It’s no secret that Indian weddings are big business. Couples arrange elaborate photoshoots in the hope they go viral; Amazon Prime has made a TV series chronicling the lives of two wedding planners in Delhi; and one celebration in December 2018 – at which Beyoncé performed – was rumoured to have cost as much as $100m (£80m).
Yet the Bangalore photographer Mahesh Shantaram goes so far as to claim that “the wedding-industrial complex keeps the mighty wheels of the Indian economy turning”. The images in his Matrimania project – taken at more than 150 weddings between 2008 and 2015 – document moments of humour in the conspicuous celebrations of the Indian upper- and middle-classes.
“Every wedding is the greatest day of somebody’s lives, and they’re offering to share that with the rest of the world,” Shantaram tells BBC Culture. “In India, it almost feels as though the rest of the world attends the wedding. It’s rarely a small and intimate occasion.” In his essay accompanying the photos, he writes: “Things get a little crazy when the floodgates of the wedding season open days after Diwali. For example, on November 27, 2011, an estimated 60,000 couples tied the knot in Delhi alone, according to the Wall Street Journal… The great Indian wedding, like the great Indian waistline, has bloated to keep up with great Indian aspirations.”
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Instead of simply capturing details that might suggest a sense of excess, Shantaram sought out moments of humour that allowed reality to sneak through the polish. It’s an approach with echoes in the work of British photographer Martin Parr, who is a fan, buying copies of the Matrimania book for himself and for Ian Weldon – another wedding photographer with an off-kilter perspective. “You could say my photos are outtakes from weddings, not the wedding photography itself,” says Shantaram. “It’s an inverse, a negative of the typical wedding album, that I make for my clients.”
He started out with the aim of providing an alternative viewpoint to the usual wedding photographer. “I had a personal history of wedding photos – I wasn’t a huge fan of weddings, because I just saw them as events that impose upon young Indians old social traditions. I felt a way to respond to that would be through my photography – to bring photojournalism into wedding photography, which back in the late 2000s was an exercise in pure documenting of rituals. But none of the humorous observations that could be made at weddings – none of the excitement and energy – was captured, because wedding photographers thought they had a list of things that they needed to photograph.”
“Everyone’s wedding photography was exactly the same, including my own – my wife and I simply rejected our wedding album, because it didn’t capture the moments that we remembered, and we didn’t want to remember these so-called moments that were in the book. So that’s when I saw an opportunity to become a wedding photographer with something new to offer, and that’s what I did. It caught on quickly, because people had a natural affinity to what wedding photography should look like in the modern era.”
Matrimania offers a counterpoint to traditional image-making. One photo of a horse has been cropped just to show its legs and a bare foot of the rider; another shows a worker setting off fireworks, forlornly staring at a diving spark. “A typical wedding album, anywhere in the world, is really an edit,” says Shantaram. “It’s a happy edit, an edit with a purpose: to filter out any sort of critical observations or negativity, and it’s an edit that is determinedly positive. My book is also a wedding album, but it’s made with a different purpose in mind.”
It’s also a reflection of wider Indian society. “The wedding is where you have to accommodate all the friends and family and extended family, you’ve got to keep them entertained, well-fed. So I’m really looking at the wedding as an event rather than marriage as an institution. But they are interlinked, of course,” he says. “Matrimania is full of symbolism – you can see symbols of the class and caste divide, who’s working and who are they working for, who’s being served, and how each one knows their status and role in society.”
Parr gave him some advice when he first started working on the project. “My work was mainly about the wedding sets that were left behind after the marriage, because that lent itself to a kind of commentary on what came before – and Martin told me it won’t work without the people in it, you’ve got to show the people,” says Shantaram. “So that’s when I started looking at all the people, the participants in this entire event; at the workers, who are an integral part of the operation; at the guests. Looking at everyone who has a role in this – a typical wedding photographer might say that a wedding is only about the bride and groom. But I wanted to open up the vision, to include all the other actors, to see the relationships between them.”
In the book, writer Gita Aravamudan praises him for capturing “the detached moments of the wedding technicians – when they are momentarily away from the hustle and bustle”. On the periphery, workers ease themselves out of costumes or line up behind refreshment stands, their faces bearing expressions that range between amusement, indifference and boredom.
Matrimania also offers a prism through which we can see the tension between generations in India today. “There are two Indias going on at the same time, and these two Indias need to co-exist. There’s the traditional India that my parents grew up in, and parents are always trying to foist that on the young Indians, who have one foot in the rest of the modern world and one foot in India. So they’re trying to do that balancing act, and it’s really the ongoing story of India.”
Ultimately, Shantaram gave up photographing weddings because of those generational shifts. “What you see in Matrimania is a phase that we were going through,” he says. “What I see happening more and more is that weddings are compressing, because brides and grooms do not want the massive weddings, these are mainly for the parents.” In the book, he writes: “An Indian couple typically gets married twice in their lifetime. The first is their own wedding, where they have no clue what to expect. The second time is by proxy when they marry their kids off.”
“By the time your children marry, you’ve got more wealth, and you can show who you are in society,” he tells BBC Culture. “This often has disastrous consequences, because parents start saving up for their children’s weddings from a very early age, and that puts a lot of pressure on it… What is changing is when young Indians believe this is not what they want to spend a large fraction of their savings or their parents’ savings on – they’d rather have an intimate wedding, and marry whoever they want – it could be from any religion, across faith. And when that happens, when Indians decide to get married for love or irrespective of artificial factors like faith, then the weddings become smaller. They want to spend the day only with those who really matter to them.”
Yet this still carries a cost. “It’s hugely controversial in India: people are killed for marrying outside their caste – it’s not even inter-faith, just different castes within the same faith – by their own family, and in the name of honour… There’s a dark underbelly to this otherwise happy occasion that a wedding ought to signify. At every wedding, there are people who are complicit in furthering society’s biases to some extent.”
That can make some ceremonies a bittersweet occasion, as one of Shantaram’s images reveals. It shows a bride, dancing alone on a balcony – a joyful photo that also has a melancholic feel. “This was a wedding where they married for themselves, so the bride made a promise to her mother that she would marry in her home, up in the mountains,” he says. “They married for love, which is rare in India. But the consequence of that was that the boy’s family completely boycotted the wedding. So it was a very intimate occasion.”