Bengalis are an ethno-linguistic group concentrated in the eastern part of India and the country of Bangladesh. Though varying in religions and caste affiliations, this community has a long and proud history of cultural and intellectual achievements which find reflection in their identity construction as well as marital practices.
The modern Bengali identity is a product of a two hundred year old colonial experience and its consequences. While Bengal was the first part of India to come under British colonial rule after the Battle of Plassey in 1757, it was also the region to produce the first nationalist thinkers of the country. Part of the nationalist project was the reform of the Bengali society which included education of women and doing away with heinous practices like Sati. This history of female empowerment and social reform, no matter how limited in scope then, continues to influence contemporary relations among Bengali men and women.
However like the rest of India, Bengal too has traditionally followed the system of arranged marriages. According to this, the male head of the family finalizes marital negotiations for his son or daughter after considering proposals that may have been brought by members of the extended family, the kin group or the traditional village match-maker known as ‘ghatak’. Today due to the disintegration of the kin network and village communities, matrimonial proposals are sent out through print advertisements or online matrimonial sites. Arranged marriages too have changed in character since now there is much greater participation from the individuals concerned. Very often the elders in the family compile a list of prospective partners with suitable caste and professional affiliations and then leave the individual to make a final choice according to personal likes and compatibility factors.
The dowry system like various other aspects of traditional arranged marriages is also present in the Bengali community. Even though overt demands of cash, jewelry and expensive items are less frequent among upper middle class Bengalis as compared to other Indian communities, the bride’s family is still expected to ‘gift’ certain things to the newly-wed couple. These may range from kitchen essentials to bigger purchases like furniture and electronics. Very often an element of unspoken influence is brought upon to bear on the bride’s family from the groom’s side regarding purchase of certain items for the wedding which for all practical purposes appears identical to the dowry system.
In accordance with the practice of arranged marriages, Bengalis too have traditionally adhered to specifications of religion, horoscope, caste and sub-caste or ‘gotra’ when considering marital negotiations. Overall families encourage proposals from within their own religious and caste groups and suitable horoscopes. While there is some degree of relaxation on caste boundaries, inter-religious marriages are still treated with suspicion and elders may go to great lengths in dissuading partners into entering such an alliance. However Bengal’s history of social reform and female education as well as its two-decade Communist political culture has greatly influenced youths to cross boundaries of religion and caste and look for like-minded partners in other social groups. The process has become only easier with the migration of young Bengali men and women in other cosmopolitan cities like Mumbai and Delhi and to other countries especially UK, USA, Canada and Australia.
Within the broad specifications of religion and preferably of caste, young Bengali men and women have far greater freedom to choose their own partners as compared to other Indian communities. An important consideration when selecting a partner among Bengalis, at least in upwardly mobile classes, is the level of education. Both girls and boys are expected to be at least graduates and professional qualifications in either sex is considered to be an added bonus. The value of education among girls owes once again to the history of female education and empowerment that began in Bengal in the nineteenth century and has only grown in modern times. Bengali men and women who are well educated professionally qualified and employed in knowledge or software industries enjoy the highest advantage in the matrimonial field.
Another way in which the colonial history of Bengal has informed modern matrimonial practices is by creating a significant bias in favor of professional services. During the colonial period, the British rulers encouraged Bengalis to be well-versed with the English language so that there would be a class of ‘native’ clerks and accountants in order to help the rulers conduct the day to day affairs of civil administration. This resulted in the creation of a Bengali middle class proficient in English and traditionally more comfortable in service sector rather than in businesses and entrepreneurial ventures. The globalization of the Indian economy and meteoric rise of Indian information technology industry has only heightened the value of the traditional knowledge and skills of the Bengali community. Therefore young Bengalis in professions like engineering, medicine, academics and computer software find eligible partners much more readily than those in other fields.
Marital negotiations in the Bengali community have undergone much change in recent years. It is an essentially informal affair now with active participation from the individual who is to be married as well as the elders of the family. The process begins with inviting and sending out of matrimonial proposals by word of mouth but more commonly through print advertisements and matrimonial websites. These days online matrimonial portals have in fact become very popular in the Bengali community for seeking partners across India and among the overseas Bengali population. After an initial short-listing of eligible candidates on the basis of caste, sub-caste, economic position and horoscope, would-be grooms with family members in tow make the rounds of houses of prospective brides. Further negotiations are held only when a final choice is made and these usually include details of dowry and wedding arrangements. After the “Paka-dekha” or the final meeting, marriage negotiations are sealed and preparations begin for the actual wedding.
Several luminaries of Bengal have been at the forefront of social, civil, political, agricultural and cultural reform in India for more than two centuries now. Thus it is no wonder that many forward looking ethics have informed the cultural practices of the community, including its marital practices. However ingrained social prejudices are still hard to overcome and the challenge for young Bengalis today lies in creating a truly progressive community while continuing to take pride in their rich and vibrant culture.