Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Part 3 - Imbedded behind the lines at an Indian wedding

The car ride to the final phase (four) of the wedding went via the bar of the local golf club. It was a decision taken by the driver, another relative. Experience told him we would be arriving way too early. Early – India, really? The groom was set to appear at about 11.00pm and enter the venue on a horse. The bride would join him sometime after he had dismounted and been led to the stage.

This non-descript façade hid any suggestion that a 9 hole golf course was located behind it. Had someone asked me to guess what was behind this bar – guess 74 would have been ‘a golf club?’ Whisky and Kingfisher beer were on offer with tasty pre-dinner morsels. After an hour we left and arrived way too early at the local badminton centre. Yes, the location for phase four and it was only 8.00pm.

This was not any badminton centre – this was the largest, in the biggest city (Lucknow) in the most populous state of India, Uttar Pradesh. The wedding was set up in the grounds between the main road and the centre, a building that stood as high as three or four stories. Our punctual arrival allowed me ample time to survey this wedding wonderland.
Whereas the previous evening’s event was themed blue, tonight was gold. Discussion had taken place between some family as to whether it was possible to match the blue in terms of quality and lavishness. The consensus - it was unlikely. On walking in through the elaborate gold pillar entrance with fine ribbon and dazzling light, the consensus was wrong. This location, set up as it was, could be seen from Mars.

The stakes had been raised yet again. Does Indian wedding opulence and grandeur have no boundaries? Yet, singer ‘Harry’ from phase two assured me when we met again at phase three, that as impressive as ‘theme blue’ was, it only rated in the ‘average to good category’ in terms of what was possible and at other wedding ‘phases ‘ where he had sang.  
The entrance stage for the couple was a replica of Persian/Mogul palace. No world leader would have felt out of place here. The almost married couple’s view, once on the luxuriant couch, would have been the dream of a young girl wanting to be a princess, the boy her prince.


Looking straight ahead were four gold draped pergolas each standing about fifteen metres high and about thirty square metres; complemented by flowing ribbon. A red carpet made its way more than a hundred metres down the middle to a water fountain. Behind that and off to the left side were the seating arrangements for the close family dinner set to commence at around midnight. To the right what looked like the inner sanctum of the same replica palace, with carpets and more gold cloth, coloured cushions, ribbon, jewels and lights elegantly hanging half way to the floor – the place of ceremony.
With a lazy three hours to kill before the action started, I felt like a child in an exotic candy shop but one only a vivid imagination could possibly conjure. Around the sides were golden food annexes cooking up a storm from different regions of this great and diverse nation. Teenage boys had scrubbed up to become waiters attired in black suites and white gloves. They offered guests drinks, more exquisite tasting morsels and a whacky array of non-alcoholic beverages about every 24 seconds. Yes, this was a dry wedding ceremony but that was ‘inside’ the venue. Outside were the ‘car boot bars’ where those unable to refrain was alcohol would be catered for; a perfectly Indian solution.

Father of the bride had earlier sung an emotional farewell to his daughter on the stage where elite musicians were plying their trade during the build-up. Security guys doing their best ‘wild bandit’ impersonations milled around, mostly in a pack, making sure the look of thirty rifle toting men with the capacity to shoot at any minor indiscretion guaranteed good behaviour. It did! Mind you I felt no threat until I noticed them and from my perspective, they became it.

At around 11.00pm the arrival of the groom was announced by music, lights and fireworks. A throng of well-wishers gathered and danced. Team Groom was leading the pack with its the men adorned in white silk scarves. Awaiting them, before the entrance into the badminton grounds, were the red scarfed men of Team Bride. In front their gorgeously resplendent, saree sparkling women began mixing with dancing and cheering compatriots from Team Groom; a swirl of colour and movement in front of the groom bearing horse. Both families came together in a delirium of moment and occasion fuelled by adrenalin, emotion and the celebratory beating of drums.
The groom dismounted and dressed, maharaja like, entered the stage where he would spend time greeting well-wishers and being photographed by the assembled media pack. Sometime later the equally well adorned bride entered from stage left with what I expected would be great fanfare. Instead, accompanying her were just a few of her closest male family in a low key approach. Together the couple met many guests.

A quick glance suggested the anticipated 1,200 invitees were indeed all here. Food was flowing and the place was pumping. The salad bar featured animal and bird figures delicately carved from enormous pumpkins. I had awoken from a dream; into a dream.
How time flies! It was past 1.00am and only the inner core from both families remained in a picnic like atmosphere to watch a Hindu priest prepare concoctions, chant holy mantras and ask the couple to recite prayers of guidance and spiritual connection.

Many of the 1,200 were making their way out as the grounds started to resemble the end of a large sporting event. The clean and pack up crew were already on task as the ceremony continued.
As it concluded a solid hour later, more subdued rejoicing and mixed emotions from the proud parents of the bride, for she was switching places to join Team Groom.

The now (finally) married couple made their way back to the entrance; soon to be driven to the groom’s family home where they would spend their first night. Next day would also be there but the day after would entail a ritualistic return to the bride’s parents’ home for lunch. Then it was honeymoon time in Bali.
The remarkable host (the bride’s father) was generous and hardworking to the end arranging, as he was, for all the guests to be driven home. Casual workers then approached him for tips. His wad of rupees lightened significantly as he recognised jobs well done. 

At around 3.00am, having experienced an overwhelmingly joyous wedding, we were whisked away into the still mild Lucknow night. The roads were almost clear. I was momentarily tempted to ask the driver if I could get behind the wheel. The white Brahmin cow that ghosted from nowhere was as nonchalant as it would be in peak hour - which was pretty much all other times.
I swear the ambling beast winked at me. I pinched myself.


Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Part 2 - Behind the Lines: Imbedded in an Indian Wedding

As the still Lucknow evening unfolded, I was only partially comforted by the saying, ‘life is not a destination, but a journey’. There were moments on our way to wedding; phase three when it appeared my destination could be the premature ending of the journey – badly.
There were two reasons for this. The first was the traffic. Despite a glance in any direction at any given moment that would have alarm bells ringing, I never once felt a tragic road accident in Lucknow would befall me. Making our way through its litany of main roads, roundabouts, laneways and dirt tracks, there was evidence that flew in the face of such confidence. These included the volume and array of vehicles, people and animals near, beside, behind and unseen for almost the entire one or more hour journey. Yet, somehow, I trust the phenomenal skills, patience, awareness and experience of every person (and animal) that enters a roadway of any description each day. Most survive unscathed.
The second was starting out at 6.30pm and not arriving until after 10.00, via two other venues. This made me think life and phase three Indian weddings were, in fact, endless journeys.

Once we had passed the colossal framework of the soon to be ‘Hi-Tech Townships’ as these towers stood like haunting sentinels in the darkness, we immediately turned left into a dusty, bumpy dirt road. Fortunately it led to the grounds of the ‘Black Dog: Life is worth the wait; life is in the pause, Genesis Club.’ Whatever and wherever, this was about to finally unfold and I sensed the wait was  going to have proved worthwhile.
One reason for such a delay was coordinating the convoy of the many family guests who attended phase two – our team (of the bride to be). Once we had assembled we were armed with gifts to take in. The instruction was given and we moved forward through the ‘tunnel of trust’; a one hundred or so metre tented corridor festooned with vertical lines of light. For awaiting us on the other side was Team Groom and they were amassed in their many hundreds.

We had to arrive at once to show greatest respect and make the greatest impact and place our gifts in the designated area at the same time. At one point in India’s history, we may have borne gold, goats or swords. We instead would woo them with sweets.

If I had thought phase two was as glam as it gets (and I did), that tunnel of trust had actually come out on another planet; ‘Planet Indian Pre-Wedding Phase Three’. This place was so vast, so audaciously lit, so well set up and so generously catered, I feel sure it could have be seen from the moon despite the colour being almost exclusively blue.
We were in strutter’s paradise. But all class. This was about laying it on the line to prove both families were worthy of each other. I don’t think any member of either team presented as anything but civilised, friendly and eminently worthy. The ‘whitie’ from Team Bride was a possible weak link as he wore the same suit, though a tie and different shirt than during his phase 2, well… phase!

There were subtle and time honoured protocols that only a full Ph.D. in such matters would come close to deciphering. There were photo opportunities for all relations with the bride to be, with the groom to be, then together. More small ceremonies and greetings and then… the dancing again.
Both teams were there for the bonding boogie and no one left disappointed, most at about 2.00am! Tomorrow I will be attending the wedding bit – the actual ceremony. Apparently it’s huge…


Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Behind the lines: Imbedded in an Indian Wedding - Part 1

I am smack bang in the middle of an Indian wedding. Remarkably perhaps there is stillness, a lack of colour and music. There are almost no people. Not the image Bollywood or the usual stereotypes would have us believe. Why so?

The four night marathon wedding fiesta in the north central Indian city of Lucknow; an hour’s flight from Delhi, has reached the end of phase two with last night’s celebrations. Day three marks the start of the official program. For those invited guests on the outside of the extended family circle, there is a small window of opportunity for sleep before the next event begins, generally in the early evening. So we are pacing ourselves. Each day, however, dictates what activity happens on the periphery. Relatives could be summoned at short notice to be involved, meet someone in particular or help out in a directed way.

I have been invited by Rajiv whose wife, Sonia, is from the inner sanctum; the aunt of the bride to be. Rajiv is much happier away from the intrigues that take place in location central; the apartments of family and neighbours. Yet when any proceedings are underway, he throws himself into the fray with gusto. His main game is greetings with relatives, warm hugs and laughter and though he’ll deny it – the dance floor. Being back in his land of birth is reflex and he rises happily and naturally to every occasion, small and large. For Rajiv is gregarious and jocular. A smile is never far from his lips and an ability to make light of all that goes on around him is one of his many endearing qualities. It is an attribute that serves him well in both his native and adopted lands. He is helped by an astute people and situation radar and a desire to learn from life itself.

So far the wedding phases have felt like instrumental music building to a distant crescendo as each note bares some integral connection to the theme. The assembled ‘orchestra’ of guests increases each evening so the Indian equivalent of the ‘wedding march’ develops resonance and gusto. This may be rehearsal for the final phase but as events in their own right, each is bigger and bolder than most main ticket shows I have seen in other countries.
Phases one and two have not even made it to the official program. Nor has the groom. Intriguingly, a small group of his anointed relatives (not parents), siblings and close friends, many about his age, were invited to the house of the bride where her family were on show to welcome them with drummers, petals, food, drink and dance. Importantly chosen members of Team Groom came bearing a vital gift – the bride’s wedding outfit! As the music started in earnest, the dancing appeared to be the most potent symbol of the families coming together.

When the guests left no more than a few hours later, they did so with big smiles and  gold packaged boxes of sweets. They would also tell a story of how well they had been treated and entertained; a minimal template for some reciprocity in phase three that draws much larger numbers as both extended families (including remote cousins) will come together for the first time and where the hosting is incumbent on the groom’s side.

In a set up any movie wanting to depict grandeur and opulence would be proud, over 200 bride related family showed up for the second phase the following evening. Fortunately so too did the caterers and the bar staff. Suited waiters in white gloves would serve a raft of choice offerings including fish tikkas and kebabs that melted in the mouth. A drink of any description was available at the bar. Most local males displayed a strong preference for whisky.

Red carpets spread hundreds of metres up lanes complemented by elaborate decorations on the fences alongside. Extending high in corners were camera flash umbrellas fit for a huge photo shoot. Each contained globes allowing the myriad of photographers to bounce shots off the artificial light to capture the intended nuance.
Yes, there were speeches but brevity seemed the order of the night. Delightfully, the most important messages were sung. At one point three generations sang a superb number in unison; grandfather, father and son. And they did so with no shortage of panache, emotion and obvious talent.

Then pop star ‘Harry’  appeared. He made young female hearts flutter. Unfortunately a throat infection had reduced his quality and output. This did not stop him giving it his best shot as he returned to the elevated stage several times so as not to let people down. Forced to take a break I was assured by the man himself, and his sizeable entourage as it passed, that he would keep going; evoking the Punjabi spirit of never giving up.

The lively dancing, via a band initially and then the sound system, was instigated by the young but crossed generations. The music belting out from ground level floated sounds of joy and celebration high into the neighbourhood air. By now it was rich with the aromatic smells of yet more food being served from the portable cookers under the guiding hands of the tented caterers.


Such infectious energy generated by a loving crowd gyrating to popular local tunes was hard to deny. Sure the white guy couldn’t dance but he received a hell of a lot of encouragement from those present and had all the fun on offer in India’s most populous state; Uttar Pradesh.