How did Indian weddings get big and fat? For that matter, since when did calling it ‘big fat’ become a status symbol? Surely if one were to be called big and fat, it would be taken as an insult. But apparently it is different with weddings. I heard that invitations are going out asking the guests to attend ‘my big fat wedding.’ So it is now official that being loud and ostentatious is to be ‘with it.’ Come to think of it, birthdays and even festivals have become big and fat. While there are other factors like the paraphernalia that go into celebrating these, the lavish menu, the decorations and the venue, the common denominator in all this is the GIFT. (Read about Designer Diwali here.)
Leave alone weddings, even birthday parties have become big and fat, and once again, gifts take the major blame.
A couple of generations ago, there were no birthday parties, except on the first birthday of the child, which would be a family affair with religious rituals and havan. Ear piercing was one of the rituals followed in many families. What little we got to see of a birthday party was usually in movies where the rich boy or girl would throw a lavish party with piano, cake, sometimes champagne, and dancing. There would be the scene of the poor son/daughter of the maid/cook looking longingly at the celebrations, banished from sight, even humiliated and forced to work.
When we were children, a new dress on our birthdays was not mandatory, at least in middle and lower middle class families; some sweet would usually be made at home, and we would go to the temple to pray for our longevity and health. Of course, we would touch elders’ feet and sometimes were rewarded with a coin or two. By the time the Brats came along, birthday parties had come into vogue. But they were still small do’s, celebrated with neighbours and friends, where the kids had a good time with games and eats. Gifts were usually small, sometimes a handmade greeting card, at other times some board game or a book. Some children didn’t bring anything and no one looked askance at them. Suffice that the child had come and joined the fun. Return gifts were unknown. Even when they made their appearance later, they used to be simple ones like a pencil box or a bar of chocolate.
Soon, however, the gifts began getting costlier and bigger, in keeping with the status of the giver and the taker. That made it necessary for the return gifts to become fancier. It soon spiraled out of control. Parties were organised in restaurants and fast food places or one of the star hotels, for the ‘sake of convenience’. Gifts were lavish and often included anything from an iphone to other expensive electronic gizmos and designer wear. When parents were invited along, booze flowed too. Theme parties and designer cakes and designer gifts became the order of the day, with every parent trying to outdo the other to prove their love for their kids. If parents baulked at the expenses, the kids sulked, making them feel guilty and rush to comply with their children’s wishes.
Coming back to Indian weddings, if you say that Indian weddings had always been big and fat, you are only partially right. Yes, they were long drawn out, often went on for several days, but the customs had many sociological and other aspects to them. But over time, the customs have either become redundant or grating but are still continued in the name of tradition and in the most ostentatious manner. (The customs associated with weddings deserve a special post).
Traditionally it has been the girl’s family that has hosted the wedding. (God knows it is time to change that custom!) The reason for this was that in olden days, girls were married off very young and they were not educated or independent and so needed another family to take care of them. (I am by no means condoning the custom but am just stating the facts.) So, jewellery and even money was given when she was sent away to her in-laws’ home. For this reason too, the boy’s family was treated like royalty and with deference. A set of customs grew around the welcoming and honouring the groom’s family, with gifts thrown in for good measure for the entire party.
Soon, this custom became one of wangling things out of the bride’s family. Of course, the groom’s party usually behaved like royalty and in the most obnoxious manner to boot. We have seen umpteen movies, where the villainous parents of the groom humiliate and even call off the wedding for want of a few grams of gold. It is sad that this still continues in subtle ways in the form of ‘gifts’, which are either expected or demanded.
Gifts in weddings not only include those given to the baratis by the bride’s family, but also those given to their own relatives. Not to be left behind, the groom’s family splurges in gifting too. It would still be fine had not the gifts become more a show of status than of love and blessings.
In Tamil Nadu, it is called ‘asirvadam‘ or moi, which is recorded verbally by the officiating priest as they are given. Perhaps this is the reason why the gifts became louder and larger – everyone wanted others to know that they had given a big enough gift. Conversely those who had given smaller gifts felt embarrassed and tried to do better in the next wedding they were invited to. The gift was no more than something that helped out the families conducting the wedding, but has today become a grand gesture for all to see and snicker/appreciate/envy as the case may be. Here was one more well-meaning custom gone awry. When the custom had been instituted by our forebears, they surely must not have anticipated such a degeneration of their society where vanity comes above everything else. While I was browsing the net, I came across this site, which takes the whole procedure to a new level.
Earlier, weddings that were conducted in villages were essentially community affairs, where the extended family helped physically and in kind to reduce the burden on the family – the girls’ family, that is. The invitations were personally delivered to the guests and when they came, they brought a token amount as ‘sagan’ or blessings. The guests were fed a sumptuous feast and then tamboolam (a bag containing coconut, betel leaves, haldi, kumkum and sweets) was given as they left. Even when the weddings moved to cities, it still meant that the extended family came over for a period of time, took part in preparations and contributed their mite to their relatives. The underlying factor being a sense of community.
Soon, the tamboolam itself began assuming vain forms as some began adding blouse pieces or token gifts to the packet. Soon, this also became the return gift at a wedding. And with every guest being given a return gift, there came the system of grading. The grander the gift, the grander the return gift.
I remember attending one wedding where I was pressed into service to distribute this packet as guests were leaving the hall. I was amused and confused when I was shown two sets of tamboolam packets, one with a costlier gift and the other the normal one. The other lady who was doing duty with me, and I were instructed to give it discretely with the bride’s mother or her husband signalling to us, as to which pile we were to give them from. I found the task so distasteful that I cried off after a while.
To sum up, gifting has now become a crazy game of catch-me-if-you-can, where the sentiment behind the gift is lost in the competition to show off. Weren’t gifts supposed to be something to be selected lovingly, given with a lot of love and cherished? I remember a post by Bhavia on the gifts she made for her loved ones with her own hands. If I remember the post about it after so long, how cherished those gifts must be?
If the younger generation is taking the lead in making weddings bigger and fatter and being proud of it, are there any chances of their ever becoming slimmer? Or would the material value of gifts continue going through the sky, even as they become more impersonal?
Homepage image courtesy: slava-slavik.com