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In the new improved Indian wedding, everybody, not just the bride and groom, get married. Or so it seems. Everyone and everything look as if they are snorting the white powdery stuff, as revelry takes on a psychedelic and manic air. The scale at which the event is pitched has gone haywire, and it seems that nothing can be excessive enough. And while this new and very passionate relationship with weddings is part of a larger involvement with the world of consumption, there is something about weddings that stands apart from everything else.

In earlier times, marriages happened to families. The marriage was an institution with set conventions and rules, to which families conformed. The event was culturally fraught and the overall feeling was one of responsibility and more than a little dread, as things perpetually teetered on the brink of going wrong. The bride and groom were the victims of the ceremony, and by no means the protagonists. They had little to do with the arrangements and had little or no control over their own actions. They wore strange clothes, were given constant instructions that they did not understand but followed, and looked dazed and awkward through it all.

The marriage was, as it is now, a pivotal institution. It was the most prominent site of tradition, where the past gathered itself to anxiously usher in a future. The baton was passed to the next generation in an atmosphere of tight control. The 'boy' and the 'girl' were not fully realised individuals but fragments of the family tree, twigs lacking any independent existence. The wedding script was written elsewhere, in a different time; the families concerned had to faithfully perform their roles out of a time-tested screenplay. Cultural differences of even a small kind needed to be skillfully negotiated, for deviations from tradition produced anxiety, and the fear of nameless consequences.

Things have certainly changed. Weddings are now meant to be pleasurable, and not burdensome. The number of events in each wedding keeps growing, as does the significance imbued in each element of the wedding. Every bit of the wedding is now a little monument, to be referred to only in capitals—and the most striking change in the wedding is the introduction of the idea of choreography. Things cannot simply be arranged—they need to be choreographed.

The imagination is cinematic—and Bollywood is everywhere. The venue is a set, and each area a visual frame that reeks of some 'theme'. The idea of 'themes' is an attempt to superimpose another text on to the wedding; the wedding itself is emptied out of meaning, what it provided is an excuse and a framework for an invented meaning to get pasted on. The inherited meaning of the wedding is deemed insufficient, providing an excuse for scale but lacking content which is filled in with the help of themes. The wedding becomes a canvas on which the individuals concerned paint on a more specific shade of meaning, chosen most often out of a pre-existing template of possibilities provided by the thriving institution of the wedding planner. The idea of an external agency that puts together the wedding underlines the fact the wedding is now an 'event' to be conceived of and managed as a piece of entertainment. Every item in the wedding thus points outwards—how will it look, will it engage, will it photograph well and outshine other efforts mounted by one's peers?

The food is an array of choices that emphasises 'variety' and 'novelty'—the desire for anchorage is long gone and what is sought today is transportation. To the outer realms of one's imagination, using the exotic, the vividly coloured and variously textured items on the exhaustive menu. For once, it is not taste that is paramount; wedding food gives one an opportunity to experience the exciting possibilities that lie 'out there'.

Perhaps the most dramatic shift is in the role of the lead pair, who now take their place center stage without a trace of shyness. The wedding is now about them; they are no longer empty vessels through which the river of continuity made its way. They sing, dance, coo appreciatively to each other, they act out a scripted romance, record every moment of these days against exotic backgrounds and change costumes every few hours.

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The wedding today is truly a junction—it is here that the accumulated past accommodates a more specific and distinctive future, where the collective becomes the backdrop against which the individual gets highlighted, where notions of specialness are carved out of the reality of ordinariness and the exotic is contrived from the everyday, where families still come together not so much in memory as in celebration. As a cultural encounter, it produces a lower level of anxiety as the stakes have reduced on both sides. The adjustment required post-marriage has more to do with individual compatibility than a meshing together of two ways of life. More than a cultural no man's land, it is now a performance arena, for both sides to put their best foot forward, often literally.

The wedding has become the overloaded-with-excess institution it has because it is able to advertise all that is valued today simultaneously and in the desired proportions. The continued importance of the family, the wealth and stature that has been accumulated, the emergence of individuals with their own notions and taste, the desire to enact fantasies of grandiloquence, the kind of guests one can command, all of these come together at the wedding. For a brief while, we get to feature in our own Bollywood film. We egest everything we have seen, imagined or consumed, by arraying it around our choreographed splendid selfs. The wedding is a public screening of private fantasy, with every element amplified. In its craving for specialness, it tells that the greatest curse of our times is ordinariness and the biggest fear is to lead a life that does not need to be obsessively photographed.

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