Marrying East and West
From Henna to Horses, Hindu Wedding Traditions Call for Specialized Help
By S. Mitra Kalita
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 20, 2004; Page VA22
Two life-size, turbaned statues greet visitors in the foyer. Candelabras bloom out of tables and corners. Fabric swatches of all kinds -- bright reds and pastels, sequined and embroidered -- hang over the backs of couches and chairs, even across the floor.
The signs are everywhere in wedding planner Prabha Bhambri's sprawling McLean home: Her busiest season is underway. The phone is ringing, the tea is brewing, and the ideas are churning and whirring in a mind that Bhambri, who spent much of her childhood painting, insists still belongs to an artist.
Weekend after weekend, her "canvas" is the same: a hotel ballroom, a banquet hall, and occasionally a museum, gallery or restaurant. But the task is always different: deciphering the dreams of a bride -- usually Indian -- and staging the perfect wedding.
On U.S. shores, that's not always easy. Besides the usual search for a venue, florist and photographer, there's the hunt for a white horse, drummer, henna tattoo artist and deejay who can mix tunes from East and West. So even though Bhambri works primarily as a decorator, her role has evolved to include advising couples on cultural traditions and coordinating with other vendors to make it all happen.
Hindu weddings tend to be lavish affairs, the culmination of a lifetime of parents' savings and prayers. Festivities can span as many as 10 days, ranging from prayer ceremonies to singing and dancing functions known as sangeets to the henna-painting party, or mehndi. In some regions in India, the groom arrives at his wedding on a horse, accompanied by a musician playing a two-headed drum, or dhol.
Sometimes, the bride is transported in a dholi, an ornate, chariot-style box carried by her brothers.
In contrast with areas such as New York, New Jersey, Chicago and San Francisco, which all boast commercial strips for South Asians, Washington historically has had fewer options for the Indian bride. For years, many of the region's immigrants would drive to New Jersey or even fly to India to buy their wedding wares. Others relied on the help and imagination of friends to convert anonymous spaces into palatial settings fit for a maharaja.
That's how Bhambri, 57, got her start.
She never planned on being a planner. With a master's degree in sociology, she worked for a few years as a rehabilitation counselor and then stayed home to raise three daughters. About 10 years ago, around the time her youngest child was in high school, Bhambri got a call from a friend whose son was about to get married.
The friend needed to decorate for the wedding and knew Bhambri was creative. Could she help?
"She entered the room," Bhambri recalled, "and turned to me and said, 'Prabha, you should go into business.' "
At first, Bhambri, who emigrated from India 36 years ago, arranged flowers and wrapped and draped colorful silks and crepes throughout the marriage hall as a favor to friends and acquaintances. But about eight years ago, she incorporated her business and dubbed it Nivanjoli, combining the names of her daughters, Vandana, Nina and Enjoli.
Today, she has three full-time employees, 50 part-time workers and three warehouses in College Park to store all the goods needed for her creations, from red carpets to elephant statues. Mostly, she needs room for her 30 to 40 mandaps, canopies under which Hindu ceremonies take place. She frequently imports new ones from India to keep up with trends; an ornate crystal-domed mandap was on its way this month. A cooler houses the thousands of flowers needed each weekend -- for the centerpieces, mandap decorations and the garlands that a bride and groom exchange in a Hindu wedding.
On the large-screen television she keeps in the room where she meets clients, Bhambri shows the various ways she can personalize the decorations for their day. She is clearly proudest of the creations that allow her to show her artistry. There's the six-foot-high bookmark she painted for the couple who met in the library, using the prop as a gate in the hall's entry area. There were the red and purple drapes she hung all over a ballroom to resemble a Miami hotel lounge that one bride particularly liked.
And the life-size lovers she painted and depicted from the Moghul era -- a time of grandeur from the early 16th century to the early 18th century -- overlooking a fountain filled with floating candles.
Throwing an Indian wedding, of course, is impossible without Indian products. So whereas her customers used to fly to India to do their shopping, Bhambri now finds herself taking on that role. She also has a fleet of exporters she deals with, and occasionally she invokes the help of her sister, Sarla Khanna, who lives in Dehradun, India. On a recent afternoon, as she ignored a ringing phone, Bhambri pointed to a yard or so of pink tissue with gold embroidery along the border. She said she had just photographed the pattern, e-mailed it to her sister, and then called her with careful instructions for the tailor to duplicate it dozens of times for fabric she planned to use at a wedding this month.
Manila folders labeled with each bride's name lie scattered across Bhambri's kitchen counter. These days, she's rarely in the kitchen to cook, except to make the occasional cup of tea for a client or visitor. "I haven't been to Giant in six months," she said. Every year, she vows to get more organized, to actually work out of her office, but her "work" quickly spills back out all over the house, amid dozens of family portraits and her granddaughter's playthings.
Luckily, Bhambri points out, she has a husband who is supportive of her business and her artistry. Bhambri will often string hundreds of flowers from the mandap's ceiling or assemble them in a pattern that forms a Hindu religious symbol or spells out a couple's name. Inder Bhambri, a civil engineering professor at the University of the District of Columbia, ensures his wife's designs are structurally sound.
"I am being me, not just his wife," Bhambri said. "And that's how Indian weddings are. He cannot run away from me." As with many women in her generation, Bhambri's marriage was arranged, 36 years ago. She doesn't remember too many details of her own wedding, other than the fact that the streets where her family lived in India were lit up. She doesn't recall ever asking for a color scheme or for anything to be done just so.
"Kids don't speak what they want," she said about her generation. "We were not brought up like that. It's not in our customs to do that."
Three decades later, Bhambri says that has changed.
"Even if it's the parents I'm dealing with, it all comes back to the bride," Bhambri said.
But for children who grew up thousands of miles from the place their parents call home, navigating tradition -- on top of all the dizzying details of a wedding -- can be tricky. That discovery led Vinnu Kudva, an events planner in Alexandria who recently moved to Sterling, to open a side business as an Indian wedding coordinator. She has done only a few weddings, she said, but brides in the Washington area have seemed grateful for resources they can't find in mainstream wedding magazines.
"When I was married a couple of years ago, I wished there was someone who could have helped me through the process," Kudva said. "Gone are the days of the extended family doing everything."
"Dream Shaadi," a Vienna-based wedding publication, went on sale earlier this year in South Asian grocery stores throughout the Washington region; shaadi means wedding in Hindi. Publisher Punita Arora said she published 15,000 such guides so Indian families could stop relying only on word of mouth or on traveling elsewhere to get their wedding goods.
"In the past, people were going to New Jersey to buy their things because they didn't know what is available here," Arora said. "This is a guide so you can see what is available in this area. The young generation wants to do everything themselves, but they want to do it the traditional way. But they don't know what that is."
Adherence to tradition comes at a price. It is not uncommon for weddings in India to boast a guest list of more than 1,000 people. In the United States, families try to pare down their lists, but most weddings end up hosting upwards of 250 people, wedding planners say. Fees paid to a decorator like Bhambri can range from $1,000 to tens of thousands of dollars.
"It's getting more and more elaborate," said Meenal Atul Pandya, the Wellesley, Mass.-based author of "Vivah: Design a Perfect Hindu Wedding." "Financially, the community is well off, so this is their way of making a statement within the society or within the community that they have arrived."
Indeed, elaborate weddings formed the cinematic backdrops to the recent hit movies "Monsoon Wedding" and "Bend It Like Beckham." And many movies from Bollywood, India's prolific movie industry, center plots around weddings and festivities. Soundtracks from those movies, deejays have discovered, are often on Indian families' must-play lists for wedding receptions.
"They want Bollywood. You cannot have rap," said Jatin Anand, an Ashburn-based deejay who specializes in Indian weddings. "They want you to play the American stuff, too, but not as much."
That's one way Victoria Saluja, 27, who grew up in Vienna, tried to distinguish her wedding, held May 8 at the Fairview Park Marriott in Falls Church, from all the other Indian weddings she has been to. She gave her deejay a list of songs that had an even balance of Indian and American beats. Her husband, Ryan Draude, is Catholic.
"I was born and raised in this country," Saluja said. "I wanted to be sure we respect both cultures. . . . We wanted a good combination of both types of music so Americans coming to our reception can have fun as well as Indians."
Saluja also departed from tradition in the decoration of her mandap and reception hall -- there's nothing red.
Red, considered an auspicious color, is used liberally in Indian weddings. The Salujas and Draudes asked Bhambri, their decorator, to stick with gold and ivory and occasional pastels.
As she always does with a bride's wishes, Bhambri obliged.
For the next few months, as she plans others' weddings, Bhambri has been pushing aside thoughts of one she has yet to get to: her youngest daughter Enjoli's. It is scheduled for Aug. 28.
"I haven't even sat down with her yet," Bhambri sighed. "I have no time."
Editor's note: On May 8, Staff Writer S. Mitra Kalita and Nitin Mukul celebrated their Hindu wedding in New Jersey. Bhambri was not their planner. Mukul rode in on a bejeweled horse. Kalita was wearing a blue and gold mekhla chador, which is an Assamese-style sari, and had henna tattoos on her hands and feet. There were no elephant statues, but there was an elephant ice sculpture.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company