NOIDA, India, May 16 - The musicians were playing, the 2,000 guests were dining, the Hindu priest was preparing the ceremony and the bride was dressed in red, her hands and feet festively painted with henna.
Then, the bride's family says, the groom's family moved in for the kill. The dowry of two televisions, two home theater sets, two refrigerators, two air-conditioners and one car was too cheap. They wanted $25,000 in rupees, now, under the wedding tent.
As a free-for-all erupted between the two families, the bartered bride put her hennaed foot down. She reached for her royal blue cellphone and dialed 100. By calling the police, Nisha Sharma, a 21-year-old computer student, saw her potential groom land in jail and herself land in the national spotlight as India's new overnight sensation.
"Are they marrying with money, or marrying with me?" Ms. Sharma asked today, her dark eyes glaring under arched eyebrows. In the next room a fresh wave of reporters waited to interview her, sitting next to the unopened boxes of her wedding trousseau.
After fielding a call from a comic-book artist who wanted to bring her act of defiance last Sunday night to a mass market, she said, "I'm feeling proud of myself."
"It Takes Guts to Send Your Groom Packing," a headline in The Times of India read.
Rashtriya Sahara, a major Hindi daily, said in a salute, "Bravo: We're Proud of You."
"She is being hailed as a New Age woman and seen as a role model to many," the newspaper Asian Age wrote next to a front-page drawing of Ms. Sharma standing in front of red and green wedding pennants while flashing a V sign to cameras and wearing a sash over her blue sari with the words Miss Anti-Dowry.
"This was a brave thing for a girl dressed in all her wedding finery to do," said Vandana Sharma, president of the Women's Protection League, one of many women's rights leaders and politicians to make a pilgrimage this week to this eastern suburb of Delhi. "This girl has taken a very dynamic step." India's new 24-hour news stations have propelled Nisha Sharma to Hindi stardom. One television station set up a service allowing viewers to "send a message to Nisha." In the first two days, 1,500 messages came in.
Illegal for many decades in India, dowries are now often disguised by families as gifts to give the newlyweds a start in life. More than a media creation, Ms. Sharma and her dowry defiance struck a chord in this nation, whose expanding middle class is rebelling against a dowry tradition that is being overfed by a new commercialism.
"Advertisements now show parents giving things to make their daughters happy in life," Brinda Karat, general secretary of the All India Democratic Women's Association, a private group, said, referring to television commercials for products commonly given in dowries.
"It is the most modern aspects of information technology married to the most backward concepts of subordination of women," Ms. Karat continued in a telephone interview. Last year, she said, her group surveyed 10,000 people in 18 of India's 26 states. "We found an across-the-board increase in dowry demand," she said.
Much of the dowry greed is new, Ms. Karat added. In a survey 40 years ago, she noted, almost two-thirds of Indian communities reported that the local custom was for the groom to pay the bride's family, the reverse of the present dominant custom. According to government statistics, husbands and in-laws angry over small dowry payments killed nearly 7,000 women in 2001.
When Ms. Sharma's parents were married in 1970, "my father-in-law did not demand anything," her mother, Hem Lata Sharma, said while serving hot milk tea and cookies to guests.
For the Sharma family, the demands went far beyond giving the young couple a helping hand.
Dev Dutt Sharma, Nisha's father, said his potential in-laws were so demanding that they had stipulated brands. "She specified a Sony home theater, not a Philips," Mr. Sharma, an owner of car battery factories, said of Vidya Dalal, the mother of the groom, Munish Dalal, 25.
Sharma Jaikumar, a telecommunications engineer and friend of the Sharma family, said as the press mob ebbed and flowed through the house: "My daughter was married recently and there was no dowry. But anyone can turn greedy. What can be more easy money than a dowry? All you have to do is ask."
With Mr. Dalal in jail for 14 days, pending formal charges of violating India's laws against dowries, the groom's family has disappeared. Before going underground, they charged that Ms. Sharma had had an affair with a student at her university and that she had a "mark" on her back, implying that she had contracted a disease.
Mr. Sharma bought two sets of each electrical appliance. One was for the couple. The other was for the groom's older brother, who had headed the household after the death of their father. The demand for $25,000, carefully timed to hit Mr. Sharma when he was at his most vulnerable, was to go to the groom's mother.
A believer in arranged marriages, Mr. Sharma found the groom by placing a classified ad in two of Delhi's elite English-language newspapers, a common practice here.
Today he recommended that fathers of brides check the bona fides of prospective in-laws. His potential son-in-law was not a computer engineer, he said, but a computer instructor. The mother was not a vice principal of a private school, but a gym teacher.
That fact came home to him on Sunday night when Mrs. Dalal slapped him across the face for refusing her demand for cash.
"The slap was so tight that she made me realize that she really is a physical training instructor," Mr. Sharma said today, rubbing his left cheek at the memory. "The finger marks of her slap, later, after four hours, figured in my medical legal examination."
"Then Savitry Devi spit on my face," he continued, referring to the groom's aunt. "This was dowry cum blackmailing. I wanted to call police and dial my mobile, but it was snatched by somebody."
Instead, his daughter called the police.
When the police came, Mr. Sharma said, they spent an hour calming the wedding party, giving the groom and his family ample time to escape. To make a show of action, they detained the musicians' bus. Mr. Sharma intervened, and the musicians were freed.
Three hours after the brawl, when Mr. Sharma was registering his complaint at the police station, a television crew from the Aaj Tak news channel happened to be at the station. "With the pressure of the media people, the police went to the boy's house and arrested him," Mr. Sharma said.
Today the Sharmas had no regrets about their expensive wedding collapsing in chaos.
"People say now it will be very difficult to marry my daughter again," Mr. Sharma said. "But I thought, if trouble is starting today, tomorrow may be worse. It could be killing. I thought, let the money go."
Unfazed by the loss of her fiance, Ms. Sharma said that
since Monday she had received 20 to 25 marriage proposals,
by cellphone, e-mail and letter.