by Harish Tyagi
I always like to approach a feature story by selecting a subject which carries myriad emotions and aesthetics everyone can relate to – a subject that appeals to many people, no matter what nationality. So when I was in Bhopal for a short trip and came to know about the mass marriages in the Pal Community of northern India, I almost spontaneously decided to photograph the event. The Pal community once used to rear sheep and cattle – hence their name from the Hindi word “palna” which means ‘to nurture’ – but now follow various professions with only some still engaged in animal husbandry.
Over the course of the years, I had heard a lot about mass marriages in different sections of the Indian society. I had often wondered how a couple would feel about sharing such an intimate and personal moment in their lives along with so many other couples – and under full public glare.
Many of these couples do not know each other that well as a majority are arranged weddings, solemnized in accordance with Hindu customs. Parents from both sides are in touch while making the pairing final, in some cases also allowing the couple to meet once or twice. But when you speak to these couples, they are confident and clear in their minds about spending the rest of their lives with their partners. They say they feel blessed to be part of a mass wedding and they get good vibes about the ceremony.
It is always challenging for me to capture the moods that tell the story and when I was working on this feature, I wanted to keep a balance showing the emotions in both the brides and the grooms. However, I must say there was more opportunity in the grooms’ enclosures than in the brides’ as the latter were very shy and surrounded by their family members.
The atmosphere was just great – the anticipation and excitement among such a mass of newly weds, all so palpable. In the separate enclosures for the grooms and brides, everyone was in a festive mood, wearing smiles, and in nervous excitement getting finishing touches to their wedding finery – henna on their hands, a bit of make-up for the women and the men mindful of the little creases on their otherwise well-ironed suits.
When I saw grooms getting painted on their face I asked them how it felt. They said it was part of their customs to have a little make-up and that this would make them look like a groom. In most cases the make-up is done by the sister, a close family member or even by a professional.
It was interesting to see how locals use all conceivable modes of transport – cycles, cars, tractors, even commercial trucks – to reach the venue and the wedding procession. It was an experience to see the brides board open-top trucks and grooms ride on camels, often three at a time, if needed. I suspect they were short of camels which is the reason why the grooms ended up sharing.
The wedding procession was full of pomp and show. Musicians played traditional instruments and relatives danced to drumbeats amid fireworks as the procession moved to the venue where the wedding rituals took place. Happy relatives and friends also dragged me to join the dance on a Bollywood number in a discotheque set up on a moving mini-truck, and soon enough, amid the cheering crowds, I was up to displaying my dancing skills on the vehicle that sped to the venue.
The ceremony continued overnight and well into the wee hours of the next day. The wedding finale is a crescendo of emotions – the huge gathering has an amalgam of happiness and an unmistakable tinge of sadness. Elders and family members get to bid a tearful adieu to the women as they move to the groom’s home forever. After the fun and merriment and an emotional farewell, the mass wedding marks an exuberant beginning to a new life together, at a fraction of what a conventional wedding would have cost.