Thursday, March 22, 2007
Behind the Scenes at an Arranged Marriage
Three months ago while brainstorming ideas for our "Eye on India" series that showcases special programming from India we all felt we should explore the issue of arranged marriages.
Though they have been around for centuries and most Indians still do get married this way, what struck me and producer Tess Eastment was their growing acceptance among the young.
According to some surveys, almost 92 percent of Indians between the ages of 17 and 25 approved of arranged marriages.
With such high ratings, we thought any exploration of this topic would give our audience a personal and close-up look into the lives of almost 550 million younger Indians
The challenge, though, was to quickly find a couple who had been introduced by their families, but were not yet married, so we could follow all the excitement leading up to the big day.
We got on with the task by asking for help from wedding planners, friends and family. Within 24 hours I had been introduced to 24-year-old Preet Kiran, an MBA and a former business consultant, who was getting married in a week.
I broached the subject of covering her wedding gingerly. "Do you mind?" I asked, "if we bring our camera?"
"Not at all," she replied, explaining she was very comfortable with the whole institution of an arranged marriage.
"It’s traditional because it’s decided by the family,” she explained. “But yet it’s modern because at the last moment you are given the option to decide whether yes or no."
Later that evening I spoke to Preet’s 26-year-old fiancé and businessman Ramneeq Singh. Like Preet, he too was an MBA and invited us next morning to the Sikh temple, where he was formally being introduced to Preet’s family.
Despite initially being a bit tense, he fitted in quite well. What helped further were the gifts Preet’s relatives piled on to Ramneeq. There were clothes, boxes of candy and lots of cash. No wonder younger Indians love arranged marriages, I thought. Such pampering had to be good for anyone’s ego.
As I mingled with Ramneeq I noticed he, like other younger Indians, straddled both the modern and traditional worlds.
Ramneeq drove a $40,000 car, loved music and designer clothes yet had left one of the most important decisions of his life to his family: "Your dad got married that way, your granddad and the people around you … they have all got married the same way," he rationalized. "Probably they (arranged marriages) are successful."
Statistics reveal the divorce rate in India remains under 2 percent. Sociologists say that’s because arranged marriages don’t just bring two individuals together they are also a relationship of two families which in times if crisis are forever ready to guide and provide support.
Next day I learned more of this union between families as both sides mingled and danced at a dinner hosted by Preet and her relatives. Here that I also got a glimpse into what the Indian media lovingly describes as "big, fat Indian weddings."
Huge tents had been constructed to accommodate the guests. Thousands of dollars had been spent on lighting and flower decorations. And to keep everyone happy and entertained there were mouth-watering treats and professional singers.
What was even more amazing was there were several such functions interspersed over a week of intense partying. But the best was saved for last.
One of the largest and noisiest functions at any traditional Indian wedding is called a reception for the "baraat," which means a congregation of guests from the groom’s side.
According to custom, the groom’s family dances and celebrates wildly as they arrive at the bride’s home or any other party location. In this case, Ramneeq’s family played out their role with gay abandon. Dressed in their finest and accompanied by a large band and fireworks they sang and danced the last half-mile to the club where Preet Kiran’s family had organized a reception and dinner for them.
As for the groom, he was dressed in a glittering gold-colored jacket and for maximum effect was riding a white stallion. As he alighted from his horse Preet’s brother embraced him. A group of three musicians then serenaded the guests by playing the "shehnai," a traditional and flute-like Indian instrument.
Almost on cue and looking stunning in a traditional and heavily embroidered Indian skirt called a "lehnga," Preet arrived to welcome Ramneeq. Both then exchanged huge garlands and posed for pictures.
Meanwhile, the guests tucked into 36 kinds of snacks, 42 main dishes and 22 desserts. It was all washed down with copious amounts of alcohol and 18 different types of teas.
In all, Preet’s family alone was spending almost $200,000 on the wedding, which still hadn’t run its course.
Next morning, the couple walked around the Sikh holy book to solemnize their wedding. It was by now evident both felt comfortable in each others company, but Ramneeq told me he would always be ready for the unexpected.
“If you have known a person for years and years, marriage is just putting a stamp on your relations, but in an arranged marriage that surprise and suspense is there.”
As I wished the couple well, I paused for a moment to reflect on the past few days. For someone who had spent the last nine years covering wars, cyclones, terrorist incidents and tsunamis this story was a beautiful and refreshing change.
I had enjoyed myself and walked away with some valuable insight: For all their modern ways, education and truly global ambitions, I had learnt younger Indians remain rooted in their ancient culture and traditions.
You can watch my report here
-- From Satinder Bindra, CNN Senior International Correspondent
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