A fitting tribute to the family drama that is an Indian wedding.
A surprising and vivid picture of the urban middle class
Wedding Album; Girish Karnad, Oxford University Press, Rs. 245.
Girish Karnad never fails to surprise his readers. Always armed with unpredictability, his plays go back in time, wending their way through the annals of history and the labyrinthine recesses of oral and written mythology.
And yet this time around — with Wedding Album — he transports us back into the present. With a resounding thud. No longer are we told those beautiful stories from Chitradurga, the darker tales from rural India. Instead, he presents a surprising and vivid picture of the urban middle class, persuading us to confront our realities as we hurtle forward into newer times and generations.
New visual tool
In Wedding Album, Karnad reinvents his writing by introducing a new visual tool — that of technology, and its newfound uses in traditional situations. The play begins with a video bio — a replacement for the written bio-data that a girl must present to the prospective match in a traditional arranged marriage. Here, the 22-year-old Vidula Nadkarni is caught on camera by her brother, Rohit, as she introduces herself to her prospective NRI groom — a man she has yet to meet in person. Karnad goes on to introduce other members of the Saraswat Brahmin Nadkarni family as they get into the thick of wedding preparations. A sense of expectation about the imminent arrival of the groom, Ashwin, and a shadow of trepidation, hangs over the Nadkarni household as various family members alternately express concern and hope regarding the successful union of two individuals who have never before seen each other in person. Characters are introduced through their reactions to Vidula’s situation and we are soon familiar with their opinions and prejudices, loves and hates.
Vidula’s conservative older sister, the expat Hema, is juxtaposed poignantly with a more practical and at times progressive mother while Rohit himself, the seeming rebel with a Christian girlfriend, chooses arrangement over love for better career prospects.
Karnad deftly weaves multiple threads — sub-plots such as 13-year-old Vivan’s passionate and pornographic notes to Hema who is old enough to be his mother, and Radhabai the domestic’s pathos-filled story. Thus, not only does he whiz between time zones, but also across the socio-economic spectrum. He introduces family intrigue by insinuating that Vidula may not be her father’s child but, rather, his estranged brother’s.
Then, like the soap opera that it is turning into, Karnad turns his story into a pitch for a television serial. We move forward in time to see an older Rohit’s attempt to sell his family saga to a production house. In the meanwhile, he has sacrificed his Christian love for an arranged match that has helped finance a trip to Germany.
In a bizarre twist of fate, his ex-love is an employee of the same production house and now that his wife is away at her maternal home for the birth of their first child, Isabel is the object of his desire once again. To the parents, meanwhile, life continues to be the fuzzy unknown that they have always known it to be. While the mother experiences the modern mother’s dilemma of wanting to live out her dreams through her daughters; to the father, “marriage is a gamble”.
Karnad also introduces various contemporary concerns and issues. When the television producer Pratibha, a Hindu married to a Muslim says “There’s nothing I don’t know about harassment” or when Vidula’s secret life as an anonymous cybersex kitten at the sleazy neighbourhood internet café is exposed and shushed just as quickly (on account of her Saraswat status) by the Saraswat moral brigade, the playwright opens a Pandora’s Box of new age crises.
Meanwhile, the character of Vidula continues to surprise us with its alternating traditional and contemporary avatars, its unconventionality within a broader framework of traditional mores. If her illicit virtual lover and feisty reaction to the moral brigade surprise the reader, so does her submissiveness to her NRI husband when she states, “I trust him. He is my husband after all.” However, Ashwin, the video groom, fits the stereotype of the American NRI who plays the field in the land of opportunity but returns to India at the behest of his parents for his top pick among demure Indian brides. To him, America is both, the land of opportunity and the NRI’s burden as he exhorts his new bride to view their marriage “not merely as a marriage but as a mission”.
Wedding Album is a fitting tribute to the family drama that revolves around every Indian wedding. Characters are like finely etched sepia portraits while the setting is the playwright’s own home turf. The play was also the first to be written originally by him in his home language — Konkani. In the end, Karnad delivers the masterstroke by concluding with Radhabai’s predicament: “You can’t keep a grownup daughter at home, can you?” And in that question, lies a synopsis of the play, proving that modernity and social class have little to do with the universal concerns and drama of the Great Indian Marriage.
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