“All that is great about a country, and all that is wrong with it, can be summarised by a single wedding,” explains Mahesh Shantaram. After studying photography in Paris back in 2006, Mahesh returned to his native Bangalore in an attempt to find work as a photojournalist. Unable to find a “serious job” amidst the Indian news and media sector, he turned to wedding photography, applying his photojournalist skills to capture the nuances of an Indian wedding.
Mahesh documented over 150 weddings and quickly noticed a number of images “that didn’t have a place in the wedding album, but were still valid to [him].” He came to realise that at every wedding there were two narratives, playing out in tandem. In his words, on one hand, there is the “blue sky edit for the typical wedding album,” but then there is also the “dark night edit”; an unveiling of India’s deep-rooted caste system that favours arranged marriages as a way to preserve or enhance one’s class.
“The caste system, as well as the patriarchy, are ancient power structures,” says Mahesh, “but it is more useful to study them in a contemporary context. They determine one’s specific role in society in relation to others, and determine one’s access or limitations to opportunity.” A system of privilege, one’s caste is determined at birth and either “casts a shadow or shines a bright light” over the course of one’s life.
Traditionally, arranged marriages are an integral aspect of maintaining and extending caste privileges. Parents and extended family members “play the role of Tinder for their children” in an attempt to secure a fortuitous match, and so, in turn, a wedding not only represents the bonding of two people, but also hints to the complex socio undercurrents that drive the act of marriage forwards. “This dichotomy is what I illustrate in Matrimania,” explains Mahesh on his series, recently published in a book of the same title by Hatje Cantz. The series, a fictional photo essay detailing one long night at an Indian wedding, is intended to be read alongside Mahesh’s personal essay Bond & Bondage, delving into the tangled web of expanding wedding stakeholders.
“Beneath the glossy veneer of public celebrations, there are these transactions that become a matter of life and death,” adds the photographer. “Simply put, caste is a ready reckoner to explain a clutch of confusing (to the foreign reader) headlines.” From honour killings, female suicides, dowry murders and several other human tragedies, the caste system perpetuates such acts of “family honour.” Mahesh equates these to “shorthand for transgressing caste and patriarchy strictures.” He goes on to say: “Young lovers are choosing to take their own life rather than face their parents and society and Matrimania packages this depressing reality with shocking pink linen covers.”
At the early stages of his career, Mahesh decided to use his platform as a photographer to create a pan-Indian experience. Shooting weddings across India from a variety of classes and societies, this diverse experience eventually became “critical in shaping Matrimania as a research project, exploring what unifies a country that is so divided and varied.” He showed an early version of the work to the renowned photographers Mark Power and Martin Parr, and with their positive encouragement, Mahesh came to realise that he was onto something, encouraging him to pursue the project further.
Though he was uncertain about publishing the work into a book at first in fear of it being “reduced to a pretty coffee table book” with its lush and silky imagery, he came to realise that a compelling shift was needed within the genre of “Great Indian Wedding” moments. “I saw a reason to shift the direction of Matrimania into a more solid work that took on serious issues in India today. The humour that runs through the work is only a sugar-coating on a bitter pill.”
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