The Western world views the notion of ‘arranged marriage’ with horrified fascination; how can two adults consent to marry someone chosen for them by others? In India, though, it’s estimated that 90% of all marriages are still arranged, where the onus of finding a ‘suitable’ match for a person is on the family elders. Indian Matchmaking just takes this concept further. As Ankita Bansal, a participant from New Delhi (who eventually chose to focus on her budding business) tells BBC Culture over email, “Matchmaker way, why not? For me it wasn’t very different from being introduced to a guy by a friend or through a dating app. Of course, each of these comes with their own good, bad and ugly. I think the entire experience felt like going on a journey with no idea as to what could turn up next.” Similarly, for Aparna Shewakramani, a lawyer from Houston, it was just another way of meeting new people. “I assumed the matchmaker would work with me, listen to my preferences and use her network to find me the perfect match,” she says.
The long history of the matchmaker
There have always been matchmakers and, more recently, marriage agencies that connected families. And every Indian family has a Sima Mami who offers (women) unsolicited, and often blunt, advice to wear more make-up, or hit the gym to lose weight, if they ever hope to get married. Or there are the matrimonial columns in newspapers and on websites, rife with specifications on caste and class, and euphemisms like ‘wheatish complexion’ for someone with a darkish skin tone. As adman and social commentator Santosh Desai writes in his 2010 book Mother Pious Lady: Making Sense of Everyday India – the title a dig at the kind of information matrimonial advertisements think relevant to provide – “a person becomes a bundle of saleable attributes encrypted into matrimonial jargon”.
Despite this sociocultural context, Indian Matchmaking has generated a lot of outrage, with critics and viewers alike accusing the show of playing up – or, at the very least, not critiquing – everything regressive in Indian society. Words like hate-watch and cringe-fest have regularly featured on social media. For many women, the show was triggering, because of the way it has shone the spotlight on how intelligent, ambitious, successful women are reduced to a set of stereotypical adjectives.