Published in Sunday Midday, 24 April 2010

In the past ten years, wedding rituals are changing across the country. This is most evident in the ritual called Sangeet where families of the bride and groom, trained by professional choreographers, dance to Bollywood songs. This ritual has spread across communities, especially in cities and amongst the Indian Diaspora. It has become a pan-Indian ritual: gaudy, secular and fun.

The ritual has its roots in North India and it has reached the world thanks to Bollywood which is dominated, and influenced, by the North Indian film makers (Johar, Kapoor, Chopra, Deol) and then the great teleserials that are being broadcast to every Indian home 24×7 by various television channels. Television has become the holy book of the 21st century telling us how to live our lives.

Once the Sangeet was merely a very feminine ritual – women of the bride’s family came together to sing songs while bedecking the bride. It marked the transition of a young woman from virgin to wife. It was a rite of passage, one that helped the woman make her shift in consciousness. The songs were both bawdy and romantic – teasing the woman into sexual and emotional maturity that would be expected of her post-marriage.

Rituals play a key role in our lives. They give structure. They shape our days, our months, our years. They serve as milestones and help us go through life in a orderly way. Rituals make us believe that we are part of a plan, that life is not random, that all things have a meaning. Unlike stories that need to be heard, and symbols that need to be seen, rituals are communications that need to be performed. Thus do they communicate.

Rituals can be individual rituals, family rituals or community rituals. Individual rituals are personal; they involve no other. Every individual has his very own ritual of bathing and eating and praying and sleeping. It defines who he or she is, and makes the follower feel disciplined and secure. Family rituals bind the family together. These are usually birth, death and marriage rituals. Finally there are community rituals or festivals that bind society while marking the passage of time. They can be religious like Holi or secular like Independence Day. Both mark the passage of time. Holi marks the shift into summer. Independence day marks the birth of one more year of freedom. Holi serves as a safety valve for the community psyche as it allows public display of behavior otherwise prohibited. Independence Day also has a psychological purpose – it reassures all Indians as it reaffirms the idea of a nation state.

The Bollywoodized Sangeet is a modern ritual both for the family and the community.  It breaks free from the confines of religion, marks the transition of time and seems very logical and universal as it offers no deep meaning other than fun. Yet, like all rituals, it has a deeply emotional and parochial purpose. Like all rituals, they subtly enforce a discourse. The value given to virginity in Catholicism manifests in the white gown and veil of the bride in Church. The value given to fertility in Hinduism manifests in her red sari. The value given to unity is reinforced when all Indians are expected to stand during the national anthem. The same principle holds true for Bollywoodized Sangeet. By anchoring a momentous rite of passage of the bride to ideas emerging from a flaky film industry, we as a people are trying to construct (subconsciously, of course) for ourselves, as well as the rest of the world, that exasperatingly tenuous politically correct socially significant “pan-Indian identity”.