Like most Twitterati, if you too have cringe-watched Netflix's Indian Matchmaking recently, you know who “Sima Aunty” is. Besides the strong belief that marriage is a compromise, the matchmaker holds something else closer to her chest. The biodata. “It's the most important tool. It’s how we first introduce the clients to meet each other,” she explains in the opening episode of the series which shows how marriages are arranged. The document’s standout feature is a picture, Mumbai-based Sima Taparia continues to explain, and it announces the prospective match’s name, date of birth, height, workplace, and hobbies. But “it is not like online dating, I personally ensure the photograph and information is accurate so no one is surprised.”
Also, unlike in online dating, the biodata reveals an individual’s ethnic community, dietary preferences, desire or lack thereof for children before they have actually met anyone. Matchmakers like Taparia and Indian singles in modern professions and cities gather at the dining table to pore over such intimate information and eliminate those who don’t check the right boxes. With an explicitly business-like name —“biodata” is also an Indian-ism for “curriculum vitae”— this concept is a building block of the arranged marriage market. It seeks to advertise homogeneous compatibility because, as they say, what has love got to do with getting married.
The importance of profiles
As soon as singles reach marriageable age, such papers are drawn up. They are promptly dispatched to a network of relatives, or in response to newspaper ads, or to matchmaking elders operating in every community. Some reckon the biodata was first willed into existence when the traditional joint family gave way to nuclear families. People were moving across India and the world, so what was once a backyard search for matches turned into a globalised hunt. Even after portals such as shaadi.com or jeevansaathi.
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Given its make or break nature, a small ecosystem has risen to polish that first impression. “The biodata is filed together with certificates, pageant wins, and medals to improve chances,” says wedding planner Dhawal Oza of DreamZ Events N Ideas. “It is a lot like applying for a job.” The higher the net worth of an individual, the bigger the part of the profile describing their businesses and income. To attract NRI interest, says Oza, some hopefuls hire professionals to craft their biodata and even pay marriage bureaus to micro-manage their social media persona. Depending on their experience, creative designers and content writers are said to earn anywhere between Rs 5,000 and Rs 25,000 for this work.
Conservative Hindu families place it along with a horoscope into turmeric-daubed envelopes. For Catholic families, priests often maintain such records. The so-called “marriage broker” is the biodata’s carrier in southern India, among Parsis it is the elderly <akaajwali bai>, while matchmakers known as <wasila> ferry it for Indonesian Muslims. Biodatas are common in Bangladesh too, where scholar Seuty Sabur notes people cite family names going back three generations to show off social mobility and position. Opinion is divided on the inclusion of photographs, contact numbers, and addresses. Some think it moves discussions along faster, others who privilege privacy believe this should only happen when interest is definitively expressed.
Entrepreneur Srinivas Krishnaswamy may have been responsible for a number of prospective brides and grooms mistakenly declaring that they were “colour-blind”. Some years ago on the website of his startup JodiLogik.com, which sells free and paid templates for marriage biodatas, he had included the vision deficiency in a specimen profile. “People simply copy-pasted the text,” he recalls. “Maybe they took it to mean someone who does not care about skin colour.” For the founder-CEO, this instance of miscomprehension only suggested where his company should expand next. “I have been guilty of not making templates in languages other than English. We will launch that feature soon.”
Regardless of language, many participants in India’s family-led spouse hunts struggle with expressing themselves. Nandini Dange, founder of Harmony Marriage Bureau, says boys and girls rarely even know what their parents have written in the biodata. At her centres in Mumbai, Pune, and Nashik, biodatas have the same simple appearance whether a customer has chosen to pay regular, medium, or premium rates. Dange, who describes her approach to matchmaking as modern, insists that clients write in their own words and fearlessly state unpopular expectations like wanting partners to get tested for STDs before marriage, for instance. Her VIP clients are offered additional deals like hiring detectives for background checks. Notably, the biodata is legally binding too; misrepresentations have been brought up in courts and have even helped secure divorces in the past.
Ritesh Kumar left e-commerce to launch ShaadiAapki.com five years ago in Mumbai because he noticed members of his community, the Prajapatis, were struggling to find partners because they had scattered worldwide. His website’s core offering is a customised biodata — with little blocks of text and a gilt or floral border — which sells for just shy of Rs 1,000 apiece. Kumar says customisation can sometimes take up to two weeks of interviews and revisions with clients, who include locals as well as diaspora Indians. Chennai-based JodiLogik currently charges Rs 99 for the service, while NRIs pay Rs 350, and these rates are likely to go up. Traffic arrives organically, the companies claim, because people frequently search Google for how-tos about biodatas.
Predictably, biodatas make room for religious markers and information on caste and complexion. Hindus include images of <‘Om’> or <Ganesha>, Muslims mention performing Hajj and namaz, Dalit Buddhists add ‘Jai Bhim’, Christians speak of being “God-fearing”. In fact, scholar Michiel Baas even observed endogamous alliances forming, both by love and by arrangement, among what he calls an “IT caste” in Bangalore. All told, very few who sign up for arranged marriages ever call out or omit caste in their profiles. “Maybe two or three in every hundred people,” says Krishnaswamy, who spent two years interviewing users before entering the matchmaking space.
The entrepreneur has big plans for his small three-member operation. This includes incorporating AI to take the dowdy document into the future. His advice on why biodatas must be taken seriously is another reminder of how the marriage market resembles the job market. “You are not the only show in town. There are many others vying for the same opportunity.”
Mobile apps that let users make biodatas have been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times, and YouTube is packed with free tutorials on drafting and formatting biodatas. Yet, singles on the hunt complain about encountering lacklustre profiles. A Parsi girl who requested not to be named, and who is a writer herself, is tired of seeing the phrases ‘fun-loving’, ‘loves to travel’ or ‘caring nature’. “I would prefer if they just talked about their work,” she says, with a giggle. “Sorry, but I can’t eat love.”Ranjita Ganesan is a journalist and researcher based in Mumbai.