One thing I never protested against, even as a child was being asked to attend a wedding. The two things which attracted me most were the Matar Paneer and Dal Makhni. I couldn’t care less for anything else.
Indian weddings have changed with time.The quality (and quantity) of perfume on ladies has improved tremendously. I remember when I was not even a teenager I would steer clear of most women.They could put to shame a skunk in distress with their over soaked cheap, pungent perfumes.But their bigger crime however, was overpowering the aromas of freshly made tandoori chapattis and raw ground spices emanating from an oily substrate. Now, fortunately, women in most kind of gatherings know about their Chanels and Miyakes.The younger ones invite you to take deep breaths. The perfumes do not smother their luscious feminine fragrance. Also importantly most will prefer the salad stalls to the dal and paneer ones.
Progress can be seen in everything. The event is much more professionally managed. Flower arrangements, catering, liquor, venues, furniture,lights are so much better in a modest to a not so modest wedding. I haven’t attended a high end affair like that of Liz Hurley then or now to comment , but I’m sure there is progress in that kind of decadence as well.
Some things remain the same . The white horse looks as bored as ever. It still doesn’t care for the maroon velvet and gold jacket it is made to wear. Many band players arrive at the scene unshaven with their ill fitting,obliquely sitting hats. Their music is still as subtle as a farmer’s plough.
My training as a fashion designer makes me notice colors, fabrics, cuts of woman’s wear acutely. Perhaps with an eye as competitive as the ladies themselves. The back necklines of blouses worn by the young women made me nostalgic. With hardly any anything to join the two halves together I wondered how much fabric I could have saved had I designed something like that. I’m sure the statement is, “This is just my back. Wait when I show you the front.” I am not complaining.
Even in the 21st century we hanker back to the days of yore. We still aspire to project ourselves as Kings and Queens. Our rituals are from the Vedic era and we’ve picked up protocols which display our wealth. There are contradictions everywhere. For example,almost every five star hotel is equipped with a ‘Crystal Ball Room’ and receptions of Indian weddings are regularly held there. I’ve never ever heard of a Ball room dance function happening at these places. The bridegroom almost always is horse riding his way into an arena like this where the bride’s family is waiting to receive him. I wonder what can really change. How can things turn modern? For my own wedding, I did not wear anything embroidered or brocade. I looked more like a classical musician than a king and my wife looked lovely in a simple silk sari. We enjoyed our wedding immensely. It was conducted traditionally, though in Bangla. But it was too simple and plain compared to Sumegha’s wedding and it wouldn’t have been much fun to photograph either.
Sumegha is the younger sister of my dear friend Hitesh’s wife Nishi. Since I wanted to add weddings to my repertoire of photography, I requested Nishi to allow me to photograph it. She happily agreed ( she’s always happy). I want to take up commercial wedding photography and this was my first experience of the event, I learned a lot. It was not a commercial venture, so I was free to cover it in my own manner. Moreover, I was known to the family and was treated like one.
Sumegha was marrying Vijayendra. They’ve known each other for quite a while so it wasn’t an arranged marriage. Sumegha is the manager of one of Delhi’s most exclusive restaurants, the Threesixty at the Oberoi’s. Vijayendra is a relationship manager for an HDFC bank at Gurgaon. I wanted to photograph them at work and build up on my story, but Sumegha’s busy schedule couldn’t make that possible. Vijayendra meanwhile was very gracious in letting that happen. I’m sure I tested his patience when I took his pictures in and around his office at Gurgaon.
That’s him in his office. All available light, which meant fluorescent. The photo shoot brought about all the professional qualities in an ideal relationship manager. Patience, patience, patience. I was amazed at his easy going manner. It was his lunch time and he effortlessly adapted to my demands. As a photographer, I’m not too fussy either, but the scene outside of the office was not to my liking. The atmosphere had darkened to deep gray. Dull rainfall and clouds had made most available light non conducive for any interesting portraiture. So out came my trusted SB900. I fit it into a home made plastic beauty dish and fired it mounted on a light stand from camera left. This was taken outside his office.
The photo is cropped due to the insistence of the local guard on our left. There was no way I could keep him out of the picture. Notice the mixed lighting conditions. Shadows have fluorescent hues. It was chaotic with people walking in the scene unknowingly, but our enthusiasm made some nice pictures.For a better location we scouted around the place and in that effort landed on the roof of the building. It was a revelation. There were more cables traversing it than water pipes. Sign of progress.
Vijayendra, as you can see is a handsome young man. Looks fitter than most you meet at a bank. He loves his work outs,eats slowly and is an enthusiastic home maker. He was looking forward to doing up the interiors of the new home which the couple were going to move into. This warmed my heart.
The ceremonies began on the 22nd November 2010 with ‘Sagan’. Sagan, is a kind of confirmation of the wedding by the families of both sides. The literal meaning would be a beginning of something auspicious.Rings are exchanged,gifts are exchanged and a few rituals performed. The ceremony was held at the army ‘Sabre Mess Hall’, Delhi cantonment.
I was nervous before the shoot. What am I going to capture? How will the colors look together? The light was bleak , how much should I over expose? The first thing I noticed after parking my car was the verdant atmosphere. The place has large well maintained lawns and perhaps the tallest Jamun. Young India Rubber trees skirt the lawn’s outer boundaries. A permanent concrete canopy is placed on one side of the lawn. I liked the designer and the landscaper of the place. Color,size,design and the placement of the canopy is well chosen. The quality of grass is excellent. The buildings surrounding it are noticeably subdued. It was as if the whole place is designed around the lawn. This was very invigorating.
At 12pm, I was among the very few who had arrived at the designated hour. A wedding is not a military function, things happen justly in a relaxed manner plus the compulsion to look your best delays matters too. This gave me the time to explore the area, enjoy the company of magnificent trees planted there and have a closer look at an old Centurion Mark IV tank parked as a relic in the compound.
Round tables polka dotted the lawn . Everything was tastefully decorated in peach and white. I surmised after a brief mulling that this was perhaps the best combination of colors to go with the green of the grass.
After a while I began noticing how people spend time when they have nothing to do .
There is an unusual quietness about their demeanor when the aura of boredom wraps them. Their body language suggests the drifting from in and out of a world of inner battles . But their hands are the most expressive.
A very important thing to notice is the fashion sense of younger generation. They seem to be bolder in selecting color and style to express themselves.
Now what does the alphabet ‘G’ stand for on the young man’s jacket. After all it is the plinth on which the rest of the eagle design stands. A very aggressive eagle to be exact. Is it Gaurav? or…well lets not run our imagination wild. But my point is that we are exploring boundaries of expression in a bold manner. The chairs looked like little Ewoks from ‘The Return of the Jedi’and I loved the flower arrangements.
At this point of time things were as still as weather is before a storm. It was not a storm, but a lovely fragrant zephyr which arrived when the ladies from Sumegha’s family reached the premises. Things began to happen and a mysterious yet palpable energy engulfed the whole place.
That’s Nishi in the center. On her right is her mother and her cousin on the left.
Lovely veridian, saffrons, yellows wafted into the space to impart a fresh lease of life to time. I love Indian weddings for this. It woke everyone including fellow photographers.
Soon the place got energized with chimes of jewels , laughter and joy of meetings.
It was an occasion for the two families to widen their acquaintances. Sumegha was to meet Vijayendra later, after a few rituals transpired between him and her family. That everyone was happy to meet each other is reflected in this picture when Vijayendra walked into the arena.
He was followed by his family.
The place was abuzz now. Conversations began and refreshments served.
Some were demanded.
The real business of the function began earnestly.
The ceremony was under the canopy. The atmosphere outside had become quite dull due to overcast conditions. So to get some kind of light, I relied on a single SB900 firing at 1/4 power, placed in a manner that it illuminated a large part of Vijayendra’s face. Its light was diffused with its own little plastic diffuser. I also gelled it with a 1/4 CTO.
Colors in a Hindu wedding are eclectic. The rituals revolve around thanking the universe for giving us an auspicious occasion. Subsequently divine blessings are sought to make the occasion and its purpose a success.
An important aspect of the ritual is the application of ‘ tilak’ . Tilak is a mark on the forehead with a vermilion paste. It is a symbol of blessing.There are many interpretations and deeper meanings of its significance, but roughly the person marking the tilak, blesses the other for wisdom and success.
Here Sumegha’s father is getting blessed by the priest.
Women have the power to bless themselves ( and others ), so Sumegha’s mother is applying the tilak to herself.
There were two priests managing the affairs. A senior oversaw the whole ritual. He’s a wonderful man. Later he conducted the marriage ceremony.
That’s his hand referring to a detail.
The important elements of the ritual besides sacred chants are flowers, sweetmeats, sugar balls, camphor, flame, silk and money. Hinduism recognizes the importance of financial success in the success of any alliance. Especially marriage.
After that, affection was showered on the bridegroom by giving him gifts and feeding him sweets.
Public show of affection for men, usually ends in an embarrassment.
Women meanwhile are very well versed in that art. ‘Motichoor Laddoos’ are my favorite too.
Everybody relaxed and shared lighter moments after the rituals involving the bridegroom were over.
I missed Sumegha’s participation and the ring ceremony as I had to rush for another appointment. I caught up with the family later in the evening for the mehndi ( henna) ceremony.
This ceremony is more of a cocktail party than a serious ritualistic affair. It gives the families a breather. The boy’s family have their own separate function. It is a time when the bride is adorned with lovely ( and intricate) henna tattoos.For this event I took help of a friend. He is Vikas, son of my colleague when I was a fashion designer. Vikas is nineteen and is studying animation after clearing his twelfth in school. To him I entrusted the throwing of light,an SB900 kitted to a modified soft box. Vikas is a very stable and a cool guy. Unusual for a boy this age. I felt comforted in his company. He understood my instructions clearly and many a times suggested better options while assiduously maintaining the prescribed three meters distance from the subject.
The ceremony was held at the Samrat hotel, Chanakyapuri. I’ve visited the hotel often and its peculiarity always draws my attention. The atmosphere inside is brumal ( for lack of a better word ).I find my perception of space disorientated whenever I find myself there.
The first thing I noticed on entering the venue was that the henna artists were wearing silly striped shirts.My heart sank. Striped shirts in the same frame as the pretty bride and her trousseau is going to overpower a lot of good color and texture. There wasn’t much of a recourse other than taking tight shots.
I busied myself looking for interesting moments at the gathering.
I liked the clothes, make up and smiles of these lovely ladies. Sumegha wasn’t there yet, but a lot of people were busy getting themselves henna-ed.
But it was not just henna which colored the skin. There was poster color too.
Sumegha arrived soon. I took this shot with her parents just outside the venue.
She looked lovely in a green velvet Lehnga Choli. Her father was an army Colonel. He has one of the tightest grips you’ll encounter while shaking hands.
Sumegha simply took over the venue with her grace and energy. She moved around effortlessly amongst well wishers accepting news, good wishes and introductions with elan. Her training in the hospitality industry shone from her conduct.
Before she settled down for her tattoo session, she joined the ladies for a quick dance.
The rap-star in the center is Veer, Hitesh and Nishi’s son. He is a very bright child so quickly became an object of close observation. The way he would treat the event would largely describe its success. Children make things happen, I can vouch for that after having my own. If they are happy, their parents are happy and relaxed.
“Is this some kind of music that I don’t understand?”. Veer has the usual energy of a three year old and was quite at ease with what was going on. But here ‘Munni badnaam Hui’, didn’t amuse him too much.
I followed Sumegha to her throne, where she settled herself like queen Nefertiti. Before she let the artist touch her, she gave one slap on his shoulder.
“Why haven’t you shaved?”
“Madam….madam…I didn’t get the time.”
“You didn’t get the time to shave?”
Then she turned to the other and said..
“Why are you so glum?”
“Smile, look happy. I’m not getting any mehndi done by a sour looking man.”
This relaxed everyone .The artists looked at each other and smiled. Sumegha wasn’t behaving like an inaccessible brat who had to be served. She connected immediately to everyone around. The artists soon began doing their work quietly. Forms and elements are so well rehearsed in their minds that it looks like a dumb embroidery machine at work.
He is the shaven yet sour man, but I’m sure he was fine after Sumegha’s reprimand.
She threw a minor tantrum when her mother asked her to have henna done to legs. After a bit of cajoling, she relented.
Finally that’s how things turned out, with three great artists working to adorn their queen. I must say, it requires a lot of patience, stillness and self control to sit quietly and get this done. I can’t sit in one place while the barber does his number on me, but here Sumegha didn’t flinch an inch. I wonder how many times she was tickled and had to overcome the need to scratch herself.
Some close ups of the event.
I wish these guys were wearing something traditional. It would have made the task of the photographer so much easier. So an appeal to all the brides to be, please ask your henna guys to wear something nice for the ceremony. The pictures will turn out better.
The decision to paint the leg was a good one after all.
Intricate designs in architecture and floral motifs make most of the art work. On the arms,the artwork begins with Ganesha and somewhere in the center is a king and a queen.It is like a blessing for a lifetime of togetherness .
While the artists worked on the bride, others had soup and checked out the bangle stall.
Vikas is less than half my age and to keep him interested in the event I asked him to look for the prettiest girl in the crowd. He was too shy to do that ,but readily agreed to spot the most well dressed. There were some nice saris on the floor.
One of them was particularly camera shy. What a pity? she was one of the prettiest around.
Nishi and Sumegha’s eldest sister Rashmi looked exquisite in a lovely green sari.
Later everyone hit the dance floor with a vengeance.
It must be something really special, In the din of the dance floor, I couldn’t hear my own thoughts. But ladies can get their point across in any situation.
I’ve noticed a striking difference between men and women on the dance floor. Women look graceful most of the time, while men heave themselves around.
Next day was the wedding. The reception and the ceremony was at the Shangri-la hotel. Before I took up the project, I studied a lot of wedding photography. The most spectacular shots were of the bride and groom together in an exotic light and location. I was hoping to capture moments like these myself. Well! I salute the photographer who can take such pictures of an Indian Hindu marriage. Concept of time and space is unique to Indians. Photography is almost an afterthought in most of the planning. It wasn’t unique to Sumegha’s wedding. For most it is a big organizational hurdle to overcome. Being a photographer I am complaining. If a wedding planner consults with the photographer on lighting and backdrops, the memories would be preserved very tastefully. I hope to do all that one day.
Anyways, it was the ballroom where the event was held. It is a huge place. I loved the fact that large luscious pears and dragon fruit were a part of decoration. These were real and not the wax models. Tables had carnations and lilies along with antique candelabras. Over all the place was very well done up. My only grouse was with the hotel’s interior decorator. How do silly green abstract paintings go with a more or less Victorian theme of the ball room?
Just outside the ballroom is a smaller hall where dinner was served and beyond that a decent sized lawn where the marriage ritual was held. The canopy created for it was one of the best I have seen.
As I said the ballroom is huge and it looked great with all the flowers and chandeliers and other decorations.
There was a lot of mixed lighting and color. The primary source for this shot was an SB900 firing through a soft box.
I am always fascinated by things that work. Anything! whether it is an engine or the movement of glasses at a wedding reception. For a while I parked myself near the refreshments bar to observe how things happened.
But soon my attention was diverted to the elements which make a ‘luxurious’ environment. I think our ultimate satisfaction lies in creating a ‘secure’ yet natural atmosphere. Think of lights as stars and flowers as a garden. We cannot stray too much away from nature for ultimate comfort.
The groom arrives on a horse along with his entourage in most North Indian weddings. The bride’s family awaits him at their doorsteps. Vijayendra and his family came to the venue in a similar manner. Dancing to the beats of bhangra drums and illuminated by portable chandeliers, they looked happy and enthusiastic.
The drummer himself was in a state of ecstasy. I liked his outfit. A far cry from the henna artists. Here he is banging away as if he’s about to ejaculate.
Vijayendra’s choice of wedding jacket was perfect. See how well it is going with the horse and the red embroidered parasol overhead. The single, circular light source you see in the picture is my flash firing through a home made beauty dish.
Meanwhile the bride’s family waited to receive the groom’s party. My friend Hitesh is second from left. For this Vikas and I rushed back before the groom arrived.
Time is our biggest friend and foe. The wait had a soporific effect on the reception party when the guests were busy dancing outside.
This image is put here to emphasize on a point, otherwise it was taken before the previous image.There wasn’t lack of enthusiasm on all the participants of the reception committee.
Finally the groom arrived and there was a buzz everywhere. I tell you the first few minutes are the most confusing for everyone. Including the photographer.
Him and his family were greeted with garlands, warmth, hugs and testosterone.
The ladies looked their prettiest too.
Parents however met each other in a more civilized manner.
Vijayendra was escorted to a stage where he was to meet up with Sumegha and acquaint himself with the guests and receive the gifts.
Sumegha arrived a little later, escorted by her sisters, friends and some male members of the family. A roof of flowers covered her .She looked stunning in a russet lehnga- choli.Traditional Rajasthani folk song played in the background while she made her way to the stage to meet her groom.
There were quite a few photographers ( including myself) and a very irritating videographer walking backwards capturing this moment. I wonder whether she was finding the whole scenario amusing or was genuinely happy walking to a life of greater responsibilities.
The videographer had a knack of switching on his light at the most inopportune moment. The instant I would focus or compose, there I’ll have this bright yellow light washing my picture away. I missed out a lot due to him.
It was one of the finest moments of the ceremony. It had drama, music, color and fragrance. I was fortunate, for it was only my flash illuminating it for a change. Then I decided to use the opponents force to my advantage.
I decided to shoot against his light for an interesting effect.
There is a ceremony where garlands are exchanged. The garland is called ‘Varmala’.It is a token of acceptance by either side. But the bride is mischieviously lifted up by a member of her family so that the groom finds it difficult to reach her. It is all done in good humor and everyone enjoys this bit.
All this while Veer was in approval of what was going on but when the bride and groom exchanged the garlands, he thought it was time to go home.
Little did he know, he was there for a long haul.
The auspicious hour of the wedding ritual was around 11pm. But well past midnight, due to the ongoing onslaught of well wishers , it became obvious that if everything gets over by 4am, we would be in luck.
Meanwhile, I was getting anxious about getting the bride and groom far from the madding crowd. The iconic, romantic image of the newly wed was eluding me. Where to go? especially where the videographer could not bring his horrible light along .
The Shangrila has an Oriental restaurant on the same floor. I liked the background and the colors of its entrance. This was shot there. But soon we were discovered and the couple was whisked away.
I really wanted Vijayendra to remove his headgear. But apparently it would have been inappropriate to do so at this time. What a pity? This photo could have been much better without his turban. But let us compare this image with this one.
This is a picture of Sumegha’s parents, taken a day earlier during the Mehndi ceremony. They are married for over thirty five years. Need I explain the pride and joy of being together? I married late thinking marriage will take away my ‘freedom’ and destroy my life. How wrong was I? Yes there are rules, yes one has to be much more responsible, but I feel complete and am so much content and happy after marriage. I could be lucky that I have such a wonderful wife. But I tell you, most wives are wonderful. Trust me.. rather trust them.
After this shoot, began the long wait for the real ceremony to begin. I took this opportunity to acquaint myself with the priest. He is Dr. Rishi Pal Acharya. He had conducted my friend Hitesh and Nishi’s marriage ceremony as well. I remembered his lovely smile and his accessible approach in performing the rituals. He mixes mantras, sermons and humor in a beautiful manner, leaving even the most tired of audience spellbound. I was looking forward to the ceremony eagerly.
Here is a picture of him preparing the sacred space.
To some the arrangement of a Hindu ritual space looks daedal. But think fertility, think abundance, think energy and the five elements and everything makes sense.
In our conversation, I learned that the rituals and the mantras and the ablations are simply witnesses in the ceremony. The bride and the groom actually marry on their own. From all the esoteric interpretations of the Hindu marriage rituals I had read on the internet and other sources, it was Dr. Acharya’s interpretation and advise that I enjoyed the most.
The ceremony finally began by 2am under a lovely floral cupola.
Pundit Acharya first welcomed the bride and the groom to the altar. He reminded them of the sanctity of the occasion and the importance of the step they are about to take.
He emphasized on the importance of marriage in a successful society and in the growth of a nation,then on love ,respect and space between the two individuals . It reminded me of words the Prophet spoke to Almitra.
He spoke eloquently and forcefully on the importance of being strong and resolute in support for each other and how marriage is a pillar of personal, spiritual, social and political strength.It wasn’t the usual drone of scriptural train that we get to hear in most weddings ( my wedding ritual was like that, but I was too excited to get bored then). This was different, Dr. Acharya was striking a chord. It was a lesson on life . He also had a very adorable way of leaving a sentence unfinished, expecting others to finish it for him. This, along with his style of rendition brought humor and relief to the whole sermon.
Rituals began thereafter along with their elaboration by pundit Acharya. I will not go into the details as I honestly cannot place the photos precisely with what was going on. My memory is not that accurate. What I remember is that before the Kanyadaan ( This is when the bride’s father gives away his daughter to the groom), both Sumegha and Vijayendra were made to perform some ablations in gratitude towards the universe and to seek its blessings.
Hindus believe that of all the elements in the universe it is fire which cannot be polluted. So fire is the most important witness to an occasion.
I believe, whoever was hearing pundit Acharya was left spell bound. I was emotional and thought the couple was emotional too. After all marriage is just not about wearing embroidered clothes and dancing on the floor, it is far more than that. This created a somber atmosphere which had very beautiful moments.
I decided to tear myself out of my own emotional involvement. There were photos to be taken.
On the way, he would make the bride and the groom do something.
I had permanently fixed my flash and soft box on the couple’s right hand side. Then it was simply a matter of right opportunity when the videographer’s light would switch off. I know, they have to intermittently let it cool .
When he would blast the arena with his flare, I would position myself against it, to get pictures like these.
There was such beauty in details. I went back taking photos of the hands.
This is the time of Kanya daan I suppose.
I don’t recollect the importance of the ceremony above too clearly, but I was wondering whether Vijayendra would be able to find some space on Sumegha to put an ornament on.
There after the ‘Pheras’ began. This is the circumbulation of the sacred fire done by the couple. The ritual is not very rigid here. I was made to take seven steps, back and forth,but I think this is the most exciting part of a Hindu wedding.
Here Vijayendra’s stole is tied with Sumegha’s with a pink scarf.
Then they were directed by pundit Acharya to go round the sacred fire while he explained the significance of the act.
It wasn’t a continuous affair. The couple would stand, while pundit Acharya explained the significance of the particular walk around the fire. From the first to the seventh, each perambulation has a specific purpose.
Completion of this ritual actually makes a marriage. There are certain formalities to be accomplished later, but this is the real deal.
Finally around 3.30 am the wedding was over. Parents and relatives showered rose petals on the newly wed.
After the rituals everyone congregated inside, at the reception hall. Sumegha’s father had the first meal of the day ( actually it must be the first meal in two days), only after getting his daughter married. The groom’s father does not have to go through this .
While he ate, some collapsed .
There was a small ritual ( it is often regional) which involves throwing of rice puffs by the bride over her head.
To the best of my knowledge this is a farewell to her previous life and sets her up for the one with her husband.
Mission accomplished! The couple look much more relaxed after the rituals are over.
Sumegha hugged her family good byes before leaving for her husband’s home.
Most brides break down at this point and end up making everyone cry around them. The mother of the bride tries to console her, but with Sumegha, it was the other way round.
Then she took a short trip in a lovely little palanquin. Another small ceremony enacting the life of queens of yore. Getting the light through palanquin bearers on to her face was a tall order. I got this picture somehow..
This was the last of programs of the wedding. These two days taught me a lot. Raised a few questions and answered a few. For those who believe that spending money on weddings is a waste, I say that unless you spend, someone else will not earn. Beside the designer, jeweler,florist,hotel there are so many other people who make a living by your expense. Sumegha and Vijayendra’s family looked happy and this is all that matters. I wish both of them a very happy journey as a married couple.
In the end, I’ll quote pundit Acharya’s words,
” Your union was laid down by this Universe.Do not break the promise that you are making today on matters which are of little importance.Give each other strength and not take it away from each other.”