In most cultures weddings are milestone events celebrated with considerable pomp and ceremony. This is certainly true of Hindu weddings, which in India can last for days and involve many hundreds of people, not to mention the occasional elephant. Transplanted to America, the Hindu wedding ceremony has been simplified, but still tends to be a lavish affair, requiring a great deal of preparation and decoration. Today on New American Voices we talk with Prabha Bhambri, an Indian wedding planner, whose chosen profession is to make the weddings of her clients in the Washington area as memorable, and as stress-free, as possible.
“My work starts from talking to the bride. Usually when they call me we set up an appointment and I meet with the family or the bride and the groom themselves, and I ask what they envision as they walk into the hall, what they want to see. And that is how it starts. Her vision, my decoration.”
Prabha Bhambri, a short, chic, dark-haired woman in her fifties, says that since childhood she has always been interested in art, in flowers and decorating. As an undergraduate student in India she majored in painting and art, then received a Master’s degree in sociology. She was working on a second Master’s, this time in art, when she married a man chosen by her parents and moved with him to the United States. That was 37 years ago, but she still remembers her first steps in America.
“First, you know, it’s a different country--and a new husband! You don’t know any of those things, because it’s an arranged marriage, and I was very young – I was 21 – so when I think of it, I did a lot at that time, adjusting to a new environment and a new husband that I didn’t know anything about. But three months later I started working as a rehabilitation counselor with the Department of Rehabilitation in D.C.”
After a few years Mrs. Bhambri put her career on hold to raise three daughters. Her involvement in other people’s weddings started about ten years ago, when her youngest daughter was in high school. She has a friend to thank for it.
“Her son was getting married, and I asked her, how can I help her, and I said the best I could do was to decorate. And she said, okay, go ahead. I said, just let me decorate how I want to. So when she entered the room [I had decorated] she said, ‘Prabha, you should go into business’.”
Prabha Bhambri took her friend’s suggestion to heart. Today she operates her business out of her sprawling brick home in a lush green suburb of Washington D.C. She has three warehouses full of props that she uses for weddings, many of them imported from India. Her inventory includes thirty to forty huge mandaps, the canopies under which Hindu couples are married, but also statues of deities, ornate candleholders, red carpets, rolls upon rolls of fabric, and huge coolers to hold the thousands of flowers she uses for garlands, centerpieces and decorations.
She says she still loves creating the decorations for weddings the most, but for those families that request it – and pay for it - Mrs. Bhambri can take care of all the details of a traditional Hindu wedding. This can include providing the artists who paint henna tattoos on the bride’s hands and feet, the deejays who play a mix of Indian and American tunes, and the white horse on which the bridegroom traditionally rides to meet his bride. And of course her services focus on the wedding venue itself.
“It will include the hallway decorations, the gates with some kind of Indian décor, the flowers at the entrance. It starts with the barat, which is the procession of the groom sitting on a horse ninety-nine percent of the time, so we arrange that, and the drum player and the shehnai, which is very traditional, going way, way back thousands of years in India, when there is a wedding the shenai person has to be playing outside in a courtyard from the morning until the bride comes.”
Prabha Bhambri says a typical Indian-American wedding has upwards of 500 guests and can easily cost 50 to 60 thousand dollars. At the moment Mrs. Bhambri is engaged in the preparations for a very special wedding – that of her youngest daughter, which will take place in one of Washington’s hotels next week.
“You are more relaxed if it is your own daughter’s wedding, because you don’t have to answer to anyone else, how you do the event. But I am treating this event [as I would my other jobs]… I sat down with her [my daughter] and my future-son-in-law as the bride and the groom, and I made a folder, like any other bride, what she wants, and I’m treating her in that respect as my client. It will be a combined decoration, Western and Indian together, because they are brought up here, so they want to do what they feel comfortable in.”
Mrs. Bhambri notes that like ninety-nine percent of the Indian-American brides she deals with, her daughter is marrying a man of her own choice –- in keeping with her American upbringing. But, like her sisters, she also speaks fluent Hindi and is rooted in her Indian heritage. Mrs. Bhambri says she consciously tried to give her children the best of both her worlds.
“I’m very-very much Indian, and yet I’m not very-very much Indian. I’m very open-minded, like other ladies here. I gave my daughters the values, the good values of both the cultures. Number one value is respect yourself first and respect your elders, which is very important in our culture. And at the same time I gave them freedom and trust, which is very much here [American values].”
Prabha Bhambri, an artist with a thriving business in organizing elaborate traditional Indian weddings in metropolitan Washington.
English Feature Broadcast August 23, 2004