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October 31, 2018

How British Tamils Are Using Weddings To Connect To Their Roots

Text by Lavanya Mohan. Photographs by Alexa Penberthy

As desi communities grow larger across the world, NRIs are drawing wedding inspiration from their ethnic heritage as well as their home countries. In this context, Verve looks at how the British Tamils are adapting to the cultural bifurcation

As a result of the 25-year-long civil war in Sri Lanka, the Tamil people had to evacuate the country and consequently are currently spread across the world, with a particularly large and vibrant community in the United Kingdom. The British Tamil population today is made up of those with both Indian and Sri Lankan origins. It is two-lakh-strong, with the majority being second-generation British Tamils who were born to immigrant parents and identify themselves as British — except when the time comes to plan their weddings.

Roots And Rituals
“Your wedding is the only time you get to connect to your roots,” says Vithya Visvendra, make-up artist and British beauty blogger. With over 3,20,000 followers across YouTube and Instagram, Visvendra is one of the biggest South Asian influencers and was my own introduction to the unique trends that British Tamil brides follow. “There aren’t many of us in the UK who celebrate festivals, even. So, besides weddings, we don’t really have any other connection to the Tamil culture and traditions. And this isn’t just for the bride, but also for the entire bridal party and the family.”

The ceremony that expats observe is an interesting mix of rituals that the have been evolving from the time that the community began to find their footing in the UK. Unlike the ceremonies followed by Tamils back home, which are different for each family, the British Tamil wedding is essentially homogeneous across the diaspora, with simpler and well-defined rituals. The bride is required to wear two saris during the wedding since the Tamil bride (back home and abroad) traditionally enters the venue twice. First in the manavarai sari when the bride gets the blessings of the elders who give her the koorai sari which she then changes into and in which she eventually gets married. It is the koorai sari in which the thali (a necklace worn by a Tamil woman to signify that she is married) is tied. “The first sari can be any colour such as orange, pink or yellow,” says Shindy Ratnaselvam, a bridal make-up artist who was born and trained in the UK. “The koorai sari is almost always red or maroon. We understand this colour to be auspicious and there is no colour more striking than red!”

Catching up with trends
“In my experience, I have met two types of Tamil brides,” says Visvendra. “There’s the bride who speaks the mother tongue and is generally aware of traditional practices and is up to date with Tamilian pop culture. Then there’s the bride who is more disconnected. For the latter, wearing a sari and looking non-Western is quite new. You ask them to wear a white dress, they’d do it in a heartbeat and look amazing, but you ask them to wear a sari, they wouldn’t even know where to begin.” Visvendra also recalls how she’s encountered several unsure mothers and aunts who came up to her to ask about bridal customs, from the way the hair is braided to whether the bride ought to be wearing a nose ring.

This distance from tradition also means that the beauty aesthetic that British Tamil brides adhere to is heavily influenced by the environment they grew up in. “Bridal styling in the UK is definitely inspired by the global mainstream make-up trends and the internet,” says Ratnaselvam. “These are often reinterpretations of modern party looks and celebrity style. For example, the smoky lower lash line of Kim Kardashian, fluttery eyelashes sold by Huda (Kattan) Beauty and the strong winged eyeliner popularised by social media influencers are all heavily incorporated into the final look.” However, there are also the brides who watch Tamil films and come to Visvendra to recreate looks from Kollywood (the Tamil film industry).

“I am obsessed with Tamil cinema,” she admits. “And this is not limited to just a look that an actor wears in a movie. We also follow their own weddings — for example, I loved how Jyothika, Sneha and Aishwarya Rajnikanth looked on their respective wedding days and use them as inspiration as well.”

When compared with their simpler counterparts in the Subcontinent, the British Tamil brides’ looks are far more dramatic — bold eyeliner with metallic shadow, big lashes, voluminous hair and saris that are draped to hug the figure like a tight dress are common features. “Although brides may have a modern approach to their make-up, most of them will still want that pure kanjivaram sari (traditionally woven silk sari from Kanchipuram), temple jewellery and the long plait or bun. Some even wear their mother’s jewellery for sentimental reasons,” says Ratnaselvam.

When Kavya Met Rikesh
Ratnaselvam says that many of her clients use their wedding as an opportunity to make a trip to India, usually Chennai or Kochi, to shop. “They want to know the latest sari styles, which I think is lovely and part of staying connected to their roots.” Social media manager Kavya Rajagopalan is one such bride. “I always knew that I simply had to do my wedding shopping in India,” she says. “There are plenty of amazing retailers here in the UK where I could find stunning saris, but there’s something about that buzz, the chaat stops between shops, and the sheer variety in India that I just had to experience for myself!” Kavya married her Gujarati fiancé in the English countryside, in a gorgeous venue called Poundon House in a hamlet near Bicester. They had an outdoor wedding where the rituals were predominantly Tamil, except for the baaraat (a procession of the groom’s family and friends) with a traditional Gujarati welcome and the groom tying a mangalsutra (a necklace worn by a Gujarati woman to signify that she is married) as well as a thali — a decision they arrived at after involving and seeking the guidance of both sets of parents.

Rajagopalan’s mixed community wedding also meant that she only had one sari that she wore throughout the ceremony: a stunning red kanjivaram. “Even though I was marrying a Gujarati,” Kavya says, “I knew that the one thing I wanted was to look like a Tamil bride! I think I’ve always wanted to wear a pattu (silk) sari — the first weddings I went to were South Indian ones.” Rajagopalan, who was born and raised in London, has studied Tamil and is trained in both Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music. She reiterates that having the Tamil rituals and looking like a traditional bride were important to her because a large part of her identity is tied to her heritage. “For me, it meant a lot. The wedding introduced my culture, roots and traditions to my husband Rikesh and my in-laws in the best way possible,” she says.

For the Tamil diaspora in the UK, these evocative weddings bring a typically suppressed identity to the forefront and are therefore, more than just a celebration of love — they are also a homecoming.

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