The similarities between 15th-century Florence — the global seat of high Renaissance — and its near coeval, the Mughal India under Akbar, have been well documented. The two cultures had a long spell of mutually rewarding, bilateral transaction of ideas and commodities, a fictionalised account of which can be found in Salman Rushdie’s historical novel The Enchantress of Florence. But there’s one link between Renaissance Italy and India that goes unmentioned in Rushdie’s novel, and what’s even more baffling is that this link — between the traditional Indian wedding and its 15th-century Italian counterpart — still survives.
Weddings are a big deal anywhere in the world. But in sheer terms of scale, the great Indian wedding is a supernova of noise and activity that few, if any, other contemporary cultures can parallel. In history books, though, one comes across an example that can give the Indian wedding — in all its bigness and fatness — a run for its money. Weddings during the Italian Renaissance were boisterous, wildly exhibitionistic and extravagant affairs, so much so that it makes one think if the conventional Indian template wasn’t directly borrowed — lock, stock and barrel — from there.
A typical wedding during the Italian Renaissance signified a compact not so much between two individuals as between two families. So once protracted negotiations — mainly about dowry — were settled between the families of the bride and groom, a public spectacle usually ensued on the streets of Milan or Florence. Interestingly, the wedding splurge was not a privilege restricted to the aristocrats; the poorest of Italians attempted to, as one scholar put it, “emulate the rich” whenever there was a wedding in the family.
There are also some aspects in which the Renaissance wedding simply outshines some of our existing models. In terms of the time spent per wedding, for instance, and the elaborations that went into the rituals, the Italians had few rivals. The process, spanning from matchmaking to nuptials, was divided into four phases — Impalmamento (initial negotiations); Sponsalia (dowry talks); Matrimonium (ring ceremony and church vows); and Nozze (the grand reception of the bride) — all of which could take years.
After this soul-killing rigmarole, the bride, as part of the Nozze phase, would be given a grand welcome into her husband’s town, with her sitting on a white horse, and a procession following in tandem (the exact inverse of the traditional Hindu norm, where a groom rides a mare at the start of the ceremonies). The feasting and general merrymaking, too, lasted for weeks. As did the general display of vulgarity.
The lack of imagination that informs the planning of an average Indian wedding manifests most of all in the decor, and it remains the stuff of legend. The venues are designed as (fake) palaces, people dressed up as (fake) royals and are made to sit on (fake) golden thrones. The Old-World Italians weren’t far behind in this regard, with their “giant sculptures of castles, ships and people” that adorned their wedding venues, and that were made of sugar. Not a bad idea, this — nothing beats decor that you can eat.
Surprisingly, there aren’t many artistic depictions of the Italian wedding during the Renaissance. That may be because the major sponsor of the artists, the church or the royalty, commissioned mostly biblical scenes or portraits of the high and mighty. But this doesn’t explain the dearth of great modern paintings depicting the traditional Indian wedding. I managed to find only one substantial work on this theme: by MF Husain, entitled Doll’s Wedding. Here, the artist eschews the grandeur and all the clichés of the Indian wedding. Rather, he makes it into a haunting spectacle — the doll in the painting is a little girl in the centre of the frame, wearing a golden crown, amid black-faced percussionists and another older figure, the would-be husband, brandishing a mighty sword. The painting is not a celebration of the Indian wedding, but rather a reminder of where, in our country, the institution of marriage and tradition both went horribly wrong.