Monthly Archives: January 2010

“How India inspires digital revolution” by Kavita Ramdya (Raghu Rai retrospective)

Click here to read “How India inspires digital revolution“, Kavita Ramdya’s review of the Raghu Rai retrospective at Aicon Gallery London in the 5 February 2010 issue of “News India Times”.

www.bollywood-weddings.com

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“How India inspires digital revolution” by Kavita Ramdya in the 5 February 2010 issue of “News India Times”

My best friend recently visited India in what was a whirlwind tour to introduce her recently-acquired husband, a man of Canadian and Hungarian descent, to the country which her family resided as Brahmin Keralites for many generations. Over the course of five weeks they traveled far and wide: Mumbai; North India’s Rajasthan (Delhi, Jaipur, Agra, Udaipur); Kerala and its backwaters; Cochin; and for the finale, the Maldives. Upon returning from her trip, I expected to promptly receive a Snapfish album or Facebook update where she would share her photos with me. No such luck. Although India is not new to her (she’s visited the country at least a dozen times), it took as many weeks as she was in India for her to review and prune four thousand photos. And even after much ruthless editing, she only whittled down the collection to eight hundred, far too many for the average friend or family member to process in one sitting.

Her photography binge served as a cautionary tale for when I took my own semi-newly acquired husband (we’ve been married for more than four years) to India a month later. Still, over the course of ten days he took approximately one thousand photographs.

What is it about India that transforms financial analysts and writers, Java programmers and polo players, to slaves to the camera? How does one explain the country’s inexplicable power to turn casual photographers and semi-adventurous tourists into humans with SLR appendages? What is it about India that inspires tourists to become the digital Marco Polos, exploring and colonizing the country from behind a telephoto zoom lens and with the click of a button?

My theory is that what makes ordinary people into photographers upon arriving in India is its ability to overwhelm: what makes it both exotic and raw is also beautiful and intimidating. What better way to hide than from behind a camera’s lens?

Explaining to people why visiting India is such a powerful experience is how I imagine an astronaut feels when describing the awesomeness of exploring a new planet: the sensation of feeling like so minor a character on the world’s stage provides a bit of a breather from the practice of indulgent self importance, a luxurious curse modern life affords us. Realizing that I am only one individual in a country of a billion and that life is teeming around me as I stand still watching it go, sensations that the late George Harrison of Beatles fame articulates in the hit “Within You Without You”, enable a full-bodied sigh of relief, a relief that I am happy to report is still with me three weeks after returning from India.

Some make photographing India a state of life-long passion, pursuit and employment. Aicon Gallery is currently showing “Raghu Rai: A Retrospective”. The show’s earthy black-and-white photographs of India are a stark contrast to the gallery’s sterile white walls and the hushed murmur of guests surveying the works. Henri Cartier-Bresson, the French photographer who pioneered photojournalism, took the Indian engineer-turned-photographer under his wings: forty years worth of photographs make up Raghu Rai’s ouvre which documents the mundane (riskhaws and bathers) to the extraordinary (moments of religious epiphany and familial bonding). His documentary style captures a specific India, different from the Mughal India or Bollywood India, one which “teems with activity” according to Aicon Gallery Director Niru Ratnam. Rai’s photos are democratic, documenting “crowds of workers and other individuals who go about their daily business in cities, streets, marketplaces, docks, fields and riverbanks.”

With the barrage of real-time media images, from paparazzi to mobile phone photos posted, blogged, tweeted and shared on Facebook, it is hard to believe there was a ever a time when photographers took the time to pose a subject. However, Rai’s images of India were pioneering ones sixty years ago and they remain relevant today, something glaringly evident in the retrospective. Focused on documenting a moment that will never recreate itself, emotionally connecting to anonymous subjects who will lose themselves in the bustling crowd, capturing a people made up of many, distinguished from each other along religious, regional, linguistic and caste differences, Rai captures the pluralistic society that is India.

In light of seeing friends and family members become fanatical photographers, it is no mystery what compels a photographer like Raghu Rai to devote his life’s work to one subject: India. However, rather than hide behind the camera lens, Rai uses his camera to tease, prod and push his viewer towards India, giving him or her the opportunity to witness “reality, the truth – not only its physical aspect, but, the inner vibrations of that space or person”. In contrast to color photographs which are quick yet frequently shallow fixes exhibiting exotic India, Rai challenges the viewer to come closer and inspect his black-and-white photos, demanding discipline and interest and the ability to put aside the sensational for the serious.

And what is Rai’s mission in his photography? According to this viewer, Rai attempts to document a time past, offering historical memorabilia for scholars and civilians alike. He is like a diarist painstakingly recording what he or she has eaten for breakfast and read in the news. Rai attempts to make every moment immortal even as India changes at breath-taking speed, one minute a 3rd-world country characterized by regional and religious tensions and the next of BRIC status, on the precipice of financial windfall and global prominence as a world power. Raghu Rai is the country’s empathetic and loving paparazzi photographer if ever there was such a thing.

Kavita Ramdya is author of “Bollywood Weddings: Dating, Engagement and Marriage in Hindu America” www.bollywood-weddings.com

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“Bollywood Weddings” event at Mint Leaf

Read “Bollywood’s impact on Indian American Weddings” in “News India Times” (5 February 2010) for coverage of this event.

On 19 January 2010, Mint Leaf at London’s Trafalgar Square hosted a private book launch for Kavita Ramdya’s “Bollywood Weddings: Dating, Engagement and Marriage in Hindu America”. “Bollywood Weddings” is this year’s answer to the age-old questions, “Why do we fall in love with the people we fall in love with?” and “Why do we marry the people we choose to marry?” To answer these questions – the ethnic, religious, linguistic, cultural, and financial qualities – and what our choice means in terms of expressing our national identity, Kavita Ramdya does an anthropological study of Indian-American Hindus in the tri-state New York area.

By interviewing twenty couples, “Bollywood Weddings” addresses the various methods of meeting a potential future spouse including using family & friends, personal ads, and internet dating services as well as family tensions that arise with inter-marriage (Hindus marrying Christians, Jews, Muslims, African Americans and Atheists). Attending their weddings and watching wedding videos, she successfully describes how this community negotiates between antiquated, Old World values such arranged marriage and modern, individualistic values such as love marriage. She finds that in this day and age, a discussion about who and how we choose to marry cannot be had without recognising the significant influence popular culture has on our ideas about how to best express love. In Kavita Ramdya’s book, the Bombay-based Indian film industry “Bollywood” emerges as a significant force in formulating conceptions of love and identity. Bollywood culture – it’s fashionable aesthetic and symbolic representation of a modernised India – becomes the method by which American-raised Indian Hindus negotiate two diametrically-opposed value sets: that of pre-modern India and mainstream America.

Kavita Ramdya integrates the love stories of twenty couples, which makes her book about why and how a sub-community falls in love and expresses their identity a wonderful read. She provides readers with a window into second-generation Indian-American Hindu couples who are navigating identities through a major life rite of passage, marriage. In her book, she affirms that this sub community flaunts all things Indian (be they more traditional or Bollywood style) as a way to assert their American identity. Beautifully written and containing gorgeous photographs, with insight into matters concerning love, marriage, and identity BOLLYWOOD WEDDINGS: DATING, ENGAGEMENT AND MARRIAGE is that rare find: an insightful first book which is both an excellent choice for the classroom and the wider general readership.

Thank you to Mint Leaf for generously hosting and sponsoring the event and Fleur De Lys Photography for covering the book launch.

For more information about this event, please visit www.bollywood-weddings.com

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‘Soft power’ and storytelling in India, China

Click here to read Kavita Ramdya’s article “‘Soft power’ and storytelling in India, China” in the 29 January 2010 edition of “News India Times”.

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“‘Soft power’ and storytelling in India, China” by Kavita Ramdya in “News India Times” (29 January 2010)

Shashi Tharoor, a Keralite writer and former member of the UN, has recently come under the gun by colleagues in Indian parliament for his frequent use of Twitter as a vehicle to candidly and regularly express his views on political matters. India, although the largest democracy in the world, does not mean its politicians are the most communicative. Instead, Mr. Tharoor’s attitude towards using social networking sites and openly conveying his thoughts on matters such as whether India should tighten its visa requirements in the name of preventing terrorism has incited a wave of disapproval among his colleagues who admonish his very public disagreement with senior members of Parliament.

Respecting one’s elders and superiors remains a relevant value in Indian society. What makes Mr. Tharoor’s dilemma more interesting is his use of Twitter, a one-way form of communication via the Internet, to broadcast his thoughts to his half-a-million followers. Clearly, Twitter serves as a significant vehicle for communicating his political ideas, but what of his and fellow intellectuals’ cultural concepts?

In the 2009 TED (Technology Entertainment Design) India Conference which took place in Mysore, Mr. Tharoor proposed that nations pursue a policy of “soft power” versus traditional methods of asserting control such as politics and trade. “Soft” power, originally coined by Harvard scholar Joseph Nye, is defined by the ability to spread culture – in India’s case, more specifically, it means exporting Bollywood movies, offering curries and dhosas in English towns, and performing the tabla in Europe’s greatest concert halls. Ultimately, Tharoor suggests that what will make a country more powerful is its ability to embed itself in people’s minds the world over via cultural exports.

Elucidating concepts from his book “The Elephant, The Tiger, And the Cell Phone: Reflections on India – the Emerging 21st-Century Power”, Mr. Tharoor goes on to argue that “the entire notion of world leadership seems to me archaic”. In a historical moment where the concept of BRIC ascendancy (Brazil Russia India China) is so widely accepted that it informs investment banks’ directions for growth and expansion in the global markets, Mr. Tharoor takes a risky stance by downplaying the role India is expected to have in the global markets. He argues that the country’s military strength (India has the 4th-largest army in the world), its population (India’s will exceed China’s by 2034), and economic growth (while other world economies have recently shrunk due to the global economic crisis, India’s grew 6.7% in 2008) will be overshadowed by India’s contribution to the world by India’s culture, its soft power.

Some obvious examples of soft power, or a country’s ability to attract others via culture, political values and foreign policies, include China’s Beijing Olympics and America’s Fulbright Scholarships. However, Tharoor suggests that MTV and McDonalds have done more for promoting American culture and values than anything the U.S. government may orchestrate: soft power spreads because of and in spite of governments’ actions.

Although official news outlets such as print media, radio and television have traditionally been the source for news about the world, social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter informs people globally about countries, including stories governments might not want to spread.  This notion of “soft power” which has gained credibility the world over is critical in understanding the current face-off between Google and China. Whereas originally Google agreed to censor its China-based search engine, cyber attacks on Google mail accounts held by human rights activists have incited Google to cease censoring its sites while engaging in talks with the Chinese government with regards to the incidences of hacking.

Censorship is anti-democratic and, in the current world we live in, impractical in terms of limiting the spread of information and managing a country’s global public image. Information will always find a way out. That said, the current example of China and Google is useful in terms of discussing public image and publicity since, rightly so, “soft power” is emerging as a widely-accepted tool in wielding power globally.

In the case of China, if the country that “tells the better story prevails”, then it should come as no surprise why the Chinese government takes pains to control and consolidate outgoing narratives about its political workings, people and products. Of course, China’s struggle for control of its image is a losing battle; the prevailing western notions of open society and democratic values have been exported, sold and embraced globally and, via technologies offered in the current information era, will win over government propaganda.

Mr. Tharoor concludes his TED presentation about soft power by asserting that what makes India different, helpful in understanding the current conflict between Google and China, is the agreement “on ground rules of how you will disagree”, a sunny image for India where territorial conflict in Kashmir is still handled by the military and terrorism is still a concern one year after the November 26th Mumbai attacks by terrorists. And, despite the proliferation of Indian restaurants and yoga studios globally, screenings of Bollywood films in European capitals, and Ravi Shankar’s ability to sell-out shows when he performs at Carnegie Hall, media about India is still often focused on dire stories about honor killings and economic migrants.

However, Mr. Tharoor’s point that countries agree on how to disagree is a useful one: something for economists and capitalists to contemplate when pondering the potential BRIC countries have to offer in the global markets is the BRIC countries’ own commitment to establishing and maintaining an “open society”. Now we see the reality of western companies’ inability to compromise values in exchange for financial returns. In a world where soft power has emerged as a widely-accepted instrument for power, politicians and corporate titans alike need to contemplate what the BRIC countries’ stories tell us about them.

Kavita Ramdya is author of “Bollywood Weddings: Dating, Engagement and Marriage in Hindu America”. www.bollywood-weddings.com

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“Taxi wallahs take on terror” by Kavita Ramdya

Click here to read Kavita Ramdya’s review of Vandana Sood’s documentary “The Taxi Takes on Terror”.

www.bollywood-weddings.com

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“Taxi wallahs take on Terror” by Kavita Ramdya (“News India Times” 22 January 2010)

My husband and I recently visited Rajasthan a few weeks after the one-year anniversary of the November 26th terrorist attack in Mumbai. The country was on a terrorist red alert and a good friend of ours who has a management function at an international news agency warned us that they had shut down their local Mumbai office and asked their staff to lay low; the local police and government security agency were abuzz, fearful that terrorists would strike again. Thankfully, India proved safe during our visit. However, the widespread and tightened security, along with chat among locals about the terrorist threats, were an instructive education in comparing how the country has responded to and thinks about the November 26th attack in relation to post-9/11 America and even England after the July 7, 2005 London bombing.

Vandana Sood, a New Delhi-born and New York-based film director, has exported Mumbai’s story of modern-day terrorism abroad for the world to benefit. In her short videos entitled “The Taxi Takes on Terror”, Ms. Sood acts as a mediator between taxi-wallahs, or drivers, and their passengers who conjecture, discuss and debate the causes of the 26 November terrorist attack (www.thetaxitakes.com). Three months after the 26 November terrorist attacks, Ms. Sood filmed and facilitated conversations within the taxis. And why is the taxi the space in which Ms. Sood has decided to direct this dialogue? Because, according to her, it is the public space where “people of various socio-economic backgrounds and religions meet.” In a recent conversation with Ms. Sood, she explains further:

“Globally, taxi drivers and passengers have spontaneous and candid interactions in taxis. A taxi driver is a mobile new-age guru who navigates the streets and has a pulse on what is ticking in a city. Cabbies are also links of exchange and contact between people from various backgrounds, constantly conversing with people on the street and uniquely positioned to sense the atmosphere in a city or town. They understand the cities they traverse and are sensitive to political upheaval, given that it directly affects their livelihoods. Most of the drivers picked for The Taxi Takes on Terror were on the roads of Mumbai when the terrorists attacked in November 2008. Hence they witnessed the carnage and have a personal experience with terrorism. Also, in particular, within a taxi in India the passengers in the backseat usually belong to a higher class background than the taxi driver. So, interactions between cab drivers and passengers allow us to engage in a conversation that breaches formidable class and caste divides – conversations that might not occur without the intervention inside the taxi space.  The environment of the taxi, a public, yet contained space also provided the perfect conditions amenable for filming.”

In “Welcome To The Taxi Takes On Terror”, which begins with an ironic 1960s-era paean to Mumbai, is the first installment of the four-video series. In the video, taxi-wallahs contrast the opportunity, wealth and innovation of Mumbai with its intrinsic poverty. One taxi-wallah describes how Mumbai’s streets are “paved with gold” yet there is “nowhere to sleep”, pointing out the discrepancy between the city’s opportunities for wealth and advancement with the homeless beggars who are also part of the city’s landscape. Ms. Sood films passengers and taxi-wallahs as they discuss what makes Mumbai great (shopping, industry, development) and conjecture why the terrorists targeted Bombay.

“Who is to Blame?” conveys Delhi’s inhabitants’ suspicion of Pakistan and its madrasas in organizing the 26 December Mumbai attack. In light of President Obama’s recent criticism of lapses in White House security, the taxi passengers also blame India’s security and local police in their inability to detect and prevent the attack.

“Women Taxi Drivers” is perhaps the most interesting of the four short films. I was surprised to learn that Mumbai has two women’s taxi services, companies which teach women how to drive taxis and self-defense skills such as karate in order to exclusively serve female passengers. Sexual harassment remains an issue in India and drinking and driving among young, male taxi-wallahs at night is a concern. Now that women are working longer hours and spending their expendable income on late-night movies and evenings out with friends, there is more of a demand for female drivers to take women passengers home.

Supriya Surve, a twenty-three-year old taxi-wallah, is wise beyond her years. When asked what she enjoys about driving a taxi, she responds with “I get to meet new people… you learn. You get to know what kind of people live in the city. You find out about people and their behavior” before answering her mobile phone with a resigned yet professional voice: business is good.

The final installment “Women and Islam” stars a female, Muslim taxi-wallah, Sameena. This video focuses on the issue of whether Muslim women should be allowed to wear a burkah. Sameena’s mother suggested her daughter learn how to drive a taxi because she would “earn depending on how hard she worked”. Sameena, like all the other thousands of taxi-wallahs in Mumbai, expresses an entrepreneurial spirit when she describes how by driving a taxi versus taking a more traditional women’s job she is “not anyone’s slave” and is, instead, her “own boss.” It is later revealed that Sameena is a young divorcee who was held a prisoner in her own home by her ex-husband. She describes herself as sitting around and doing embroidery when she was married, “like an illiterate”. It was only by divorcing her husband that she was able to work and earn her own income.

The first half of the video is of Muslim women passengers and Sameena discussing identities as Muslim women whereas the second half of the video takes a more insidious turn when Ms. Sood records taxi-wallahs and their male passengers discuss the Taliban and issues such as “honor killings”. Clearly, Ms. Sood’s videos are mediums for social critique. When asked about her ambitions for her films, she responds:

“I aim to work on socially conscious media focused around spirituality, inter cultural communication and Human Rights. Even though my focus is on non-fiction media making I am interested in fiction and have been working on a feature length screenplay centered around the garment of the ‘burkha’ and cross dressing. I have a background in the area of community media education and the concept of empowering people with the tools of communication motivates me. I aim to work on projects that mobilize the interconnectedness of the Internet and its web 2.0 tools to create greater awareness and explore new ways for people to learn from one another.”

Like so many expatriate artists today, Vandana Sood is intent on moving back and forth between her home country, India, and her adopted one, America. And like her socially-conscious colleagues, Ms. Sood is intent on creating social change through her artistry, film making – “Shabash!”

www.bollywood-weddings.com

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“Flavors of India blossom in Sase Persaud’s poetry” by Kavita Ramdya

Click here to read “Flavors of India blossom in Sase Persaud’s poetry” by Kavita Ramdya, a review of Guyanese poet Sase Persaud’s poetry collection “In a Boston Night”.

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“Flavors of India blossom in Sase Persaud’s poetry” by Kavita Ramdya (15 January 2010 “News India Times”)

While a student of English Literature, I found it difficult to relate to Byron and Shelly’s, Keats and Coleridge’s poetry about love. Their works, classics because the writing endures time, still left me feeling alienated. I couldn’t relate to odes to urns, and I inwardly rolled my eyes whenever I read another poem where women’s anatomical parts are likened to roses and sunflowers. An example of education spoiling recreational pursuit, I only recently began to enjoy reading poetry again upon coming across Guyana-born poet Sase Persaud’s collection “In a Boston Night”.

While reading the first lines of “In a Boston Night” (“My unnecessary shirt a delay”), the gulf between poetry and I suddenly dissolved. I immediately recognized that I was reading poetry timeless in nature in its discussions of sensuality, love, and mourning but is also modern for its interspersion of technology and discussion of contemporary politics. And for a man whose cerebral-looking author publicity photo gives the impression that his poetry will be abstract and ethereal in nature, his poetry is in fact refreshingly sensual and realistic. Always surprised when I come across a frank discussion of bedroom politics, Persaud’s “Morning After” and “Unplanned” are poems which frankly describe the giving, taking and mistake making that accompany intimacy.

Just like Persaud’s poetry is unapologetically sensual in nature, it doesn’t take long to find India in his work either. He describes a former colleague “as bright/as a Krishna-blue bulb” and calls his lover “Rani” or queen. In fact, the collection is riddled with places, exotic locals such as India, Trinidad, and Dover and more mundane ones like Boston’s Brookline, Florida, Connecticut, are prominent supporting characters in Persaud’s work. In fact, as a Boston University alumna, it was somewhat surreal for me to read poems which take place at Boston University’s campus, a setting which clearly inspired Persaud. He recalls how sitting in classrooms which overlooked Boston’s Charles River, it “seeped into my consciousness”.

And laugh I did when reading Persaud’s poking fun of idealistic yet sheltered undergraduate students: “My book of seductions too dusty/for a recent SexHigh Graduate’s touch” and in “Backing the Charles”: “The democrats came in a tsunami…/… a wasteful war could buy/healthcare for the national, that illiterature/cannot pronounce ‘nuclear’, doesn’t know/the name of the Canadian Prime Minister!” A reminder of how idiotic we all sounded when we were younger versions of ourselves, even Persaud’s narrative style in his poetry can’t conceal the inane dribble university students purport as political awareness.

“Waiting Near the Charles River” reminded me to be thankful that modern technology didn’t flourish until after I married. The infinite number of ways to get in touch real-time via iPhones, Facebook, mobile technology and Blackberrys has not altered love’s natural pace. The universal expectation that technology will facilitate immediate gratification when it comes to matters of love is unrealistic; like love during any other era, it will not allow itself to be fast forwarded. The narrator describes waiting for his mobile phone to ring:

The mobile’s a bright blue screen.

Date and time, the server’s name.

And mine. Strength of signal good.

Three bars—four black drinking-glass

Bands. The message box icon

Useless. The ringer silent. Your name

not appearing. Your voice unheard.

In “Half a Life”, Persaud recounts the effect his mother’s death has played in his life when he describes “how for years/I cried when no one looked, and even/when  they did and even now; you lose/ a mother and lose and gain half a life”. At a talk given at the University of South Florida’s Humanities Institute, the poet describes how his mother’s death has influenced him to write about mourning and loss:

    I remembered that I was eight years old when my mother died. For months afterwards, whenever anyone mentioned my mother, or mothers, I cried. I cried in private. I cried in public. I cried anywhere. I cried everywhere. It was many years before I ceased being affected by mention of the word “mother”, even while I still mourned for my mother, and felt her loss… I have written many poems, and even a novel, on loss and grief, but no matter what I wrote I still had not captured what I wanted to say about the loss of my mother. But suddenly… I felt that I knew what I wanted to say all these years… I wrote, “Mourning”.

In “Mourning”, Persaud writes,

A mother lost

is a mother waiting to be found. Grief

is not a migraine

it is a whole life.

Holidays, too, are a time for remembering his deceased mother when Persaud describes family members wistful, on Christmas Day, “if your mother were here…” Turning secular and highly-commercialized holidays into opportunities for writing poetry, “Thanksgiving” lists typically eastern ingredients for an Indo-Carribbean family Thanksgiving meal: “turmeric corn, lime peas, flaky roti, curried Yukon, Basmati”. All of the NRI and second-generation Indian Americans I know including myself are familiar with “Indian-ized” Thanksgiving dinners where parata and keema, mixed vegetable subjee and keer accompany cranberries and yams, turkey and stuffing. And in “Christmas”, food once again emerges as a potent force in expressing heritage and culture: “pouring frothy ginger beer or sweet rice/wine to go with the tropical fruit cake”. Even poets register the often times anticlimactic nature of the holiday season and the disappointment which inevitably follows the build up in “Goodbye to the Holidays” when he writes, “I… give a perfunctory/hug, scratch my list of tender things I did not do. Next time.”

Kavita Ramdya is author of “Bollywood Weddings: Dating, Engagement and Marriage in Hindu America” available now on Amazon. www.bollywood-weddings.com

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“Decoding Wedding Dreams” (Q&A with DesiClub)

Click here to read a Q&A, “Decoding Wedding Dreams“, with DesiClub.

www.bollywood-weddings.com/

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“Bibi Magazine” reviews Kavita Ramdya’s “Bollywood Weddings”

Click here to read the “Bibi Magazine” review of Kavita Ramdya’s “Bollywood Weddings”.

Click here to read it in PDF.

www.bollywood-weddings.com/

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