Growing up, I hated going to weddings. Most of them involved meeting a sea of people I didn't know, and more often than not, the bride and groom seemed tired from standing and smiling under harsh lights for hours on end. I was also exposed to content in the form of films and TV shows in the 90s and early 2000s, and some interactions between neighbours, where, post marriage the woman would have to give up her whole life and identity, just to become a good ‘bahu’.
At the same time, I had also embedded in my mind the idea of ‘pyaar dosti hai’, a popular line from a popular Bollywood movie from that time, and hoped that the world would accept that as the basis of a marital relationship. So, in late 2019, my partner and I told our families that we wanted to tie the knot — but we wanted a small wedding that reflected our values and beliefs of equality, friendship and mutual respect.
And then, the world changed. The pandemic stalled our plans, but later, as things seemingly improved, government regulations on gatherings worked in our favour. In early 2021, we got married in a registered marriage ceremony, which was followed by dancing and dinner. This was the first step in basing our marriage on mutual respect and equality.
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We were elated with the way things had turned out, and yet, a week later, I felt mentally exhausted. Conversations with my therapist made me realise that I was unconsciously spending a lot of energy to convince the world that this was indeed a ‘real’ wedding and a ‘real’ marriage. Although I hadn’t faced any pressure from our immediate family and friends in this regard, doing something different in a society in which marriage is considered a big milestone was daunting.
Thankfully however, I did find like-minded millennial couples who did take unconventional routes in their weddings in order to attempt to establish more equal marriages.
A conversation with Rahil and Shaily, a couple from Vadodara and Mumbai respectively, told me that they too felt that traditional Indian weddings upheld patriarchal practices. They decided to have a registered wedding ceremony followed by a spoken word poetry performance. The event emphasised messages of love, relationships and equality. To them, it was important to have a ceremony that they could understand and connect with.
For other such couples like Shivika and Keshav, Dr Nandini Bhowmick's Shubhamastu, an organisation of women who officiate ceremonies that break away from patriarchal practices to establish weddings, and in turn marriages of equality, seems to be the ideal option.
Harshita Anand of Soko Weddings, a wedding photography service, says she is witnessing more ceremonies where couples choose to do away with rituals like ‘kanyadaan’. ‘We've seen a lot of brides and their families being vocal at weddings… I've seen a bride cut a pandit who was telling her how she now has to take her husband's last name to start her new life. We've seen parents refuse a kanyadaan.’A bride having agency at her wedding perhaps signals her ability to have agency within a marriage, which is paramount for establishing an equal relationship.
Anand does, however add that being able to have a wedding and marriage with agency is a matter of privilege. In her experience, she has seen weddings where the couple’s ability to foot the bill at their own wedding has paid a part in them being able to have agency. Whether a couple is able to have the wedding they want is a function of agency to articulate how one wants to live their lives.
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Author Rheea Mukherjee acknowledges that as much as we would like to idolise ‘simple’ weddings, marriage celebrations cannot be seen in isolation. “They are part of dogmatic, casteist and patriarchal expectations/demands that are passed down intergenerationally,” she says. “As long as marriage is seen as a social and economic ‘settlement of a child’s life’, we’ll never be able to accommodate the larger question about the relevance of gender in our lives,” Mukherjee notes.
The content that we consume also goes a long way in affecting how we think of our lives and relationships. While there was patriarchal content around marriage and relationships in the 90s and early 2000s, a glimmer hope emerged in the mid 2000s. Bang Baaja Baaraat, produced by Y films, was one of the first pieces of Indian content, which showed me that a wedding and marriage doesn’t always have to be what was portrayed to me the likes of Vivaah (2006).
Nikhil Taneja, the Associate Producer of Bang Baaja Baaraat and now CEO of Yuvaa, a youth media organisation, says he drew inspiration from his own wedding for the show. His parter and he wanted a ceremony they related with, while also making their families feel valued and loved. The show was an attempt to showcase a modern marriage in a changing world, especially given that he was creating content at a banner like Yashraj that has always glamorised marriage and weddings, he said.
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The friction between generational expectations from a wedding often becomes a huge impediment in a couple’s life when it comes to navigating marriage or weddings — and this emerged as the central theme of the show, adds Taneja. Such discourse creates a possibility of hope where inter-generational empathy can pave the path for better and more equal relationships.
In an establishment like marriage, which has a long history of ownership and hegemony, it will probably take generations for us to rethink a union, familial units and what it means to be ‘married’; or even gender as a concept within a ‘marriage’. But, for those of us who take the ‘plunge’, we must imagine ways in which we can redefine the institution to represent the changing world that we live in, not just for our own sakes, but also for the future of our society.
Toonika Guha is a content professional who also writes in the food, gender and culture space