It’s a rainy Friday night and the Gulati family home in the north-west Sydney suburb of Eastwood is like a Bollywood film set: a swirl of bangles, saris, sandals and spices. The house is decorated with garlands of gardenias and images of the Hindu elephant deity Ganesh. It is also filled with impeccably groomed men, women and children, clad in vibrant swathes of silk.
For Suresh Gulati and his wife Adarsh, it’s an auspicious day: it’s their daughter’s Angeli’s sangeet, the first of many Hindu rituals to be held over the next seven days to mark her marriage to Vijay Ponnuru, in two days’ time.
Suresh immigrated to Australia from northern India in 1968, aged 19, with his parents Vidya and Faqir, a former diplomat. Suresh credits his parents, who arranged his 1978 marriage to Adarsh, with inspiring him to preserve such belief-based traditions.
“A sangeet is a lovely prelude to the wedding and a chance for the groom and bride’s families to get to know each other,” says Suresh. “We come from a large extended family and we are determined to continue these customs because without culture and identity, you have nothing,” says Suresh.
Holding court in the living room is bride-to-be, Angeli, a senior business analyst, who has been sitting patiently for about three hours having henna painted onto her hands and feet for mehndi, a symbolic part of the ceremony. Angeli’s grandmother Krishna Sardana – known as Nani-ji – says mehndi symbolises the strength of a couple’s love. “It is about making the bride look beautiful,” says
Nani-ji, who had her own sangeet some 63 years ago, aged 15. “The darker the henna becomes, the more the husband and in-laws will love the bride,” she says. Angeli’s mehndi is a traditional Mughal design, which has been used in wedding ceremonies for centuries by Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus.
Australian-born Angeli believes many of the age-old Indian customs have survived because they have evolved with the times.
“A sangeet used to be about the women… like a hen’s party but, in recent years, it’s become more about bringing the two families together,” says Angeli, who is wearing an embroidered emerald-green lengha (traditional outfit consisting of a skirt and top), an eye-catching bindi (forehead decoration) and colourful bangles. “A sangeet is a very social, sacred occasion. It’s also about looking beautiful for your husband,” she adds.
The word sangeet is Sanskrit and translates as ‘sung together’. While the Bollywood-inspired song-and-dance routines add to the magic of this gleeful event, the food, too, is a focal point. Smells of turmeric, onions and spices drift about the house, while dhokla (semolina cakes), papdi chaat (chickpea and condiment snacks) and samosas are passed around.
Nani-ji is a pandit (priest) and, when all of the 80-odd guests have arrived, she leads the prayers to Ganesh – asking that the couple be blessed with good fortune. Angeli and Vijay, a software engineer, are then besieged by well-wishers, many of whom perform a routine related to marriage and romance.
While the couple’s marriage wasn’t arranged, as such, it was, according to Angeli, “a set-up”. Angeli’s parents encouraged her to communicate with Vijay via email in September 2010, when he was living in New Zealand. The couple met face-to-face for the first time two months later and, soon after, Vijay moved to Sydney to be closer to Angeli. He proposed on Valentine’s Day last year.
Vijay says he and Angeli are both intent on honouring customs that are central to Hindu culture. “This is a very happy day for me,” says Vijay, whose family hails from the south of India. “A sangeet is a visual feast. Indians love dancing, colour and music. We also like to have fun, and so we perform lots of skits and have a laugh and that’s a bonding experience,” he explains.
After the main meal, the singing and dancing continues until 11pm, when the sweets are served and then the last of the guests flutter out the door. The next time everyone will meet is at the wedding ceremony, when Vijay makes his entrance on an elaborately decorated horse at the Mukti-Gupteshwar Mandir temple in Minto. Although the wedding is more serious than a sangeet, Vijay says it will be another opportunity to again “unite family and friends through food, music and prayer”.
Photography by Alan Benson.