Imagine a typical Tam Brahm wedding. The traditional welcome table with a sprinkling of rose water, sandal paste and some sugar candy. Flowers twined together in a smallish length of thread - only jasmine please, for all the women. The men get to taste a pinch of sugar candy if they so wish. The wedding is all about the maamis, the maamas are there only as a side show, a background, in their white mundu and shirts, except when they have to lift the groom and bride as part of the ritual.
A wedding in any Indian community is an earthshaking event. It is all about entire forests of family trees meeting each other. Like Ents in the Lord of Rings, entire forests congregate for the wedding of a branch somewhere in the world (usually South of the Vindhyas) and then disappear to their resting places, sipping Narasu’s (or ersatz) filter coffee, until the next wedding, nostalgically reminiscing the days gone by.
The scene is from one such wedding where crisp Kanjeevarams were enjoying their exposure to outside air after a long time. Long since having spent time mothballed inside cupboards, save the occasional airing, they were glad to have come back to the occasion that was the raison d’etre of their existence. Many of them had won stiff competition from their shelfmates before they were chosen to represent their owners in this particular wedding. No Kanjeevaram in their entire history has ever attended any two weddings consecutively. In the folklore of Kanjeevaram saree history that “unlucky is a Kanjeevaram which has to visit two weddings consecutively without a chance for its shelfmates, for it leads a lonely existence”. So, there you are. Picture the Kanjeevarams enjoying their day out, a day in which their fellow jeans, skirts, salwar kameezes were no competition. On any day which was a non event, the jeans and salwars were victorious, but these special occasions – festivals, weddings – the only ones which counted for Kanjeevarams, they won hands down. There were bottle green sarees, magenta sarees, sarees with a putta design, rani (green) coloured sarees, mampazha (Mango) colour sarees. Imitation? Bah. Only genuine stuff was allowed here. Anything other than a genuine silk saree stood out like a cactus in a desert on such occasions.
There were heads that were decked with a flower garland piece each, a place of pride very few flowers got on a day to day basis. The heavyweight necklaces and earrings and the vaira (diamond) thodu were there too, having won a day out against stringy 18 carat fancy pieces, platinum, white gold and other toy ornaments that are considered mere fancy trinkets in the dress code for a wedding. “The amount of gold in that necklace is less than what my saree has in the jarigai (border, usually woven), “ boasted a silk haired paati to the gujju sari clad granddaughter. The gujju style of saree, incidentally had made significant inroads and it was accepted, only in receptions though. The core function was still like the Gaul camp in the middle of the Romans. It was a show where one outfit shone against the other – they were ageless. The 1965 Kanjeevaram with pearl necklace was as much a winner as the latest design from Nallis embellished with a smart design from Ganjam. No Armani or YSL here. They wouldn’t even be offered recognition. As each of them preened their creases and lifted their borders from offending Kolams, one of them shrieked. Suddenly, everybody looked away from the 1965 Kanjeevaram – itself of good pedigree.
A pink chiffon was giving them competition and how. Suddenly, the 1965 Kanjeevaram found itself staring itself at a halter neck blouse and a pink chiffon. The heads decked with flowers turned towards the halter neck. They nodded in stern disapproval. The Kanjeevarams, the epitome of fashion and conservativeness looked away aghast in horror at the intruder in their midst.
Starched mundus and check shirts with gold bracelets and gold watches looked up and, in an instant, the Kanjeevarams that held them in thrall for centuries no longer did. The mundus were all eyes on the chiffon. “So much for our age old loyalty”, said the Kanjeevarams.
“How times have changed”, they lamented collectively even as some among them began to spell their epitaph in the face of competition in the shape of halter necks.
Coffee sipping short and longsighted eyes now turned towards the pink chiffon and halter neck which in the meantime had positioned itself in the middle of the crowd. They gazed towards the chairs, the decorations every few seconds, snatching an eyeful of the chiffon. The flower decked heads wafted their smells in their direction as did the coffee, but there was no distracting anyone from the attention that the chiffon enjoyed.
“Aha,” said one paati, “Her mother had worn a sleeveless blouse in my wedding, said one wizened old one who could barely see and cursed her shortsightedness and her son for not taking her for an eye check up. She managed it all in the same breath, which was found wanting too.
“Right,” nodded another kollu paati, who was preening her white tresses, “her grandmother has a bob cut – karmam”
Newly returned You-yes-yeah mama and mami in their Walmart jeans and Boston Celtics Tee-shirt and Liz Taylor Bob cut looked as modern as blue Ambassador cars with metallic paint. Suddenly their conversation about how the Grand Canyon and Niagara have changed in the last few years had no audience. The 1974 putta jarigai which was the talk of the Kanjeevaram gang was left in suspended animation in the middle of a conversation. Forgotten branches of the same family trees were nearly coming together split apart like a thunderstorm had separated them.
A little coffee spilt everywhere, nadaswarams lost their buzz and the thavils missed a beat. The vadyar swallowed a few mantras and the muhurtam was hurriedly advanced by both the families lest the groom change his mind at the last minute. The videographer had to be cajoled to continue shooting the wedding even as he made a modeling offer to the halter neck. The photographer had, in the meantime, shot a portfolio of her.
The halter neck had nearly halted the wedding, but only just. In the meantime, a quick thinking maami offered the halterneck a readymade blouse and a new silk saree as a wedding gift. “Please wear it and be back for the traditional function”, she at once ordered and requested. The day was saved, but it is there in the video for all to see.
Very soon they were all back in the cupboard with the mothballs and mundus, “Today it is one halter neck, but tomorrow if there are many, I think we are powerless,” one of the Kanjeevarams lamented even as they came up a strategy to keep halter necks out of weddings.
“I think you should welcome change.” Started the gold bordered mundu even as they turned their backs to each other, awaiting the next wedding.
(An edited version of this made it print, in the Deccan Herald today, titled - Out of Cupboards)