The (new) business of marriage
Move over, pandits and web portals. Professional marriage brokers have emerged as big players in the R250 billion Indian marriage market. Here, they reveal startling facts about how matches are fixed and what families look for in brides/grooms
At the South Extension (Delhi) offices of A to Z Matchmaking Management, it is an unusually busy day. Three weddings that the company has brokered are taking place today and as part of their service agreement, they have to be present. A pair of parents who have arrived on the morning train from Lucknow wait their turn to register their daughter, while another anxious pair are scouring resumes on the “marriage database” of the firm.
Gopal Suri, the founder and man in charge of the most popular marriage brokerage company in up-scale South Delhi, ushers me into his private office, which he reserves for his “super-elite” customers. He offers me many savouries, and places his three cellphones on the table, one for each of his customer brackets, he explains to me.Mr. Suri has been in the marriage brokerage business since 1992. Previously the owner of a small hotel in Karol Bagh, New Delhi, he got into the marriage business by "fixing up" (arranging the marriage in marriage broker lingo) a few of his guests. He realised how lucrative the business was and began his career as a professional matchmaker.
In the midst of our conversation he picks up the telephone – it is a distraught mother on the line complaining that a prospective groom’s family has not returned her phone call for three days now. Mr.Suri apologises to me saying that this is one of his elite clients and he must attend to them. He hands me an envelope with his rates and says he will give me a discount if I register with him.
The marriage market in India is booming. As family sizes shrink and divorce rates skyrocket, family members and friends are apprehensive of making introductions for the purpose of marriage. Matchmaking, our nation’s favorite pastime, has thus given birth to the professional marriage brokers. The concept of the matchmaker in the Indian arranged marriage scenario is age-old. He has existed for decades as a family ‘pandit’ or ‘shastri’ who informed families of the existence of eligible bachelors and bachelorettes within the community. No longer are marriage brokers dhoti-clad pandits though, they are cosmopolitan and business savvy and they are all set to take advantage of the Rs.250 billion Indian marriage market.
It’s a family business
Pankaj Shastri is a new-age marriage broker. I am taken by the iPad 2-wielding, Tommy Hilfiger-wearing man who comes to my home to meet me. Pankaj joined the family business of marriage brokerage in 1995 after a short stint at a computer company in Nehru Place in New Delhi. In his 15 years as a marriage broker, Pankaj has brokered almost 50 successful marriages (with only one divorce, he adds.) His father, Shiv Shankar Shastri, has been in the business since 1985 and lays claim to over a thousand weddings. Shastri Senior began his tenure as a pujari in Calcutta before becoming a “professional” marriage broker in 1985. Mr.Shastri senior is also well known for his expertise in the science of astrology, which has increased his value in the marriage business immensely. Pankaj’s older brother is also part of the family business, though he caters to middle-class clients, while Pankaj and his father manage only very high-end customers.
“This is a very good business,” says Pankaj,“There is never a down cycle. Whether the economy is good or bad, people are always getting married. If you think about it, it is probably the most stable business in the world.”
According to Shastri, the marriage brokerage business has flourished in the past ten years. The reason for this, he says, is the fact that people are choosing to live in nuclear families, and increasing divorce rates. “Traditionally family members used to bring rishtas (matches) but now people are worried that if the boy or the girl turn out to be defective, then they will be blamed. These days families would rather not interfere so the best option is really a marriage broker. The business has boomed so much that these days there are more brokers than girls and boys!” says Shastri.
The business may be booming, but the business of marriage brokerage is definitely not an easy one. “Mine is a lucrative business, but it is also one of the most difficult. When it comes to the subject of marriage, people are extra sensitive and hidden personalities seem to emerge. I have seen families reject a perfectly nice boy or girl, because they feel offended that the family did not drop them to their car, or simply because they did not like a sofa in the house. The wealthier the family, the choosier they seem to get.”The NRI perspective
Geeta Khanna has been in the wedding brokerage business for the last three-and-a-half years since her move back to India from the Middle East. "I started the business purely by default," says Khanna. "I am not the type to be a typical housewife, and since I am a people’s person, this seemed to be the right kind of job for me. Also, being an NRI gave me the right kind of mindset to understand young people all over the world. I first started setting up people I knew from my social circuit, and this was a big hit, so I decided to turn this into a business." Now Khanna runs a successful business under the name of Cocktail Matches. Khanna’s clientele ranges from ages 20-50 and is typically from the Punjabi community in Delhi. Khanna says, "I cater to a very elite community, namely the big fat Indian wedding crowd."
How is cocktailmatches.com different than other traditional online marriage portals? Khanna claims that these websites are “bogus” and they have become dating websites. “No one can vouch for the people on these websites, and I have heard too many disaster stories on these websites to trust them. I operate in a very close-knit group of people, it is much easier to check people out this way. I run a very personalised service, I have no staff, I work by myself and I compile my database by the people who walk through my door.” Khanna believes that she is a modern day marriage broker and does not believe in astrology or janam patri matching. “What is more important than planetary positions is counselling, because parents and children have very different mentalities these days. I help bridge that. Each one of my clients is my child and best friend.”A century-old business
"There is not a single Marwari anywhere in the world who has not heard of us," says Srinivas Racha, CEO of shubhlaagan.com, the Bombay-based marriage brokerage firm. Sanjay Kirtania, the founder of shubhlaagan, started the company 15 years ago. His family has been in the matchmaking business for over a century in Rajasthan, when the entrepreneurial Sanjay Kirtania, seeing immense potential, professionalised the business. Since its inception, Shubhlaagan has arranged over 4,000 marriages worldwide.
Shubhlaagan.com runs like a very efficient investment bank. They have different teams dedicated to the different segments of society, ranging from middle-class to elite. They have an in-house astrology team, which matches janam patris, and they even have a detective team, which performs background checks. Kirtania himself handles only the top strata of the Marwari community. Some of the industrial Marwari weddings that he lays claim to are that of the Agarwal family of the Vedanta group, the Ruia family of Essar, the Biyanis of Big Bazaar and the Oswals.
Racha says, "We run a very personalised business. We have a database that is not open to the public. Our experts browse our database and contact the couples that they think will make a successful match. Over 50 new entries are added to our database from around the world on a daily basis." Racha says with pride, "We run a global business – we just set up a couple from South Africa." The other side of the story...
Anjali Gupta has been married for three years. She was fixed by a well-known Delhi marriage broker. Anjali raves about the process. "In an arranged set-up it is really difficult to put your demands upfront. Everything becomes much easier through a marriage broker. You can place all your requirements on the table and you have a neutral party negotiating for you. This is really important, especially in Marwari weddings, because each family has their own set of expectations. Marriage brokers, like any other type of brokers, come with their fair share of trouble," Anjali whispers to me, making sure her mother-in-law is not around. "You have to be really careful of these guys. My parents kept me away from them till the very last stage till it became absolutely crucial for them to see me. Sometimes these guys can be malicious. If a family doesn’t respond to their requests they’ll spread rumours in the market. They’ll say the boy has different ‘preferences’ or that a girl’s ‘character isn’t right.’" (The standard line – iska character theek nahein hai.)
What are people looking for in a match? Across brokers, the answer was unanimous. The single most important criteria for eligibility in the marriage market is wealth. Every family wants their match in terms of bank balance and very rarely are they willing to compromise.
According to Shastri, business families are looking for alliances through weddings. “It can be beneficial for both parties if there are business interests involved, for many – especially the super-elite, this is top priority.” In many ways a broker renders a marriage to a new kind of merger and acquisition where love is not the bottom line – wealth is.
Geeta Khanna says, “Every girl wants someone who can buy them designer handbags and Jimmy Choos. It doesn’t seem to matter if he is a nice guy or not. At times the boy’s character is the last thing girls ask about.” Khanna narrates a story, “I asked a family who came looking for a match for their son about what they wanted in a girl. They said they wanted a brand.”
A marriage broker’s job is a comprehensive one. They are involved from the moment the customer is registered with them till the time that nuptial vows are exchanged. No liability is taken for divorce. Gopal Suri, of A to Z, offers seven different matrimonial packages, ranging from “middle class to super-elite.” There is an option to upgrade at any point during the marriage process. Being registered in a higher bracket gives you access to a larger variety of clients and more importantly wealthier ones.
Pankaj Shastri prides himself on offering “full facilities.” This involves, “showing” the girl, passing on messages to either side, negotiating wedding budgets, making sure promises are delivered and being present at all wedding functions – from the engagement to the wedding reception. “It is much simpler for families to operate through brokers. It is difficult to demand things from a family that you do not know. Going through someone like me who is a friend to both families works well.” The length of the procedure varies with each case. “Often it can take a few years to get a girl married, that is why I feel families should start looking for their daughters once they turn 22. Most families feel that girls begin to lose their innocent looks after 25, so I encourage my clients to register their daughters much in advance,” says Suri.
The Cost of Love
Prices charged by each broker are different, though the fee structure remains more or less the same. A registration fee ranging from Rs.15,000 to Rs.31,000 is to be paid upfront, with a bulk amount to be paid once the marriage is complete. This completion fee ranges from Rs.1- 3 lakh. Many brokers remained tight-lipped about the fees they charge, saying that it “all depends on the family.” A very common fee structure among brokers who service the “elite bracket” is to charge a percentage of the total expense of the wedding.
Amongst most families serviced by brokers, dowry is uncommon and it is usually the “budget” (what the girl’s family will be spending) of the wedding, which is discussed among families. It is not uncommon for a broker to charge a percentage of the total wedding budget.
Here are some interesting statistics compiled from marriage brokers around the country.
The average age of marriage for both women and men is 26-28. There has been an increase in the average age of marriage for women. Brokers attribute this to the fact that women are choosing to study further, and pursue a career.
For women the single most important criterion for eligibility is wealth or salary, the second is education. For men, the most important is looks, the second is wealth. For the parents of both men and women the most important criteria is wealth.
On average there are more women “on the market” than men.
In the 30-36 age group, there are 15 women to one man
In the 26-30 age group, there are 7 women to one man
In the 20-25 age group, the ratio changes and there are 2 men to one woman.
The bottomline is that marriage brokers are minting it. Just as online matrimonial portals had their heyday, professional marriage brokers are in vogue today. Are they here to stay? Only time will tell, and as long as the marriages that they fix last, so will they.
Ira Trivedi is the author of The Great Indian Love Story and There’s No Love On Wall Street.
From HT Brunch, October 30
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