Love As Constant As The Pole Star

A Bengali wedding is as elegant as it is poetic, steeped in tradition and lyrical Vedic verse. The recent nuptials of Ishani Banerjee and Garry Steiner in Calcutta bear this out.

4/13/2018 9:50:13 PM
written By : By Shobha Tsering Bhalla Print

The big fat Indian wedding of popular imagination is famous for its colour and extravagance. But much of what Bollywood portrays is the typical over-the-top, fun-on-steroids Punjabi wedding, bits of which, not surprisingly, have been appropriated by all Indian communities within and without India and even by other Southeast Asians. After all, who can resist the unrestrained exuberance of an Asli Gheon Punjabi Shaadi?
But while it’s true that from Kashmir to Kanya Kumari, colour, pomp and ceremony are integral to all Indian weddings, some are more muted and steeped in tradtion - Bengali weddings, for instance which stand out for their dramatic (almost like a Greek epic) flourishes and Vedic purity. The blowing of the conch shells along with the haunting ululation by the women remind one of a Greek chorus in an epic masterpiece.

In the ancient Vedic rituals and verses carefully curated by the bride’s mother Basabi, a published writer and trained docent, there were profound symbols of equality that would please all feminists. The bride groom chanted a Vedic praise of love translated from the Sanskrit: “Love is the giver/ Love is the receiver/ Love is the inexhaustible ocean. You come to me with love. Love, this is all your doing.” The young couple then expressed their respect for each other and vowed to work together in love and friendship to attain their goals.

And as the wedding ceremony drew to its end, Ishani touchingly invoked the Pole Star with liturgical Vedic words from thousands of years ago but which touch a universal chord: “Dhruba Tara, just as you are constant, may I be constant in my husband’s home. May our love be eternal.”

I was a guest recently at the wedding of my friends Basabi and Gautam’s daughter Ishani Banerjee who was marrying her best friend of four years Garry Steiner. 

The well-matched couple share many common interests, namely outdoor activities (bootcamp, obstacle races), travel and cuisines. They are also third-culture kids and work in the same field. Ishani, a chartered accountant who works for Standard Chartered Bank, was born and brought up in Singapore, but has also lived in Canada and the UK for several years while Garry who works in the Finance team at Rio Tinto, grew up in Switzerland and Australia. 

“I met Gary in the summer of 2014, through a work colleague at after work drinks,” recalled Ishani. “We ended up having a lot of mutual friends and a shared love of travel and outdoor sports. We formed a close bond soon and in October 2016 Garry proposed to me in Phuket. We both love Thai food and Garry planned the perfect romantic weekend away, disguised as a birthday trip for me. While he had planned to propose on an evening cruise, unfortunately the weather did not hold up. But he had a solid back up plan with a villa decked out in roses and candles, and that’s where he got down on one knee!” 

The fun element was obvious in their choice of themes for the two days of Mehendi and Sangeet which passed in a dizzying whirl of colour and camaraderie with dozens of the young couple’s friends throwing themselves with gusto into the Mehendi ceremony, aptly themed “Indian Kitsch” replete with henna artists, palm reading and air balloon shooting.
“We wanted a fun, relaxed atmosphere where we could catch up with our guests for the first time. (So we had) lots of pink and yellow with marigold being the theme flower,” said Ishani. A highpoint of the ceremony was a dazzling display of Indian folk dances celebrating marriage from Bengal, Assam, Manipur, Gujerat and other parts of India. Lunch was an intoxicating array of Kebabs, Dosas, Bengali seafood delicacies, rare desserts and plenty of bubbly. 

For the Sangeet, it was a forest theme with a green gabled walkway decorated with white flowers and fairy lights. Renowned choreographer Shyamal Mallick and his troupe performed a professional dance recital. “It was a blessing from my late grandfathers, says Ishani. This was followed by performances by friends and family – including a traditional wedding song by a choir from Singapore - and lots of dancing. The dinner was a royal Bengali feast.

Prior to the wedding, the early morning Gaye Holud (Turmeric bath) was a simpler lunchtime event at the poolside of the ITC Sonar Bangla Hotel, where guests were given an overview of the ceremony followed by the ceremony itself. Lunch was stalls of different Indian street foods, with soft serve ice cream and freshly made jalebis for dessert. 

On why she chose Calcutta as the wedding venue, Ishani said it was based on sentiment. “I grew up in Singapore, however Calcutta is special to me as I visited it a lot growing up, and it is home to my grandmothers and extended family. Our idea was to have a destination wedding in Calcutta, since we would have a lot of friends and family fly in from overseas. ITC was the perfect choice for us with its resort-like feel and delectable food.” 

The Vedic wedding ceremony conducted by a learned Vedic priest comprised a series of beautiful rituals derived from the Vedas, composed in Sanskrit, its primary liturgical language. The bride’s mother Basabi, who meticulously planned the ceremony, provided a short synopsis in English before every section making it meaningful for everyone. Following the wedding ceremony, guests were treated to drinks and canapes while the newly-weds went to change. This was followed by video highlights of the events so far and speeches from the parents of the bride and groom, all ending in a grand Bengali dinner.

Much of the credit for the seamless flow of this memorable wedding goes to her parents, says Ishani. “None of this would have been possible without the tireless work of my parents, who visit Calcutta much more frequently than we do, and were involved in many of the meetings with our various vendors.”

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