One Country, Different Cultures

Mar 7, 2011

by Priya Chhaya

Rangoli artwork

This design is a form of rangoli, colorful artwork that can be drawn with paint or sand, and is a decorative element during celebratory occasions. This particular set is ready made and may be used during one of the pre-wedding events for its splash of color. All photos by Priya C.

Everyone always tells you how complicated planning a wedding is, but I never actually understood until I found myself knee deep in working on address labels for invitations, multiple tastings for Indian food (not necessarily a bad thing) and trying to figure out what to say during my sister-of-the-bride speech.

Then there’s what all the wedding books say is the toughest part of planning—figuring out how to make the experience be both for the bride and the groom.  I am a Gujarati whose extended family lives in Maharastra. My future brother-in-law is South Indian—more specifically he is a Telugu from Hydrabaad. So much like planning a wedding between two different American cultures, planning a Hindu wedding for a Gujarati bride and a Telugu groom has been a learning experience.

Because Indian weddings are an amazing mix of tradition—through dress, food, and ceremony—we’ve taken the care to stop and think about what elements can incorporate both sides of the family.  For instance, the baraat—the portion of the ceremony where the groom’s side arrives at the wedding venue usually includes a horse (or at rare moments an elephant) and some engaging music. Most weddings I have attended use recorded Bollywood music, or a live dhol (drum) player.  In trying to bring in the more southern element, we realized that the dhol‘s Telugu counterpart was a mridangam, which gives a slightly higher pitch drum beat than the dhol—so now for the baraat my future brother-in-law will be dancing to the sounds of both regions of India.

Sets of daandiyas

One-Two-Three-Four! A few sets of daandiyas, a pair sticks used in a traditional Gujarati folk dance. These particular daandiyas are for one of the pre-wedding events.

That being said, this post is not about melding the details between two distinct and separate cultures, it’s about understanding and acknowledging the nuances of the same nationality.  For instance, during a Hindu ceremony one of the most important moments is when the couple takes seven steps around the fire, making their vows to each other and their respective families. For the Telugu there is an earlier moment in the ceremony, when my sister and her soon-to-be husband see each other for the first time, that is just as important. During the Jeelakarra-Bellam the groom places jaggary (a sugary substance) and some cumin on the bride’s head. This is a symbolic moment when two seemingly different items (one sweet, the other bitter) comes together forever—that is two people coming together through the good and the bad times. To some extent, this is also representative of two different parts of Indian culture finding common ground in bringing the two families together. For planning sake though—I didn’t understand the importance of this particular ceremony until the groom’s family put it in the draft to the ceremony program (which will explain the rites to those not familiar with Hindu weddings).  What this process demonstrates on a micro-level is the work needed to bring people together across any cultural divide, Indian or otherwise. It takes open communication, honesty and recognition that in some cases compromise is the best path to take.

Tiny statues of Ganesh

Tiny statues of Ganesh, the Indian elephant god who is the remover of obstacles and an important deity for auspicious occasions. These Ganesh are meant to be a gift to guests when the the formal wedding invitations are delivered.

Of course this is all in the context of planning a wedding and doesn’t include other aspects of Telugu culture—the food, the very different dance and art forms – all just as an important part of the Indian experience as Gujarati culture. In fact—going through this process has allowed me to have some great conversations about what aspects of Indian culture have dominated the American worldview of India. Some argue that the “Indian” in America vision that we see is often more of a Punjabi Indian world view—with bhangra exercise classes, and hip hop remixes at night clubs.

Which prompts me to ask readers the following questions:

  • What are some surprising places that you’ve seen Indian influences on American society?
  • What region of India is that influence from?

Priya Chhaya is a public historian that works with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She sees history wherever she goes and believes that it is an important part of the American (and Indian American) identity.

4 Comments

  1. Deergha Buch
    March 9, 2011

    nicely written Priya!

    Reply
  2. Hrishabh Baxi
    March 10, 2011

    I would’ve loved for you to write something about a gujarati speaking Boy born and brought up in Maharashtra marrying a girl from the north east of India :) !!! Very Nicely written…loved it !

    Reply
  3. Shanta Patel
    March 10, 2011

    I love it….really well written, Priya. History is such an important part of any culture especially when you are dealing with all the diversity that is INDIA. I can personally relate to what you are going through as you plan this wedding out since I am a South Indian ancestrally from Tamil Nadu settled in Maharashtra who married a Gujju!!!!

    Reply
  4. Chitra
    March 10, 2011

    Priya, welldone!

    To answer your questions…I have noticed whenever I go to shop at warehouse store and see how Indian food (prepared or unprepared) are taking place on it’s shelves. I am sure it is not meant only for the local Indian community. Likewise, I also noticed how ‘kurti’ (long blouse) has made it’s way to departmental stores!!! The other day I went to nice Indian restaurant and could not resist to notice an American couple eating without using spoon…just took a piece of roti/naan and deep it in to the curry…just like how any Indian traditionally would eat…I don’t think any of these is a regional influence.

    Reply

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