Many years ago I wrote a piece about the phenomenon of ‘candid’ wedding photography in India. I have candid in quotes because the ‘candid’ wedding photographer is a species found only in India. In the West if you do weddings you are simply a wedding photographer or a wedding photojournalist.
When I wrote the article, it was written at the expense of the traditional wedding photographers also disparagingly called ‘studiowallas’ by the ‘candid’, ‘creative’, ‘contemporary’ , ‘art’ -and what have you- wedding photographers in India . (Full disclosure: I have myself occasionally wielded the camera as a ‘Candid Wedding Photographer).
I wrote rather uncharitably about the studiowallas branding them unruly and berated them for being overly intrusive. I cribbed that these guys breath down your neck telling you when to sit, stand or walk and how they make you pantomime Bollywood poses of the 60’s.
Over the years I have been suitably chastened and am now of the opinion that the studiowallas are a unique aspect of Indian weddings -as intrinsic to them as the shoe-stealing or the rice throwing ritual.
Unlike the elite- Candid wedding photographers, studiowallas contribute immensely to the exuberance and gaiety of Indian weddings spicing them up with their unique brand of humor and hilarity.
In a wedding I attended last winter the photographer (studiowalla) refused to take the group photograph because ‘bhabhi ji’ was not there. He then lay a bet that she had to be at the ice-cream stall. Then he reprimanded ‘bhaiji’ for not keeping an eye on her. And when the rather corpulent ‘bhabhi ji’ appeared with a largish ice-cream cone in her hand everyone greeted her with peals of laughter.
In another group photograph he proceeded to tell ‘jijaji’ not to stand like Swami Vivekananda and chill a little as it was not his own wedding. He then helped an octogenarian ‘phupaji’ on the stage and told off Golu and Dimpi for running around the dais and upsetting the flower arrangements.
In contrast, the ‘candid’ wedding photographer works in the ‘invisible’ mode. He leaves strict instructions that he has to be ‘ignored’. He can not only tell a ‘phupiji’ from a ‘buaji’ but wont give a damn if your ‘tauji’ is the most revered member of the family. In the pursuit for good expressions (candids) he would rather do a series of photographs of that distant, albeit photogenic, relative who landed at the wedding quite by accident.
The ‘studiowalla’ meanwhile is all flesh and bones and can be actually seen and heard. He makes sure his presence is felt and is as much a member of the family as the next relative. He not only knows everyone by name but is aware who has a sweet tooth and who has weakness for ‘theeka’ pan. Most importantly he is privy to the family politics and the pecking order and conducts his photography session accordingly.
The traditional wedding photographer is someone who has been photographing a family for generations. From a mundan, to a birthday party, to an anniversary he is hauled in for every family occasion. And unlike the ‘candid’ wedding photographer no multiple page contracts are signed. No hefty booking advances paid. Everything works on trust. He is paid when he comes to deliver the photographs and there is always a good-hearted bargaining. Sometimes he is paid in part and told the rest will be ‘adjusted’ in the coming family event.
In many a weddings the studiowallas are consulted about the wedding rituals. Not only because they are well versed with their chronology but also because they understand their significance. If the panditji is a greenhorn, they pitch in, taking the bride and groom through the various hoops of marriage rites.
Candid wedding photographers in India on the other hand have absolutely no idea what they are photographing . For them its’ just another exotic mumbo jumbo which they must compose really well.
Notwithstanding their ignorance about Indian weddings, the candid wedding photographers remain an overly pampered lot. Nowadays they are the real VVIP’s in Indian wedding. Everyone wants to know if they are okay and comfortable and if they need anything. Everyone is concerned if they have eaten properly and if they can fetch them something to drink. The bride in the mandap may forget to ask her half -starving groom sitting by her side, but wont fail to ask the ‘candid’ photographer if he has tried the awesome gajar- ka -halwa.
When the couple is seen off in their car, the all- important aunt is summarily shunted off from the front seat as that’s the seat reserved for the ‘candid’ wedding photographer.
The ‘candid’ wedding photography in Indian weddings began with the NRI’s seeking the same sort of wedding photos they saw of their friends in New York or London. At first they flew in the wedding photographers from the West but in a couple of years the resident photographers began to be roped in and in a matter of few years everyone wanted ‘candid’ photos of their weddings.
What are Indian weddings if not pomp and show? And if one can book a phoren wedding photographer it just adds to your prestige. A lot of wedding photographers from the West fly down and park themselves in India especially during the wedding season (mid September to late January) . In an India obsessed with ostentation, there is nothing as impressive as a ‘gora‘ bobbing around the Puja Pandals.
In this mad scramble for ‘candids’, the good old studiowalls are being pushed out of business. In an effort to remain in the game they have now sadly started to advertise themselves as ‘candid’ photographers, giving up their delectable antics at weddings.
Change is welcome but this is just another example of cultural homogenization where one day everything looks the same (read American). We have seen this in architecture ( steel and glass replacing our own Indian motifs). Indian weddings are a completely different beast from the staid, solemn weddings you have in the West. So if weddings are shot in a different way in India, it is just as well.
It will be a pity indeed if one day the studiowallas, who not only understood all the nuances of Indian weddings and who added so much mirth and humor to them , one day became ‘invisible’ .