One fine steaming summer night deemed to be astrologically sound for weddings, an estimated 30,000 weddings took place in Delhi. I took on the Herculean challenge of attending as many as I could. I was going to be the ultimate gatecrasher. In the span of one night, from 7 pm to 3 am, I was able
to cover 32 weddings.
I went from Rajouri Garden to Tivoli Garden attending a heady mix of sangeets, cocktail parties, and wedding receptions from across social strata. At all functions I was welcomed with open arms usually by a family member of the bride or the groom, and not once was I asked how I was invited. My goal with my massive gatecrashing effort was to understand how Indian weddings are being celebrated today, and what changes have taken place in India Shining.
My nuptial journey began at home. I spent the day sifting through wedding albums of my own family members – sepia-coloured photos of my parents’ wedding 33 years ago, my father and my ghunghat-clad mother, fuzzy black- and-white photos of my shy, nubile grandmother and stoic grandfather who were meeting for the very first time on their wedding day. I sat down with my mother and aunts and asked them what their weddings were like, and how they were celebrated. I knew that they grew up and lived in decidedly simpler times, but I was struck with the level of transformation between now and then. The traditional Indian wedding that I studied in the photo albums, and was told about by my mother, grandma and aunts, had morphed into a creature of hugely disproportionate, almost unrecognisable dimensions.
Excess is in order in all departments of the Indian wedding industry, estimated to be a staggering US$ 25.5 billion (Rs.1,42,596 crore) – the economy of a small country – and growing at the explosive rate of 20 to 25 per cent a year. The speed of economic growth in India, which is responsible for the creation of overnight fortunes, is also creating a conspicuous, yet almost desperate type of consumption at weddings. The average budget for an Indian wedding ceremony in the middle class is estimated to be US$ 34,000 (around Rs.19.01 lakh). The upper-middle and rich classes are estimated to spend upward of US$ 1 million (Rs.5.59 crore). This doesn’t include cash and valuables given as part of a dowry. Companies like GE Money India have introduced an “auspicious” personal loan, exclusively for weddings. Giant malls like the Wedding Souk in Pitampura, Delhi, spread over one acre and with over 100 shops dedicated to weddings, have emerged.
A recent celebrity wedding that I attended in Hyderabad deserves mention. This celebration had a total of 13 functions which included a slew of lengthy pujas, a pellikotoru or a function where the bride’s side came bearing gifts (including a race horse, and an Aston-Martin), a sangeet at a film studio featuring gyrating film stars, a wedding reception held at a convention center for over 10,000 people, and a 7:30am wedding ceremony attended by over 7,500 people featuring a space-ship sized mandap, and 50 TV screens across the venue, very much in the style of sporting events. The morning brunch included close to 200 vegetarian dishes, and a vast array of soft drinks ranging from virgin mojitos to guava lassies and a dozen varieties of tea. (Sticking to tradition, this wedding had no meat or alcohol at the time of the wedding – the only function that did not.)
Indian weddings are celebrated as once-in-a-lifetime grandiose events showing respect, fealty and alliance amongst not just two people (the bride and groom themselves are usually little more than showpieces) but amongst two families. The Indian wedding has always been chubbier than its western counterpart, but today it has taken an unhealthy and somewhat dangerous turn towards obesity. Let me introduce you to a few new faces of the big fat Indian wedding.
The Disc Jockey
By day, Anil is a soft-spoken, unassuming man who speaks with a heavy stammer. But by night, very much in the way of vampires, he transforms into the life of the party. Anil began his career at small Delhi night clubs, but his business skyrocketed a few years ago when he began DJing for weddings. Today he has a dozen DJs working under him and co-owns a Delhi night club.
Anil arrives at our 2 pm meeting, 30 minutes late. He apologises; he has had a late night, performing at a sangeet, which went on till 5 am.
Anil tells me that today no Indian wedding is complete without a DJ. “Gone are the days of squeaky shehnais and boring tablas. Nowadays people want a DJ even for simple home functions, like a mehendi. We have become part and parcel of the Indian wedding.”
Anil’s DJ services include a portable dance floor and industrial speakers that can transform any venue into a mini nightclub. He usually throws in smoke machines to give the dance-floor a nightclub effect.
According to Anil, the traditional dholak is back in fashion, but with a twist. He demonstrates, beating the dhol to a popular Lady Gaga song. “Today’s youngsters want a mix of the West and the East. No one wants that typical shaadi music any more.”
The Dance Teacher
Rajender Masterji is a rotund man wearing a body-hugging, sequinned Lycra kurta and cat-eye contact lenses. He began his career in Bombay giving dance lessons to aspiring starlets, but today his main line of business is choreographing Bollywood dance sequences at weddings for the family and friends of the to-be-wedded. In full Bollywood style, these dance sequences usually tell a story and are interrupted with mini-plays which tell of how the girl and the boy met and how they fell in love (even if the match is arranged). Masterji as he is popularly known, is India’s celebrity dance choreographer, and has choreographed for the reality TV show Shaadi Teen Crore Ki. He refuses to disclose his rates to me, but my research says that his fees start at a lofty Rs.10 lakh per sangeet. He has laid claim to several millionaire weddings such as Lakshmi Mittal, Ponty Chadha and the Reddys of Hyderabad.
According to Masterji, the dance sequence trend at weddings first started with movies such as Dil To Pagal Hai and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, but it is only in the last five or seven years that the craze for Bollywood dances at weddings has really set in.
The popularity of these dance sequences has spawned an entire industry of dance teachers or ‘choreographers’ and several dance studios that cater only to weddings have mushroomed in metro cities.
Much to my chagrin, at my sister’s recent Delhi wedding, I found myself in the sticky spot of organising the wedding dances. The cheapest choreographer that I could find came with a price tag of R1,000 for an hour. This seemed to me belligerently high for teaching a few hip swings and gyrations. Dinesh, our personal choreographer, turned out to be a greasy, greedy man who eventually began charging us overtime for dance practice.
Once upon a time, not very long ago, the sangeet used to be an occasion when the ladies of the family, usually the girl’s side, came together to sing fortune-bearing folk songs. For better or for worse, for rich or for poor, in sickness and in health – the present-day sangeet has morphed into a full-blown, bombastic, hifalutin’ Bollywood performance.
Anudeep Kapoor aka Prince recently invited me to a wedding he had catered. I arrived at a large hall on the outskirts of Delhi, where Prince had set up various food stations. There was a Punjabi dhaba complete with jute stools and steel tables, a western bar where the waiters donned cowboy hats, oversized boots and served mocktails.
The French corner featured a human being-size Eiffel Tower with pastries stacked on top. “People come to Indian weddings to eat. That is the basic purpose of the wedding. The bride’s family has to put up a show, and anyone you have interacted with in your lifetime is fed. In many ways,” says Prince, “a wedding is like a mass charity event.” Except, when I look around, none of the guests strike me as being in the least bit malnourished.
According to Prince, “Gone are the days when the halwai came and set up behind the tent. Now at least three types of cuisine are expected. The minimum that we offer is 25 dishes, and we can go up to 500 varieties of food. Even the lower middle class will opt for about 25 dishes. The current ‘in’ concept is to recreate spaces, like a Punjabi dhaba, a French cafe, a seafood shack, so the wedding guests feel
transported to a holiday destination.”
On the day of Akshaya Tritiya, regarded by the Hindu Vedic calendar to be the most auspicious day of the year, there is a fish-market-like mania at the South Extension branch of popular multi-storied wedding outlet, Frontier Raas, as families stock up on wedding wear. Frontier Raas started their sari business in Phagwara, Punjab, in 1960, opening their first retail store in Delhi in 2000. They specialise in designer Indian wear, which basically means copying top Indian designer styles and selling them at half the price of the original.
Says Tushar Batra, owner of Frontier Raas, “People today have an awareness of brands, even in Indian clothing, and amongst the middle class. They know what the celebs are wearing and they want to wear it too. In the earlier generation, it was all about the sari-wallas in Chandni Chowk and other marketplaces but today it is all about designer wear and
people are willing to spend on this. Styles are constantly changing, and people want to stay up to date, especially for weddings.”
According to a recent McKinsey report, India’s apparel market is changing. Rising urbanisation has spawned a new class of consumers with more money to spend, and a passion for fashion. In India’s high growth retail clothing market, spend on special occasion or wedding wear tops the charts.
At Frontier Raas, a typical trousseau spend, even for the middle class, is a minimum of Rs.2 lakh, going up to Rs.15-20 lakh amongst the upper-middle class. “Many people need to get dressed, the bride, the mother, the sisters, the aunts, and everyone wants new clothes. With the increase in disposable income, even the grandmother comes trousseau shopping, and is willing to experiment with new styles, which was never the case earlier. What a grandmother spends on herself is what a bride used to spend on herself 10 years ago,” says Batra.
The Band Wala
Launched in 1936, Jea Band, touted to be the oldest brass wedding band in the country, has been featured in Bollywood flicks such as Love Aaj Kaal and Band Baaja Baaraat. But the baaraat is no longer simply a horse; fluorescent lights buzzing like flies, and a cacophony of sound. Today it features exotic cars to ferry the groom, a zoo of animals accompanying him and imported instruments that could put an orchestra to shame.
According to Anil Thadani of Jea Band, the average spend on a baaraat has gone up 10 times in the last five years, as has the size of the baaraat. “First people wanted horses, then they wanted fancy horse carriages, then they wanted themed buggies to go with the fancy horse carriage. We had to change uniforms, add umbrellas, and get new instruments. For a Japanese-style baaraat, we imported kimonos from Japan. Another baaraat featured pole dancers. Budgets have increased and there is a whole new standard of lavishness. The band, baaja, baaraat as we know it, is fast changing, I am curious to see what form it will take.”
The big fat Indian wedding has taken an unfortunate, ill-fated turn towards obesity as the great Indian middle class continues its alarming pace of consumption fuelled by an exponential increase in organised retail, and taking cues from the lavish spending of the rich and the famous. Weddings are (hopefully) a once-in-a-lifetime event, and matrimony is a big event, but as we all know, happy memories are certainly not created by extravagant spending. As the big fat Indian
wedding eats its way to explosive obesity, a no-carb diet is in full order.
Ira Trivedi is the best-selling author of books like There is No Love on Wall Street, The Great Indian Love Story and What Would You Do to Save the World. Find her on twitter @iratrivedi
From HT Brunch, July 29
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