Nothing’s quite as magnificent and theatrical as a South Asian wedding, said Beela Shaikh, creative director for the fashion show at Sunday’s A Touch of Henna Bridal Expo in Sacramento.
“In our culture, weddings are the biggest, and parents give all to get it done,” said Shaikh, a Sacramento resident originally from Lahore, Pakistan. “The dresses reflect status big time, and just boom with colors – fuchsia, red, gold, orange, teal, aqua. Then there’s the jewelry, both the bling on the dresses and on the bride.”
The expo featured booths offering finery, honeymoon packages, bachelorette parties, dance instruction, henna for brides, catering and a dozen other wedding services.
The Sacramento region’s South Asian population, now approaching 50,000, is one of the area’s fastest-growing ethnic groups. This means more business for Sacramento wedding photographer Vishal Singh, a Fijian Indian immigrant who can charge between $8,000 and $12,000 for 3,000 to 4,000 photos and a wedding video.
Singh, 34, said he’s shot hundreds of South Asian weddings, and when you figure in the disc jockeys, caterers, parties and honeymoon, “it can cost $100,000-plus. Image has become a huge thing, and they’re way more elaborate than before.” The families of the bride and groom generally split the cost, said Singh, adding that his own marriage featured several hundred relatives, many of whom he didn’t know existed before the big day.
While many South Asian marriages are still arranged, Shaikh said as long as the couple meet in advance, they can enjoy a glorious marriage. It begins with a traditional South Asian wedding – with rituals dating back several thousand years.
For the first ritual, known as “mayoun rasam” or the “paste ceremony,” older female relatives cover the bride with a yellow paste of tumeric, rose water and chickpeas “all over our body to make our skin glow,” Shaikh said. “The bride gets it done every day before the wedding, and every night we have a party called ‘dholki,’ (featuring) a small instrument like a drum, and the bride’s side prepares to compete in a song competition with the groom’s side to see whose songs can insult the other side more.
“My family sang, ‘His mother’s got a double master’s degree, she thinks she’s all that, but she doesn’t know what she’s getting – a daughter who’s more beautiful, more educated,’” Shaikh said. Such songs are sort of a last hurrah before the new daughter-in-law assumes household duties for her husband’s family, Shaikh said.
The good-natured ribbing takes place on “henna night.” Henna is a paste from the mehndi plant used to adorn the bride’s hands and feet, along with her bridesmaids and female relatives. “Hands are considered very sacred,” Shaikh said, and henna designs are often paisleys representing mangoes, considered the fruit of life; peacocks; or mandalas, representing spiritual wholeness.
The climax of the Bridal Expo was the fashion show. Wedding dresses can cost $2,000 to $2,500, said designer Rashi Iyer, as she showed off a banarasi dress brocaded with gold. That’s just one expense – the bride often wears multiple dresses throughout the week of the wedding, said mistress of ceremonies Nisha Gill, a Fijian-born Indian nurse from Turlock who said her family has about four weddings a year.
“You wear two dresses on Wednesday – one for day, one for night – two more on Thursday, two more on Friday and then two for the wedding and reception on Saturday,” Gill said.
The evolution of Sacramento’s South Asian community – and its willingness to confront problems that for centuries were taboo – was reflected in the far left corner of the Expo, where a table sat under a big sign offering help for victims of domestic violence and sex trafficking at My Sister’s House. There, volunteers were modeling and selling 130 traditional white wedding dresses to raise money for the Sacramento nonprofit. The dresses were selling Sunday for less than $300 each when they normally cost $800 to $3,000, said Jenny Vo of My Sister’s House.
About 20 percent of the women and children seeking refuge at My Sister’s House’s six-bed shelter and six-bed transitional house are South Asian, said executive director Nilda Valmores. Many come from arranged marriages that are still prevalent in South Asian culture, she said.
“We have Punjabi, Hindu and Tamil-speaking volunteers,” Valmores said. “We can provide victims with counseling, shelter and how to work the American system of justice so they can be safer.”
While elaborate marriages are a huge part of of South Asian culture, domestic violence often flies below the radar because victims are afraid to come forward, Valmores said. “Some of it is the stigma or the shame of letting down their families. Some wives brought over are afraid they’re going to be deported or beat up.”
She pointed to the case of Hader Nasim, who was sentenced in 2013 to seven years to life in prison after he tried to hire a hit man to kill his wife, who came to the U.S. from Pakistan to marry him. The hit man turned out to be an undercover officer.
Shaikh has volunteered at My Sister’s House, adding that “we’ve done makeovers for the girls so they know they can look and feel beautiful.”
She said she’s seen both the grandeur of South Asian matrimony and the occasionally troubled aftermath, particularly in arranged marriages where brides are uprooted from their villages and sent to Northern California to take care of not just their husbands but their in-laws.
“Unfortunately in our culture they take it for granted the daughter-in-law is going to come to your house,” said Shaikh, 44. Even if a woman is highly educated, “we are supposed to mold our lifestyle around the husband’s family. I was already living an independent life in El Dorado Hills, and after I got married, I’d be cooking for my mother-in-law, cleaning her room and doing her laundry. Many men in a relationship have to portray a certain image to society; they don’t want people to think, ‘I’m being whipped by my woman.’ She has to be submissive.”
While things are loosening up here, in Pakistan or India, when a husband enters the house, “the TV is turned off and the mom rushes to the kitchen,” said Shaikh, who’s been in an arranged marriage for 18 years. “The first time I saw him was in my room after the wedding ceremony. I took off my makeup and said, ‘This is me.’”
Shaikh said she never was allowed to date, but today she sees few arranged marriages and more love marriages, where brides have enough time to find out whether a prospective husband is a good catch. She said she knows of two women in the Sacramento area who bailed out of arranged marriages before tying the knot.
Remy Gill, 23, met her husband while both were graduate students at California State University, Sacramento. “We’re both civil engineers,” said Gill, who was scoping out menus, fashions, decorations and engagement photos for her upcoming wedding at the West Sacramento Sikh Temple. Gill was shopping with her girlfriends, while her mother, Malkit Gill, hung back.
“I’ll be more involved when it comes to the checkbook,” said Malkit Gill, who was happy to turn over the reins to her daughter. “She’s got her education; she’s an engineer; she has her own house now, and I adore her fiancé.”
Call The Bee’s Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072. Bee researcher Pete Basofin contributed to this report.