With his eye for documenting the weddings of the Indian upper and middle classes, the Indian photographer Manesh Shantaram captures the complex and contradictory social structures of his homeland. Using photographs taken of more than 150 weddings over a period of six years, Shantaram constructs one long, intoxicating party, revealing fascinating insights into these meticulously choreographed events. "Everything that’s great about India – and everything that’s wrong with it – can be summarised in a single wedding," Shantaram says, summarising the significance of his series.
For many years, Shantaram, a member of the Agence VU‘, enjoyed privileged access to the wedding celebrations of India's wealthier communities. He took advantage of these opportunities to draw a multifaceted picture of Indian society in his documentary photographs.
As it always has been, the Indian wedding ceremony is subject to strict religious and social traditions. Many of the marriages the photographer was able to depict were arranged by the couple’s parents, with the main purpose being to unite families that belong to the same social classes and the same castes. Frequently, business relationships between two families can also play a decisive role. When this kind of pairing off succeeds, the weddings are a big social event that permits the families who throw opulent parties lasting for several days to solidify their social status. The social pressure is so great that families start saving up for their daughter's wedding as soon as she is born.
Shantaram certainly succeeds in capturing this luxury with a sobering gaze. He depicts only a few moments of great ecstasy because he is more interested in what lies behind these sparkling presentations. Women acting as live lamp carriers, transporting gigantic candelabra on their heads; a shirt tightly spanning a stomach; sleeping teens; an exhausted clown removing his mask to allow a glimpse of his sweaty, tired face. Hundreds of workers entertain and serve thousands of guests, keeping the show going for days, while the invited guests immerse themselves in Bollywood-like fantasy worlds.
Now available as a photo book, published by Hatje Cantz, Matrimania by Manesh Shantaram presents a personal view of the contradictions of twenty-first-century India, exposed by the wedding culture as if under a microscope.