Aakanksha Gupta and her fiancé Tanai Shirali were discussing their upcoming wedding at a friend's house in Juhu last month when they had a brainwave of sorts.
They had been complaining about how even their simple wedding, planned for April 2014, was becoming a money-guzzler. Then, over a round of drinks with Radhika Nair, a clinical psychologist, they realised that there was a way to do some permanent good with at least part of the money involved.
"We decided to donate all the cash gifts we receive to Nair's NGO, Animal Angels," says Gupta, 25, a businesswoman. Animal Angels, a five-year-old non-profit organisation, uses animal-assisted therapy to counsel senior citizens and children with special needs.
The fact that they both love pets — and that Gupta had a special needs child in her family — sealed the deal for them. "The fact that our gifts would help bring together two causes we believe in seemed in itself like a dream worth pursuing," says Shirali, 33, general manager at a Mumbai restaurant.
Upbeat, the couple started off by talking to their parents. They now plan to start a WhatsApp group and print a special footnote on their wedding card to explain their charitable intent. They will also circulate emails to guests and make calls to close friends.
So far, Gupta says the reactions have ranged from 'Awesome. What a great thought.' to 'Man, are you guys crazy?!"
"Most of our friends have responded very well to the idea," she adds, laughing. "Even those who think we're crazy say they respect our wishes."
In a country where weddings are a mega industry worth an estimated Rs 2,000 billion (according to global market intelligence company Netscribes Inc), a small but growing number of couples like Gupta and Shirali are taking tips from the global trend of socially conscious weddings and turning the practice of exchanging gifts and return gifts into a social enterprise.
In some cases, the couples are asking guests to donate to charities, in others, the couples are donating to a cause and handing out receipts to guests in lieu of return gifts. Still others are handing out socially conscious messages as return gifts instead — like saplings ready to be planted.
"Though it's still a small percentage of couples, it's a trend that's catching on," says Candice Pereira, co-founder and creative head of Mumbai-based Marry Me wedding planners. "And those who do this tend to go the extra mile, reaching out on multiple platforms and giving a lot of thought to the causes and NGOs they pick."
At a recent wedding planned by Marry Me, for instance, guests sat down to dinner to find framed, personalised notes on their tables, letting each of them know that the families of the bride and groom had donated to a charity in their name. "That was their return gift," says Pereira.
The very act of gifting is an exchange that cements a relationship between two individuals, usually from the same class, says MT Joseph, assistant professor of sociology at University of Mumbai. "This kind of charitable gifting indicates a more inclusive approach to gifting — one that shows how the perception of a 'good gift' is shifting in the eyes of upwardly mobile youngsters, from a physical object to a feeling of doing good."
For Mumbaiite A Merzban and her Austrian husband S Ehrlich (names changed), the trend is a reaffirmation of their decision, eight years ago, to organise a health camp in a small village in Maharashtra on their wedding day.
Ehrlich's father and cousin, both doctors, saw a total of 250 patients in 12 hours, many of whom had never had access to specialised healthcare.
"Everyone involved was happy that day," says Ehrlich, speaking to HT via email. "It's nice to know that more couples are now attaching a cause to their wedding."
Delhi-based sociologist Surinder Singh Jodhka sees the shift partly as an attempt by young couples and their families to stand out amid the crowd of increasingly wealthy families.
Guests, for their part, are glad to contribute to a cause and not have to.
Donations, saplings as return gifts
Adhikesavan, a banking executive, was volunteering with a Chennai NGO when she first met 10-month-old Theresa, an orphan born to an HIV+ mother. Desperate to adopt the infant, Adhikesavan proposed marriage to a good friend, Raj, but it took another two years for them to get their parents on board.
By then, Theresa had found another family. But Adhikesavan and Raj had fallen in love and decided to go ahead with their proposed marriage.
As a tribute to Theresa, who had brought them together, and to their common interest in social welfare work, the couple decided to invite underprivileged children as guests to the wedding, and to set up the Theresa Educational Fund with all the cash received as gifts.
Eventually, a total of 270 children from 10 Chennai orphanages attended the wedding, shared the stage with the couple, posed for pictures and enjoyed a hearty meal — and Rs 71,000 received as cash gifts went to the Theresa fund.
Every guest was also given a sapling as a return gift, in keeping with the couple's love for nature.
"So many youngsters have the desire to give," says Raj. "We are happy to have been able to execute our desire. And what better time to have done this than at our wedding?"
'72,000 raised via charity gifts'
When textile engineer Ramaswamy and mechanical engineer Dhongde realised how much they were going to spend on their wedding, they realised they had to give something back.
Since Ramaswamy had volunteered for a while with Aakanksha, an NGO that works to educate underprivileged children, the couple decided to ask guests to donate to a similar charity instead of bringing them gifts.
Eventually selecting Teach for India because of its pan-national reach, the couple set up a charity gift registry on crowd-funding website Wishberry.in. They started with a target of Rs 50,000, putting in the initial 10% to encourage friends and family to join in.
"We campaigned actively on Facebook and Twitter. The link to the page was also placed as a footnote in our invitations," says Ramaswamy.
By the end of their wedding day, the couple had raised Rs 72,753, through a total of 31 contributors from across 17 cities and 3 countries.
"It took me about five minutes to donate," says Maithili Sane, a close friend of Dhongde. "As a friend, I know they are blessed with everything and I really didn't know what to get them. Luckily, this dilemma was solved for me — in a way that left me feeling good too."
Raised '1.26 lakh for four NGOs at their wedding
When Udani and Varadarajan were designing their wedding card, they decided, instead of asking their guests not to bring gifts, to ask them to donate to one of four NGOs.
To help the guests do this, the couple set up a charity gift registry page on crowd-funding website Wishberry. in, and printed the link on their wedding card.
By the end of their special day, the Mumbai-based couple had raised Rs 1.26 lakh. "We have been blessed with a privileged life," says Varadarajan, an electrical engineer.
"So it made sense to use our wedding and our extended network to raise funds for those less fortunate."