At a South Indian Wedding

We had a unique opportunity to attend a South Indian wedding reception the other night.  And I knew it would be an excellent photo-op, so I brought along my Ricoh with flash and a couple of rolls of film!

As I understand it, a wedding in India used to last several days, but for practical reasons, it has generally been compressed to one day.  In south India, anyway.  Ordinarily, the preparations would begin well before sunrise, and the bride in particular would be likely to be “on the go” for up to 8 hours without a meal by the time the wedding takes place.  The reception would normally take place that evening.

However, again for practical reasons, the wedding reception we attended further compressed the schedule by reversing the reception and the wedding – the reception was held in the evening, and the wedding was to follow the next morning.  This decreases the rental fee for the wedding hall, and also makes things easier for friends and family who may be traveling a long way to participate.

This reception was at the east end of Chennai, toward the airport, and after the 90 minutes it took to navigate the route in stop-and-go rush-hour traffic, we knew we were close, as this was clearly a “wedding hall” area.  We passed one building after another festooned with lights, and ladies walking along the road in their best saris.  After a bit of driving around, we finally found the reception to which we had been invited.

Hundreds and hundreds of people go to a typical wedding.  I had researched etiquette earlier that day, and read that invitations are extended so far and wide that even the groom’s brother is expected to invite his office-mates, most of whom will never have met the groom himself.  Or the bride.  I was told by my Indian-American colleague that the men show up in all kinds of clothes – jeans, slacks, collared shirts with or without ties – but rarely ever a suit.  For the women, however, their fanciest sari is a must – this is a garment consisting of four to nine (sometimes more, I’m told!) yards of fabric, wrapped around the body with the end draped over the shoulder and a partly bare midriff.  I agreed with my colleague, who had like us been previously posted in Africa, that we men would wear our best African shirts, and his wife graciously insisted to equip Anne with a suitable sari.  And gold jewelry, which is a must as well.  Did you know that the people of India collectively own more gold that everyone else in the world combined?  This is what I’m told, anyway.

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So we arrived at the wedding hall and were met by some colleagues from work and immediately whisked upstairs, where we could greet the bride and groom. The reception was all about taking pictures, and I tried my best to capture the mood. The group on the stage all smiled for the photographers, were marched off the stage, and then our group from the Consulate went up for our photo, with another group waiting right behind. The bride and groom looked amazing – especially considering they had probably been forcing smiles for the camera for at least an hour:

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Then we went downstairs for a meal, which was one of the most efficient mass-feeding operations I have come across. The kitchen was preparing about a dozen different dishes to an unspecified headcount. We were all ushered to a long table, upon which was unrolled a long paper tablecloth. A piece of banana leaf was placed in front of each person, along with a bottle of water. The neighbor to my left instructed me to use a bit of the water to “wash off” the banana leaf, which was to be my plate.

Then a series of young men came one after the other and dished small portions of each item onto the leaf. And then we dug in. Note I did not mention anything about a fork or spoon…

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Eating a dish of rice with sauce, or garbanzo beans with sauce, with only your fingers, is tricky – but actually easier than, say, using chopsticks.  There’s no room for a raised pinky – you need all five fingers for this job.  And it was delicious!  When we were finished, we signalled our satisfaction with the meal by folding closed the banana leaf.  The attendant then rolled up the tablecloth, with the “plates” inside it, and we left as the next group prepared for their meal.  A bit of standing around with some ice cream, and we picked up our “door gift” (a small coconut?), and that was pretty much the reception!

The whole time I kept snapping photo after photo.  At one point I noticed I was on picture number 33, and I thought to myself, “Wasn’t this a roll of 24?”  When I got home that night I reversed the film and realized after a couple of turns of the knob that the film had never caught properly on the sprockets.  And in fact I had zero photos of the wedding.  Argh!

Film photography has its drawbacks.  But then, I’ve shown up at an event and also realized I left my SD card in the computer…

With any luck, I’ll get invited to another wedding someday…

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