When 23-year-old Ayra* got engaged in September 2022, she was over the moon… until she realised that her wedding date had been set for December. In desi wedding time, that is a blink of an eye. She thought she had some idea of what was to come because she’d planned her sister’s wedding a few years ago but, in fact, she underestimated the curveballs thrown one’s way in the fast-advancing avalanche of wedding planning.
Cue the mood boards, meetings and samples. For Ayra, her dream wedding had always been royal-esque. Not Kate Middleton royal, but the royalty embodied by the Mughal courts of our own history. Each piece of the puzzle had to fit together — an intimate sundowner nikaah melding seamlessly into a mayun that lasts till the early hours of the next morning — complete with an outfit change of course. Mehndi dances to rival any Bollywood movie and the perfect rukhsati moment.
Ayra was hardly alone in her quest for the perfect wedding. ‘Decemberistan’, as so many of us know it, is the crux of our year. Young and old, students and travellers — all convene to attend weddings like their lives depend on it. A shaadi season that used to be confined to December alone, has now stretched out to almost all of the winter months. A popular designer reported to Ayra that he alone has had to make 400 wedding dresses just for December and January this year.
Pakistan’s society weddings — large, multi-day extravaganzas to celebrate upper class unions — are back after the lull of Covid-induced scaling down in the past couple of years. Brides and those involved behind the scenes share their experiences of what it takes to organise the festivities and the new stresses involved…
ALL HANDS ON DECK
With only three months left till her wedding, many vendors already booked up till the end of the famed shaadi season and multiple mood boards left to execute, Ayra assembled a team of her strongest bridesmaids. Both her sisters were still in the US, unable to make it until the very last week of her wedding, and yet WhatsApp groups were made to plan outfits, coordinate colour themes and even a few surprises. Still, there was a lot left to execute and Ayra was relying on her best friends to help her make it through.
At one particular dance practice, Ayra recalls feeling more frazzled than usual. The tailor had come a few hours later than he’d said he would, which meant he now clashed with the time that most of her friends had gathered for one of their final run-throughs for the mehndi dances. He also came bearing news that her mehndi outfit might not be ready in time, which led to another round of panic.
As Ayra dealt with this crisis, her sister, still jetlagged as she had landed less than 24 hours earlier, was frantically finalising the designs for flower jewellery that Ayra would be wearing in the lead up to the bigger functions and, as Ayra herself could tell you, planning for her has never been an easy feat.
Her friends decided to surprise the bride-to-be with a bridal shower just for her — filled with fun games and a surprise performance — but alas, the event took longer than expected to start.
“It took my sister almost an hour to convince me that we were doing a ‘family photoshoot’ because it was her responsibility to get me ready and I kept asking questions and finding reasons to change the plan — only to get there and realise my friends had planned a surprise bridal shower for me,” she tells Eos.
A COMMUNAL AFFAIR
The last few months leading up to her wedding had been overwhelming for her. Although she always knew she wanted a certain kind of wedding, when it came down to it, there were so many question marks all of a sudden. She realised that all her planning had involved only herself, but a desi wedding is never centred around one person. Instead each person in her family and among her friends had their own ideas on what they wanted in her wedding.
It is hard to say no to people you love. After participating in her loved ones’ weddings all her life, how could she expect her own wedding to be any different?
But even the best of bridal squads fall short against the ravages that the hectic social activity of Decemberistan brings. As Ayra sits on the other side having had her strongest soldiers fall to migraines, wardrobe malfunctions, event planner slip-ups and uncoordinated announcements, she shares how surreal it feels for something that seemed so large and looming to suddenly be over.
“I always had a very particular vision of how I wanted my wedding,” she shares.
“I sit on the other side nitpicking at details, shoots and aesthetics. It’s surreal that my own wedding has already happened. We look at weddings all through the year and often anticipate the prospect of executing our own, with our own vision. At least I did. Now it’s done. With all the halla gulla [fanfare] gone, the silence makes me appreciate it even more.”
For anyone who attended, it appears that the bride got everything she wanted out of her wedding but, though overjoyed, Ayra can easily sit down and tell you all the small things she had wanted to happen that just couldn’t go through with.
It’s easy to focus on what the event planner missed out, the friends who couldn’t make it and the small things that couldn’t happen. As she looks back at her wedding — while simultaneously studying for her final year medical school exams — she worries about why it’s so easy to focus on what didn’t happen instead of what did, even as she acknowledges that so much went right.
Ayra’s wedding involved a lot of music and dancing. From the perfectly curated dance practices that needed no choreographer, to Ayra being the star of the dance floor, it was all perfectly her — except it almost wasn’t.
The constant comments to not dance at her own wedding because it wouldn’t look appropriate to guests got to her, despite her confidence in her decision. While she ended up doing the dances she loved, that pressure was a reminder of how much weddings are all about conforming to expectations and trends — but for those who manage to break free of that, something truly magical can happen.
While each wedding, including Ayra’s, is unique to the couple planning it, it’s also interesting to see all the similarities that come up in the weddings we see these days. Ayra isn’t the only bride who has felt like she’s had to put everything else to the side to focus on wedding planning.
‘Instagram weddings’ this shaadi season have by and large started to define who we are, and what we mean to each other and ourselves.
It’s pretty clear to every one of us that the days of ‘ghar ki dholki’ and simple weddings are long gone, and whether it’s the aftermath of the pandemic, social media influence making everything larger than life, or something else entirely, it seems everyone is wondering just why is it that the shaadi season has become so much bigger than all of us.
Everywhere I go, I hear people talking about how they’re tired of going to weddings and yet, the weddings never end. What is it about weddings that draws us like moths to a flame? Why have so many of us developed a love-hate relationship with weddings?
“Weddings are such a big part of our society, kyun ke shaadi tau sab ne karni hai [because everyone has to get married],” states Maria*, the owner of an event company in Lahore, “How we choose to do it is a choice we have to make.”
The Lahore-based event planner puts weddings at the very heart of our society — both economically and socially. From bringing people from across the world together back home, to establishing new relationships, to the jobs the wedding industry creates, she’s seen every aspect of it from behind her planner.
A desi wedding is never centred around one person. Instead each person in her family and among her friends had their own ideas on what they wanted in her wedding. It is hard to say no to people you love. After participating in her loved ones’ weddings all her life, how could she expect her own wedding to be any different?
Aleena, who is currently planning her own wedding — with festivities lined up for the end of March — is making many of those choices amidst hopping from appointment to meeting to trial. She spends most of her day in the car, and when she turns to scroll mindlessly on her phone, she’s met with pictures of more weddings.
Her focus is her friends and family, and she’s aiming to be picky about her guest list to really be able to enjoy with the people she loves. “Of course I am having one bigger event because, as my parents reminded me, it’s their daughter’s wedding too, and I want them to get what they envisioned out of it as well,” says Aleena.
As she comes back from her bridal fitting she finds herself wondering why she’s drawn to certain trends — the confusion between what she actually wants and what she’s been exposed to leaves her wondering how she can best make sure she enjoys her wedding just the way she wants.
For one, she’s not going to be confined to a stage. She has planned an immersive line-up of events, so she participates in every single one instead of being a passive spectator. As a minimalist, her focus is on having more things to do to keep the guests entertained than spend her budget on decor or catering to large guest lists.
In fact, the function she’s most looking forward to is the ‘Games Day’, where both her guests and her will come dressed in their “finest” lounge wear to compete in races and figure out who knows the couple best.
“I’m not having a mehndi because that’s not a vibe I’ve ever enjoyed and it’s been interesting to see how the people I’ve told have reacted. It’s almost as if weddings here can’t be complete without one,” she says.
Still she’s well aware of how things might change even in just two months and she laughingly requests to not be held accountable for anything she might end up doing instead. “We talk so much about what’s wrong and what’s right, but weddings are a celebration and they should make the couple happy, so that’s what I’m focusing on. There’s no one way to have a wedding,” she says.
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE LENS
For Rahat Rafiq, the founder of R World photography, the answer to what draws him to weddings was simple: the people.
Rafiq, who’s been running R World for almost a decade, says that while he has tried a few genres, including fashion, he always got drawn back to weddings. “Weddings happen because of people. I’d say that the wedding photography genre chose me. I’m a very people-driven person and at weddings I get to see new people, to observe new families,” he shares.
Despite being on his toes as he covers multiple weddings day in and day out, he manages to pause and reflect.
When Rafiq first started covering weddings, he did so under the guidance of his mentor Kohi Marri, and initially it all seemed like glitz and glamour, until he covered a wedding on his own for the first time. It was then that he realised just how much more complicated it can be to cover weddings for all sorts of different people.
Rafiq is the kind of person who loves observing people from behind his lens. “I often don’t tell people of my observations because I don’t want to accidentally creep anyone out,” he laughs. Since he started R World he’s had more than a couple of memorable weddings to cover.
The one that stands out most recently when it comes to seeing just how many people it takes to make a desi wedding is one where he covered a French-Pakistani family. “The grandparents, who lived in a small village in France, must have been at least 80. They travelled from their village to Paris, then to Istanbul, and then Karachi via another transit. That was the crux of family for me,” he says.
Not all the families he’s observed are like that and Rafiq casually puts the kind of people he’s worked with into three categories. The first are what he describes as bride-focused or groom-focused weddings, where the family plays little to no role or is not in the limelight because the couple or one person in the couple has the focus on themselves.
He counters that with the opposite — family-focused weddings where each member of the family plays a key role, and oftentimes the bride or groom won’t even take a single step without their instruction. Weddings often bring out the best and worst of our social interactions — and most often that starts at home.
The third category is the most interesting for him. “There is a category of people who are generation-specific lovers of family. You’ll see dada doing sehra bandi, nana doing rukhsati or nikaah because that is how interlinked the family is. But often with these families, I can’t always tell what it means,” he shares.
He’s also increasingly noticed the delays and ‘fashionably late’ events that are occurring simply because there’s a lack of respect for time. The phrase Wedding Standard Time has become a joke amidst many of the weddings he’s attended.
“Discipline is everything, so if you’re planning your wedding, start with that. If you’ve given the time of 7:45 start at 7:45 despite who has or hasn’t shown up. Do it once, do it twice, the third time they’ll show up before you.”
As he continues to play his role behind the lens, Rafiq’s focused on giving his customers the best experience, right from the beginning of the photoshoot till the day he delivers photos. But in all these years, he’s learnt a lot more about the impact of weddings than just improving his photography skills. More than anything, he’s seen people stress.
“People panic a lot more than required, and they forget they actually have to enjoy the wedding. The photos get compromised, plans get affected and regret comes in later,” he advises future brides and grooms.
Event planner Zoreed Raza shares that her wedding planning experience started in the days when people would rely on magazine cut-outs for inspiration instead of social media posts and says times have changed significantly over the last couple of decades.
The big, fat Pakistani wedding has a life of its own — looping people in from all walks of life. We may see it as a celebration of family but, the pressures one has to undergo often puts these relationships to test.
“First just a stage and some flowers would be enough,” she says. “Now you need multiple vendors to cater to just the wall designs. Thousands of vendors have entered into this industry. All of this has happened due to social media, which has created a large wedding industry. When I entered this industry, none of this was happening. There were only tents and food. Then we started making sofa sets, then wall panelling on entrances etc,” she adds.
THE SCALE OF STRESS
At the Lahore-based event company, that also manage most of what goes down behind the curtain at weddings, similar sentiments arise.
“The one thing people get wrong is that good healthy emotion seems to have gone out of the picture and is being replaced by stress,” says Maria. “Interestingly, enough people were less stressed during Covid weddings. I saw many clients actually being thankful that they could only host a small event, because they seemed to enjoy that more,” the young event planner says.
That shift in mindset says a lot about where weddings go right as much as where they go wrong. For the couple getting married, a wedding should always signify their happiness, no matter what size that happiness takes.
But no matter the scale of the events, it truly takes a village to organise a Pakistani wedding. And so when Zara’s only brother-in-law got engaged, she knew it was on her to hold the fort down. As the family had thrown a grand wedding for Zara and her husband, they were planning the same for their younger son — and everyone wanted to play a part. Of course, Zara being six months pregnant by the time his wedding rolled around didn’t make things easier.
Her current situation brought about an interesting observation for her. “Naturally, I didn’t wear heels at all to any of the events, but I’m glad I was comfortable about my height. I was already feeling so conscious because I was showing more than I had expected in some of my outfits, and if I was conscious of my height I think that would’ve made it worse,” she says.
Having gotten married herself in December 2021, and a fashion expert, it wasn’t surprising that she became the go-to organiser for all things wedding related. Each part, after all, needs to be meticulously planned and, in the current digital age also needs to be curated to Instagram.
As Zara points out, “When photographers post pictures of couples at weddings, everyone from the dress designer, make-up and hair artists and even jewellery designers are tagged. It’s a complete curation in itself.”
While that may make it easier to find inspiration, it also creates a certain pressure to associate with certain brand names — which Zara acknowledges can take the fun out of planning your unique wedding experience.
And this wedding was certainly unique in its own way, particularly due in part to the enthusiastic guests. After the rukhsati, when the bride and groom came home, their car was stopped in the driveway by a group of the groom’s mom’s closest friends — who in true desi fashion, demanded payment for letting the couple out of the car.
They stood on the bride’s side of the door, only to realise, halfway into the negotiations, that the bride was no longer there. Amidst all the noise, the bride had quietly jumped to the driving seat and exited from there, which is a feat in itself when you’re wearing full bridal attire complete with lehenga and jewellery.
When the week-long wedding events culminated in the valima, Zara found herself sitting between her mom and sister for a time, who took it upon themselves to take care of her in her current state.
“Somehow they both started feeding me at the same time and it got to a point where I wouldn’t finish one bite and the other would feed me another one, until I got so frustrated I got up and left,” she laughs, acknowledging the kind of special attention she’d gotten throughout the wedding.
But despite the two weddings being only a year apart, Zara’s very differing experiences made her look back at what she got wrong when she herself was a bride.
“At my own mehndi, I was so worried about how I looked, how people would perceive me, what family members might think that, even though I danced, I wasn’t able to enjoy as easily as I wanted,” she says, adding “this time round, I was able to have so much more fun because I didn’t let these things get to me.”
It’s why she advises brides to not do what she did. “Choose dresses and designs you feel comfortable in, and ones that make you feel confident,” she shares. She adds, “Don’t just jump on trends, and make sure you focus more on enjoying the moment.”
The big, fat Pakistani wedding has a life of its own — looping people in from all walks of life. We may see it as a celebration of family but, the pressures one has to undergo often puts these relationships to test. And on the outside, it may seem that the wedding only has to do with the couple showcased on social media, in fact, they are but a small cog in the grand machine of the wedding industry.
Various brands have now emerged within this industry, each laying claim to a specialisation that was perhaps never before recognised as a task that needs to be outsourced. It is not just that these tasks — like vendor management for food, flowers and tent set-up, photography, etc. — have become an added burden to one’s wallet, but also that they need to match certain ‘aesthetic’ requirements, one that is in line with Instagram trends. However, much is lost during this process.
For one, all the couples look exactly the same. The element of novelty has taken a backseat… till the next Instagram trend. For two, these newfound aesthetic requirements in upper class weddings have gotten more mouths running about how yet another wedding has failed to match the expected standards. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the process of making weddings look picture-perfect often overshadows those involved in it, making many question why they stressed over making something look a certain way to an extent they forgot to participate in it.
As wedding season continues to encompass a longer span of time each year, maybe it’s time to reevaluate just what we want to give that time to.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy
The writer is a journalist and the founder of Perspective Magazine. She tweets @anmolirfan22
Published in Dawn, January 22nd, 2023