A matchmaking tradition with an up-to-date twist

Gujarati parents of 25-year-old Brahman boy, NRI (nonresident Indian) living in the United States, working in management, seek suitable match with Brahman girl.

Send photo and biodata.

It wasn't how Dhaval Thaker, 27, expected to meet his wife. Born in India but raised in Artesia, Thaker assumed he would find his soul mate on his own.

But two years ago, while Thaker was in India, his parents posted a matrimonial ad in a local newspaper. About 30 women, or rather their parents, sent him their matrimonial resumes, or "biodata." Thaker initially objected, but his parents insisted. It was tradition.

"To me, biodata is just a piece of paper with information," Thaker said. "I didn't really believe in it."

Part resume, part personal ad and part family tree, biodata can cut through the time-consuming process of finding a spouse by turning it into something akin to a job interview: What are his qualifications? Is she a good match? What is his income potential?

Used primarily by South Asians in arranged marriages, biodata emphasizes compatibility, education and family history, including caste, more than romance. There are also physical factors to be considered, such as complexion and, occasionally, blood type.

Even among assimilating South Asian Americans like Thaker, the exchange of biodata is popular. In fact, some believe that the deeply rooted tradition is on the rise in part because of the rapid pace of modern life and the increasing popularity of matrimonial websites.

Still, it can require a bit of research.

Thaker, a manager at an Artesia ice cream shop, remembers feeling frustrated after interviewing numerous spousal candidates whose biodata proved less than interesting. But there was one resume that appealed to the former DJ. It was from a Patel woman (a lower caste than Brahman), who seemed outgoing and loved music.

"She was probably the last one [I saw]," Thaker said of Jignasa. "It was like love at first sight. . . . I was like, whoa!"

That was Sept. 15, 2006. Less than two months later, they were married in a wedding ceremony in India.

For those who share Thaker's initial reluctance, meeting prospective spouses either through the exchange of biodata or with the help of their parents can become increasingly attractive with age.

"A lot of people that might have been against it in their early 20s rationalize it in their 30s when they realize that it's no different than a personal ad," said Purnima Mankekar, a women's and South Asian studies professor at UCLA.

Generations ago, South Asian marriages were less complicated; people married neighbors or distant relatives. As India became more urbanized and people moved abroad to work, families found themselves in unfamiliar communities where finding compatible spouses became trickier, Mankekar said.

Relatives and friends turned into matrimonial search parties and the cross-country exchange of biodata became more common.

Unlike personal ads and popular Internet dating websites that rely heavily on personal information, biodata is largely focused on family history, Mankekar said. That's because it is based on the premise that marriage is not a union between two individuals but between two families.

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Updating the old tradition

Rhythm Shah, 28, hoped to meet a wife while attending San Jose State University. But after graduation, he was still single.

Encouraged by friends and family, he drafted his own biodata and posted it on www.shaadi.com, a popular matrimonial website based in India.

"What else can you do?" Shah said. "Finding a life partner, you can't do that in a club."

Shaadi, which means wedding in Urdu, was founded by Anupam Mittal in 1997 after he met a marriage broker in India who went door to door carrying biodata in his suitcase. Mittal figured an online forum would increase a person's chances of finding the right mate. Today, the website boasts more than 12 million users and more than 800,000 marriages.

Despite being able to chat or use the "express interest" button with other singles, the website's profiles diverge little from what has been exchanged on paper for decades. Among the "about me" and "hobbies" sections are the more traditional questions about family values and parents' education, Hindu horoscope signs, married siblings and mother tongue.

"Shaadi.com caters mostly to the South East Asian community who are quite traditional in their approach," Anjan Saikia, North American manager for the site, said in an e-mail. "People are moving to other forms of connecting and communication and hence there has been a rise in online matrimony in the last decade."

Though biodata is associated primarily with arranged marriages, the increasing popularity of matrimonial websites -- the others include www.matrimonials.com and www.southasiancupid.com -- has prompted some singles to post their own information.

Others think serving as their own matchmaker carries a whiff of desperation. For those, allowing parents to post anonymous matrimonial ads may be preferable.

That was the case with Madhu Fehgal's 25-year-old daughter, who opposed having her personal information made public on a website. Her daughter, who works in recruitment for a Manhattan financial company, wanted to settle down and had exhausted her options.

"It sounded weird to her," Fehgal said. "Well, I explained to her that I cannot grow a boy if she does not let me advertise. She finally agreed."

"Parents seeking match for 25/5'7" beautiful, professional, open minded NJ based girl. E-mail with details," read the ad Fehgal posted recently in India Abroad.

Though it didn't mention any prerequisites for potential responders, Fehgal said her daughter would prefer a tall family-oriented man who lives near New York. Other matrimonial ads are more direct, the parents' best-case scenario for a future son- or daughter-in-law.

"Highly educated North Indian Hindu parents seek intelligent, tall, handsome, USA born/raised, nonsmoker, 28-34, caring, family oriented, accomplished professional with strong moral values for their daughter," read another ad in the same newspaper.

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'Hey, do you know anyone?'

San Francisco attorney Jolsna John said her mother, a retired nurse, spends about three hours a day skimming online matrimonial ads and forwarding the ones she likes. Getting her two daughters married has become something of a full-time job for her mother, John said.

"As you get later on in life, you are more agreeable to using parents, but that's cross-culture," said John, 30. "Even with my white friends, [they will] go to their parents. . . . They'll call their friends, 'Hey do you know anyone for my daughter?' "

John said she dated in high school and college. Still single at 28, she allowed her parents to help her find a husband about the same time her older sister also gave them the green light.

"You just get to a certain point when they're harassing you so much about people, I might as well let them help," she said, "within parameters."

But a marriage arranged by parents has its drawbacks, John acknowledged. For example, what she is looking for in a husband may differ from what her parents are looking for in a son-in-law. She wants someone who is passionate about his work and enjoys food and travel. They want a good Christian Malayali man.

Even formal biodata can be limited, John said. The last one she remembers reading included plenty of information about the man's siblings, their careers, marital status and children and only a few facts about the marriage candidate himself.

"I don't necessarily care what your blood type is or what your siblings do," she said. "I'm like, that's cool but that's not necessarily going to make or break my decision. I'd like to know more about you."

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Written by parents, for parents

Monya De, 29, a doctor in Redondo Beach, had a brief encounter with biodata during her last year of medical school, when her parents urged her to let them respond to a matrimonial ad for a Bengali orthopedic surgeon.

The experience reinforced her idea about two people meeting on their own, though she acknowledged that about half of her friends still use it.

De says the problem is that the information is written by parents, for parents.

The orthopedic surgeon's biodata was a list of achievements, clearly prepared by his parents -- it referred to him in the third person.

"His parents want to sell my parents first and foremost," she said. "When all I want to hear is 'does this guy have a sense of humor?' "

A Facebook group named "You like my biodata, B-i-o-d-a-t-a," which comes from a line in a YouTube music video called "Curry and Rice Girl," mocks the laudatory resumes written by parents:

"Post your concocted biodata, and let the Facebook love factory do its job. Who knows? Maybe there's a fair, beautiful, highly educated, athletic, funny, articulate, family-oriented, nonsmoking, nondrinking papad-loving, gulab-jamun making, bring-home-to-your-mom-type of person out there just waiting. . . .

Although modern technology may be used to mock old customs, the use of the computer to check on potential dates and the rise of social networking sites show that biodata isn't as foreign a concept as it may seem.

Anna John, a blogger who grew up in Northern California, said she posted her personal resume on www.shaadi.com a few years ago. Although she found the process too traditional for her, she is hesitant to criticize it.

"To me, Facebook seems a lot like biodata. I mean how's that really different?" she said, noting that both are carefully prepared profiles. "I really think we're going to get to the point where aunties are telling so and so, 'check out this person's Facebook page.' "

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raja.abdulrahim@latimes.com

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