The Imperfect Underbelly of Indian Weddings

Mahesh Shantaram hated weddings. He hated the din of celebration, the mindless chit-chat, the prayers. He ducked his own sister’s wedding, although he was living on the other side of the world at the time. The last nuptials he attended socially were his own, but professionally Shantaram is one of the most highly sought after wedding photographers in India.

It’s not just brides and grooms who come calling. His shots of garish stages and backdrops earned him third place for a Sony World Photographer award, and his candid melange of gaudy excess, heartfelt moments, dazed servers and embarrassing drunken relatives have led to speaking engagements and exhibitions. A pair of French filmmakers were inspired by his work to film a documentary on Indian weddings.

“Wedding photographers are typically married to the commerce of flattery,” says Shantaram. “My interests, on the other hand, lie in story-telling and the desire to document these interesting times. I imagine I’m being commissioned by National Geographic magazine to tell the story of a community seen through the hopes and aspirations of two people. I’ve shot over a hundred and fifty weddings with that imaginary brief. The work is shaping up to look like the portrait of a nation.”

That work is Matrimania, a portfolio of outtakes clients never see. The project began by accident, but then Shantaram hadn’t intended on becoming a photographer in the first place. His father tortured the family with his Minolta as many fathers do, and the technical photography workshops he attended during high school were anything but inspiring. It wasn’t until the daily drudgery of cubicle life began to gnaw at his soul that Shantaram reconsidered life’s direction. His parents were so proud of their son working in Washington, D.C.. His friends back home were buying homes and raising kids. At 28 he quit his job to study photography in Paris.

“It’s interesting how the audience for Matrimania is mutually exclusive to the client base for my commercial services. If you come looking for one, you will not accidentally stumble onto the other unless you try. This is by the design of my web properties. Having said that, I’m in the good books of all my clients”

“The idea of one of our sons making it big in America is a huge deal in India,” he says. “I’m expected to play it straight, become a citizen and live the Dream. But I just couldn’t take it. Although I made lasting friendships outside of the workplace, corporate America was everything that I detested from the very bottom of my soul. I had to find another path for myself.”

After school Shantaram returned to India with an eye on becoming an architectural photographer only to find he didn’t get along with architects. His first year back was spent scrounging whatever stray work his camera could handle. Failure looked likely.

“I was strangely attracted to the sorry suburbs of Paris, at the far ends of the metro lines,” says Shantaram. “I myself lived in one of those suburbs. I liked making pictures in those far flung neighborhoods that bore no resemblance to the romanticized idea of Paris.”

It was also harder to avoid attending weddings. Figuring it would be a good way to hide in plain sight Shantaram volunteered to serve as the official photographer once for a friend, once for a relative. But his wife and he had hated their own experience, rejecting the photos of their own wedding. Traditionally photographers were considered an unpleasant necessity, hired to dryly record the ceremony for the sake of parents. Indian society was changing, and Shantaram was of a new generation.

“These photogs were totally out of touch with the expectations of the modern Indian couple,” says Shantaram. “Ivy League educated, well-traveled, living abroad but Indian at heart — and now coming home to the prospect of having their dream wedding reduced to a bundle of awkward poses. This was around the same time I had returned from Paris and was looking for something to do in documentary photography. Serendipitously, I became a solution to this problem.

“The late 2000s were interesting times. People were getting more creative and liberal. Alcohol made its debut at weddings. Very soon, we had a whole new class of wedding photographers who would get to drink and dine with the bride and groom as honored guests. More and more photographers warmed up to the idea of shooting weddings. A few years earlier, all this was unthinkable.”

Shantaram posted some of his favorite photos from his first two gigs online and was surprised when they started to get passed around, eventually finding their way to his first paying customer. Suddenly a career appeared, and best of all there was no need to compromise his work. He shoots whatever is interesting, passes along flattering keepsakes to the bride and groom, and culls the best of the rest for his ever growing Matrimania collection.

Fellow photographer Mark Power convinced him to put together an edit of empty fantastical wedding sets as a comment on middle class consumerism, the version of his project which was recognized by Sony World Photography in 2011.

“In a highly class-conscious society that is India, wedding photographers are not exactly high up the social ladder. They are generally seen as a necessary evil, there to serve the ego and needs of the family patriarch (after all, it’s always so-and-so’s daughter’s or granddaughter’s wedding).”

“Matrimania is not a documentary of ‘Indian weddings’ as much as it is a fictional narrative of one long night in India tearing at the seams.”

Despite the accolades, the series seemed too flat. By including photographs of everything that goes into a wedding — the workers, the guests, the behind-the-scenes dealings that are usually hidden from view — Shantaram found a microcosm of contemporary Indian culture.

“I crave the innocence of something real,” he says. “I was traveling all over the country shooting weddings, and it was such an opportunity to be able to experience first-hand the fabric of diversity that makes up this great country. But India was growing very fast and so were people’s aspirations. True innocence was like fresh air. It was getting rarer in the big cities. You had to go to the smaller towns to get your fix of something real. I never lost an opportunity to shoot a small-town wedding. Here’s where India would spill out in all its gaudy, un-manicured best. On the other end of the spectrum were the pretentious ‘destination weddings.’ I’m loathe to take on those.”

It’s been nearly a decade since Shantaram began photographing weddings and he has no intention of stopping. There are plans to put together a book one day, but as he’s adding 10–20 new photos to Matrimania every year publication continues to be deferred.

“It’s important for me to keep playing the wedding photographer card as I get to travel all over India and see societies splayed across vertical and horizontal dimensions. Having done this for nearly a decade now, the suffocating familiarity of the wedding environment breeds contempt in me, which gives shape to the fictional photo series that is Matrimania. It completes me.”

As much as the day job keeps him on the road, Shantaram takes any opportunity to travel for please that comes along. Last year between work and pleasure he estimates a total of four months spent away from home.

“I think 2015 is finally going to be the year that I learn to drive a car and get a driver’s license. Exciting!”

All photos by Mahesh Shantaram

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