The average Indian wedding is an elaborate affair, involving several rituals and ceremonies. On the one hand, communities which used to have fairly simple weddings traditionally, have taken on more rituals over the years – either because the families consider these to be aspirational or because these are seen as "trendy". The mehendi ceremony, which has become a pan-Indian wedding fixture, is an example of this.
On the other hand, there are many Indian couples who've made the choice to have a wedding free of rituals for various reasons. For instance, celebrity couple from the Malayalam film industry, actor Rima Kallingal and director Aashiq Abu got married in 2013 at the Kakkanad registration office in Kerala. Rima did not wear any gold jewellery and the couple donated Rs 10 lakh to the welfare of poor cancer patients.
However, this isn't a recent trend.
A lightning wedding
55-year-old Isai Inban, a Chennai-based journalist, married his wife Pasumpon Senthilkumari on November 1, 1991.
The wedding happened in the middle of a police arrest.
The two of them, who are also cousins, were part of a protest organised by the Dravida Kazhagam (DK) at the time. The DK was sloganeering against the then president Venkatraman's stance on the Cauvery issue and Isai Inban, his parents, and Senthilkumari were part of the thousand-strong crowd. They were arrested and taken to a newly constructed wedding hall, as is the usual practice when mass arrests are done.
A recent picture of Isai Inban and Pasumpon Senthilkumari/ Courtesy: Isai Inban
"My mother went around the wedding hall, wondering which couple would be the first to get married there. That's when someone said, 'Why can't it be your son?'" recalls Isai Inban.
The banter put the idea in his mother's head and she took it up with her husband. Soon, DK leaders, including Veeramani, were asked for their opinion and they gave their blessings. Isai Inban and Senthilkumari were surprised when the suggestion was made to them, but since they knew each other, they had no objections.
"We didn't even have garlands. My parents removed their rings and gave it to us to exchange," says Isai Inban.
Interestingly, food was provided for all those who'd been arrested and Veeramani quipped that the wedding guests had been fed by the government.
A shot of the picture published in Dinakaran newspaper; Courtesy: Isai Inban
"My wife's parents were in Madurai when the wedding took place. We went there the day after to inform them, but they already knew because Dinakaran paper had carried the news with our photograph," says Isai Inban.
Many years ago, his parents had had an intercaste marriage and his uncle – who is incidentally, his wife's father – had been part of a group of people that had tried to kill both of them in the early days.
"My parents had to shift from one place to another constantly for the first two years of their marriage. My mother even suffered an abortion because of the stress. But, eventually, when he saw that they were happy together, he came around," says Isai Inban.
The sudden wedding minus rituals, therefore, did not cause any rancour. Senthilkumari is today the director of a body under the DK which conducts self-respect marriages.
A rich history
Anti-caste revolutionaries like Periyar, who founded the Dravida Kazhagam, advocated doing away with rituals, which are entrenched in casteist practices, and encouraged ritual-free weddings. Self-respect marriages, as they are called, are typically between inter-caste couples and do not comply with patriarchal customs like dowry or tying the thaali.
Anyone can officiate these weddings, thereby breaking the brahminical notion that only a priest can solemnise the union. The first self-respect marriage, which was completely devoid of any Hindu ceremony, is said to have been that of writer Kuthoosi Gurusamy with Kunjidha, both of them leaders of the self-respect movement. Periyar presided over the wedding which took place on December 8, 1929.
Another example is that of Dalit leader and parliamentarian Dakshayani Velayudhan from Kerala. In 1940, Dakshayani married her partner Velayudhan at Sevagram in Wardha, with Gandhi and his wife Kasturba standing as witnesses and a man afflicted with leprosy officiating the wedding as the priest.
In Ambedkar, we trust
It is this rich history that inspired Saveetha and Mahesh to have a ritual-free wedding in 2012. Both of them had met at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, as students, and currently work as consultants for the development sector.
Saveetha, a Tamil, and Mahesh, a Telugu, come from different castes. For the Bengaluru-based couple, marriage was an afterthought.
"We'd been dating since our college days. Then we went on to have a long-distance relationship. He was in Bengaluru, while I was shifting between Delhi and Europe. We wanted to live together, but we knew there wouldn't be social sanction for it without marriage," recounts Saveetha.
Since they'd been together for over 6 years, they decided to take the plunge. Both of them, who closely follow the teachings of BR Ambedkar, decided that they did not want a traditional Hindu wedding.
Mahesh and Saveetha at their wedding; Courtesy: Saveetha Meganathan
Saveetha, who was 26 at the time, says they took their time to research the various ways in which they could get married, without indulging in casteist or religious practices. From a court marriage to a simple ceremony at Aurobindo ashram, they considered many options.
Finally, Saveetha and Mahesh decided to convert to Buddhism. They took the 22 vows formulated by Ambedkar, which conclusively reject caste, in their wedding at the Nagaloka Buddhist Training Center, Nagpur.
"We had called only a few people, but so many of our friends turned up," says Saveetha. "They were all really happy to see us get together."
However, their families were not as delighted. Saveetha says that some of them are still not on good terms with the couple because they were not happy with the match or the way in which the wedding was conducted. While they respect their feelings, Saveetha and Mahesh have no regrets about their decision.
Inspired by them, some of their juniors from TISS, too, have gone on to have ritual-free weddings.
The personal is political
Kalpana Karunakaran, assistant professor of Humanities at IIT Madras, cannot remember her wedding day.
"It's the day after World Health Day. I think it must be April 8," she says.
Kalpana adds with a laugh that since they didn’t do anything special for their wedding day, she hardly remembers it.
Kalpana married educationist Balaji Sampath in 1999. At the time, both of them were activists with the Tamil Nadu Science Forum.
"I'm the daughter of communist parents who had an intercaste marriage in 1972. My mother wore a cotton saree and did not have on any jewellery. I think the only different thing about her that day was that she had flowers in her hair," says Kalpana.
Kalpana and Balaji outside the registrar's office where they got married; Courtesy: Kalpana Karunakaran
For her to choose a ritual-free wedding, therefore, was a natural progression. However, Balaji's family was not happy about her insistence that there would be no thaali-tying. They came around when Kalpana and Balaji made it absolutely clear that they wouldn't agree to the ritual.
Now 43, Kalpana says neither of them wanted to register their wedding under the Hindu Marriage Act or even the Self Respect Marriage Act (because it's incorporated under the former) since they were affirmed atheists.
"Our only option was to register it under the Special Marriages Act," she recalls. And so, they followed the process of giving notice to the registrar office and waited three months till they could register the marriage.
"The notice has to be given because they think it's mostly couples who elope who use this Act. So there's a waiting period of three months, in case any objections come up," she explains.
Finally, on the wedding day, they exchanged garlands at the registrar's office. This was followed by a meal at Kalpana's place and a modest reception party for friends at a hotel.
Like her mother, bride Kalpana too wore a simple saree without jewellery.
Who says traditions cannot be made?