Kadir weds Shaheen: a Muslim wedding in Khajuraho, Madya Pradesh

I had arrived at the location in a taxi van with Ifraj, Sadhav and two other boys.

Uff, you must be so tired of being with boys na? So long in the car with all of them, very terrible, chaal, now come with us!”

Sadhav’s sister Sona grabbed my arm and led me upstairs, where the women of the groom’s family were. They had also driven the one hundred and ten horrible kilometres that took four hours on Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh’s bumpy roads, to arrive in Modaha for the marriage.

Upon arrival, women hitched up their saris or salwars to squat by the sinks, a single row of taps over a concrete gutter. Each splashed water over her face and neck, forearms and legs, rinsing the journey’s dust down the drains.

Upstairs, in the big room lit by small bulbs (cobwebs in corners casting shadows, moths flitting near the light) women aged three to at least seventy years old readied themselves for the occasion. Out of plastic bags came each’s best clothes, folded neatly. Out of other plastic or cloth bags came compacts, creams, jewellery, makeup and other accessories. The flock of women began to change, pulling off their wrinkled clothes to put on fresh ones.

Most were putting on saris: pulling on petticoats and cinching them tight at the waist, and then slipping luscious, smooth arms into front-fastening choli blouses. One frowned as she grabbed and pulled at her own breasts, trying to get them in the right place. One end of the sari is pinned at the hip, and then wrapped around once to cover the petticoat. The thumb and pinky fingers of each right hand deftly fold the sari into pleats, measuring the remainder of the fabric carefully. Folds are then flipped inwards around the band of the petticoat in one quick motion. Each belly sucked in to create the space, and then released. The remaining end travels once more around each woman’s body, crossed over in front and drawn up to the left shoulder. Pinned in place. The sari pallu can be wrapped around the shoulders, hang loosely in the back, or be pulled over the head. These Muslim women all wear them pulled over their heads, but not yet.

Jewellery was taken from little boxes and bags. Women helped one another secure necklaces and ankelets. Bangles were shoved over wrists; earrings poked into ears. Braids were unbraided, brushed out thoroughly, re-braided. Thick, healthy hair; some dangles past the womens’ thighs. A jewelled pendant on a gold chain was pinned to center-parted hair and dangled on each forehead just below the hairline. Those married women applied extra sindoor is applied to the part in their hair, showing how very married they were. Eligible girls were done up with more attention to detail than anyone else, showing how very unmarried they were.

Makeup. First, Fair and Lovely whitening creams were passed around and applied to each lady’s face and decolletage. The older ladies have arms and stomachs that are several shades darker than their faces, years of Fair and Lovely. Pressed powder and blush are applied to cheekbones with care. Eyes are rimmed with kajal. Some women close their eyes over the point of an eyeliner pencil and then rub it back and forth.

Pakistani-style makeup” Sona told me me with a tip of her head, raising her eyebrows and pouting her lips. Thick mascara and eyeshadow were applied for very dark and smoky eyes. Lips were lined with pencil, and painted a ripe cherry red. Only then was the pallu draped over each shining black head, pulled forwards like a hood or with the sides tucked behind ears. Younger girls in salwar kameez put their dupattas on their heads and wrap the ends around their shoulders. They peer out at the world through lowered, eyelids on beautiful faces, bodies hidden beneath brightly coloured, flowing clothes. Even the littlest girls are dressed up, preparing for years of such parties, and even elderly ladies apply almond oil to their greying hair.

I felt as though I was being let in on a big secret, watching the roomful of women prepare for such a big event. Indian women, when seen in the street, already look perfect. One rarely sees the process. The inclusivity felt like a gift being bestowed on me. I accepted it gratefully, happy to feel like part of a group. I’m continually impressed by the way that Indian women make do, in every situation: in spite of al odds; dust, dirt, exhaust, pollution, animal waste and travelling, they still exude grace and loveliness. Undaunted by the world they live in.


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