By: Our Correspondent

india-weddingNamrata 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!