Wedding Wows!

Namrata Kaur of Mumbai married her childhood sweetheart Vijay Kalra in September in a burst of bling and blazing lights. About a thousand guests participated in her five-day wedding extravaganza featuring elephants, horses, chariots, 26 types of cuisine rustled up by renowned chefs and performances by award-winning artists. "I’d always dreamt of a fairy-tale wedding,” said the diamond-dripping Namrata, whose wedding photos were splashed in city newspaper supplements, “and fortunately my family could afford it!”

Indeed. In fact weddings have always been ostentatious affairs in India, with a sea of relatives participating in festivities playing out for a week or more. But now, with the economy galloping upwards at 11 percent, the middle-class ballooning to 320 million plus and silicon-fueled economic growth supporting astronomical salaries, weddings have become profligate affairs. Also, with a property and stock market boom, India is witnessing the birth of a new crop of millionaires who are keen to execute weddings with a mind-boggling lavishness.

“Everyone is trying to outdo the other in terms of wedding grandeur,” says sociologist Dr. Vasanthi Das. "Post liberalization of the economy in the '90s, a new mind-set has evolved. The socialist inhibitions of yore have crumbled and private interests and even the government are encouraging people to spend lavishly on such occasions.”

Unsurprisingly, weddings have also given rise to a spate of bridal fairs, bridal magazines and a thriving fashion and event-management industry. The prosperous diaspora of the 25 million-odd Indians abroad, or Non-Resident Indians (NRIs), as they are known back home has fuelled this craze further. "For the Indian diaspora, weddings are all about self-esteem and an opportunity to dazzle their community brethren back home," says Das,

In fact Delhi-based wedding planner Jairaj Gupta of Shaadionline, a wedding services company, says it’s not uncommon for Indian families to spend $500,000 on a wedding. "There's only a small percentage of people who would spend such crazy amounts on weddings, but it’s a highly visible lot.” Think Laxmi Narayan Mittal, the steel magnate who is now the UK’s richest person. He hired the Palace of Versailles in Paris – traditionally out-of-bounds even for the absurdly rich – for his daughter’s wedding. Performances by top Bollywood stars, including Shahrukh Khan, Hollywood stars and exquisite French cuisine pushed the wedding’s upscale quotient further.

Similarly, the Delhi wedding last year of the son of Sant Chatwal, an Indian-American Sikh businessman with interests in real estate and hotels, last year became the subject of a Discovery Channel documentary, The Great Indian Wedding. “The ostentatious Mittal and Chatwal weddings have given an entirely new spin to weddings," says Madhuri Sengupta of Maya, a company which organizes elaborate Indian weddings where Bollywood stars perform.

Unsurprisingly, the spate of over-the-top weddings that followed in the wake of the Chatwal nuptials prompted a bit of pious posturing from the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee, a community organization that maintains Sikh temples, to pass an injunction that all Sikh weddings in Delhi now be held in gurdwaras, Sikh places of worship. No liquor or meat can be served at Sikh weddings henceforth, and the ceremony has to be wrapped up before noon.

Regardless of such sporadic deterrents, the big fat Indian wedding has ballooned to a staggering Rs500 billion (US$12.6 billion) industry and is growing at a robust annual clip of 25 percent, industry specialists say. Everything organized at these weddings is the stuff of dreams. From décor to the diamonds and Swarovski crystals that embellish the bride and groom’s ensembles to the rented limousines and tulips flown in from Holland.

The bride’s dress, for instance, isn’t just a piece of clothing. It’s an event in itself. Top designers and trousseau creators scramble to meet the phenomenal demand for innovative fashion. A manager at Gyans, a company that specializes in wedding ensembles, says, "We make lehengas (bride’s costumes) for as much as Rs237,000 (US$6,000). In the peak wedding season, we’d sell around 40-45 lehengas."

Gautam Gorah, a manager at Nayak, another company which makes wedding costumes, explains that they work according to the client’s budget and get orders from across India, the US, UK and Dubai. Interestingly, with the industry growing so quickly, exhibitors and designers from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are also entering the Indian fray.

In keeping with the outlandish weddings, a new trend has also emerged – flying entire planeloads of guests, as many as 250 to 300 people, to scenic locations in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore or Thailand. Tarun Sarda, CEO of Vintage Group, the organizers of Vivaha exhibitions, cites examples of weddings he has handled in exotic foreign locations such as Sunway Lagoon and the Palace of the Golden Horses in Malaysia.

With a stupendous demand for elaborate weddings – and the ensuing competition the wedding planners are ready to offer a mind-boggling array of professional services (at a commission of 12.5 percent on total billing). Sound of Music, a pan-India wedding management outfit, provides theme weddings, event coordination, singers, dancers, invitations, fabrication of structures, embroidery, tailoring, venue selection, trousseau packing, travel-related services, accommodation, catering, fireworks, escort services and filming of the wedding.

Vivaha, another Dehi-based company, specializes in invitation cards. The company designs customized, jewel-encrusted cards, assembles trousseau boxes, photo frames, carry bags, envelopes, sweets/gift boxes and return gifts. Apart from offering wedding-related services, Shaadionline provides a databank of information for rituals of different kinds of Indian marriages.

"People feel that wedding planners are expensive but, in fact, they offer great value for money," claims Jatin Virmani, Vivaha’s CEO. "Planners cater to all clients and work within a budget. We ask clients how much they can afford and then work backwards from there."

Wedding companies claim that hiring them is a better proposition for clients as they have access to a greater knowledge bank. “We do R&D and keep ourselves abreast of the latest styles and trends and give our clients the best," says Mehr Sarid of the Sound of Music. Sarid’s company conducts not just Indian weddings but also Italian, German, and English weddings. She has organized weddings for the likes of Princess Nada of Kuwait. In the peak wedding season, the entrepreneur says she would handle up to 54 weddings featuring three functions each.

Along with wedding planners, there’s been a corollary growth in the demand for professional photographers. While earlier Indians were satisfied with a wedding album, now nothing less than DVDs will do. "Most people these days have DVD players so we make DVDs for them. These can cost anything between Rs 30,000-40,000," says Sanjay Girota, a New Delhi-based photographer. "These have broadcast quality and are shot with digital cameras. There are requests for Betacams too, which give the same resolution as TV serials. These cost upwards of Rs one lakh (USD 2,500)."

Indian wedding fairs — gargantuan affairs with international participation by top fashion and bridal services brands — are growing also. Vivaah, an annual marriage fair held in Delhi and Mumbai, is thronged by millions and generate business worth millions. Last year, cosmetic giants Christian Dior, La Prairie and Boucheron perfumes, furniture brands Soher, Mariner, Rose-Handwerk and tourism boards representing Australia, Malaysia, Singapore and Star Cruises were a few of the participants.

Sarda plans to take the exhibition to the US, UK and Dubai next year, along with Chandigarh, Ahmedabad, Bangalore and Kolkata. Bridal Asia, another wedding exhibition, was first held in 1999 with 40 vendors. Last year the number ratcheted up to 290. Divya Gurwara, CEO of Bridal Asia, another wedding fair, also has plans to take her exhibitions to West Asia, England and the US. Two years ago, Bridal Asia debuted in Karachi.

Along with upscale weddings, honeymoon destinations must keep pace. Flying out to Switzerland and London is now considered passé. Indian honeymooners are booking themselves for Bali, the Seychelles, Jamaica and Australia.

However, along with generating business and providing employment, the ostentatious knot-tying has a dark side. Sociologists are worried that spending astronomical sums on weddings and the associated exhibitionism – fuel social evils like female feticide and infanticide. The elimination of female babies has been a persistent malaise in north-western India, and recent studies have shown that it is spreading to other parts of the country, too. “When people see how much they have to spend on marrying off a daughter, it is a huge deterrent for them to have daughters,” says Das.

In the Kashmir Valley, for instance, weddings have become so prohibitively expensive that some women of middle-class parents are reportedly forced to remain single. According to one estimate, there are some 50,000 women in the valley in their forties who are unmarried because their parents couldn’t afford it. Kashmiri weddings comprise an elaborate month-long cycle of feasts and the exchange of expensive gifts between the bride's and the groom's family.

However, experts are optimistic that as Indians become more enlightened and progressive, they will begin to see the absurdity of spending obscene amounts of money on weddings. Also, with more and more marriages failing, and Indian divorce rates on an upward spiral, people will may soon stop making such a big deal of it. Who knows? The next trend could be quickie divorce theme packages.

Till then, however, the flashier the better!