How do arranged marriages work in India? Does the bride have any say; does the couple meet beforehand? Tuesday, Mar. 10, 2010 at noon in the Student Event Center, SLCC history instructor Aarti Nakra clarified the lesser-known facts and dispelled the common myths of arranged marriages.
Before the beginning of the lecture, a slide show displaying famous Indian people, movies, and garb was shown. Singer, songwriter Norah Jones, few know, is daughter of the famous sitarist Ravi Shankar. Bobby Jindal is a former member of the House of Representatives and current governor of Louisiana. Photos of some American fashions on the runway, very much influenced by Indian saris and dress were included as well.
Nakra started her lecture admitting she was a little nervous. When she was first asked to speak for the 2010 Taste of Asia event, she was also apprehensive; she’s an American historian. However, as someone born and raised in India, Nakra decided to go off her own experiences and focus on aspects of the culture she’s grown up with and knows by heart, particularly Indian marriages and weddings.
“It’s pretty much my big fat Indian wedding,” Nakra said. Indian weddings are huge social events with lots of families, bright colors, and lots of food. Throughout the lecture, she also showed clips from the popular 2001 movie Monsoon Wedding. The movie is a very realistic glimpse at typical, contemporary life in North Indian urban areas. Women are shown drinking and smoking. The lead character has an affair and opposes the idea of not marrying for love.
North India weddings differ from Southern weddings only in that more money is generally spent on Northern weddings and include more singing in dancing. However, both are elaborate and full of traditional rituals. And, throughout India, the social norm is to marry. Period. On average, people are in their early to mid-twenties when they marry.
As shown in the movie, the bride’s entire hands, to her wrists, are decorated in henna powder. Often, this is a female ritual, basically girl-time for female relatives to also sing folksongs and write the groom’s name into the intricate designs of the henna.
Another selected scene was the father’s conversation with the wedding planner about the color of the tent being white. Generations before, white was the color widows wore. Today, it is still a color definitive of mourning and funerals, very far from happy celebrations. The father of the bride demands the tent’s color be changed to red or orange, both auspicious colors that are common to wear on holidays. Orange and red also marks of the gods, meaning good luck, good fortune, and spiritual wealth.
However, as local community member Chitia Kamdai showed in her photo album, there are some exceptions. Among the displays of jewelry, garb, music, CDs, and religious statues, Kamdai had photos of her son’s wedding on display. The pictures displayed the typical big Indian wedding, but his wife, an American born citizen, whose parents were both from Germany, were dressed in red and white, a compromise between cultures to include the traditional Western, Christian customs.
In the movie, the father also asks for financial help from his friends. Weddings are almost completely upon the shoulders of the bride’s father. The father plans and pays for everything. Families often go into debt or must ask for loans to hold these weddings, which are not only monumental for their daughters, but also a means of showing off material wealth and social class.
Another selected scene was that of the engagement. This was the first time the bride and groom ever met. In this instance, too, there was a room full of relatives and lots of food. However, contrary to common belief, the couple can meet afterward, before the actual marriage. There is a courtship process. The couples can call each other up and meet and get to know each other. There’s nothing forced about it. The weddings can sometimes be called off by either the bride or groom, if they find they are not suited for one another.
Though Nakra herself didn’t have an arranged marriage, nearly 90 percent of all marriages in India are arranged. Today, families are still the primary source of finding eligible candidates for their children. The other means is through matrimonial classifieds found in newspapers and online. Families put out the ads, but it’s typically the individual who decides to inquire further.
Currently, the idea of romantic relationships, love marriages, is growing more popular, especially among “youngsters” as Nakra says. It’s common to find people who rebel against the idea of arranged marriages. However, the divorce rate in India is among one of the lowest in the world at roughly one out of every hundred.
Though the caste system, often believed to be inherently rigid and strict in the Indian culture, does play a part, it is nowhere near as extreme as some may believe. When families decide on a possible bride or groom, they consider the person’s religion and caste. In day-to-day life, say in job interviews or just conversations, caste doesn’t matter. However, in the case of marriage, it does.
While the typical American may frown upon the idea, arranged marriages are not so different from the ones here. The marriage often goes hand-in-hand with the union of two families. Families often hope for marriages to establish ties by setting up sons and daughters. Sure, they may not outright say that this means they have to get married, but it follows the same concept.
After showing the last scene of the movie, with the wedding held in the pouring rain, with red, orange garlands, dancing, singing, music and food, all who came were invited to view the displays and try the smaosas, fried appetizers stuffed with potato, cardamom, peas and spices and the deserts, crunchy spheres of grains similar to rice crispy treats.
As the second largest populated country in the world with one of the fastest growing economies, more and more communication with India is growing and more and more people are coming to America.
“You need to know other cultures,” Nakra said. “The U.S. is a very mixed place, culturally and continuing to diversify still.”
“There are a lot of myths floating around,” Nakra said, “It’s important to approach people and just ask.”