The New Weddings in India’s South: ‘Expect Some Magic’

THRISSUR, India — The bride-to-be took center stage for the final rehearsal with the poise and confidence of an experienced star before a grand performance.

The backup dancers — a mix of relatives, childhood friends and professional performers — positioned themselves around her. The choreographer, a small man with calm swagger and long, thinning hair, ran through the steps, offering muffled instructions through his Covid-era accessory of two face masks: The moves needed to be more defined, the fingers to point higher, the shoulders to droop more.

Family members watched from the windowsill shaded by the coconut trees; an elderly uncle tapped the sofa arm with joy. The Punjabi song, a popular Bollywood hit, blared from a small speaker as the group practiced their moves one more time:

A lively music and dance performance at an Indian wedding.

Weddings in India’s south, particularly in the coastal state of Kerala, have transformed into a festival of color — and dance, lots of dance.

Unlike those in the north, weddings in the south used to be subdued affairs centered on a feast that, at best, would occasionally include a live band. Now, the ceremonies draw on the latest entertainment from across the country, including the breathtakingly fast rhythms of Tamil and Telugu dance music, and the colorful costumes and drumbeats of Punjab.

Dr. Sheha Pfizer’s wedding had something extra. The bride was comfortable with crowds and cameras from a young age, having participated in dance competitions much of her life.

“She being a dancer, people expect some magic,” said her mother, Nishi Pfizer.

The ceremonies in Kerala have become so colorful that they are the talk of the town and viral discussions online. There is the favorite Punjabi dhol drumming, but also troupes that perform Egyptian, Mexican and Sufi dances — all with lavish outfits. People hire water drummers, pole dancers and acrobats.

The bride-to-be, Dr. Pfizer, center, practicing a wedding number at home with her backup dancers: a mix of relatives, friends and professional performers.
Dr. Pfizer performed a Haldi ceremony at her wedding — typical of north Indian celebrations, where turmeric is applied to represent a blessing. 

About 60 percent to 70 percent of the weddings in Kerala now include choreographed dances, said Mayjohn P.J., a former wedding singer who started a wedding management agency, Melodia, a decade ago.

Mr. P.J. has no doubt about what has fueled the transformation: social media. Couples find inspiration for their weddings on Instagram, YouTube and Pinterest, before posting their own ceremonies onto the same platforms.

Wedding planners, part of an industry that brings in tens of billions of dollars every year in India, offer video and photo packages that are tailored to get clicks. The packages, usually costing $2,000 to $5,000, include an “Instagram teaser” and the “wedding highlight,” essentially your own five- to seven-minute blockbuster film.

The most ambitious ones incorporate the narrative tricks of Indian soap operas for emotional effect, and deploy the latest technology — steady cams, drones and lots of musical special effects — to create the climax of a techno concert.

“When they see something on social media, they say my wedding should be like this, too,” Mr. P.J. said. “Everybody wants to become a film star.”

Aljo Johny, a co-owner of the wedding planning company Melodia, checks out a store in Thrissur that rents decorative items like chandeliers for marriage ceremonies.
Decorative items at a warehouse that caters to weddings.

The lingering pandemic has also brought changes to weddings in India’s south, where the peak season runs from December to February. Health regulations limit capacity to 200 people (as opposed to as many as five times that in pre-Covid times). So families have turned them into multiday affairs of smaller ceremonies — inviting a different set of guests for each so that everyone feels part of the celebration.

Perhaps the busiest man during the wedding season is the choreographer Manas Prem.

He has been commissioned to choreograph 500 wedding routines in the coming months. Most of them are small, and Covid has forced much of the training online.

His frequent challenge is older relatives who get cold feet when they see the audience.

“They get shy and they don’t want to do it,” Mr. Prem said. “Then I have to fill the gaps.”

Manas Prem, a choreographer and dance teacher, has been commissioned this season for 500 wedding routines.
Professional dancers rehearsing at the choreographer’s studio before Dr. Pfizer’s wedding ceremony.

Both Dr. Pfizer, 25, and her husband are Muslims. Their wedding was a display of Kerala’s largely seamless diversity.

Her childhood friends performing for her wedding were a mix of Hindus and Christians. The final rehearsal happened around noon on Christmas Day. Jobin Johnson, a professional dancer who grew up with the bride, missed the first Christmas lunch of his married life to be there. Aishwarya Ragesh, a friend of the bride’s for 15 years, picked up her purse and rushed to make it to her family’s Hindu worship as soon as the rehearsal was over.

It was a heartwarming antidote to the heightened divisions in India that have been stoked by Hindu-majority politics, especially in the north. On the morning of the rehearsal, national newspapers were dominated by reports of extremist Hindu monks calling for violence against Muslims and of churches vandalized as the country’s minority Christians gathered for Christmas.

Dance runs in Dr. Pfizer’s family. Her mother was a dancer. One of her grandmothers performed with a folk ensemble in the 1960s and 1970s.

The bride started training as a dancer even before kindergarten — a large stretch of it under the tutelage of Mr. Prem. Pictures of competitions when she was younger adorn the walls of his small dance studio.

“She is a natural-born dancer,” Mr. Prem said.

The wedding video had plenty of close-up shots of Dr. Pfizer’s hands decorated in henna, which took six hours to paint.
Dr. Pfizer, center, before the Sangeet. The Sangeet, which means music, is a lavish pre-wedding party with multiple performances.

In recent years, her Muslim community has grown more conservative. Her father had to push back against calls to pull her out of dance as she grew up.

“Her father would tell them ‘she is winning competitions — let her continue for a little more,’” her mother recalled.

Dance also played a role in the couple’s matchmaking.

When he was younger, the groom, Roshan Salahudeen, 29, had seen his future bride, then a teenager, performing on television. He told his family that he would marry her. After they grew up and became physicians, he learned that Dr. Pfizer was the niece of one of his father’s classmates — and he used that connection to ask for her hand.

It was an arranged marriage, but with modern elements: The couple had time to get to know each other, and the bride had the final veto.

“I took about two months before I said ‘yes,’” Dr. Pfizer said. “He understands my worldview.”

Their main wedding was still subdued: a short Muslim prayer after the marriage contracts were signed, followed by a delicious buffet lunch as a violinist played the latest movie soundtracks.

The highlight was the wedding eve, when about 200 guests packed into a small ballroom for a talent show of dance performances. As the celebrations began, Dr. Pfizer was at once the bride, the lead performer, and the director of her own show.

She had warmed up with a Haldi ceremony early in the evening. While the Haldi is a staple of weddings in the north where turmeric is applied for a blessing, modern brides are increasingly blurring regional differences to visually evocative effect in the Instagram age.

Professional dancers hired for Dr. Pfizer’s ceremony performing various Bollywood and Malayalam dance sequences.
The performances are designed for social media. Video and photo packages, usually costing $2,000 to $5,000, include a “wedding highlight,” a five- to seven-minute film.

A small group of friends and family gathered under a yellow canopy by a small pool, but the main audience was really the cameras: This was content for the wedding highlight video.

Dr. Pfizer danced her way to the poolside to a band of live drummers that led the way. She danced more and posed as the Steadicams rushed forward for a special-effect shot, and then stepped back to pan out. There were plenty of close-ups of her hands decorated in henna, which had taken six hours to paint.

When she took her seat under the canopy for friends and family to rub turmeric on her face, she wore aviators and danced in her seat as the D.J. cranked up another hit song from across the pool — this one drawing on London and Big Ben, to praise beauty.

As the guests took their seats in the hall for the evening ceremony, the dance troupe changed costumes repeatedly — a Sufi entrance with the groom, a Punjabi bhangra number that included a cameo by the bride, a mash-up of the latest hits where the dancers displayed their hip-hop moves. Another group, all women, performed a traditional Keralan Muslim dance, oppana, a hip-hop dance in jeans and T-shirts, and a flamenco-inspired routine.

In between, the tall wedding singer, wearing a turtleneck and chic glasses with transparent rims, entertained the crowd. He announced the bride’s first entrance.

The heads turned to the back, where Dr. Pfizer, surrounded by the female troupe of dancers, beamed with excitement in a dazzling ocean-green dress paired with stunning jewelry. Mobile phones came out for pictures. Music blared as the dancers shimmied and snapped their fingers, parting the aisle for the bride.

But before the bride had climbed the stage to take her seat, someone realized that the main camera that films the “wedding highlight” for YouTube and Instagram wasn’t set up yet.

The bride and the dancers had to go back to their starting point at the entrance and do it all over again.

The couples’ main wedding was still subdued: a short Muslim prayer after the marriage contracts were signed.
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