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Photographing a traditional Hindu wedding in India

A traditional Hindu wedding in India

A couple of months ago, I was involved in ‘Four Weddings’ a documentary for the Guardian, supported by Nikon. As the stills photographer, I joined the documentary team on these weddings, shooting them much like I would shoot any other wedding. But one of these weddings stood out among the rest. One of them would be a traditional Hindu wedding in India. It would take place in rural Rajasthan: an hour and a half’s drive from Udaipur, an hour and a half flight from Delhi and a nine hour flight from Heathrow. The couple in question were Priyamvada, niece of the Maharaj of Bhindar, and Bhanwar, the eldest son of a successful family from Punjab.

This would be a traditional wedding in every sense of the word – in its customs, in its pageantry but also in its genesis: it would be an arranged marriage. As you’ll see in the documentary itself, both bride and groom believe in arranged marriage and went into their engagement and marriage together quite happily. They had met several times before the wedding itself and were always given the option not to go ahead if they so chose. But in many other senses, this would be like any other wedding anywhere else in the world: plenty of friends, relatives, music, dancing, excitement and absolutely loads of food.

Pre-wedding nerves

I’d never been to India before. In fact, in the UK, I’d never even shot a Hindu wedding before. But to go to India, to shoot a traditional Hindu wedding?

Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that this would be something I’d ever get to do, and I knew that this was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The moment of realisation came for me after several weeks of being intensely busy, both with my own wedding business and the work for this documentary. After weeks of going from one thing to the next thing to the next in a blur, I approached check-in at Heathrow in a daze after a morning spent frantically packing. That is when it actually hit me.

‘Oh shit… I’m actually going to India aren’t I.’

To be sure, I was super excited at this point. However, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t feeling quite nervous or worried about it all. I’ve shot destination weddings before, but I’m used to churches and registry offices and humanist ceremonies done by friends – I didn’t know the first thing about what actually happens during a Hindu wedding. What if I missed a key moment? What if I had the wrong angle for a pivotal scene? What if I unknowingly commit some terrible faux pas?! All of this was racing through my mind on the flight to Delhi.

I was a ball of nerves and excitement trying to sleep on a long haul flight. You can guess how well that part of the trip went.

The day before the wedding

Stepping out of Udaipur airport into the heat, an hour’s drive took me to our hotel and then a further thirty minutes driving took myself and one of the producers on to Bhinder. Bhinder is a small town of about eighteen thousand people in the Udaipur district of Rajasthan. It’s home to Rajmahal Bhindar, a 440 year old palace and home to the family of the bride, Priyamvada, who would be getting married there the very next day.

When we arrived, the team were just finishing their interview with Priyamvada and several of us were able to head out around Bhinder to see the town. On returning, after a bite to eat, Priyamvada received gifts from her family as she prepared to leave her family home. After this was over, we headed back to our hotel and got some sleep before what would be a very, very long day.

The day of the wedding – preparations

Arriving early in the morning the next day, we found that some of the events of the day were to be pushed back a few hours because everyone had gone to bed so late the night before. No problem – there was plenty more to explore and see. With the celebrations being on such a huge scale, there was lots to prepare – so that’s what I went and photographed. The heat and noise of the kitchen was amazing, but there was activity all around no matter where you looked.

The day of the wedding – the Groom’s arrival

The main event of the wedding day, it turned out, would not be the ceremony. This was to be at 3am later that night, owing to its auspicious timing. No, the most pomp and pageantry would be reserved for the arrival of the groom, the ‘Toran’. For this, it felt as if the entire town had turned out to watch. And for good reason – it was a sight to behold. Dancers, an elephant, a horse, fireworks and a crush of people and excitement were all focused around one individual.

I’d never actually seen an elephant before. While we were waiting for things to kick off, I spoke to one of camera operators about this. ‘How big are elephants anyway?’ … ‘Well, Indian elephants are smaller than African elephants, right? So maybe they’re smallish?’

No. This elephant was not ‘smallish’. It was huge.

When I saw the groom appear, he was sat atop this elephant, swaying gently as the procession made its way up the road. I felt my jaw drop, in cliché fashion, right on cue. It was astonishing. Add to that the dancers and the crowd of people surrounding him, I had to very quickly get over my amazement and start shooting.

For the next fifteen minutes or so (or it could have been thirty, I lost track of time), I had to push through surging crowds, squeeze into incredibly tight positions and contort myself in cruel and unusual ways to get the angles that I wanted. The other photographers who were there didn’t seem to have any issue with just elbowing their way around, so I tried my best to emulate what they were doing in the hope that I could get the shots I wanted without stepping (literally) on too many toes.

As the groom reached the entrance to the palace, the crush of people was intense. This was the pivotal moment – the bride’s mother would greet the groom and the family priest would say a blessing to mark his arrival. Someone videoing the events of the day had mounted a bright LED light on top of their camera, and I wanted to avoid the flat, boring light that would give if I shot on the same axis. I avoided this by going round the other side of the groom, to use it as a backlight instead. I was the only photographer on that side, so I knew it was a gamble. But in the end, the images I shot in that moment are my favourites from the whole three days.

As I lined up those shots, I felt something falling on me from above. Petals were being thrown from the roof and landing on us in a constant stream as fireworks began to burst overhead.

When these moments were over and I had a chance to put my cameras down, I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t in a dream. I’ve never experienced anything like it before, and I don’t think I ever will again.

The day of the wedding – the Ceremony

Once the hubbub of the groom’s arrival had died down, there was something of a pause in the events of the day while we waited for the start of the ceremony. This would begin at 3am, a time at which the family priest had identified as being the most auspicious. For this ceremony – called the ‘Pheras’, where the bride and groom walk around the fire together – only close family and very close friends would be in attendance, about twenty people in total. After the groom’s arrival, other guests drifted away until a relative quiet fell over the palace. The night was still, warm and silent.

This would have been a great time to take a nap – as many did – but I ended up having a cold beer or two with one of the producers and our fixer. I was still buzzing from what I’d seen and I just knew if I slept, I’d be groggy as anything.

The wedding ceremony started bang on time at 3am and lasted a full three hours in total. Here, my memory is hazy and I truly lacked the understanding of what was happening at any given moment. So, I did what I normally do – I kept quiet and took photos.

Jet lag and other travelling maladies

At 6am, with the ceremony done and the bride and groom on their way, we piled back into our minivan and drove back to the hotel, almost all of us falling asleep. I had my headphones on, thinking about everything I’d seen and wondering how the photos would come out. After many hours of driving, flights, layovers and transfers, I arrived home in London to go through all the photos and to begin to process everything I’d seen.

Without a doubt, the memory of this short but eventful trip to India will stay with me for the rest of my life. I still can’t quite believe it happened and I know, in all honesty, that I’ll never experience anything like it again. Having two Nikon D850s with me helped immeasurably and it was fantastic to have such powerful kit at my side for an event like this.

Comments? Questions? Corrections? Let me know below

If you’ve got any questions about what it’s like to shoot in India or how the Nikon D850 performs, let me know in the comments below. Also, if you’ve got any corrections you think I should make to this article let me know (I’ve almost certainly got something wrong about Rajasthani wedding customs, so I’d be thrilled if anyone can enlighten me).

Adios!

WP

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