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Shaadi arranged

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  • 1. Shaadi arranged • Last Updated: February 21. 2009 11:52AM UAE / February 21. 2009 7:52AM GMTOver three days and nights, The Pink City in Jaipur witnessed a Hindu wedding toremember – a sensory feast of centuries-old rituals and lavish revelry in grand celebrationof the marriage of Anisha Sharma and Abu Dhabi’s Gaurav Varma. By Tahira Yaqoob.Photographs by Michael Rubenstein.Nira Varma has not stopped dancing for three days. She started when her son Gaurav exchangedrings with his new bride-to-be; she was still dancing a day later when her future daughter-in-lawhad her hands painted with henna in preparation for her big day; she twirled at the helm of aprocession of hundreds heralding the groom on horseback and as she finally takes home the newaddition to her family, she cannot help but break into a little jig.Little wonder she is struggling to contain her glee, for this is no ordinary wedding. When GauravVarma, the only son from a prominent family of UAE restaurateurs, decided to spend the rest ofhis life with Anisha Sharma, the wheels were set in motion for lavish, no-expense-sparedfestivities lasting three days and nights.The Varmas are stalwarts of the Indian community in Abu Dhabi where Gaurav’s father Vinay,65, relocated from Meerut near Delhi 39 years ago to launch his catering empire, which nowincludes the Royal Orchid restaurants, and the Chappan Bhog, Kwality and Soy eateries.But for the spectacular wedding, the action moved more than 2,000 miles east to the Rajasthanicapital Jaipur in India, once the home of polo-playing princes and maharanis.The Pink City, nicknamed after the rosy glow of its buildings, is known for its colourful art,sumptuous textiles, rich folklore and traditional music and dance. In keeping with the palatialsetting, the wedding rituals staggered over several days take place in increasingly glamorouslocations – with feasts fit for a Rajasthani king on each occasion.“We just want to have fun,” declares the father of the groom. “Usually a wedding takes place ineither the hometown of the bride or groom. Neither of our families are from Jaipur in this case,but we thought what better place for three days of merrymaking?”Anyone who has seen the film Monsoon Wedding will be familiar with the spectacle oftraditional Hindu nuptials. From guests competing to wear the brightest, most ornate outfits, tothe revelry and dancing which mask the solemn vows being taken, Indian weddings are a sensoryfeast. Add in the notoriously raucous Hindu Punjabi element which makes up Gaurav’s heritageand it’s clear why 250 revellers have flocked from across the world to celebrate.“I love weddings, Punjabi weddings in particular,” shouts Seema Shetty across the din of adancing procession and a marching band.The 26-year-old founder of Bite Rite, the health food chain, and owner of Zari Zardozi Indianrestaurant in Al Raha, has flown in from Abu Dhabi with her entire family, including her parents
  • 2. Bavaguthu Raghuram and Chandra Kumari, who both head NMC medical group, brother Binay,and sisters Neema and Reema.“You see the true culture of a place, any place in the world, at a wedding,” gasps Seema,catching her breath in between her energetic bhangra moves. “Most of us have friends from allover the world so it is a perfect opportunity to show our culture.“Punjabi weddings are the most colourful and are all about having complete fun. The furthernorth you go in India, the less conservative they get – north Indians love a spectacle. You justhave to look at the clothes to see what bright, colourful people they are.”In the midst of the action, it is little surprise Anisha looks overwhelmed at times and a shyawkwardness hangs in the air between her and her new partner. Born in Gwalior near Delhi andnow living in Mumbai, she met Gaurav, 28, in June last year and was engaged to him 20 dayslater. They have met only a couple of times since.Arranged marriages may be fading in popularity among the Mumbai jet set, who enjoy fairlywesternised lives. But for supplanted communities, like the tight-knit Indian network in AbuDhabi, an arranged marriage is a chance to preserve cultural and religious values to pass on tofuture generations, and many turn to their homeland to find the perfect match for their offspring.In previous times, caste, social standing and matching astrology charts were ranked as highfactors. These days, compatibility and education are deemed more important.Anisha, from a family of Brahmins, the highest caste, was introduced to Gaurav by a mutualfriend of both their fathers. The restaurateur, who is helping run his father’s business, wasvisiting Delhi to check on the family’s diner there, Dine-Esty.“Ours was a completely arranged marriage,” says Anisha, a producer on India’s Star TV untilshe quit two months before the wedding. “My dad called me when I was at work and said, ‘Thereis an important e-mail you should check and tell me what you think’. It was Gaurav’s CV withhis picture. I found it interesting and he looked nice so I said I would meet him.He was leaving for Abu Dhabi a day later so we met for dinner on his last night. We hit it offreally well. He never went back as planned. Instead, my dad came out with us the next night andthen Gaurav came to Delhi to meet my mother. Apparently he had already decided on the firstnight, but it took me a lot longer to make up my mind. It was 20 days before we were engaged. Iwas thinking about leaving the country, my family and friends. I am very attached to my country.I originally wanted to marry someone in Mumbai.“I had seen about six boys before Gaurav but I would like to have my own career and some ofthe suitors had a problem with that. Sometimes you just don’t click and I was starting to despairof ever meeting the right man. I liked a lot of things about Gaurav, particularly the fact herespects everyone a lot, which is very important.“He understands it is difficult for a girl. He has done a lot to assure me that whatever I want todo, I can.She is looking forward to married life, even though she has never been to Abu Dhabi, where thecouple will live. “My parents have mixed feelings about me going. They are happy about megetting married but parents always feel a loss when a bride goes to another house.”Born in Abu Dhabi, Gaurav had lived all over the world and had, by his own admission, a fairly
  • 3. hedonistic existence during his eight years in Las Vegas, where he worked in hotels. While hisown friends express surprise that he decided to go down a traditional route in finding a lifelongpartner, he says, “Contrary to what people believe, there is a choice involved. I had not metanyone myself and was not averse to the idea of an arranged marriage.“We met on a Friday and I asked her to marry me on the Monday. We have a lot of things incommon – family values, understanding, respect. She has a good heart and is career-minded. Ifeel very comfortable with her.“This way we get to know each other while we are married. If you can get along, that is all thatmatters. For me, it is the start of a better life.”But before the pair can face the challenges ahead as husband and wife, there are a long list ofcenturies-old rituals and ceremonies to go through, intended as blessings to set them off on thebest start in life. While the basic blessings remain the same, customs can vary wildly accordingto region and background and for many guests, this is their first taste of a Punjabi wedding.The mayhem begins at Jaipur’s Sanganeer airport, when revellers from the UAE, Britain, the US,Canada and other regions of India arrive to be met by gaudy banners announcing: “Welcome toGaurav and Anisha’s wedding”.The guestlist reads like a Who’s Who of the Indian glitterati in the UAE, including the Indianambassador Talmiz Ahmed, the Shettys, Jayanti Maitra, head of research at the Centre forDocumentation and Research in Abu Dhabi, and Raman Khanna, business development directorfor Aldar.The Rambagh Palace, formerly owned by the Maharaja of Jaipur and the home of royals fornearly two centuries, is the scene for the first of many rituals, the chunni charana and ringceremony – and the first opportunity for the bride to show off her trousseau. She dazzles in aflesh-toned, crystal-encrusted sari, her hair wound into a long plait entwined with flowers whileher mother Nivedita, 50, a commercial lawyer for India’s Supreme Court, could pass for herolder sister in an equally elegant ivory sari.Mrs Varma, 58, presents Anisha with jewellery and clothes and drapes an elaborate turquoiseshawl around her shoulders for the chunni charana. The act is deeply symbolic, explains thegroom’s uncle Virender Sekhri. “It is effectively saying: ‘Now she is ours, we are going toprotect her’. The bride keeps it all her life and either passes it down between generations or has itput on her when she is cremated.”The second Anisha and Gaurav exchange rings, Mrs Varma breaks into a dance, arms in the air,leading the way for revelry which continues until 5.00am the next day.As the bride and groom join her on the dance floor, Gaurav takes his first tentative step towardshis matrimonial duties, putting a protective arm around Anisha. But the pair are still notofficially married and part company at the end of the night until the following day for a mehndi,or henna painting, at midday.The shindig, in the colonial-style Hari Mahal Palace hotel, is akin to a combined hen and stagparty as the women cluster to gossip and have their hands and arms painted with the dye whiletheir menfolk gather to give Gaurav tips for married life.As the groom’s party arrive laden with gifts and a handmade basket packed with henna, they aregreeted by the bride’s guests and ceremonial drums. Mrs Varma brandishes a key ring with a
  • 4. framed photo of Gaurav and declares: “I don’t have house keys for you yet so I am giving youthe keys to his heart.”Anisha, resplendent in an orange and red shelwar kamees, sits under a canopy made entirely ofmarigolds for hours on end while swirls of the dye are painstakingly applied to her hands andfeet in elaborate flower motifs. The leisurely afternoon is a chance for those who have beenthrough it before to reminisce about their own experiences.“When my sons got married, I wanted to make sure I got all the ceremonies right,” says ArunaMisra from Mumbai, 56, a former schoolfriend of Vinay Varma. “We planted banana and mangotrees for fertility and carried water with haldi [turmeric] for the mehndi. My eldest sister wasvery impressed that I knew all the customs – until I told her I’d done my research on Google.“We had so much fun and the rituals are part of it. When a bride enters the groom’s house shenormally throws her house keys and rice over her head to signify returning what she had in hermother’s home and kicks over a bowl of rice in the doorway for luck. My naughty friends toldmy Polish daughter-in-law that the harder she kicked, the more I would love her. She kicked thebowl with all her force and it flew to the other side of the house, smashing several vases on theway.”Ritu Mehra, 48, from Delhi, smiles nostalgically as she says: “Mine was a love marriage, whichwas very unusual in those days. Rajiv was working near the college where I was studying and wefell in love when I was 21. My parents wanted me to meet a suitor, though. Finally I told themabout Rajiv. My parents weren’t happy about it but eventually came round and we are stillhappily married 27 years later.”“This is all new to me,” says Dr Maitra, originally from Calcutta. “Each wedding speaks a storyabout the different customs and rituals depending on the region. It is not just about tying theknot, it is a celebration between two families. The visual impact is extraordinary and you learn somuch. Weddings in India are talked about all over the world and cause jaws to drop. The scaleand dimensions of this one are huge. It is very lavish and elaborate and I would not have missedit for anything.”The evening sangeet, or music ceremony, creates another spectacle as guests adorned with theirfinest gold and gems don bright rainbow colours and sequins to watch staged performances. Inthe past, musicians would sing traditional wedding ditties while the bride hid herself away inpreparation for her big day. These days there is no room for demure brides and it is Anishaherself, in green satin pantaloons and a red bodice, who takes to the stage with her friends totease the groom with songs and dances.Having grown up with Bollywood films and, no doubt, performed the routines in their bedroomsuntil they have them down pat, they could rival any screen star as they borrow heavily from themovies and their corresponding songs to tell the story of Gaurav’s bachelor days in Las Vegas:Ma Da Ladlaa Vigar Gaya (The Mother’s Boy Has Been Corrupted), his first meeting withAnisha Desi Girl (Asian Girl) and his current status Lucky Boy.Future matches are often made at these events and one female guest whispers: “Of course we alldream of falling in love and finding someone to spend the rest of our life with. Many couplesdate on the quiet and involve the parents when marriage is on the cards. But failing that, there isthe fallback of an arranged marriage as your parents will always try and find the best for you.”
  • 5. It is 8.00am on the day of the wedding proper before the exhausted revellers make it to bed, withthe bride and groom escaping just three hours earlier. But there is little time to rest for the brideas she prepares to leave her the home of her mother and father Anil, 50, a financier, for good.Bangles and gold ornaments are strapped to her wrists for luck and her female relatives smearher face and body with a paste of turmeric, gram flour, yoghurt and oil to bring out the glow inher complexion. It takes hours to prepare her for the most significant part of the wedding; tocarefully apply her make-up, adorn her with chunky gold jewellery and help her into her bridallengha, a cropped top and floor-length skirt in heavily embroidered green with matching scarf,covering her head.For Gaurav, the run-up to the ceremony means wearing a cream silk sherwani, made of a longtunic and trousers and having a turban wound onto his head, complete with a veil of red andwhite flowers as a priest blesses him and money is circled over his head to represent goodfortune. His male relatives have the same headgear put on before he gets on a white horse,bejewelled and draped in cloth of mouthwatering Rajasthani colours, to set off on a procession tomeet the bride.And what a procession. There are marching bands with drums and trumpets, dancing in thestreets, and the long line of his guests dressed in an array of saris in every shade under the sun.As the baraat, or groom’s party, arrives at the majestic Jay Mahal Palace hotel, it is met by thebride’s relatives, who shower them with red rose petals and adorn the men with garlands of whitecarnations. The footpath, despite being less than 200 metres, takes the best part of an hour tonegotiate as the groom on his horse is given the welcome of an A-list celebrity, complete withred carpet.The bride is brought out to meet him for the jaimala, or exchange of flower garlands.Traditionally, a groom stood on his toes to make the bride stretch upwards as it would often behis first opportunity to see her. As Gaurav forgets this custom, his friends bear him up on theirshoulders, forcing Anisha to do the same so she can reach him.Fireworks shoot off into the crisp night sky as they make their way to an outdoor pagoda strewnwith marigolds for the two-hour blessing. Even during this sombre part of the ceremony, duringthe priest’s chants, the entertainment continues for the guests, who can wander in and out of therituals and are treated to a lavish buffet and displays by fire-eaters and professional dancers,some balancing up to 10 pots on their heads.As the ceremony concludes, a scarf is tied between Anisha and Gaurav and they walk around afire seven times in a ritual called pheras. Each circuit represents a different aspect of life, such asprosperity and fertility, and while the bride leads for the first three, her new husband takes overfor the last rounds showing their marriage is one of joint leadership. Gaurav smears her foreheadwith red powder to show she is married and hangs a mangal sutra necklace around her neck.The marriage concluded, Anisha steps into a wooden doli, a sort of carriage carried on theshoulders of her male relatives to take her to her new home. Her mother, brother and friendsweep as she leaves her old life behind. It is a poignant, sombre moment. A bewildered three-year-old cousin, Tia Palkar, bursts into tears and says: “Mummy, why are they sending heraway? And where are you going to send me?”“Marriage involves a lot of sacrifices,” observes Vinay Varma. “Most of the young ones todaylive abroad for many years but they have never forgotten their culture, their family upbringingand respect for their elders. We have found all those qualities in our new daughter. As long asthey remember to respect one another and fall back on each other, they will be blessed for life.”

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