For south Indians, one of the most evocative reminders of the wedding season is the sound of nadaswarams and thavils (drums)—a holdover from the times when these ceremonies were performed in temples but still somehow fitting beautifully into this era of air-conditioned marriage halls. This is no mere muzak; in the key early morning rituals, the artists perform very specific functions. When the couple sits on a swing, to be blessed by a retinue of aunts, the troupe plays a set of classic melodies, including the sweet, poignant Sita Kalyana. When the groom ties the thali around the bride’s neck, some grizzled old relative on the dais will hold one finger up above the throng and shake it rapidly—the cue for the percussionists to go to town and pound their instruments into submission. Throughout, the music meshes into the morning’s ceremony like the gears of smooth clockwork.
On the other hand, the evening reception, a newer element of the south Indian wedding, hasn’t quite figured out how to integrate live Carnatic into its operations. The scene is thus dismally familiar. Bride and groom stand at one end of the hall, shaking hand after hand, summoning up smile after smile for photo after photo. Around them, their guests wade heartily into social talk, finally able to ask Gopal Mama in person if his new son-in-law Badri is the same Badri who studied at IIT Bombay with Mala’s brother Vishnu. At the other end of the hall, a violinist plays a wonderful little phrase in the raga Abheri, caught only by a handful of enthusiasts who wish the others would shut up about Badri. I’ve often attended such receptions, and I’ve always felt keen stabs of sympathy for the musicians.
On the side: Musicians at a wedding reception.
There seems to be no easy solution to this problem. For a number of upcoming musicians, the wedding reception offers not only terrific visibility but also a secure livelihood; over the course of 2 hours of relatively undemanding performance at a reception, a musician can earn three or four times the pay she would from a more gruelling concert-hall recital. Without that subsidy, I suspect that many more musicians would get disheartened with their shaky finances and return to their chartered accountancy exams or pursuing their engineering degree.
For the guests, most of whom nowadays meet their extended clan only at weddings, the lure of conversation is understandably strong. For the sensitive host, any well-intentioned attempt to impose a semblance of silence can feel unreasonable and draconian. My sister recently attended a reception where the groom’s mother, a musician herself, sternly insisted on shushing her guests when the concert was in progress. But garrulity still had its way; eventually the crowd began to thin as people simply took their conversations outside the hall.
I did go to one reception, two years ago, that had engineered a fair compromise. The invitation clearly announced that the concert would take an hour before the actual reception, allowing those who wanted to listen to the music to turn up accordingly. During the concert, the lights were dimmed, and the bride and groom sat in the front row and resolutely refused to mingle. Then, once the concert ended, they took their places on the dais, ready to begin an evening of glad-handing the assembled masses.
Write to Samanth Subramanian at firstname.lastname@example.org