Shaadi Like a Savarna
Every month, Prof. Ravikant Kisana (aka Buffalo Intellectual) brings you field notes from Savarna culture.
At my alma mater, Mohit* was an unlikely rebel within the community of young MBAs. Like most other B-schools, this too was a Savarna campus community, simultaneously high on performative wokeness and “trad” sanskaari assertions, led by self-appointed ethical weed connoisseurs who were all aspiring for the same jobs at top corporates. Mohit, however, was determined to make a different person out of himself. Coming from a very privileged Rajasthani Brahmin family, he had seen his father and grandfather lead the inner circle of RSS in the region. Intimately familiar with what this militant Brahminical culture had to offer, Mohit used the distance from home to forge a new independent identity for himself. He read critiques of Hindutva and embraced Leftist discourse so deeply that it made him disillusioned with everything the campus had to offer, including the placement process. At the convocation, when all the dopey bearded “radicals” turned up in crisply ironed shirts for their parents, shaved and preening like peacocks, Mohit came in his pajamas, stubble and messy hair, no family to cheer him, ready to become a different kind of man. To the average reader, this may not seem like much of an endorsement but, in the early 2010s, this was as close as someone could publicly out themselves as a non-conformist in that low-stakes world of B-school corporate clerkery.
Less than six months later, however, I watched as Mohit frantically downloaded a popular K-serial theme song from YouTube so his aunts and cousins could choreograph a dance around it for his big fat Indian wedding. At his shaadi, very soon after, he wore a proper sherwani and sehra, climbed on top a horse to lead his baarat. Perhaps the confusion showed on my face, because a Bania friend of his mildly scolded me for being “intellectual all the time.” This was a shaadi after all. This was different.
Why does the shaadi, the wedding, become a site of uncontested reproduction of caste/clan celebration that is wholeheartedly embraced by even the most critical-minded Savarna individuals? The obvious answer is, of course, “family pressure.” In the 2011 Bollywood film Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, a very interesting scene plays out in the climax. When Abhay Deol’s character – who has clearly fallen out of love with his girlfriend and has yet somehow contrived a situation where he must still get married to her – is counseled by his friends to abandon the wedding, he says that it is not so simple because their parents “have got involved.” This trope, of otherwise very independent and charismatic Savarna youth being unable to stand up to their parental authority figures on the question of love and marriage, has been a fixture in Bollywood cinemas since the great SRK romances of the 1990s.
The question thus is whether family and community pressure is really so intense and suffocating that even the most privileged Savarnas with dynamic, ideological, and assertive personalities break down when confronted by it. When it comes to the internal dialectic of so-called educated and progressive Savarna families, there is clearly some other negotiation happening that needs to be unpacked.
College and early youth is usually full of conversation among friends about impending “shaadi talk,” especially for women. This is usually true not just for Savarnas but across caste groups. Among many Dalit and Bahujan communities, such anxiety hinges on realistic social expectations borne out of the socio-economic cycles of marriage and kinship that tie the fabric of community life. It is often the only social asset in such families. On the other hand, however, among most elite Savarna families, weddings are social events to demonstrate wealth and clout, even for families that have transcended the need for community-validation and networks through intergenerational privilege. While marriage pageantry today is not unique among elite Savarnas, for many Dalit and Bahujan communities the pomp is often a form of assertion– as evidenced by the regular repeats of caste violence and murders over things like a Dalit groom riding a horse for his baraat. Among the wealthiest of Savarna families however, the wedding itself remains one of the most peak performances of Savarna culture.
This is intriguing considering that much of elite Savarna youth culture revolves around avoiding and rejecting the centrality of the shaadi in their lives, but when the moment arrives there is wholehearted embrace and pageantry around the event. Savarna feminists, many of whom spend their days in college debates raging against marriage as an instrument of patriarchy, line up for choreographed dances at their best friend’s sangeet ceremony. The Savarna campus commie bros who launched daily diatribes against the machinations of capitalism, suddenly have no qualms for wearing outfits worth lakhs for the shaadi functions of their buddies, events which often end up costing crores. These should be contradictions but are actually behaviors perfectly in sync. In reality, both are performances. Curations. Much of Savarna cultural life, which is animated by Brahmanism, rests on knowledge performance as a legitimizing variable. Elite urban Savarna youth have a deep material interest in seeing themselves as culturally distinct and “above” everyone else.
The centrality of marriage and its role in Dalit and Bahujan community life is perceived as feudal, “traditional,” and anti-individualistic by elite Savarnas. A “happening” youth life in the elite urban Savarna curation is one which is a pastiche of wanderlust travel reels, hobby crafts, independent big-city life with a dash of music, adventure, romance and a general sort of exaggerated coming-of-age individualism. In this curation, marriage looms like the end of the adventure, which must be pushed back and resisted. To say you’re excited about getting married within these social circles of elite Savarnas would be a tacit admission that your life does not have much imagination or ambition. For most marginalized Dalit and Bahujan youth, there is not just a class barrier against such consumerist coming-of-age but also significant cultural obstacles as well. Most avenues where elite Savarnas “find themselves” are expensive and gatekept via performative cultural sophistry that is deeply intimidating and alienating for young people from marginalized backgrounds.
These cultural performances of the Savarna youth life lean heavily into Western (read: largely American) subcultures of fandom, fashion, art, ideology, and activism. But the curation is superficial and essentially a cosplay – the Savarna girl who has framed herself as a “bookworm” who posts pictures with books that she barely reads, the boy who loves football but has never been to a game played between local clubs in India, the anime fans, the metal headbangers, the green-thumb eco-savior girl. However, as they grow older, their careers mature and such identity curations start giving diminishing returns. The emphasis moves towards a generational shift of privileges within the Savarna families and consolidation of education and business gains.
This is the period of time in Savarna lives, mid to late 20s, when the parents, family, and family-friends, who hitherto had been the villains now suddenly start appearing like allies. The transition gains momentum as this family machinery starts working in the interest of the Savarna youth. For the first time, they have a say in “adult matters” of the family. An insider seat within the family gossip circles, and financial planning. With this new authority, the social curation also starts taking on a more mature tone. The wedding plays a vital role in solidifying this process of generational shift, a sort of second coming of age. The Savarna youth are in-charge of planning their wedding and the negotiations within the family that take place at this juncture often set the tone for internal family power relations for the years to come. The shaadi marks the point where elite Savarnas seamlessly abandon the radical posturings of their youth to transition into the exact kind of uncles and aunties they spent their youth rebelling against.
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Of course, the agency accorded to young Savarnas when planning the wedding must not be confused with other marital equations like who is the chosen partner and what considerations were employed to assess them. In the case of contemporary elite Savarnas, the partner usually comes from a pool of possible matches within their college/university alma mater and/or corporate office colleague set. This is not surprising considering that in the last 25 years or so, Brahmin and Bania capital especially has invested in creating elite and exclusive schooling and college institutions within the private sector. These overpriced institutions gatekeep marginalized populations where data trends indicate that there is a virtual absence of SC/STs within the student body ensuring that any possible romances among young hearts remains within caste mandated boundaries. Furthermore, such institutions – along with innumerable private technical institutes, especially in the management field – have been positioned as feeders for corporate employment, also ensuring a similar overwhelming Savarnized “ecosystem.” Love within such spaces is already caste-approved, with only regional and linguistic differences left to be navigated. Multiple Bollywood films, such the recent Rocky & Rani ki Prem Kahani, as well as innumerable corporate advertising campaigns are built around this non-difference among Savarna couples, where small cultural differences of food and festivals is exaggerated for cinematic drama.
In the rare cases, when there is love across caste lines and is somehow grudgingly accepted by the Savarna family (usually on account of the fact the partner is equally- if not more- educated and well endowed career-wise), the wedding lays bare the underlying power equations. It is extremely rare for an elite Savarna to honor the wedding rituals of their marginalized caste partner. The caste and attendant class privileges take precedence and the wedding is Savarnized. It also marks the beginning of power equations within marriage, wherein partners from SC/ST communities often find their culture, way of life, festivals, etc., get gradually erased. My mother, a Dalit Sikh woman, had to erase and hide most of her cultural identity after marrying my OBC father. A deep lover of non-vegetarian food, she quit meat after her marriage. She was even given a new name that had to be notarized and is today her legal identity. Though my father himself comes from a marginalized OBC background, his relative caste ascendancy allowed his family to erode her identity. In couples, where the caste distance between partners is much higher, as in one partner is a Brahmin, Kayastha, etc., —this process only gets exacerbated. That is if such couples are allowed at all to exist. Caste honor killings to punish such transgressions are a well-known phenomenon in South Asia. What is less discussed and documented is the absolute levels of emotionally manipulative villainy that Savarna families can descend into to prevent caste-undesirable marriages especially for Savarna women. From indefinite house detentions, to hunger strikes, physical and emotional abuse and weaponizing the health frailty of every senior person in the family; every tool is used ruthlessly to coerce and bend the “errant” Savarna to their will and end their unsanctioned caste relationship. “Family will not understand”, is the most common reason for breakup among inter-caste couplings. Eventually when the “aberrant” Savarna returns to the fold, their caste-compatible, family-approved wedding becomes the site where family fissures are rehabilitated.
Unlike marginalized communities, where the wedding is often a show of assertion and/or celebration of the family’s rise in fortunes, in many super wealthy Savarna families it becomes a forum for the familial change of guard. It is often associated with the “last great act” of the family’s ageing patriarchs who fund the event, leaving the details largely to the next generation. Thus the elite Savarna wedding is no simple negotiation. As the couple takes control of their wedding planning and customizing it, it is a performance of power, pride and vanity – a lurid show of force where no garishness is too extreme. In a constantly evolving cultural smorgasbord, responding to popular culture cues of both Western modernity and caste-traditionalism. K-serial themes, peppy Bollywood songs and even a dash of Rihanna/Beyonce, elaborate sets, menus that have hundreds of dishes and invites that come packed with luxury gifts can be found for these over-the-top destination wedding. Specialized wedding choreographers craft sangeet dance routines featuring close friends and family members, which take weeks to perfect. A veritable cottage industry of rich Savarna hobbyists has sprung up, offering specialized services for everything from customized wedding cakes, candid and drone photography, to wedding and honeymoon planning – all geared towards making the shaadi an extravagant experience.
Kedarini*, who comes from an affluent but conservative Kannadiga Brahmin family, says, “The weddings are just over the top. I have seen in sangeets, they have theme dances. They will hire external dancers from agencies to dance with them to recreate Bollywood song picturization where they are the main characters. There is also the pre-wedding shoot where they visit picturesque places in the fanciest clothing… It is all just for the instagram upload.”
This desire to craft a cinematic moment, and develop a “never-before-seen” unique spectacle is thus a cornerstone of the ostentatious displays at Savarna weddings. It is not uncommon to see Bollywood starlets, TV personalities and musicians “performing” at such weddings and “interacting” with close family and friends for an appearance fee in lakhs, if not crores. There are enterprising “startups” that “supply” White people for the weddings, to make the shaadi audience look international.
The honeymoon, which a generation ago was the biggest talking point, has somehow diminished in the elite Savarna planning priorities. It used to be special because it was supposed to be the first trip together for the newlyweds. Now in most cases, the couples have lived together at some point and may have traveled together extensively already. Downplaying the honeymoon is actually a power move in some quarters of the cultural capital economy as being excited about it is seen as a marker of a conservative simpleton who had to ‘wait’ for the honeymoon for cosmopolitan experiences.
This impulse to cue something “radical” and “smashing stereotypes” during the wedding itself takes strange performative shapes – from brides who wear pantsuits to their wedding instead of a lehenga, Savarna queer couples undertaking Brahminical rituals together, to brides insisting that Kanya-daan be performed by the mother. Other new innovations are brought in, like actress Dia Mirza got a woman priest to preside over the Brahminical rituals of her second wedding ceremony in an act that was lauded as feminist by many Savarnas. Yet, the centrality of Brahminical rituals and caste is unchallenged in any such radical Savarna imagination.
Beyond the photoshoots, film sets masquerading as wedding halls, the dances and the 300-item dining menus, one remembers the inspiring and wholesome partnership between Jotiba Phule and Savitri Phule. They founded the Satyashodhak Samaj in Pune in 1873 as an anti-caste social reform mission. One of the core outputs of this was the Satyashodhak marriage, which continues to be practiced till date largely by anti-caste and Ambedkarite people in the city and elsewhere. In the Satyashodhak marriage, there is no Brahmin priest or obscure Sanskrit verses; the couple stand as equals and take simple vows. There is no kanyadan or similar ceremony, no symbolic witness is required by the Gods, with the marriage being sanctified in the eyes of regular people by the laws of the constitution.
150 years on, the radical marriage of Jotiba and Savitrimai Phule still out-measures any performance of modernity put forward by liberal, elite Savarna culture. The shaadi remains the ultimate barometer for a deeply conservative and exclusionary Savarna social order, an ultimate public performance of pageantry that legitimizes every regressive caste mandate in a gilded, cinematic frame.
Names changed on request.