Marriage as an institution: modernity vs tradition


An analysis of the institution, based on a small study of cross-culture and same-culture marriages

In the last weeks of the year 2009, Kamalahasan, a versatile actor with an all-India presence, was featured in a popular interview-based television programme called ‘Walk the Talk.’  To a question about his views on marriage, Kamalahasan said that marriage is a “dying institution.”  He was then living with a partner, having separated from his second wife.  Two decades earlier, when he divorced his first wife, a talented classical dancer and a reputed fashion designer whom he had married after a long courtship, Kamalahasan had justified his act, drawing on tradition.  Quoting from the shastras, and citing the authority of his scholarly father, Kamalahasan had said that Vani, his first wife, had been unable to bear children, and that tradition permitted, indeed urged a man to marry a second time in case his first wife proved “barren.”[1]

With his second wife, Sarika, a gifted artiste herself, Kamalahasan became the ‘proud father’ of two daughters.  The same person who had turned to traditional injunctions to justify his marriage to Sarika in the late 1980s was donning the role of a ‘liberal’ in end 2009. Was he decrying the institution of marriage only to justify his affair with a married and divorced co-star, even as he was still married to Sarika? While this may have been so, in the over-conservative Tamil society to which Kamalahasan belongs, he may have thought twice before expressing his views about marriage in such a forthright manner had he not sensed that popular sentiment would not be overly wounded.  Of course, his being a man gave him the freedom to express his views more freely than his fellow star, Khushboo whose comment in support of live-in relationships had raised a storm   that reached the Supreme Court![2] However, what also came to the aid of Kamalahasan was the fact that marriage, as it had been traditionally practiced in India, seemed to have changed much in the years that had lapsed between his marriage to Sarika and his impending separation from her.

Popular Indian imagination, glued to the television, appears to be undergoing a transformation of sorts where marriage is concerned. A key reason for this supposition is the sudden surge of reality shows on television, based on the theme of ‘marriage,’ and more significantly, the nature of these shows. For instance, there was a recent live serial, which scored high on the Target Rating Points (TRP),[3] built around the Indian concept of ‘svayamvara,’ where the bride-to-be chooses a groom from an eager bevy of potential suitors. This programme, ‘Rakhi ka Svayamvar’, featured a Mumbai screen starlet going through the traditional motions to choose her fiancé over a series of episodes. This programme was followed by a similar programme on the same television channel.  Called  ‘Rahul Dulhaniya Le Jayega,’ (Rahul takes a Bride), it  featured the notorious son of a well known political figure.  Another popular programme, ‘Sach ka Saamna’, had the husband and wife subjecting themselves to a ‘grilling’ on live television about their innermost secrets, particularly secrets they had held from their partner. The participants in the programme were drawn from among both celebrities and the common people.  I am not sure if this acted as a sort of catharsis for the persons concerned, but it was certainly bringing the Indian marriage out of the closet, along with the most intimate secrets of the participants in the show.  To shock and awe was undoubtedly the motive of the programme, besides, of course, the primary motive of increasing the TRP ratings of the television channel hosting the show.  However, what I wish to draw attention to is the fact that the large viewership enjoyed by these programmes across the country seemed to indicate a drastic change in the attitude of the people towards the institution of marriage.[4]

Another reason for my engagement with the idea that the institution of marriage is going in for a makeover is the overt celebration of unwed motherhood by the mass media.  Till recently an unattractive state to be in, single womanhood, or at least a late marriage, is now a preferred option among many women. Children, however, are not precluded from this arrangement – at least among the elite and urbane women, who often are economically well endowed and have the support of an enlightened family.

However, in a country which is still so conservative that couples have to seek shady nooks in public spaces to share a hug on the sly, where a majority of the north Indian daughters in law, across all classes, still wear a gunghat, at least when the in-laws are visiting, and where marriages are still talked of in terms or “arranged” or “love” marriages, media initiatives that make marriage a spectacle, and unwed motherhood a celebration, seem to be militating against the taboos of tradition.  A question that came to mind as a consequence of the apparently changing perception of marriage, and a question which I found interesting was: What is the position of marriage as an institution in India today? Supplementary questions that fed into this question were: Are there continuities or is it only change all the way?  Can cross cultural marriages help us find an answer, particularly as the actors in these marriages have often defied traditional norms in opting for a marriage of choice?  Does the fact that these marriages have broken with bindings of caste and religion indicate that the normative effects of such entrenched institutions is on the wane in a country where their omnipotence was beyond question till recently, and continues to be so for all intents and purposes?  In this regard, how do cross-cultural marriages compare with same culture marriages?




I got a chance to probe these questions, at least at a superficial level, in the process of doing a ‘study of the vicinity’ as a class project.  The purpose of the project was to familiarize ourselves with field research methods and techniques and also to get to know the ‘vicinity’.  The site I chose as the ‘vicinity’ was the workplace, but I would argue that ‘marriage’ as an institution is also very much within the purview of ‘vicinity’ as it is so all-pervasive and ubiquitous.  Interview was the main research method employed.   The sample (N=5) was mainly drawn from those I had moved with at the workplace (the larger NIAS community), with one randomly chosen respondent, intended as ‘control,’ meeting the criteria of being an ‘outsider’ to NIAS and ‘unfamiliar’ to me.[5]

All interviews with NIAS respondents were autobiographical in character; the young, non-NIAS respondent, however, drew more on her experience as an advocate in the family and civil courts.  She spoke about marriage more from the perspective of ‘others’ rather than her own.  As a result, most of the findings submitted here are representative of the larger NIAS community though they may not necessarily preclude the views of the non-NIAS respondent.

The respondents were all women (age group = 25 to 50 years), with varying levels of formal education.  They were chosen from those who had entered into marriages across cultures, that is with partners from a different religious/ caste community, as also those who had married within their own, or the same culture.[6]  There was an over-representation of across culture marriages.  Though across-culture marriages are generally “love” marriages,[7] it is recognized that “love” marriages need not necessarily happen across cultures.[8]




In her 1998 paper, [10] Uberoi quotes from an interview with Aditya Chopra, the director of the film, ‘Dilwale Dunhiya Le Jayenge.’  The film may be described, simplistically, as a ‘love story’ between the offspring of Indians settled abroad.  The director of the film (the title of which roughly translates to ‘The brave-hearted bag the bride’) says,  “…How can they just cut themselves off from their parents who have done so much for them?  How can they be so callous?  They have no right to break the hearts of their parents.  I wanted to say if your love is strong enough your parents will be convinced about your love ultimately.”  As Uberoi remarks, Chopra is vehemently endorsing the normative order.  He seems to be discounting that ‘they’ have any agency at all over ‘their’ lives.  Even if we concede marriage’s reified status, it is still a bond between two individuals.  However, to Chopra, the woman and man, or the ‘girl’ and ‘boy’ who have fallen in love seem to be no more than products of the particular society they happen to belong to, which in this case happens to be Indian, more specifically, the dominant notion of ‘Indian.’

In a surprising corroboration of Chopra’s views, the women I interviewed tacitly acknowledged the constant, and often intrusive presence of the family, the society and the Church[11] on the marriage.  What I found even more surprising was that even in cross-cultural marriages, where the individuals concerned have shown exemplary agency in going against the normative order, the power of social systems and structures seems inescapable.[12]  I would like to examine how marriage impacts ‘their’ world – that is the world of the couple, both as partners in a contract and as individuals in themselves – by drawing on their responses to questions about their received ideas about marriage, the continuities and change that marriage has rendered in their lives and the role of culture in their marriage.





Received ideas about marriage

Upbringing, friends, books and society were cited as the major sources that contributed to the respondents’ notions of what marriage was and what it entailed.  There was an ‘age’ at which one was expected to get married. Even where a woman may have intended to remain unmarried in favour of greater commitment to a career, ‘alliances’ suggested by well-meaning relatives and friends or the clergy often provoked an individual’s decision to marry at the ‘right age.’  One of the respondents mentioned that she wanted to avoid such an “arranged” marriage at any cost, probably implying that the fear that she would be forced into one actually intensified her desire to go in for an alternative that would be based on her personal preferences.

Besides an ‘age’ to get married, which was determined by the society and imbibed unconsciously by the actors, or imposed authoritatively on them, there was also a ‘way’ to get married.  Whereas in same culture marriages it seemed almost natural for normativity to dictate how a marriage ceremony was conducted, in across culture marriages the occasion afforded an opportunity for the couple to get the ‘acceptance’ of their families for their alliances, which, at the first instance did not come on a platter in any of the across culture marriages studied here.  Only one of the respondents even considered the possibility of a civil marriage; ultimately, all respondents, whether they were entering marriages with partners of the same culture or across cultures, had traditional wedding ceremonies, though it may have been less elaborate in certain cases.  In one instance, the couple actually went through the marriage rituals twice, on different days, one each organized by the families of the bride and the groom.

In a reflection of the customary monetary burden the girl’s family plans for, one of the respondents (who had sisters to be married) said that she had planned to marry only after “saving enough” so as to help out her father.  It is apparent that entrenched notions of the ‘way’ one ought to get married precluded any thought of a civil wedding in this case as well. Dumont describes the Hindu marriage as the “most prestigious” and “most expensive” family ceremony.  He goes on to say that a daughter’s wedding was often the main reason for indebtedness among poor peasants.[13] My study indicated that Dumont’s observations need not be restricted to Hindu marriages; in the Indian context, they could well be extended to all marriages, regardless of cultural affiliations.


Continuity and change

The notion of patrivirilocality is never challenged.  The woman leaves her natal home and goes to live in her conjugal home as a matter of course, in both kinds of marriages.  Even where the woman goes to live in a separate house with her husband, the various elements of patrivirilocality are present.  The food choices are largely determined by the tastes of the husband, acquired from his family.  Whereas this presents a natural difficulty in across culture marriages as culinary habits and tastes in India vary substantially across regions, castes and religions, food habits vary surprisingly widely even in endogamous marriages as each family differs, even when it shares cultural, regional and kinship ties.  The changes may relate to what is cooked, how it is cooked and also how it is served.  Regardless of whether the marriages are across cultures or within the same culture, the women have willy-nilly fallen in with the culinary habits of their husbands and their families.  Only in one instance was there mention of some compromise on this score from the in-law’s side: the family the woman married into gave up eating boiled rice in favour of raw rice as the daughter in law could not digest the former cereal variety.

As far as working within the house is concerned, though all my respondents were spending a good part of the day in deep engagement with non-household related work, the obligation of housework was seen as de rigueur.  However, the quantum of housework that had to be shouldered after marriage varied.  Whereas in one instance the woman was encouraged to study and then pursue a career by her mother in law, an educated and employed person herself, in another instance, the homemaking skills of the respondent were not placed under a scanner, though she felt compelled to volunteer to help out.  Overall, except in the case of one respondent, who had been gradually introduced to housework in her natal home, it was generally agreed that as a ‘daughter,’ the woman led a largely sheltered life and was exposed to little domestic work.  There was, however, an expected change in this regard after marriage, with one of the respondents quantifying it saying that post marriage her work load had increased one hundred per cent.  In this case of across culture marriage, the woman’s talent for being resourceful had often been banked upon by the individual members of the family she had married into; from tending to them when they were hospitalized to helping with the nitty gritty of organizing family weddings, to extending a helping hand to the relatives and friends of her in-laws whenever required, she had tried to make herself ‘accepted.’  But though her work was used and appreciated in the larger relatives’ circle, into which she had been ‘integrated,’ she continued to be ostracized by her husband’s immediate family.


Identity Crisis

All the respondents who had married across cultures felt that they had battled with a crisis of identity in the initial stages of their marriage.  Though I have not probed deeply the reasons for this in this set of interviews, it appears that the sudden changes in their lives – from family atmosphere and expectations, to work load and new culinary habits – could have been some of the causal factors.  The conflict could also have arisen from a feeling of being an ‘outsider’ in the community that they had chosen their partner from.  One respondent mentioned that she learnt to look at the community she had been born in from an entirely new perspective and what she found was far from ideal; however, in being part of the community herself, prior to her marriage, she had been blind to these undesirable tendencies.

On the whole, it appeared that the ‘continuities’ were at a conceptual level – on the way marriage is conceived and observed in practice, and in the reproduction of received ideas about the role of a wife and a daughter in law, while the ‘changes’ are more tangible, affecting everyday routine such as in matters of food tastes and  workload.



Though culture cannot be reduced to festivals and functions, in the Indian context religion and/ or caste are defining factors in sculpting an individual’s personality, and festivals and functions as well as modes of worship are important components of culture.  In all marriages, whether of the same culture or across cultures, there has been a process of assimilation or at least attempts to integrate the ways of the two families that have come together in the marriage.  Though efforts in this regard seem to have come mostly from the women, the men also seem to have made an attempt to co-opt changes to their lifestyle, particularly in a changed set of values. For instance, at least two of the husbands were described as having come out of an introspective and withdrawn existence, to become more ‘sharing’ and ‘social’ individuals.

Faith, which could be described broadly as a value or as being synonymous with religion, is also a major component of culture.  While most of the respondents strongly identify with their religious or caste identities, there is also faith in values such as high moral standards, the goodness of friends, and the strength and sanctity of marriage.  There is mutual respect among partners as far as the beliefs of each are concerned and little attempt to impose a change, though the family, the society and the Church try to inflict their codes, with partial success.  However, on the matter of the values that define or will define the upbringing of their offspring, most respondents had strong views.  They had ‘made up their minds’ about what would, or could, be the framework of this value system.  It is seen as natural and desirable for children to fall in with the wishes of the parent/ parents in this regard.



Thus far I have attempted to explore how marriage as a social institution affects the individuals who marry, and I have tried to highlight one of the significant findings of my study, which is that the codes of marriage continue to overpower the individual actors in a marriage.  The woman’s agency seems particularly compromised and in the sense that marriage imposes a certain role on women, the institution seems to have changed little over time. Besides the impact that marriage has on ‘their’ world, ‘the’ world, that is structures that are external to a marriage – such as the family, the Church, and the society – also affect marriage.  A religious or caste institution can accept or deny acceptance to a marriage, regardless of the fact that two individuals have already sanctified the relationship as per accepted norms in society.  The recent militant role of khap panchayats and sharia courts in imposing draconian laws in this regard has been widely reported, or studied and critiqued.  Even outside the purview of such organized structures, the society can assert an authority over the individuals that the latter can do little to subvert or avoid.  For instance, a couple can be ostracized nominally by not inviting them to social functions; they can also be served food and drink on plates and in glasses that are kept separately for ‘outcastes’; or the vessels they use can be put through a ritual purification process involving washing them with tamarind water and so on.

The strength of marriage as an institution was seen in the women’s commitment to making their marriages work at any cost.  But in most cases, across both kinds of marriages, it appears to be the inherent strength of the individuals who make up the couple that is the most significant contributory factor. Interestingly, whereas the resilience of the institution of marriage itself was cited as a significant cause in keeping the couple together, economic independence was seen as a cause of the breakdown of marriages in recent times.  The non-NIAS respondent whom I spoke with invited me to come and witness the proceedings on a normal day in the family court, when matters pertaining to divorce were scheduled.  She felt that education, economic freedom and woman-friendly laws were major reasons for dwindling tolerance levels among women, who were opting out of marriage more frequently.  She also said that this attitude was particularly catching on among city-bred, middle class women.  “Compromises are an important part of marriage,” she said – and this was a view that all my other respondents seemed to acknowledge, either overtly or tacitly.

I began the research for this paper with a simple question: Is marriage changing?  But the manner in which I sought an answer – by looking for elements of continuity and change through a comparative study of same culture and cross culture marriages – led me to revisit old questions of structure versus agency: Is all human behavior conditioned by society? Having been born into a society not of our own making, are we directed in our actions solely by the social groups to which we belong?  Is our agency exercisable only within the limitations of the norms and institutions that are part of the social group we belong to? Or, is it that though society does not cause behavior, it can still make some behavior easy or more costly?[14]  These are problems I would like to probe further by looking more deeply into the question of whether the Indian marriage, as an institution, can change and how far purposive human agency can make this change happen.


Cohn, Bernhard. ‘Indian Social Structure and Culture: Introduction.’  In The Bernhard Cohn Omnibus. Oxford University Press. 2004.

Dumont, Louis. ‘Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and Its Implications.’ Trans. Mark Sainsbury, Louis Dumont, and Basia Gulati. Oxford University Press. New Delhi. 2010.

Trigg, Roger. ‘Understanding social science.’ Blackwell Publishers. 1999.

Uberoi, Patricia. ‘The diaspora comes home: Disciplining desire in DDLJ’ in Contributions to Indian Sociology. Vol. 32 (2). November 1998.

[1] Dumont says, “Among Brahmans marriage tends to be unique (monogamous) and indissoluble.  I say ‘it tends’ because the duty to have a son makes an infertile union a legitimate ground for exceptions and the man takes a second wife in such a case” (Dumont, Louis, ‘Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and Its Implications,’ 2010, p. 110)

[2] In 2005, participating in a magazine survey on the changing approach to sex among city-breds, actress Khushboo had spoken in support of premarital sex between committed, adult partners.  This led to a slew of cases being slapped against her in various courts in Tamil Nadu, accusing her of promoting promiscuity.  Khushboo approached the High Court, seeking to quash all the criminal proceedings against her.  However, the High Court refused to entertain her plea, though ruling that all the twenty two cases against her in various subordinate courts across Tamil Nadu be tried by a single metropolitan court in Chennai.  Khushboo appealed against the High Court’s judgement in the Supreme Court, which ruled that Khushboo had committed no offence under the Indian Penal Code and quashed all pending proceedings against her.  The Supreme Court also reprimanded the High Court for abetting a miscarriage of justice by allowing an innocent person under the law to be subjected to avoidable humiliation and persecution.

[3] A rating that measures the popularity of a channel or a programme.

[4] Interestingly, the courts intervention was sought to ban ‘Sach ka Saamna,’ but the judiciary refused to entertain the plea.


[5] I must clarify that the idea of using my interaction with this respondent as a ‘control’ was not ‘planned.’ We happened to have a detailed conversation in the course of an hour-long bus journey, which I have drawn upon for the purpose of this paper.  She was a co-passenger on the bus I was travelling in from my residence to the workplace.  I was looking through some questions I had noted down to ask a respondent I was planning to meet later that day for the purpose of this paper.  The young woman sitting next to me had possibly glanced at the questions and become curious. She asked me if I was doing some kind of research.  I explained to her what I was doing and then asked her if she was married.  When she replied in the affirmative, I told her that I would be interested to know her views as well, and that is how the ‘interview’ came to be.

[6] “Culture” in this paper is used synonymously with community, defined and differentiated by its religious and/ or caste affilitations.

[7] In India it is common to categorise marriages as “love” and “arranged” marriages.  The former category indicates that the partners have fallen in love and arrived at the decision to marry, on their own.  This is in contrast to the more prevalent “arranged” marriages, which are largely settled by the families concerned with little or no interaction between the boy and the girl before marriage.

[8] This paper was developed after a brief presentation of its framework to a small audience at a half-a-day colloquium. I am grateful to the participants in the colloquium for this and many other insights that have helped make this paper more wholesome.

[9] For the insights gained through a small study such as this, ‘findings’ may be a rather pretentious term.  The term may please be read in the sense of ‘indicators’ or ‘pointers.’

[10] Uberoi, Patricia, ‘The diaspora comes home: Disciplining desire in DDLJ,’ 1998, p. 312.

[11] Church, clergy, and related terms are used here in their generic sense, as representative of houses of worship, priests, etc. of all religions and religious denominations and do not signify any particular religion.

[12]Though this paper does not probe deeper theoretical perspectives, it may be relevant and useful here to recall Dumont’s explication of “system of relations” as against a “system of elements”, and Cohn’s observation about India being a group based and not individual based society (Dumont: ‘Homo Hierarchicus’ and Cohn: ‘Indian Social Structure and Culture: Introduction).

[13] Dumont, Louis, ‘Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and Its Implications,’ p. 110.

[14] Trigg, Roger, ‘Understanding social science,’ p. 236.

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