is a gap of several months versus a gap of a few hours between first meeting and confirming the engagement in a way that it would be hard to break.
The formal engagement can be the first event to set off the wedding events, or it can be several months before the actual wedding. But if it is several months before, it would be something worthy of note. Like, for instance, “we had the engagement, but then his grandmother got sick so we put off the wedding” or “we had the engagement, but he had a pressing work commitment and so the wedding isn’t for a few months”. The expectation would be, once the engagement is over with, why not get married as soon as possible? What are you waiting for?
One reason for putting off the wedding might be checking the horoscopes. There are two big things that come up when horoscopes are compared. The first is the date of the wedding, it should be an “auspicious” time and an “auspicious” date. And the second (far less likely) issue is that the bride and groom may be found to be incompatible. The worst is a “munglik” bride. That means she is just terribly unlucky for anyone. The solution is to marry her to a tree or a cow or some other object which will then receive all her bad luck and save her husband from it. You can also have a “munglik” man, but that is far less likely, because Patriarchy.
Between the engagement and the wedding is the ritual of the wedding cards. The wedding cards are works of art, if you are extremely wealthy they might arrive with gifts in elaborate boxes and so on, but even the poorest couple would still try to have cards that have something a little special about them. The cards should be hand delivered to those that are important to you. This is the beginning of that warm community building around the wedding. It’s a joyful reason to visit folks you haven’t seen in years, the bride’s father might make a point of visiting his best friend from college to personally invite him and deliver the card, the groom might go back to the office where he had his first job and invite his first boss, the bride might go to her favorite dance teacher from childhood and invite her. All these people in your life who you get to see one more time and share this news. It’s a nice way to make sure you can share your joy with people who are important to you, even if they can’t come to the wedding. And it’s a nice way to let people know they are important to you, even if you have to invite a couple of thousand folks to the wedding, it is these particular people you personally invite who really matter to you.
At the same time as the wedding card deliveries and (sometimes) at the same time as the engagement party, the intense preparation for the actual wedding starts to happen. And a large part of this is jewelry. Most families have family jewels saved specifically for the daughter’s wedding. In addition (if you have the money) you may go shopping for new pieces. It is as intensive as the dress shopping, multiple people visiting multiple shops and picking over and accepting or rejecting multiple pieces of jewelry. A woman’s “wedding jewels” are what she takes with her into the marriage. Sometimes this means a lowkey way of giving dowry, the grooms’ family whisks them away immediately. Sometimes this is a woman’s safety net, if she has to leave her husband, or is widowed, or has to pay off a blackmailer, her wedding jewels are hers to do with as she needs to. And it can also be both those things, the contribution of the bride to the shared wealth of the new household, there for her to sell if their children need to pay school fees or if the crops fail and they need to pay back a loan.
You also have to shop for “gifts”. Every person expected at the wedding should get a gift of an appropriate size to reflect their importance to the family. In the bad version this is another way of giving dowry without really giving dowry. The bride’s family might “gift” to the groom’s family a car. There’s also a religious part of it, new clothes are auspicious for ceremonies, so it might be as simple as the bride’s family giving the groom a new suit for the ceremony. And it is also a matter of simply sharing and marking this joyous occasion, the servants given new clothes, office friends given sweets, a celebration for all to enjoy.
Along with the shopping, there are also the choreography rehearsals. The bigger weddings now include special choreographed dances by the families. A choreographer will be brought in to teach the children, the young people, and the older folks all their own dances. Sometimes it will be groom’s family versus bride’s family, sometimes they will all be thrown in together. Sometimes it will be a thrown together dance that the kids come up with, sometimes it will be weeks of serious rehearsals, sometimes it will be a few days before the wedding as a fun activity that the family and friends (who have already begun to gather) will participate in as they choose.
All this rehearsal is in preparation for the “Sangeet”, the night of music before the actual wedding. This can be a separate event, a chance for the groom’s family to host something in their house, or it can be yet another special occasion in the same week of events at a destination wedding. The friends and family of the bride and groom perform, and sometimes also professional folks (movie stars, or classical musicians).
Similar to the Sangeet, but more intimate, is the “Mehendi”. In olden times, this was a special event that also served a practical purpose, the bride had to have henna applied to her hands and arms in preparation for the wedding. It takes hours and you can’t really move or do anything while it is happening. Plus you have to wear kind of old clothes and not many of them (so your hands and feet and legs are accessible). So it is a natural time for the women of the family to gather together, feed the bride and help her stay comfortable with no men around to see her in disarray. And the mehendi artist might also take the time to do the far less elaborate designs on the other women. This is the party where you would find the raunchy women only songs being sung, the stories of “first nights” shared between women, and so on.
Now it has become more just another event, men and women both there, food provided, music playing, an excuse to party. But it is still more relaxed, it takes hours to finish the mehendi and during that time people come in and out and greet the bride, and other women struggling with their own mehendi and feed each other and wear their own comfortable clothes. And of course, it happens very close to the wedding, so the mehendi will be fresh.
And then there is the wedding itself. Which starts with two separate parties, one at the bride’s house and one at the groom’s. The bride’s family is waiting for the groom to come and take her away, and his side is drinking and partying and slowly making their way over to the house as a big group. If this is a Punjabi wedding (which most weddings in Hindi films are), he will be on a white horse. In terms of the actual events, it’s kind of like “pre-gaming” before a club night. You get a little drunk and happy while waiting for the groom to arrive/traveling with the groom, cool down a bit during the actual ceremony, and then get back on your party high once it is over.
Coming from the Western tradition, I am always surprised by how different the ceremony is from what I am used to. There is less of a clear line between “ceremony” and “reception”. The couple and their families are gathered around the Priest and the sacred fire and have roles in the ceremony, but the rest of the guests can remain seated in their chairs to witness what is happening, or go stand in the back and chat, or get up to take a call and then come back, and it’s all fine. You can even arrive late without having every single person turn around and glare at you in the most judgmental WASP-y way possible (I may have experienced this myself).
The centerpiece of the wedding is the food. And, depending on the family, also the alcohol. It’s where you should spend the most money, and where everyone will judge you as good or bad. After the ceremony, the crowd can go to the buffet and eat and eat. Of course the bride and groom can’t eat, that’s universal everywhere in the world, the people having the worst time at the wedding are always the bride and groom. In India, usually they are standing on a dias in front of the room, or else sitting in throne chairs there, and every guest comes up to greet them, offer best wishes and perhaps a gift, get their photo taken together, and move on.
And then, finally, it is time for the bride to leave her family home. In some traditions, she throws rice behind her as she leaves as a blessing. It is supposed to be a very sad moment, the bride crying and her family crying. It can be disturbing coming from the outside to see what should be a joyful moment (starting a new life together) instead be so miserable and bleak. But that’s the tradition.
Once the ordeal of the wedding is over, it is time for the new ordeal of the “first night”/suhaag raat. In some places, the “first night” might also be determined by horoscope or some other tradition, and so there two separate dates, the wedding ceremony and then the first night, separated by days or weeks. In olden times, when child marriages were more common, they could be separated by years. There are some universals with the “first night”, the bed is decorated (usually with flowers), the couple is alone in a room together (often still in their wedding garb), and they are supposed to have sex for the first time. There are other traditions that might come up place by place, for instance, a bride bringing a glass of milk to her husband. But the general idea is simply that a bride and groom are having sex for the first time to consummate the marriage and everyone knows it is happening.
And then there are the post-marriage traditions. In some places, a bride is supposed to wear her wedding bangles until they all break. In others, the mangalsutra is worn differently for the first year to show she is newly wed. And the bridal mehendi identifies her as a bride as it is slowly fading on her hands.
And that’s it! That’s all I know about weddings! Well, all I can remember at the moment. I am sure I got things wrong, or missed something important, you can all correct that for me.