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Saturday August 21, 2010

The big fat Indian wedding

Weddings are a once-in-a-lifetime affair. If you can afford to splurge, why not?

Kitted out in a gold-threaded, Swarovski crystals-embellished sherwani, Mihir Chadha surveys the venue of the cocktail party he is hosting for his daughter Shikha’s engagement to Mukesh Saxena.

A smile lights up the Delhi-based businessman’s face as he soaks in the spectacular décor — pink and gossamer silk tents illuminated by cut-glass chandeliers, gold candles anointing 100-odd tables, sheer satin drapes, throw cushions in amber silk and the air infused with rosewater sprinklers!

Meanwhile, Chadha’s 1,200-odd guests sip pink champagne circulated by liveried waiters on silver trays, munch on canapés and then help themselves to a 54-dish buffet comprising Thai, Italian, Malaysian and Indian food. The lavish feast is followed by a specially-choreographed Bollywood-style dance where everybody grooves to Indian movie songs!

And mind you, this is just one of the parties Chadha intends to host. In all, the father of the bride will be throwing five parties — each more jaw-dropping than the other — over seven days. So what if the extravaganza will set him back tens of thousands of dollars, not counting the wedding itself.

“Weddings are a once-in-a-lifetime affair,” says Mr Moneybags. “If I can afford to splurge, why not?”

Why not indeed. Thanks to Chadha and his ilk, the Indian wedding industry has today ballooned to a whopping 40-billion dollar enterprise, and is still growing exponentially.

Elaborate dining arrangements complete with silk tent, crystal cutlery, expensive wines and gourmet food make it an unforgettable experience.

The industry, it seems, is completely recession-proof! It has simultaneously spawned a welter of ancillary businesses like event management, honeymoon planning, catering, flower arrangement, on-site wedding portals, wedding fair organisation, henna making, choreography, wedsites . . .

Not long ago, an Indian wedding meant a modest ceremony supervised by harried parents helped along by close friends and relatives. No more. Today, family and close friends watch in awe as an army of event managers and sundry professionals come marching in to orchestrate the proceedings.

A long guest list, a colourful and extravagant venue, a lavish feast and professionally-managed ceremonies are prerequisites for most modern Indian weddings.

A lot of fuss accompanies, you guessed it, the bride and groom’s wedding attire. In days gone by, the couple would usually don traditional dresses of their respective religions, regions or community. Today, not wearing a “designer” ensemble amounts to committing social hara-kiri. Swarovski crystals, gold/silver threads, diamantes, gemstones, you name it and they’re found on the D-day dresses.

Many people even opt for “stylists” to put together the entire look of the bride and the groom who are coordinated down to the last detail with the colours of the venue!

Says Falguni Seth, a well-known Indian designer, “Inspired by the high-profile weddings of business tycoons and Bollywood stars, everybody wants to look like a celebrity on D-day.”

Experts say there are many growth drivers for the big, fat Indian wedding trend — economic prosperity spurred by disposable incomes, a consumer culture and a prolific rise in the number of individuals and companies to cater to that segment of well-to-do citizens who want to outsource everything for their nuptial festivities.

Above: Flowers flown in from Holland, Thailand and Bali to give that special touch to a wedding.

Interestingly, for those who can’t afford it all, banks act as saviours. Many Indian banks have specially earmarked “wedding loans” to help clients overcome financial constraints.

“Weddings are considered the highlight in a person’s life and every effort is taken to make the day special and memorable,” says sociologist Salma Siddiqui. “These events are community affairs, and nobody wants to be seen skimping. Lifestyles fuelled by better salaries, more travel and greater aspirations have also fuelled this trend.”

Till a decade back, nobody had even heard of the term “wedding planner’’; forget about hiring someone in that capacity. Today, it has become a fashion statement to hire one. In fact, the entire nuptials show is controlled by these professionals, leaving the parents of the bride and the groom free to have a good time!

At a price, of course. Most planners charge a fee that could range from US$2,000 (RM6,600) to US$10,000. For celebrity weddings, the sky is the limit. What does a wedding planner — a.k.a. coordinator/consultant/manager — really do?

Says wedding planner Meher Sarid, 45, “A wedding planner executes a bride and groom’s vision for the most important day of their life. He/she makes all the arrangements regarding the conduct of the marriage. They plan everything as per the client’s needs and requirements.”

The common services rendered by a wedding planner, says Sarid, include venue and caterer selection and reservation, decoration arrangement, pre- and post-wedding arrangement, hair and make-up arrangements, guest transportation and help with wedding attire selection.

According to Shubha Roy, a Kolkata-based wedding organiser, Indian weddings are ostentatious affairs because people leverage this opportunity to showcase their lifestyle and wealth to the world.

Above: Elaborate cake amidst floral setting. — NEETA LAL

Sarid has organised multiple-city weddings that range from US$20,000 to US$2mil, which gets you gold-embossed invitations, an exotic, multi-cuisine banquet for 2,000 and a helicopter to ferry the groom to the ceremony.

On occasions, she has even flown entire planeloads of guests to Bali and Thailand for exotic beach weddings!

“Often, money is not even discussed at client meetings,” says Sarid. “They just tell us what they want and we have to produce it.”

In early 2004, for instance, the boss of the Sahara conglomerate, Subrata Roy, flew some 10,000 guests aboard 26 planes to Lucknow, in northern India, for a US$128mil double-wedding party for his two sons. A fleet of Mercedes and BMWs were positioned at all the host hotels to transport the VIP guests. The list included Bollywood biggies like the Bachchans, corporate tsars and top politicians.

The country has witnessed some other fancy nuptials of industrialists, politicians and, of course, Bollywood stars.

The most talked about wedding celebration in recent history was the one hosted by US-based Indian hotelier Sant Chatwal, 65, for his son Vikram’s marriage to Delhi model Priya Sachdev in 2007.

Thousands of guests got a never-before wedding experience spread across three cities. Chatwal’s wedding planners orchestrated decor, logistics and hospitality across three cities and 14 hotels. This included overseeing 14 hospitality desks at each hotel and a fleet of 70 private cars for the three-city tour. Fifty thousand kilos of flowers were shipped in from Holland, Bangkok, and Calcutta, 3,000 candles burned and 65,000m of fancy fabric were used for the drapes!

The wedding had creative inputs from Milan’s Paola Ricotti and production designer Sumant Jaikrishnan was on the scale of a Hollywood production. It included a restrospective of Ferragamo’s Maharani collection from their museum in Florence, a fashion show where 25 leading designers displayed their best creations along with collections from Valentino, Marc Jacobs and Galliano. And an after-party for 300 guests at the baradari a large expanse overlooking the Mehrangarh Fort.

UK-based Indian tycoon Lakshmi Mittal — a regular on the Forbes’ richest billionaire’s list — showcased the quintessential Great Indian Wedding to the world. For his 32-year-old daughter Vanisha’s marriage to 36-year-old Amit Bhatia, over 1,000 guests from all over the world were invited with 20-page-thick silver-cased invitation cards. Events were staged over five days in some of France’s most famous settings.

Many Bollywood actors including Raveena Tandon tied the knot at one of the several Palace Hotels in Rajasthan. The majestic Umaid Bhawan, one of the largest residences in the world, was also the venue for the big fat Indian wedding of British model Liz Hurley and Indian tycoon Arun Nayar.

No wonder, it is commonly joked that the divorce rate in India is one of the lowest in the world because neither the bride’s nor groom’s relatives are willing to subject themselves to financial bankruptcy ever again!

Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based independent journalist contactable at neetalal@hotmail.com

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