The Evolution of Wedding Photography in Kerala

I attended the wedding of a close friend recently and was struck by how far we Mallus had come as a society when it came to the art of wedding photography. The bride and groom had arranged for separate professional wedding photographers, as well as a separate group of ‘candid’ photographers. On top of this, three friends each of the bride and the groom had bought DSLRs recently and fancied themselves modern day Steve McCurrys. To add icing to the cake, every guest had brought their own smartphones and were merrily clicking away throughout the event. Even the bride gave in to temptation and took a selfie before the pujari could object. Thankfully, she remembered to include the groom in the selfie titled ‘ Tradition meets Romance – My Big Day !’

All this gave pause to yours truly. Over the years, weddings had ceased to be about the subjects themselves and more about those who surrounded them. Union of hearts and souls till death did them part became not so much important as the union of relatives and long lost friends, who found weddings a great excuse to get a few days off work. Even so, these events continued to be contained within the immediate family and friend circles, which for Mallus is still about 200 strong for an average family. There used to be just one additional group of people who were invited enthusiastically into the inner circle – the wedding photographers.

They were given carte blanche to cover the wedding ceremony without hindrance; freely allowed to go where they pleased and take what shots they wanted. The purpose of their existence was to capture in graphic detail those precious moments in time which would hopefully give the family a lifetime of sado-masochistic pleasure. Mom would forevermore inflict the wedding album on all visitors to their house. Supriya would sneak a peek ever so often to sigh at how much thinner she looked as a bride. Sugunan would sneak a peek ever so often to marvel at that luxurious head of hair he had on his wedding day. Grandma would scan the album over tea and biscuits, finding faults with the design of the necklaces worn by the guests and remembering how brilliantly decked out she was on her own wedding day. The bride’s dad would sneak a peek ever so often to remind himself how much money he had to waste on the wedding, all to invite that good for nothing Sugunan into his family. In short, wedding photographers were custodians of time and memory.  And they used to execute their duty with care, dignity and a certain dispassionate , even clinical, professionalism. However, as with many things in life, the evolution of society took a toll on this ancient guardians of memories as well.

The era before digital cameras – In the name of the craft (1950 – 2000s)

During this idyllic era, weddings were all about the bride, groom and the bride’s aunt who insisted on being present in all the wedding photos. Photographers managed to distill the art of wedding photography to an exact and methodical science, often sacrificing aesthetics for functionality, all in the name of the craft. So much so that wedding photos often followed a formulaic pattern. It would begin on the morning of the wedding, with one set of photographers each at the bride’s and groom’s house. Both the families would have contracted one studio each for the event, and they would go about their duties, covering the bride and the groom individually and later, collectively. The photos were broadly classified into 4 groups:

  1. Pre wedding dakshina photos – these were primarily shots of the bride and the groom offering dakshina to the elders in their family. The process involves offering them a betel leaf, betel nut and a one rupee coin (pre demonetisation era) and then bending low to touch their feet in an unprecedented show of obeisance. These photos were all shot from the same angle, and if flipped forwards fast enough, would act as a flip-book with relatives replacing one another in animated fast motion. The bride and the groom would invariably have the same expression on all the photos – one of anticipatory panic, hoping against hope that that pesky mundu or loose saree would not fall off during all the bending and swooping.
  2. Wedding shots – the money shot would of course be the one in which the panicked groom attempts to tie the mangalsutra on the bride, praying to all the gods that he doesn’t screw up. The photographers would would form a protective cordon of strobing flashes around the newlyweds, trying to get as many clean shots as possible, often obscuring the entire event from the hundreds sitting in the viewing gallery, depriving them of even a momentary glimpse of the actual event that they had been invited to see.
  3. Sadya photos – this is where the photographers would earn their keep as professionals. They would have to roam around the sadya hall, trying to click half decent pictures of ravenous guests shovelling in mouthfuls of rice and sambar, all the while refraining from grabbing even a cup of water themselves. It’s a special kind of torture, having to watch people all around you eat gluttonously, having to smell all that tasty food surrounding you and yet have none of it. To top it off, you have to work as well. It’s no surprise that hungry and irritated photographers often resort to cheap shots like taking pictures of the groom with a big handful of rice soaked in sambar halfway up to his open mouth.

                        Sugunan’s Sadya moments
  4. Post wedding romantic photos – all photographers would attempt this finale, some with more finesse and élan than others. This part of the event is more or less akin to the improvisation in a Carnatic music performance, where the singers and the musicians suspend rules and regulationsfor a bit and dig deep down to unleash their creativity. Photographers would make the couple pose in embarrassing poses while they strived to achieve the perfect romantic shot. This is where the innate creativity of the most conservative and unimaginative studio photographer would wake up. Some have even been known to go crazy with props like umbrellas, chairs, flutes and on one memorable occasion, a full grown cow, with comically disastrous consequences.
                    Chin up, Smile, Look Romantic.

The era of digital cameras – Have camera, will shoot (2000 – 2010s)

Then came the wave of socialism that washed over the photography industry, short circuiting many a studio photographer’s career. Canon, Nikon and Sony started mass producing high quality digital cameras for relatively low prices, and almost every kid on the block bought one. Those who bought DSLRs immediately rushed out to take really close up pictures of ugly lizards sitting on backyard dumpsters and surprised ducks trying to cross the road – spending fifteen minutes on taking the photo and half an hour thinking up captions. Those who couldn’t be bothered with lizards and ducks went after more sedate subjects like fences, doors, the sky or even sleeping friends.

Have camera – will shoot 

These photographic endeavours extended to the wedding halls as well. You could see hordes of friends from both sides hovering around the bride and groom, clicking away merrily. Ex boyfriends trying to take pictures of the bride getting dressed (for old times’ sake) and soon to be ex friends trying to take pictures of the groom having that last hurried cigarette to calm his nerves now had the brush to paint the canvas of their imaginations. In their frenzy to get the perfect shot, these friends soon started falling over the professional photographers trying to cover the wedding.

Candid photos 

This era also saw the rise of guerrilla photography, often referred to as candid photography. It originated as a sort of rebellion against the formulaic predictability of the wedding photography techniques of the previous generation. Photographers, in their quest to reduce wedding photography to an exact science, had taken all the fun out of wedding albums, until there was little to no discernible difference between photos taken at your dad’s wedding and your own. In a bid to re-establish the ethos of creativity that ought to drive all photographic endeavours, people increasingly started turning to candid photography – i.e. photos taken without the direct knowledge of the subjects.

   Which could lead to cute moments such as this.

Candid photography also sought to capture the true essence of weddings – apathy leavened by bouts of panic. So it was that wedding albums came to be filled with pictures of the bride’s sister chatting up a friend of the groom, little lamps that mom thought would be a cute decorative addition to the mandapam but which almost ended up lighting the pujari on fire, dad’s panicked expression when the caterer told him the sadya would be late and the grandma nodding off backstage. Professional photographers started specialising in candid photos in a bid to keep pace with the times, and very soon became adept at taking photos of everything except the bride and the groom.

The era of drones – Missiles are optional extra (2010s – present)

Soon after the US military started using drones for reconnaissance and shooting missiles at the Taliban fighters doing potty behind Afghan rocks, commercial photographic studios realised that drones had other uses as well. They could be used to cover weddings too. The only difference between using a drone for military reconnaissance and wedding photography is that missiles are optional extra for the wedding. This then gave rise to the birth of the commercial drone photo and videography industry, where the wedding assumed secondary importance compared to the pre wedding destination photography. Hundreds of couples spent all the money they had saved up for the honeymoon on destination wedding preps, flying to Mauritius and the Andamans to have drones capture their fun filled frolics in knee deep ocean.

    But no drone can account for human stupidity.

Drones entered the wedding halls as well, buzzing merrily over guests hunched up to eat sadya. Sugunan could now empathise with the hapless Taliban fighter who wanted nothing more upon waking up in the morning than to answer nature’s call with some modicum of dignity and privacy , but instead was met with the loud fury of a drone hovering around his head. Such sort of nonsense can easily put one off feeding or potty.

It is hard to predict how wedding photography will continue to evolve. Technology may end up automating everything associated with weddings, with the unenviable result that wedding photographers may all have to retrain as drone operators in the near future. The only certainty is that Supriya’s dad will continue to be puzzled by what his daughter ever saw in that nincompoop Sugunan. The guy can’t even eat rice and sambar properly, for heaven’s sake.