My mom walks up to an Indian American woman at the local TJ Maxx: “I love your outfit. Where did you get it?”
Wash. Rinse, Repeat… for months…
South Indian Traditional Saree
This post is essentially the guide to purchasing casual and formal Indian clothes in America when you have never done it before and don’t take regular trips to India. (A.K.A. How my Mom, Sister, Grandmothers and Cousins bought clothes for my Sangeet and Indian Ceremony.)
Here is the epic tale of my Mother’s struggles, so that you can skip the extraneous odyssey yourself.
step 1: Check out an Indian bridal expo
As Indian Weddings become more popular in the U.S. (are vendors see the $$$), there have been several Indian Bridal Expos popping up in major cities. My Mom went to one in Boston, and I visited one in D.C.
Pros: They have the latest trends in wedding clothing
Cons: Still breaks the bank and selection is limited
Mom found two outfits that seemed fittingly formal: one for Dad and one for herself. Since this was the beginning of the search, both seemed colorful; but as she would find out, American’s “colorful” is “subtle” in an Indian context. Excited about having an outfit and worried there would be no other options, she bought the gold and red, relatively muted salwar suit and a matching red kameez for Dad. She would ultimately wear this to both the sangeet and the reception in Mumbai. But if you knew my mom, you’d know that one was not enough… there may be a diamond in the rough waiting for her to find it… plus a growing number of relatives wanted Indian outfits, including my grandmothers!
Indian Outfits from the Bridal Expo
Step 2: “Stores” out of people’s homes
At the expo, my Mom found out that the majority of the “stores” in the U.S. are really just people who have brought back outfits from India and are selling them from their homes.
Pros: You can probably try on items
Cons: You may find it weird to shop from someone’s home. Would they take returns and exchanges? Is it finding a needle in a haystack?
My mom skipped this option.
Step 3: Check out the local Indian stores (if any)
Pros: You can try on clothes in the store
Cons: The prices are astronomical. $300 is a bit much for something you don’t feel confident in and know you’ll only wear once.
Google brought my mom to the store Raj in Waltham. The pre-made outfits she was selling were far too expensive, but she offered a deal: if my mom brought the fabric, she would sew salwar suits for $60 each. This was music to my Mom’s ears. She could pick out the perfect fabric to match my grandmother’s favorite colors for a reasonable price.
My aunt however did find something reasonable that she liked, blue saree:
Step 4: Outfits from scratch
Pros: You can customize and can actually be cheaper
Cons: May be difficult to find a reliable seamstress
My Mom took the Raj owner up on her deal. Together they drew an example of the salwar she wanted – the length and neckline. Mom picked up a light blue and light teal for each of my grandmothers, along with matching trim (aka bling) so that they didn’t feel too informal.
The owner asked for her to bring back “Indian weight” cotton for lining. Add that to the bill. Next, the owner asked for an additional $10 because the trim was complicated to added. A seamstress herself, my Mom knew this was reasonable.
Then the real trouble rolled in. As the wedding got closer, the delivery date kept pushing. My grandmothers were eager to try on their outfits, just in case they needed to find an alternative. My Mom isn’t terribly forceful, but she continued to follow-up until a week before the wedding, she finally got the outfits. The salwars weren’t as drawn: the necklines were different and lacked the princess seams my Mom asked for specifically. And Indian girlfriend warned me this is typical for Indian seamstresses; you have to be very present and pushy to get exactly what you want. They tend to improvise. Also, the trims were a bit loose, so my Mom re-secured the sequins and pearls.
Conclusion: Overall, my Mom said she was 60% satisfied, but insisted the price was still a steal. My grandmothers looked and felt lovely, so I suppose you could call it a success.
Step 5: Online
Pros: Wide selection, great prices and convenient
Cons: Sizes are variable and shipping can be unpredictable
At first they were afraid, they were petrified… and then the cheap outfit they ordered arrived quickly and as pictured. After my Mom’s trials, my sister turned to the internet. Not only was she able to search and filter by the color and style that she wanted, but the prices were reasonable and shipping relatively quick.
Warning: It may be a given that the outfits will need alterations. I’ve consistently found that clothes made in India are tight around the chest and armpits. Luckily, they also include a lot of fabric at the seams, making it relatively easy to alter. My Mom is a great seamstress and made small adjustments to most of my garments. Hopefully, you have someone nearby who can do the same!
Conclusion: Go online! Even if the garments aren’t perfect, they’re cheap enough to come up with an alternative quickly. Check out Amazon.com and Utsav!
The clothing breakdown for the wedding:
Mine – Lengha picked up in India
Mom – Salwar Kameez from Bridal Expo
Sister/Cousins – Anarkalis from Amazon.com
Mine – Silk Sarees my MIL picked up in India
Rockin’ my “9 Yard”
Mom – Saree from my MIL
Sister/Cousins – Matching Sarees I asked my MIL to pick up.
Part 1 of this post describes how we got from engagement to deciding to have two weddings (one American and one Indian) over labor day weekend in central Massachusetts. Now, let’s talk about the specific layout of the weekend.
Division of labor:
Anyone who has gone through the process knows how hard planning a wedding is. The fact that there is an entire profession of Wedding Planners is a sign that it can be hard for the average person to juggle their life while planning a massive, emotionally-impactful event. So how do you do two? We decided to leave the American Wedding planning to me and my family, and the Indian Wedding planning to my In-Laws. It was his parents who had the vision of what they wanted for the Indian Wedding. I was happy to go with the flow, show up and enjoy whatever they put together. My Husband had the tricky position of helping both of us. We did our best to assign him tasks and consult with him when we thought he’d like to have a say. But it didn’t turn out to be a perfect system…
I had a dream that my Husband and I would work seamlessly together, creating a wedding that was a true blending of our taste. But I was a bit naive. Not only are we both stubborn and opinionated, but we both have extremely different tastes. It took a few fights and mistakes before I just caved to his request to create the wedding of my dreams. My fear was that he wouldn’t feel emotionally attached to the American Wedding if it was only my dream come to life, not his or ours. And that fear came from a real place, but I just had to embrace that perhaps he didn’t have as many visions of his wedding as I did and that the napkin color didn’t affect him the way it affected me. Eventually, it was his mother who told me the wedding was about the bride and to forget the groom. Completely equal, custom-blended weddings seem to be a more modern concept.
I still struggled, until I admitted to myself that my greatest fear was that the Indian Wedding might mean more to him in the long run than the American one. I wanted to share our most precious moment, not each having our own. I decided to accept that my fears may be well-founded, but that is the situation I chose.If I wanted someone whose desires and traditions completely align with mine, I would have had to marry someone completely different. I love my Husband and the excitement our differences bring. So I sucked it up and took control of the American wedding. In the end, the guests appreciated the two clear visions of two diverse people, rather than one perfectly in-sync event.
Choosing the Indian Venue:
I can’t speak for my In-Laws, but I believe this decision boiled down to two things.
Will they let us use an outside Indian caterer?
Surprisingly few venues can handle more that 250 guests. And there are even fewer that don’t require you to use their services or a short list of caterers for food. After searching in vain in Worcester, MA, they narrowed it to the Devens Common Center, which is reasonably priced, familiar with Indian weddings and sandwiched by two hotels.
As a side note, Boston has many venues of the right size with experience in Indian Weddings. While most do not allow outside caterers, there are a surprising number of hotels with complete Indian menus just for this purpose. Warning – you’ll pay for it!
SATURDAY EVENING- American Wedding
SUNDAY ALL DAY- Mehndi, Baraat & Sangeet
MONDAY MORNING – Hindu Ceremony
SATURDAY – The American Wedding
Saturday was already set for the American Wedding. We’d let it play out like the average Christian wedding in 2015 – bride prep, ceremony, cocktail hour/photos and reception. My photographer was a great help in nailing down the exact times. The bridal party got our hair and make-up done at my childhood home, and we headed over to the venue a bit early for bridal party photos. My Husband wanted the impact of seeing me for the first time as I walked down the aisle, so two photographers coordinated to prevent the groom and I from crossing paths.
The ceremony was beautiful. As we left, we were surprised by an Acapella group from our Alma Mater, all set up by my incredible sister and brother-in-law. After about 45 minutes of photos, we spent a brief time chatting with guests before being introduced. A choreographed first dance, a blessing from my grandfather and the father/daughter dance all followed. We danced like crazy until 10:30pm and left the mansion with a sparkler exit. We tried to have an after party at the grill across from the hotels, but they closed promptly at 1am. Noone was too disappointed; there were another 2 days to go!
SUNDAY – Mehndi, Baraat and Sangheet
A day of rest for the guests and the groom… and a day of sitting still for me.
10 am – Mehndi
The bridal mehndi (fingertips to elbows and toes to a few inches above the ankles) started at 10am in a room above the hall. I asked my friends to drop by to keep me company and feed me (no free hands!). Guest mehndi started at about 2pm. A small design on one hand only took a few minutes for each person. I’ll be honest, I was at the end of my rope by 5pm. The sugar/lemon mixture applied to the mehndi left me sticky and immobile. Let’s not talk about how I went to the bathroom…
Meanwhile, the wedding guests had the freedom to do whatever they wished in the area. About a month before the wedding, I sent out a travel guide I created to all the guests. It included restaurants, attractions, wineries, golf courses, etc. A few of my friend groups merged after meeting the night before and sent me some jealousy-inducing photos of them lounging and playing board games as I sat getting my mehndi done.
After scraping off my mehndi, I was plopped into a chair for hair and make-up and sent out to do couples pictures with my Husband around 5:30pm.
6pm – Baraat
Wikipedia Definition: Baraat (Hindi: बरात) (Urdu: برات) is a bridegroom’s wedding procession in North India and Pakistan. In North Indian communities, it is customary for the bridegroom to travel to the wedding venue (often the bride’s house) on a mare, accompanied by his family members.
Firstly, we did look into it, and it costs $7,500 a day to rent an elephant. Luckily for my hubby, it was elephant or nothing… so he walked/danced to the venue.
The bride and grooms side separated at different hotel lobbies, so we could each parade to the venue. These parades are called the baarat. In most movies, the groom comes to the wedding on a horse or elephant. Tamil weddings don’t usually include them, and in the North, this happens before the ceremony. But what the hell – my Husband had always wanted a baarat like the Bollywood movies, and the ceremony was too early the next day. So before the sangheet it would have to be.
Wedding Tip: Get a live dholi! A dholi is a drummer who will lead the parade. Ours helped my side loosen up by teaching them the classic lightblub twist and coaching them in yelling “Hey!” It made all the difference in helping my New England family feel comfortable in letting loose.
Bride’s side first. (Rumor is we won the award for loudest parade!)
Then the Groom’s side.
The Bride’s parents and relatives meet the Groom at the door of the venue to give him their blessings. I have to say the photos of my Dad and Husband hugging leave me misty-eyed.
6:30pm – Sangeet
Sangeet – Another Northern tradition we borrowed for the fun of it is the Sangeet. Once is was a kind of bachelorette for the bride’s side, now it is often just a large party for both sides to get to know each other better. If there’s any American equivalent, it would be an American wedding reception.
The Bride’s Entrance involved my uncles holding a red canopy over me as my friends and family entered the hall to may favorite Bollywood songs and a little Taylor Swift.
The Groom’s Entrance would normally go next, but we both felt there was enough arriving and entering already. So we scrapped it to get the appetizers out and the drinks flowing.
This may feel like an unusual start to the American Bride – dancing first – but I think it’s something all weddings should adopt. Get the energy up immediately and get people comfortable with throwing their arms up, all before the first bite.
Intermingled among courses of food, family and friends perform for everyone. From speeches to singing and dancing to riddles, the entertainment is varied. I wish I had given my friends and family a bit more of a heads up. I assumed they wouldn’t be comfortable with performing, but perhaps that was a mistake! My husband and I performed a choreographed dance to Chaiyya Chaiyya. For many that night, the dance was more than a highlight, it was a sign that I had truly embraced their culture. Even my own friends told me: “It all felt right. You’ve been Indian inside all along.”
Towards 11pm, the DJ transitioned from fun dance night to wild party. By 12pm, I was barely standing and dragged myself to bed. I think they wrapped up around 1am.
MONDAY – Southern Hindu Ceremony
4am – My poor husband had to wake up at 4am to start a series of family specfic rituals that needed to be complete before the wedding ceremony could start.
6am – My wake up time.
Notice no breakfast… while the guests could eat their complimentary breakfast at the hotel. My In-law’s religious practices called for fasting before the ceremony.
8:30 am – Religious Ceremonies – Kashi Yatra, Oonjal & Vara
I’ll go over these in another post, but they are shorter ceremonies that need to happen to start the main ceremony at the auspicious time chosen by the priest.
Swing or Jhula
Served banana and milk
9am -11am – Main Ceremony
This includes: Kanyadanam, Mangalya Dharanam, Paani Grahanam, Saptha Padhi, Pradhaana Homam, and Treading the Grindstone. The timing is based on the Hindu religious calendar.
Make sure to remind guests that you’re not expected to sit quietly through this ceremony! Indians will be mingling, eating and chatting so the American guests should too!
Since this ceremony will be in sanskrit, I suggest either a written explanation of what is going on or have the DJ explain over a mic. We did both.
Treading the Grindstone
Seven Circles around the firs
Main Hindu Ceremony
11am – Greetings and Napka (Blessings)
You’re going to be tired, and you’re going to hungry, but you’ve got a few hundred people that traveled from afar to share this day with you and show their love. You’ll take pitcures and accept gifts, but most importantly, you’ll perform Napka. Napka (forgive me if this is a horrible translation) is when you bow before your elders, so that they can give you their blessings. The bride stands to the groom’s right and bows to the ground as they throw rice on you. Honestly, this was really fun for my family!
12pm – South Indian Lunch Buffet
Self-explanatory. I still get compliments on the food months later.
By 2pm, my Husband and I were able to escape. He crashed on the bed and slept for hours. Not wanting it all to end, my close family and I headed off to Friendly’s to grab an ice cream. As we sat enjoying our desserts, we all affirmed that we were ready to do it all again next weekend 🙂
Specifics on vendors, details on the Indian traditions and tidbits on what I learned will roll out in future posts. The next batch will be about my first family trip to India. Talk about out of your element!
And don’t forget to shake it up! Even though there are lots of traditions, stick to the ones that really matter to both your families. As long as everyone has fun (and you actually get married), it’s a success!
Great! You’re engaged! And your fiance is Indian. Now it’s time to plan a multi-cultural wedding.
You’ve worked through so many cultural difference in your relationship, this one can’t be that different, right? Maybe. But more likely, this will be the most complicated and fraught merging of cultures so far. Just to start, it involves the complexities of culture, religion, emotions, social pressure and In-Laws! I’m going to walk you through our process (or more like my process, because as much as I love my Husband – we haven’t mind melded just yet.)
First thing first, I took some time and asked myself, “What do you want?” A lot of people will ask you: “What has your dream been since you were a child?” But I think this is more harmful than helpful. There is no guarantee your image has stayed the same or that you even have one. The question is: What will make you happy? What will you not regret (regret doing or not doing)?
Second, what do your two families want and how much do you care? It’s a fair question – you can disregard their opinion all together. But when you’re in the moment, that may be harder than you think. I know I would have regretted not at least asking my parents opinion on certain things.
Side Note: One factor in our decision was that my in-laws pleaded that we not move in together before we got married. We already lived separately, but we were so ready to start the next phase of our lives and be together that this was a big concession. However, it did mean our wedding planning would not linger. We got engaged Jan 1. And we wanted a wedding August – October of that year. Good news – it can be done!
This is what we netted out with after some soul-searching:
I want: A modern American ceremony (loosely structured on Christian traditions) in central Massachusetts where several generations of both sides of my family have lived.
He wants: To go to Court tomorrow, move in together immediately and save a bunch of money
My family wants: Whatever I want as long as they’re there
His family wants: A traditional South Indian Hindu Ceremony with as many of their family members involved as possible – close to 300 invites
Everyone wants: A really fun party
Conclusion: Since my Husband respects and loves his parents dearly, he was inclined to do what it took to make them happy. **Note: This decision was debated and fought over on at least one destroyed date night. We almost decided to not have the wedding and save the money. But only minutes later, I caved. Life is short. What if one of us died young? I wanted the memories. I wanted my family to feel involved in creating our new family unit. As they say, “You can’t take it[money] with you!” So, Court was out and at least one wedding was in…
But it was then that a running theme emerged from the discussion: equality. If we had an American wedding and not an Indian wedding, it would be difficult socially and emotionally for his parents. So it was either court or two weddings.
Now, how do you make it work? The easy answer might seem like – have two ceremonies and one reception in a day! But this is easier said then done. We had friends, a North Indian and Chinese couple, get married this way. It worked because the North Indian ceremony is relatively short and the Chinese tea ceremony was even shorter. However, the Tamil ceremony can run 2-4 hours.
Here’s how it broke down for us:
My Worry #1: Could we find a space that holds that many people that would also give me the ceremony I dreamed of? I’m a fan of nature, historic buildings, gardens… I would need a hotel ballroom to hold 300.
Answer: I would do the American ceremony elsewhere and then end up at a ballroom for the reception. No problem!
In-Law Worry #1: If I feel strongly about Massachusetts, can we get the Indian family there?
Answer: “It might be too difficult, so let’s do a completely separate Indian wedding. Sunshine, be free and go plan your American Wedding. We will plan separately, that way we won’t interfere with your dream.” This was difficult for me as I wanted everyone to feel involved, but I was overwhelmed and trusted it was the right course.
In Law Worry #2: If not Mass., Where? And how much would it cost?
My husband’s parents live in D.C. – wouldn’t it be easier to orchestrate something there? The prices would be higher than India, but fewer people would attend since price and visas would be an issue for international visitors. Most of the extended family lives in India – wouldn’t it be better to have a full Hindu wedding in India? Their family would be closer, but amongst their peers, his parents would have to fully embrace the traditions, making it much larger and more expensive than holding it in America.
Flash to me on the venue hunt for the American wedding. I was trying to balance atmosphere, price & convenience. I was torn between the Colonial Inn and Chocksett Inn – the pros and cons were not the same but seemed to balance themselves out. I would wake up at 3am unable to sleep and tortured by the choice. My time was running out. Each venue had only one Saturday or Friday date left that year, and it was going to go fast.
That is until my mom insisted that we check out The Harding Allen Estate in Barre, MA. The historic mansion was built to be a replica of the Newport Mansion by an eccentric, wealthy New Yorker. It had the exact “Jane Austen” feel I wanted, with immaculate gardens and a real historic flair. Plus, the ballroom was built to look like an elegant tent, but with climate controlled. The owner was the caterer, making the packages extremely well-priced. I made sure to read between the lines and found a few hidden charges/rules, but felt I could comply. They could fit 225, way above the 180 that my Husband and I felt was the maximum we wanted to attend. The one major con… it was 30 minutes from any hotels. I felt guilty for giving on the convenience category, but promised myself that we would hire transportation. There was one Saturday left – Labor Day weekend. Crap… that means some people would be upset that they had to spend the vacation at the wedding. My parents insisted that anyone I truly want to be there, would make the effort to come. After a quick call to my Fiance, who wasn’t able to make this trip up North (we made a venue trip up 2 weeks prior), I wrote a check for the deposit on the spot.
My parents, sister and brother-in-law sat with me at an Au Bon Pain to digest what had just happened. I was slowly letting myself accept that I committed and get excited. I called my future MIL to tell her the good news. But right after I told her, she replied, “Good. We decided that we’re going to have the Indian wedding following right after the American wedding. That way our closest relative traveling from India only have to travel once. We’re heading up to MA to check out venues that can accommodate our number next weekend.”
Then I did something unexpected: I burst into tears. I had just made a commitment on a venue catering solely to my dreams based on one set of information. Now, I was being told my base information was incorrect, and there was a whole other set of variables. I couldn’t handle the pressure or the guilt. His entire family would be traveling from far and wide to the middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts and go to an American Wedding 30-50 minutes from their hotel and 2 hours from Logan airport. Both sides of my family worked to calm me down. They emphasized that at some point you have to make a decision and move forward and told me everything would be perfect.
And they were right. Everything did turn out perfect, but it was a long road to get there. Part Two of this post will include how we determined the location of the Indian Wedding and exactly how we would schedule two weddings in one three-day holiday weekend.
Thanks for reading!
Please email me at samosasandsunshine@gmail[dot]com if you have any questions about this post or want me to elaborate further.
Excuse me? You want to invite who? His dentist from 3rd grade? His father’s dry cleaner? His 3rd cousin 5 times removed who he’s never met?
I’m not being dismissive to disrespect any of these wonderful people… I’m letting future MIL’s and FIL’s know what it sounds like to an American bride when she’s reviewing the Indian in-laws’ guest list. For American brides and grooms, the guest list can be the greatest subject of contention. Mostly, it involves many awkward conversations with people who want to go, but you have no room for. Luckily, it’s generally understood as the norm and doesn’t hurt too many feelings. In fact, it’s frowned upon to cause a (public) stink if you’re not invited. But for Indians… it’s not so simple. Before I get into why, let me breakdown an American couple’s mindset to make it as understandable as possible.
Why are American Brides & Grooms forgiven if they cut the guest list? Why is it acceptable for American Brides & Grooms to stick to a number between 50 – 200 guests?*
The American Wedding is allowed to be “intimate.” This is the Bride and Groom’s day! You’re told that this is the most special day of your life, and you really only want the people you care about most to surround you. You don’t want a near-stranger messing up your dream day!
It’s EXPENSIVE! Food, favors, transportation… the cost per guest adds up quickly. You don’t want to be paying for any-ol’-person, who may or may not be in your life 5 years down the line.
The venue has a limit. For every bride that lies and says, “The venue doesn’t allow too many people, so we have to keep the guest list down,” there is a bride telling the truth. The increasingly diverse and unique wedding venues on the market often have a cap at 100, 150, 200, 250, etc, simply because of space, number of bathrooms or the fire code. (They also have a minimum for specific nights, but that’s no help at the moment).
* There are many, many exceptions to this. For example, I know some religious communities have a very large ceremony and a smaller reception. But this has been my experience and the internet wedding industry seems to support this.
I would like to note that I never thought I’d be writing this. All of my adult life, I always said, “When I get married, the most important thing to me is people. I will sacrifice other places in the budget to have everyone I love there.” However, after the initial month of meeting with vendors, I understood what I was truly up against. It helped that I didn’t get married until I was 29. By that age, you realize you’re not as close with your freshman college roommates or you know that your first boss won’t keep in touch 5 years later. I was able to reduce my list without more than a sleepless night or two. Seeing how many actually accepted is drama for another post…
Indian families follow one saying: the more, the merrier! Or more accurately: the more, the more blessed! Indian families feel very strongly that EVERYONE should be invited. To not be invited is an insult. Imagine a rural village in India. When a wedding comes around, you invite the entire village! It’s not uncommon even today to jump open the doors of the wedding hall and let anyone come in for a meal. For my husband, parring down the list was heart-wrenching. For my in-laws it was nearly impossible. They were positive they would need a hall for at least 350 people.
From what I can tell, this perspective is based on at least three principles:
The more guests, the more blessings! There’s no cap! And who doesn’t want good luck and blessings?
The wedding is a merging of two families and two communities, not two people. This is a day for the families. The wedding is very much a platform for the parents, much like America many decades ago, I might add.
What goes around comes around. If everyone invites everyone, you will be repaid for your investment with many, many wedding parties in the future.
There are probably more philosophies behind this, but these are what I’ve devised so far.
So, how do you have an Indian wedding in America without going bankrupt? Do you have the wedding in India? Is it even cheaper there? How many relatives would have to travel? Can they even get visas?
How do you have an American bride’s dream wedding in a small barn or chapel with 300+ guests? How does an American bride still feel like it’s “her” day, when she sees a sea of unfamiliar faces?
The answers aren’t just about the numbers or even about culture. They’re about feelings too. My next post will tackle the many combinations of weddings for an American/Indian couple. And I’ll let you know what we chose to do… including the regrets.