The end could be a start

  • Lifestyle
  • Monday, 02 Jan 2012

When it comes to their children’s wedding, affluent Indians are pulling all the stops and splashing big money.

MY daughter’s wedding is more important than the recession,” declares Rishabh Patel, 56, amidst the whirligig of florists, caterers and wedding planners who are bustling about in his home in Jaipur, India’s Pink City in the desert state of Rajasthan.

“My daughter is the first one to get married in our family in two decades. So I’m making no compromises,” says the gems exporter.

“No compromises” for this businessman translates to a lavish, multi-venue, five-star wedding with fancy accoutrements – designer clothes, celebrity performers, the best event management company, multi-cuisine buffets and loads of jewelry. The Patel wedding, which takes place this month, will straddle three cities – Udaipur, Agra and Delhi – and include six main events.

“Indian society may be civilisations-old but our display of wealth shows we’re very new to this kind of money,” says the exporter. “People haven’t seen wealth like this before, so there’s this absolute need for ostentatious display.”

It isn’t called a big fat Indian wedding for nothing. Recession or not, Indian marriages continue to mimic monarchical nuptials – a statement of wealth, power and social standing. It is an event where even the most tight-fisted and austere loosen their purse-strings to put up a show of pageantry.

Though the festive mood of the Indian wedding season – November to February – does seem incongruous in a downbeat global economic climate, experts pin this down to a unique sociological phenomenon.

“In India, weddings aren’t just occasions when two people get married,” observes sociologist Dr Kirit Parekh of Delhi University. “This a forum for the parents to showcase their financial prowess, social clout and material achievements. The tradition of giving your children the best wedding possible is so well-entrenched in India that parents leave no stone unturned for the purpose. Many even get buried deep in debt for years.”

“In India, it’s more about glamour and glitz. There’s more one-upmanship,” says Patel. “People want something bigger and better than the last wedding they went to.”

The economics of Indian weddings are certainly staggering, with the industry estimated to be worth around US$25.5bil (RM76.5bil), and growing at a robust clip of 20-25% a year. Currently, India has a population of around 1.25 billion, and with an average family having five members, there are perhaps around 250 million families in India. With about one marriage per family every 20 years, the country averages roughly 10 million marriages every year.

Traders say that an average 30-40g of gold is consumed in every marriage across the country, and this ratchets up the total consumption of gold across the country to about 400 tons annually. Economists predict that with a hike in the per capita income, the average consumption of gold during weddings will nearly double in the next five years.

With half of India’s population being under 29 years of age, the marriage market is set to explode over the next decade. It is estimated that an Indian spends one-fifth of the wealth accumulated in a lifetime on a wedding ceremony.

Wedding planner Sonal Singh, 33, who is executing several weddings this year, says her company, Shaadi Mubarak, plans and executes 20 to 25 weddings a year across the country, each costing between US$100,000 (RM300,000) and US$600,000 (RM1.8mil). Has the slowdown impacted her bottomline?

“Slowdown, what’s that?” she asks incredulously. “I’m busier than ever before and have had to turn down bookings!”

Many of her clients, Sonal adds, think nothing of hiring a five-star banquet hall or a farm house as the wedding venue, decorating it with orchids fresh from Thailand, laying out rows upon rows of multi-cuisine dishes and hiring the best entertainers. Importing a Lamborghini or Aston Martin from Europe for the groom to arrive in at the wedding and serving welcome drinks with 18 carat gold-leaf trimmings are “just some of the whims I cater to during this crazy wedding season,” she adds.

“Despite the slowdown, people are spending as much, if not more,” says Shrishti Chadha, a freelance wedding coordinator who also designs film sets and has organised destination weddings in Macau, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Bali this year.

Sales of luxury retail may be badly hit, say market analysts, but when it comes to weddings, there’s no significant dip. This can be gauged from the fact that in the run-up to the wedding season, no less than five wedding exhibitions were organised in Delhi itself.

These exhibitions involve the coming together under one roof of service providers, designers, florists, make-up artistes, hairdressers, wedding card printers, gift wrappers and other ancillary businessmen who have a stake in the industry. These fairs usually house hundreds of stores dedicated solely to wedding shopping, selling everything from wedding cards, flowers, to the most exquisite wedding garments and jewelry. Wedding exhibitions have thus emerged as key players in the industry for brides-to be who find it convenient to throng these one-stop-centres.

“A marriage is the single biggest event for people in India, and they plan for it accordingly,” says Divya Gurwara of Bridal Asia who pioneered the trend of wedding exhibitions in India. “People do make adjustments in other areas, but when it comes to trousseau and jewelry, there are no compromises.”

With an increase in disposable income, the Indian wedding market is expected to balloon two-fold in the next 15 years, estimate experts. This multi-billion “recession-proof” industry is also a huge magnet for top global brands like De Beers and Swarovski.

Many Indian fashion designers are working in synergy with marquee names like Jimmy Choo, Christian Dior and Swarovski because of their immense interest in the Indian market. According to a De Beers International official, the Indian market is vital for brands like theirs because, globally, the demand for diamonds during a wedding is usually restricted to the rings. But in India, people go for elaborate necklaces, bangles and even the grooms flaunt diamonds on their clothes!

However, fashion designers point out that while jewelry and designer clothes are not compromised, they have to be more innovative to justify price points.

“I’ve had to introduce several in-between prices for different levels of buyers,” says Mumbai-based Aparna Mehta, whose bridal collection is priced between US$1,000 (RM3,000) and US$10,000 (RM30,000).

Of course, value for money seems a priority for clients and as such event managers are getting squeezed on margins. However, couturiers point out that the Indian wedding industry will never see a slump because weddings are a pre-planned affair.

“Mothers have planned this event for years and have been saving up. Which is why the demand for jewelry and trousseaux never witness a downslide,” reasons a top designer.

In fact, for many service providers in the wedding industry, 2011 proved to be more profitable than ever.

“We’ve been handling three events every day,” says Anirudh Sarkar, an executive with a wedding planning agency. “This despite the fact that I’m charging nearly 30% more on most of my services compared to the previous year due to inflation.”

There are many reasons for the upward spiral in budgets. As sources point out, today, brides want nothing less than a top-class make-up artist for that perfect look, costs be damned. Mum wants the best and they often contribute to higher costs, say vendors. Some want their daughters to look like Bollywood divas wearing theatrical makeup, glamorous saris and layers of gold jewelry as a marker of status.

While rates start from US$50 (RM150), top make-up artists can demand up to US$400 (RM1,200) to glam up the bride. Soma Khurana, a Delhi-based bridal make-up artist with a decade’s experience, says that even mothers and sisters are queuing up to get that perfect look for the day.

Food is another area that has witnessed an explosion. Mind-boggling culinary feasts that often offer up to 60 dishes aren’t uncommon.

“The menus of wedding events often need as many chefs and planners as global business conventions!” reveals a caterer.

Marriages may be made in heaven but Indian nuptials – celebrated right here on earth – pack in a lot of pizzazz. And with each passing year, it seems the Big Fat Indian wedding is getting fatter still.

Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based senior journalist.

EXCESSIVE wedding expenditure is increasingly common not only among the richest Indians but also among the poorest — prompting official alarm.

In April, Kuruppasserry Varkey Thomas, India’s Minister of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, issued a directive curbing the waste with a government cap on the number of wedding guests, as well as the dishes that could be served.

In a country where hundreds of millions of people live below the poverty line, the price of food has become an explosive political issue. It is not uncommon for people to be mortgaged to the hilt or take out very large loans for weddings. Some lenders have even begun offering “auspicious” wedding loans to families looking to finance an impressive spectacle on the big day.

With chefs being flown in from across the world to roll out mind-boggling buffets, the amount of wasted food that ends up in the garbage can is appalling, especially in a country like India where millions languish below the poverty line and struggle to procure one square meal a day.

A lot of young couples today think of the Big Fat Indian Wedding as a new form of social evil. Eschewing over-the-top display and the waste of financial resources, they prefer instead to secure their future with the money or give it to charity. Others try to scale things down, even doing away with invitations to save paper, or hosting small receptions for a select crowd.

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