Minimum jewellery, no make-up to speak off. Weddings 1957 style. Now it's more gold than a woman can carry, wearing her neck down, professional make-up, another professional to drape the sari, something you have done for years.
The rich in Kerala have a lot to answer for!
Getting Married -- 1957
In the weeks before the wedding, I was carried along on the flow of the preparations. There were clothes to get together, necklaces and bangles to be chosen, many sessions with the local tailor to get the sari-blouses sewn in time. He was established with his pedal Singer machine on the edge of a veranda shop, within calling distance from my home.
The wedding was a night ceremony like most Nair weddings in long-ago days, though recently they have become day-time events. The house was bursting with family and friends; every room you walked into there were richly attired women; the compound was humming with men, busy getting the panthal, made of bamboo and coconut thatch up, and supervising the cooks’ lists. My father’s favourite nephew, Keshavan, was in charge; he had a gift of making all life into a joke; he saved me from looking fully at the massive life-change coming.
On the afternoon of the wedding, I had a serious attack of the jitters. As usual, Mani came to my rescue.
‘They’re all downstairs. Come upstairs with me,’ she said. ‘let’s go to your father’s room.’
I gathered up my wedding sari, a Banares off-white silk, with a rich gold border, my gold brocade blouse, underwear and a towel. My hair was still dripping wet from my bath only a few minutes before. Upstairs was mercifully empty; we bolted the door and I started getting dressed for the event.
I stripped and got my home-made knickers and rowka (home-made bodice) on.
‘Don’t you have a bra?’ Mani asked, looking at me as she often looked – with thinly concealed exasperation at my lack of feminine skills. Today, in our eighties, I come across that look still.
I had never owned a ready-made garment of any ilk up to that day. She ran downstairs and came up with one of her new Maidenform bras. When I put it on, even I could see it did surprising things to my figure. Mmm.
I passed a comb through my wet hair to get rid of the knots. It was still dripping. Mani seized my small towel and wiped the ends off impatiently.
‘Leave a few knots,’ she instructed. It will keep the konda tight and bulk it up.’
Mani plaited my hair in two hip-length plaits and wound them, first one, and then the second one around it, on the back of my head. She then decorated the hair-do with pieces of jasmine garland.
People knocked and shouted at us to open the door. Women in the family would want to see the bride being dressed – Mani had helped me escape that ordeal. Dressing the bride is normally a communal affair – family and friends have a right to watch; we were denying them this little show.
Make-up for me was a token dusting of Cuticura talcum powder on my nose, a large magenta pottu in the middle of my forehead, and kohl on the inside, bottom rim of the eye, applied with a forefinger. How quick and easy was that?
Today, there is a professional hairdresser and make-up artist to dress the middle-class bride before she is smothered in gold. Gold is bought by the kilogram by middle class parents.
The only mirror we had was my father’s small round shaving mirror; so I had a good look in it; I seemed no different from usual. A little pale perhaps, but It would have to do. I wound the sari around me and secured it with a nappy-pin at the waist. The gold on the sari made my face glow. Mani tugged at the bottom. ‘You are not walking in a puddle to lift the sari so high,’ she muttered.
As Mani and I were finishing up there were frantic knocks on the door. We didn’t respond. The someone knocking at the door repeatedly was not giving up. ‘Open,’ my father called out. ‘I need to get into my chest-of-drawers.’
We opened the door and Achan came in.
‘Locking me out of my own room…’ he murmured. He unlocked the top drawer of the chest-of-drawers, and took out my new gold necklaces, just three, not the bust-covering jangle of today, and my six bangles. He looked stressed.
‘Better get these on,’ he said. He gave me a long hard look. ‘You alright?’
Daft question. I was in zombie land and did not
As he went down the stairs the Nadaswaram, the closest to a trumpet in traditional south Indian music, started its jaunty statement of celebration, the music of the Gods, from the far corner of the compound, loud enough for the whole neighbourhood to be alerted; the drums came on joyfully to accompany it. Now I was petrified; the rhythm of that music was insistent; no getting away from its message.
A flame flared up in my stomach and subsided. I sat down on my father’s bed waiting for my nerves to settle. When I went downstairs, I knew I would be on show. The family of the bridegroom were coming, one by one, and I had to accept greetings and gifts and respond to pointless conversation with strangers. And smile till my jaws ached.
When I had calmed down, I decided to go down and meet the mob; my cousin, Naani, as usual was looking out for me. She was at the bottom of the stairs, and as she saw me coming down the stairs, in my bridal sari; she looked right and left and grabbed my hand.
‘You look as if you’ve seen a ghost,’ she said. She took me, sleep-walking, to the kitchen. ‘Chance to get some coffee,’ Naani said. This was her carrying out her life-long job of feeding me, caring for me, wiping my tears. After that quick gulp of coffee laced with love, I walked back to the sitting room, past the back veranda. In the right-hand corner of the back-compound, there was furious activity, a little furtive.
There was a whole subculture being nurtured there. Keshavan was busy giving directions to the cooks and when he was busy there would usually be mischief. I noticed that, in between talking to the cooks, he was quietly fiddling with a carton full of something. I stopped and looked. Then the something clanged, and all was revealed. My cousin was secreting several bottles behind the washing-stone, where our maid generally beat our clothes to death. I didn’t have to ask what they were.
Liquor was not meant to be served at Nair weddings, but there would be a steady demand from a few men who could not enjoy anywhere or anything unless propped up by Arrack or Gin. As the night grew darker there would be a steady stream of devotees slipping away from the front of the house to the back, almost led by their noses, the poor, addicted sods. These were the same men whose livers would, in Keshavan’s picturesque telling, drop off in the vicinity of the Cosmopolitan Club.The kitchen had been empty except for coffee and tea in huge urns. All the rest would be cooked in huge urulis, wok-shaped brass and aluminium pans, outside, by Brahmin men. They had set up several three-stone fires and the flames under them were rising high. Two of the men were dealing with enormous quantities of rice: they were spreading cooked rice on pristine grass mats, a layer of hot, steaming rice, then a raw layer, then again a cooked layer – the raw rice would cook in the heat and moisture of the rice above and below it. Rice is always slightly under-cooked at wedding feasts by design; apparently it slows down the process of rice getting