Dallas Smith's Blog

Marriage Indian Style

March, 2012

Marriage Indian Style

In traditional Moslem culture, all marriages are arranged.  Once the bride and groom’s families complete their negotiations on dowry terms (the money and goods paid to the groom’s family as compensation for assuming the “burden” of supporting the addition to the groom’s family), the marriage ceremony is arranged.  Marriages are a time for large celebrations featuring conspicuous consumption.  In those ceremonies adhering to tradition, the bride and groom first see each other’s faces reflected in a mirror held up by the mullah (Moslem priest) during the marriage ceremony.  (I have no idea how many Indian Moslems still follow this tradition.)

Modern Hindu Indian society is looser than traditional Moslem communities.  Nonetheless, arranged marriages are still more prevalent than “love” marriages, i.e. marriages where the bride and groom meet independently of their parents.  On this trip, I learned that many of the couples I met were happily married in their arranged marriages.  This was the first time in my many trips to India in which I had multiple conversations with different people about their arranged marriages.

One conversation was with a man who had visited our home in Reno in 2007 under the auspices of the Northern Nevada International Center.  At that time, he was working in the police department in Mumbai.  (He’s since started a new job at a bank doing fraud prevention.)  On this visit, he invited me to lunch at the Cricket Club with him, his wife, and another couple.  His wife also works currently at the police department. Both are well-paid professionals working at high level jobs.  I innocently asked if they had met at work, at which point I was informed that theirs was an arranged marriage.  They seemed perfectly well suited to each other.

Another conversation was with my friend, Sridar, a South Indian percussionist who has played with Mynta in years past.  I had met Sridar several years ago, and on this tour I had occasion to visit Sridar at his apartment, meeting his wife, young daughter, and parents.  Sridar was educated as a software engineer and for several years had a good job in the IT industry.  In his case, he met his arranged wife-to-be several times before they both agreed to being married.  I asked whether he had considered finding a wife on his own.  He answered that he had been too absorbed with his studies and job to independently find a wife for a love marriage.  In other words, he was perfectly comfortable with his parents arranging a mate for himself.  Eventually, Sridar was not happy in his IT job and decided to pursue a music career instead.  He joked that by the time he made this risky career decision, it was too late for his wife to back out… they were already married.  Luckily for Sridar, his wife supported his career change decision.  It turned out to be a great decision, since Sridar is professionally active and recognized as one of Mumbai’s premiere percussionists.  Before I met Sridar, he toured the states as a member of Zakir Hussain’s bi-annual Masters of Percussion tour.

I don’t know exactly how to verify this statistic, but I was told that the divorce rate among arranged marriages is an astounding one percent!  That percentage sounds amazingly low.  Certainly there are tremendous pressures for arranged marriages not to divorce.  Not least among them are family pressures, to avoid the blame and disgrace that would accompany a divorce.  Women are especially prone to stay in an unhappy marriage, because of the stigma that attaches to a divorced woman, making her less eligible for re-marriage, not to mention the fact that many women are not prepared to pursue an independent career and support themselves as divorced women.  Notwithstanding these pressures on arranged marriages, there is general agreement among the Indians I spoke with, that arranged marriages generally have a much better prognosis for success than “love marriages”.

Certainly, loveless arranged marriages are common, especially when the husbands are many years, even decades older than their young wives, as is often the case in arranged marriages. Also, the freedom to choose in a love marriage implies the freedom to quit the marriage if the love is no longer there, and the freedom to look for love from somebody else.  Further conversations as to why arranged marriages seem to endure more consistently than love marriages reveals attitudes foreign to the American mindset.  “We learn to love the person our parents have so carefully chosen for us.  We trust that our chosen mate comes from a good family, that he/she is virtuous (i.e. virginal), and that we will have complete support for our marriage from both sides of the family.”  If the system isn’t broke, there’s no reason to try to fix it.  It’s hard to argue with the success of the vast majority of arranged marriages.

Emerging Coffee Culture

One item being reported in both the Indian and American press is the explosion of new Indian coffee houses.  India, especially since British colonial days, has been famous as a tea culture.  Indeed, it’s been only in the last decade or so that Chai, Indian black tea with milk, sugar, and spices, has become widely available in the USA.  Even Starbucks sells chai.  Now, the big news is that Starbucks is going to enter the Indian market later this year.

The Indian coffee market has been led by Café Coffee Day, an Indian barrister chain now present at airports and upscale neighborhoods, with coffee shops numbering several hundred around the country.  Its prices are high for Indian society, almost as high in dollars as Starbucks costs in the states.  But taking its cue from Starbuck’s lead in the states, Coffee Day is selling a social environment as much as it’s selling coffee.  Its commercial catchphrase is “A lot can happen over coffee.”  Its cafes offer a safe place for young men and women to safely and discreetly meet and perhaps find romance.  Thus coffee cafes could be the mechanism of a social transition from arranged marriages to love marriages, at least in the big cities among the affluent, who can afford to spend as much on a cup of coffee as a full meal costs in a regular restaurant.

Music in Mumbai

Mumbai reminds me of no other city as much as New York City.  It’s a bustling metropolis sporting many huge skyscrapers with many more under construction.  There are hotels and restaurants for any budget.  “Winter” (typically in the 80’s Fahrenheit/25-30 Celsius) is the best weather of the year.  (Summer is the monsoon season, with constant rain for days on end.  Spring and Fall are hot enough to be uncomfortable. ) Winter is the season when more NRI’s (non-resident Indians) come to visit.  It’s also concert season.  Like New York City, there are excellent concerts occurring every night during this season.

I was lucky enough to attend several excellent concerts, from a pure Indian classical to several Indian-jazz-fusion concerts.  The music fusion scene is quite exciting.  I heard virtuoso English guitarist John Mclaughlin with an all-Indian group. I heard an Indian sitar player who has electrified his sitar so that he sounds like Jimi Hendrix on electric guitar.  This is the artistic environment which supports audiences which give Mynta such a great reception.

I realized on this trip that one reason that the audience for East-West fusion is so large in India is that Indian classical music is primarily an improvisational art, and thus has much in common with jazz.  Therefore, the audiences that attend Indian classical concerts are intrigued by the inroads of their traditional art form into Western jazz and pop music.  Unfortunately, Western classical audiences are not drawn to attend fusion concerts, because there is no similar cross-cultural artistic blending between Western and Indian classical artists and performance arts.  I believe that Indian classical influences are being assimilated into Western jazz similarly to how Brazilian and Afro-Cuban influences merged with jazz in years past.  Indian musicians are leading the way in this artistic evolution.  I’m happy to be a part of this exciting musical scene at least every year or two when I manage to tour India.  This trip is my ninth tour.  With the exception of my first trip to India in 1971, every trip has been centered on a musical agenda.

The long trip home

My air flight from Mumbai to Reno transited through Paris and Salt Lake City, taking around thirty hours in all.  The Paris airport offers its own cultural shock, with outrageously high prices compared to what I had become used to in India.  Indeed, the prices being charged in the airport’s duty-free store for French liquors are higher than those charged in Reno at Costco.  The fashion models advertising famous name French brands are certainly classy.  But I’ve never been drawn to French sartorial fashions.  I prefer Indian fashions.  They’re more colorful and less formal, more in tune with my self-image.

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