Indian Matchmaking: An interview with Sociologist Dr. Parual Bhandari

When I first started watching the hit Netflix show, "Indian Matchmaking" I identified naturally with many cultural aspects the show highlighted. Coming out of the Indian Diaspora, this idea of fair over dark was built into the DNA of our culture. So too was the idea of rich over poor, educated over non-educated and the justification that caste is acceptable. People asked for a surname first to grade the relationship they intended to have. My interest in this matchmaking subject was piqued by an op-ed that I came across on the Hindustan Times written by Dr. Parul Bhandari. 

Dr. Parul kindly agreed to do her first livestream interview with me. This was about two weeks after I did a first livestream interview with the star of the show, Sima Taparia. The reaction to both these interviews is an indicator that the discussion on casteism and matchmaking practices is far from over. Below is an excerpt of the transcript from my interview with Dr. Bhandari. The full interview can be found on my Youtube page.

 [Begin Transcript]

Bridgett: Tell us about your research briefly and, why you chose the topic?

Parul:  Right. So I think I'll start from the second question first. I was growing up in India. I was growing up in Delhi. I went to University here Delhi University and I noted that there were so many conditions around spouse selection, and my friends, and siblings especially at that point they were at that marriageable age. The way they would approach this topic was incredibly objective, like a proposal like a stock-up proposal or something, we need this and this and that.

 That got me thinking. There was all this conversation about progress in India and modernity. Where does marriage place itself In this conversation now that we have love marriages. Because India popularly gets associated with arranged marriages, what was in my mind was what is the meaning of this love marriages and how are people choosing their spouses.

Is it any different than what we are used to? To what our parents did? Is it any different?  And at that point, the Internet had made a great entry into the matchmaking industry with matrimonial websites. So you had around the late 90s -  you have these 2 or 3 huge amazing Indian matrimonial websites which we're offering you the chance of finding that special someone according to the criteria you have in mind. This could be the skin type, this could be height or whatever. So the changes that were happening around me at that point really got me thinking that I should look into this to really understand if there is a change at all. And what does matchmaking really mean, really attain now.

Bridgett:  And you recently wrote an op-ed on that very same thing in the Hindustan Times – on the Netflix Original reality TV show Indian Matchmaking witch I watched all eight episodes. I don´t know if you watched it too.

Parul:  I binged-watched.

Bridgett: Yes, binge-watched it,. And you said on your op-ed that this held a mirror up to Indian society. Why is it a mirror?

Parul: Oh for various things! First of all the presence of parents, the involvement of parents in matchmaking. If you see most of the people in that show, people we met in that show somehow involved their parents. The parents were talking to Sima Aunty, the parents were also giving their opinions on their children, what they think their children are like, and what they want in the spouses of their children. So that continues to happen number one and secondly the emphasis on physical characteristics. I mean if you notice it was all about tall, slim, trim fairness of skin. That comes up inevitably in every space of matchmaking.

Whether it’s in newspaper advertising. Whether it is in matrimonial websites Whether it is just matchmakers like Sima. The third aspect was, of course, astrology, horoscope matchmaking, face reading, these things are far more prevalent then what you might imagine them to be. So, these aspects and I think more significantly the emphasis on women to compromise, the emphasis on women to be "flexible". This happens all the time, in any space of matchmaking, whether you choose to go to a matchmaker or not. They will always council the women, you know, ‘turn down your criteria’, be more flexible and compromise on your criteria if you're not getting everything that you want.

Bridgett - Yes you touched on my next question, fair skin, tall, trim, thin. It seems Indians are obsessed with this kind of language. Why is that so important in the matchmaking process?

Parul:  You know, also in the Op-Ed article that I wrote, I end by saying that what we've seen on that show are problems with matchmaking and, ok, to a certain extent this is in context of Indian matchmaking. But let us not kid ourselves to think this only restricts to India. I mean, come on, in the time of "Black Lives Matter" we know that color matters everywhere and across societies. In fact, if I am not mistaken, a year or two, maybe further back there was this research done on Tinder, and It was found out in the US that African Americans are the least swiped, man our women, colorwise, right?

So, let us put it this way, worldwide there is an obsession with the color white. Being fair of skin is seen as a virtue and being darker skinned is seen as a problem. It seems very exaggerated in the Indian context because they are so explicit about it when they are matchmaking. They say it. So, when they write matrimonial advertisements or on matrimonial sites, they write explicitly about it. Mind you, just about four weeks ago if I am not mistaken, a brave matrimonial site user, this lady of Indian descent. I don´t know where from, maybe from the UK, she objected to the question about skin type on Shaadi.com. And Shaadi.com had to apologize and now they have apparently retracted that question. So, the thing, then, with India is that they are far more explicit when it comes to expressing their preferences for particular skin color. It is a global issue, even for Southeast Asian countries.

Societies, somewhere like China, even their they have a lot of emphasis on keeping your skin fair. So they always carry their umbrellas whenever they are out in the sun because they don't want to get tanned. There is, unfortunately, historical association with purity and with virtue with fair skin, and that has really captured and troubling captured the Indian matchmaking market. That and also besides the color aspect and the other aspect is physical characteristics, tall, slim, and thin.

This, again, this is an obsession in India´s matchmaking market, won´t deny that. But look how we are fed these images, globally we are fed these images, whether it is Hollywood or Bollywood, we are told that for a lady to look like, to be beautiful, she has to have some characteristics. She has to be tall, she needs to be slim, she needs to work out and have a particular body type. I mean, the fashion industry has just started using large size models now, after a lot of protest by women. So, again so many of these aspects are actually global in that kind of sense, but what happens in matchmaking in India explicitly said. They say it upfront, and so It seems this is just about Indian society, but sometimes I think about the issue of change, how can you change any of these things when the current generation is obsessed with these global images and not just restricted to India, but when we look at Hollywood stars and when you look at models and we are constantly fed these images.

Bridgett:  Do you think the ideas we are being fed is now the currency for our value, so in other words, if we don't look like the fair skin, tall, trim and slim, then we are less of value in a marriage proposal?

 Parul:  Yes, you are right. I do think it has always been seen as a value and there is no denying that women do not fall into this category of this idea of beauty find it difficult to find a suitable match in the matchmaking market and we saw that even in this show. That´s what I liked about it. I think it is Ankita, in the final episode, this girl, you see how she was treated by both the matchmakers.

There was a reluctance. She was seen as the difficult prospect to find a suitable match for. Having said that I would like to say that I think there is growing movement to challenge this, even in India and I don't know if any of the users are aware of this but in India, you have this cream, fair and lovely cream, "fair and lovely" and it is incredibly popular even in the rural areas. Now there is a big, big campaign against this "stamp" fair and lovely, and the makers have said they are going to change it because they finally realized how problematic the title is.

I don't know about fairness and cremes, whitening creams, you know. I mean it is a global thing, but definitely again an obsession with a large part of the Indian population but again I don't want to blame these women because this is what happens if you are not this skin type you are always rejected by matchmakers and sometimes also by your own family. There is a resistance movement and I think we are doing good. I think we are moving in the right direction, so hopefully our obsession with "fair and lovely" will be reduced soon enough.

Bridgett: Oh, indeed. We want to stop there and take some questions that people have thrown at you. And just saying hello to everyone, we have people from all over the globe who have joined in. We have got a professor who I am sure you know, Professor Mamur, and he is asking the question would you say Bollywood and the fashion industry have entrenched casteism and racism. I will get to the issue of casteism in a minute, but how about you address the issue of Bollywood and the fashion industry and its scope generally on this matchmaking process.

Parul:  Absolutely, there is no denying that Bollywood plays a very big role and the fashion industry. As I said, look at all the models, look at all the actresses. Professor Sali Khan talks from Ashoka University talk about it and he is absolutely right in pointing out that there is something with the way that casts groups are represented in Bollywood. Certain casts groups would be always shown as fairer skin than the others. And, Bollywood is a very powerful media, not only for Indians but for the diaspora as well. So, when they circulate these images of the pretty bride, the desirable women it is always fair skin, tall, slim, so this is very much to our imagination. There is pushback and there are a few actresses that are not fair-skinned but that are really quite popular, and I hope that the pushback continues, but let´s see. …

Bridgett:  And the Indian diaspora also latches on to this particular thought process and keeps it alive.

Parul: Well, yes the thing about Indian diaspora and there is an incredible amount of scholarship on this, and one of the things we need to understand is that once you migrate there is also this idea of nostalgia with your homeland, and you know, one of the ways you feel connected to the homeland when you are away. When you have started a new life, we still follow some traditions. What we note, what scholars note is that often it is the diaspora that finds it even more difficult to break free from certain problematic customs. Marriages are super important, I am sure many of the viewers that are of Indian descent that are sent abroad would know the pressures they face from their parents if they ever desire to marry someone outside of their community, and that definitely requires negotiation. If it isn't rejected all the time it definitely requires a fair amount of negotiation with the parents if you want to marry someone that is not of Indian descent. So yes, we do see it quite strongly with the Indian diaspora as well.

Bridgett: One of the things I noticed recently is that the media is picking up on this issue of casteism.  Explain casteism to us, and how this affects society.

Parul: So, Ok. I mean casteism is quite a complicated topic actually but it has been simplified. But let me just, instead of getting into the debate about it, let me just say that largely, loosely the idea of casteism is that you are organized. In Indian society, you are organized into groups. That has features. One of the features would be related to an occupation. Each cast has its own rituals and ways of life.  Now, because they are so many and so varied when the British arrived they were a bit confused. They didn't quite understand. So, there was this hierarchy associated with a caste, some castes were higher in the order and some were lower in the order. Now, the criticism that scholars gave us is that this hierarchy is not intact.

Because India is such a diverse place, if you go from north to south the hierarchy would be different. Anyway, by large the idea is that the Indian population is divided into various communities or various caste groups and each of them likes to maintain the boundaries of their communities. One of the ways to do this is to maintain marriages in the communities and this is called caste endogamy. So you prefer to marry within your own caste. Having said that there is a twist. For women, because the idea across cultures is that you "give" away women, you see that with the Christian weddings where the father is giving away the bride and at Indian weddings as well. So you give away the women, but what you can do is to give away the women to a higher caste group, what is called hypergamy. A higher caste man is permitted to marry so-called lower caste women. Having said that the caste groups should not be too far apart in the hierarchy, so it shouldn't be, you know, you can´t marry really “down or up”. It is a little bit complicated with that but mostly caste groups prefer to marry within there groups to maintain the caste boundary and if it is about a woman they also thing about moving up by marrying a woman up into a caste. So, caste marriages are extremely prevalent, in fact, if you see these matrimonial websites they have options of, I think one of them has 150 castes options that it offers.

So, if you want you can select on those castes and look for a suitable spouse within that caste group. Having said that my research did point out that caste groups can be overlooked, cast identity of a person can be overlooked if it isn't too high or too low compared then your own, and if you are looking for a good educational or professional qualification. So it is not that you cannot transgress a caste group. Now, one more thing I want to say. I am talking about Indian matchmaking as though it is homogenous. My research was about cosmopolitan, urban Indians and we have to understand that caste practices differ from state to state. Caste group to caste group. I am referring only to what you can call the urban population. So, these things might completely differ across the country. So my group is quite niched in that but similar to that group Sima T. looked into in that show.

Bridgett: One of the questions I think a lot of people are going to ask after listening to you is if we are all humans beings what is this issue of caste and being cast into how we are defined physically. Why that big divide in society?

Parul: I mean, this is a very difficult question to answer, it is something Psychologists, Sociologists, and even evolutionary biologists are trying to address. I think one of the answers I could give is that as humans we like to simplify things. We are immediately attracted to categories and we like to categorize things very quickly as well. So, caste emerged as a category witch simplified live back then when each group was associated with a particular occupation. So, you know that if you belong to this caste group you will be associated with this profession. This continues, I mean until today. If you look at the dating apps, and again this is something I repeatedly say, let´s not essentialize or exoticize Indian society. Look at dating apps as well. We have categories that emerge there too. So, as humans, we find it slightly easier to navigate our lives through categories and unfortunately some categories prevail much stronger than others. Caste would be one, the racial group would be other, ethnic groups being another and that is why we see so many critical issues around this, political issues, violence issues. So I think this is just how humans are.

[Transcript shorted and ended]

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