Over the last ten years in the UK, there has been a rapid shift from traditional South Asian wedding ceremonies to more conventional events. From venues, catering and music to the selection of entertainment; the range of choices available are increasingly varied, helping you create an unforgettable day. In 2014, Sonal Shah will be also be contributing to the new options as one of the first female British Indian toastmasters.
Like many 38-year-old Gujarati women, Sonal’s day-to-day routine consists of a balancing act of working full-time as a management accountant and being a mum to two teenage children. So how did this come about?
‘I’ve a pretty hectic life’, she begins, ‘however five years ago, I started working as a wedding co-ordinator with one of the UK’s top renowned Hindu priests. It started out as just a hobby at the weekends and my work involved helping the bride to organise her day as she had visualised it, ensuring all the service providers were in co-ordination with each other as well as making sure that all the family members were available at the right time for the respective rituals. Over time, I have worked with many different service providers and my experience in these events led to me train and qualify as an independent wedding planner.’
Her decision to train as an official toastmaster, however, was a spontaneous one. ‘My brother-in-law suggested the idea to me, she continues. ‘I started researching into it, and I felt, from my own experience, that many Indian weddings in the UK today no longer consist of just a three hour ceremony, where the guests just sit in a large school hall, eat and then leave. Venues are more lavish, and expectations from guests are changing. On many occasions, it’s the guests who need direction. A toastmaster’s role would ensure guests feel at ease, which in turn allows family members to enjoy the wedding ceremony, knowing that their guests are comfortable.’
The training process lasted a full week, consisting of daily tests and a final exam, which Sonal described as ‘intense yet enjoyable’. It was also an opportunity to meet other toastmasters, wedding celebrants and other service providers in the bridal field to share their experiences and provide guidance to the new recruits.
So what does Sonal feel that an Indian female toastmaster can offer on what is ultimately, a once in a lifetime event? ‘I feel that as well as ensuring guidance for the wedding guests and making sure the event is running smoothly and to time; breaking the language barrier will be an added advantage as I am fluent in both Hindi and Gujarati hence providing a sense of comfort, especially to guests of an older generation.
‘I’ve worked very closely with Indian brides over the past five years and have developed a sense of how they envisage their special day. Being an Indian woman I am also aware of the family politics that often arise in such events, and in my role as a toastmaster I can provide the support and backup the families require. As well as understanding the ins and outs of the traditional rituals, I’ve had the opportunity to help coordinate multi faith marriages which are on the up rise. In my experience, direction to guests is often received better externally, than from a family member, avoiding awkward moments and allowing the families to enjoy the wedding day.’
But how do people react to seeing an Indian woman taking charge? ‘Many people are surprised’ she laughs, 'But I am hoping there be many more positive reactions. Women have advanced in many careers I am proud to know that I am probably one of the first British Indian females to pursue this route!’