An arranged marriage may be easy enough for the regular girl with a regular job. But what if you don’t fit into the staple mould? What if you’re a writer, dancer, painter or musician? Often, women who have taken up these professions feel they’re not suited to arranged marriage, especially not with a man who doesn’t belong to the same field. However, there are some who believe it can work.
Akhila Ravi, 32, a trained singer who lived in Madras (now Chennai) for most of her life, says, ‘I didn’t really have an arranged match in the true sense. I sort of arranged it myself.’ She had been friends with her now-husband for more than two years, before she realized they would be good for each other, ‘at least on paper’. She told him as much, and soon enough, they were married. She hadn’t considered going through the traditional routes-ads in the newspaper, matrimonial websites, ‘a known family’ and the works—because, at the time, she wasn’t particularly interested in being married at all.
What changed her mind, then, and how does a woman know when someone is right for her?
Akhila’s reply is pragmatic. ‘I don’t believe that there is such a thing as a perfect match. I think that you can find mostly good match, but have to work to make it perfect or close to it. People are constantly maturing and changing, within a relationship and outside of it, so being a match is never something that can be taken for granted. In my case, it was really important for me to retain my individuality after marriage. Being able to openly communicate my opinions and feelings without fear of being judged was another. I was lucky enough to find both in one person.’
Anand is a Kannadiga who was born and raised in the US, and so Akhila moved to Texas after marriage. They have now been married for over seven years.
The dynamic in a relationship is, naturally, completely different from friendship. You tell your friends things you wouldn’t tell a partner. You hide things from them that you can’t hide from a partner.
But Akhila didn’t find it awkward. ‘I cannot speak for everyone, but for me the transition was fairly seamless as far as accepting a friend for my partner,’ she says. ‘I’ve always maintained that it is important to have a friendship, even m a romantic relationship. I believe thus makes it easier to be honest and respectful and helps close the distance between people.’
However deciding that you may get along with someone is the easy part. Marriage isn’t a cakewalk. ‘You only really know someone when you begin living with them, so we definitely had our share of adjustments in the first three to four years. Not only because we both grew up completely differently, but also as individuals.’
She says there are four important things a woman must be keep in mind before entering wedlock:
- Adjustment within reason is crucial to make a marriage work
- You must have the ability to both communicate and listen
- You need to understand that the other person will respect you only if you have respect for yourself
- Aside from your life with your partner, you should also have a life for yourself as an individual
The last, she feels, is most important. ‘You need your own activities, your own friends—essentially space from the other person.’
In the years that she has been married, not only did Akhila end up giving Carnatic music performances far more often than she had earlier, but she also began to learn Bharatanatyam. Akhila says she hadn’t pursued music with the intention of performing, but a supportive spouse and family encouraged her to.
She doesn’t underestimate the importance of a supportive family for an artiste to pursue her interests post-marriage. ‘It is definitely very relevant,’ she says, when I ask if the idea of needing support is outdated, since women don’t really need ‘permission’ to do what they want to any longer. Tor an artiste to be able to put out their best work, a positive frame of mind and a nurturing environment are essential. If one has to combat an unsupportive family, I think that would definitely hinder the artiste or performer.’
There are several stories of famous musicians having had to battle opposition to their careers. This could range from an angry husband creating a scene at a concert, to parents-in-law—or even parents—refusing to look after the children when the artiste is at practice, or holding a concert. If you’re serious about your career in the arts, it is important to pick a man—and a family—that is understanding and encouraging.
Akhila says pursuing her training from the US wasn’t too hard. She takes Skype lessons for music, and practises two to three times a week. When she visits India, which is about once a year, she goes to her guru and continues lessons in person.
For dance, she attends classes thrice a week, and sets aside time to practise by herself thrice a week. Though she has to train more rigorously, to make up for lost time, since she got started relatively late, she doesn’t see living in the US as a problem. More importantly, visiting artistes from India do hold workshops, and she makes it a point to attend them when possible.
Though Akhila admits that she misses the cultural atmosphere of her hometown, living in the US hasn’t hindered her pursuit of the arts. In fact, she began her Bharatanatyam training only in the US, in 2007. ‘Since I had never attended a dance class in India, I don’t have the benefit of comparison, but I have had a very fulfilling time training in the art form under a wonderful guru who gives me multiple-and frequent opportunities to perform. Since we do have visiting Indian artistes, I get to attend performances, though perhaps not with the same regularity. It was initially a challenge for me to not have company that was interested in the classical Indian arts, but that’s changed.’
While Anand isn’t involved in the classical arts, he does enjoy music and dance, and that’s good enough. ‘He is always a willing audience member at events I perform in, and performances I like to attend. I think it’s okay if both people are not into the same things, but it is important for each to respect the other’s preferences and be supportive or, at the very least, not be a hindrance,’ Akhila says.
Moving abroad after marriage
Since Akhila married a US citizen, and the immigration procedure made it necessary for her to marry in the US, her green card came through without much hassle. But she did have to spend a few months at home, since visa regulations wouldn’t allow her to work. Those months were quite difficult to deal with, since one is also fighting feelings of loneliness, missing the family you grew up with, adjusting to life in a new country with a fairly new person and so on,’ she says.
Having lived in the US for seven and a half years, she says there are lots of opportunities to be had, and feels women shouldn’t be daunted by the idea of moving abroad after marriage.
She has some tips for women who will be settling down in another country:
- Be open-minded
- Be aware that you will be mostly responsible for making the experience good for yourself
- Think of a friends’ circle beyond your own ethnic community
- Take the initiative to go out, meet people and make friends
- Even in a position where it isn’t possible for you to be gainfully employed, taking up volunteer work and getting out of the house even for a few hours a week does wonders for your self-worth
‘What I have enjoyed most about life in the US is the opportunity to meet and interact with people from so many varied cultural backgrounds, and the personal space that you choose whether you’d like to share, or not. I think being open in this regard has greatly aided the success of my marriage,’
When it comes to marrying someone who was raised abroad, an ‘NRI as we term Non-Resident Indians, Akhila warns that the comparison isn’t as straightforward as one would think. Just as there is no one Indian’ mentality, there is no single ‘NRI mentality.
‘I’ve met conservative people, not just men, both raise, in India and abroad. Often, since the parents left India „ the sixties or seventies, their children are brought up in that perspective-the mentality of that period. Unless they are regular visitors to India, and have kept up with social changes here they are in some ways more narrow in their opinion of what it means to be Indian and what’s acceptable Indian behaviour. It is usually a bit of a struggle between their American and Indian selves.’
She points out that, on the other hand, there are Indian American men who are very broadminded and open. But she adds, ‘Although I think sometimes their own opinions might be eclipsed by those of the previous generation, especially if they are living under the same roof Ultimately, it all boils down to the two people in the relationship.
‘Even though I knew my husband as a friend, there are some parts of him that are completely American and will probably never change, and I don’t necessarily want them to—for example, being able to say no when something is an inconvenience, or not feeling obliged to attend a function merely because it is hosted by a relative. At the same time, he is quite open to my Indianizing him—in the sense that he willingly accompanies me to performances,, participates in pujas, loves watching Tamil films and so on.’
Akhila feels that in today’s context the definition of what is ‘Indian’ becomes problematic too. ‘We certainly don’t have a single national character to speak of, in my opinion—in the sense that most Indians think of themselves in terms of their regional identity, or community-specific identity, first, and only then in the larger sense of ‘Indians’. I love the heritage and the arts, and growing up in a family that was so much in support of these things certainly helped shape me as a person, but other than that, I’m not sure how Indian I really am—I find that I am in disagreement with Indian social conventions, especially with regard to women’s roles, most of the time. I am sure that anyone with the benefit of a broadminded upbringing such as mine would feel the same.’
So, again, it boils down to not shutting oneself off from a new experience and being willing to make adjustments. ‘I guess the sum of it is, if you go into a cross-cultural relationship with an open mind, and not get caught up in the differences, you will probably get the best of both worlds,’ Akhila says.