The big story
From brides covered in gold to grooms who are given helicopters and racehorses, there seems to be no such thing as a frugal Indian wedding.
The guest list read like a veritable who’s who of Bollywood. Popular singers Sonu Nigam, Kailash Kher, Mika and Anuradha Paudwal were there, as was Hindi filmdom’s top choreographer Shiamak Davar and his amazing troupe of dancers. Among the actors who graced the occasion were Dia Mirza, Neha Dhupia and Anil Kapoor.
The event? No, not a premiere of the latest Bollywood blockbuster but the wedding of top businessman Aakash Jahajgarhia, director of the Jahajgarhia Group that has global interests in land development and hospitality, and Vega Gupta, daughter of Achla and Anil Gupta, who own among others, The New Age newspaper and Sahara Computers in South Africa, in May this year. The venue for their marriage? Sun City’s Palace of the Lost City, South Africa. The tab? An estimated $7.5 million (Dh27.5 million).
Even though the wedding was held on another continent, it had all the trappings of a traditional Indian wedding – and then some.
Around 200 wedding specialists including decorators, photographers, fashion stylists and their teams flew in from India. Top chef Marut Sikka, who has cooked for former US president Bill Clinton, former Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was drafted in to prepare an overwhelming choice of strictly vegetarian fare.
Event organisers Wizcraft who have masterminded shows such as the International Indian Film Festival and Global Indian Music Awards, were the wedding planners.
Although mired in some controversy – a private jet was said to have reportedly received diplomatic courtesies, allegedly bypassing customs procedures – the wedding was a hot topic in South Africa and India.
When it comes to extravagant weddings Indians are pretty much unbeatable. Two years ago, London-based iron ore tycoon Pramod Agarwal gave away his daughter Vineeta’s hand in marriage to Muqit Teja, a businessman who owns ayurvedic spas in Canada, in a wedding in the Italian city of Venice. Guests flown in from across the world were greeted with delicacies dished out by a Michelin-star chef, while global pop star Shakira entertained guests. The wedding is rumoured to have cost around €20 million (Dh98 million).
Gone are the days when an Indian groom and bride simply exchange garlands at a shrine or a modestly decorated community hall, after which the 100-odd guests sit down to a modest three-course meal. Now the bigger the celebrations – and the price tag – the better.
According to media reports the wedding industry in India is estimated to be a phenomenal $25.5 billion and growing at a mind-boggling rate of 20 to 25 per cent per year.
Weddings are glitzy, glamorous events where A-list Bollywood celebs are willing to make an appearance for a price that could run into millions of rupees. Celebrations can last for up to seven days at a five-star resort complete with song and dance programmes by A-list artists.
Hoping to cash in on this trend are several countries including Thailand, which is fast becoming a popular destination for Indian couples to tie the knot, according to a recent Bloomberg report. The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) has even published a book titled Fall in Love in India and Get Married in Thailand.
According to TAT, the average spend for an Indian wedding in the picturesque country is 10 million baht (about Dh1,248,854), with an average of 200 to 500 guests. The average duration of each wedding is three to five nights, with about 600 rooms booked.
A deep-rooted passion for gold
But the venue is not the only highlight of an Indian wedding. It’s the gold and precious stone jewellery that the bride wears that can run into millions. “Around 70 per cent of the 800 tonnes of gold annually imported into India goes to the wedding market,’’ says Shamlal Ahmad, managing director, Malabar Gold & Diamonds, one of the largest jewellers in India and the UAE. “Indians have a deep-rooted passion for gold and it all comes to the fore during the wedding season.’’
He recalls a wedding his friend told him about in Andhra Pradesh, southern India. “It was held earlier this year and the bride had more than eight kilograms of gold jewellery
‘Around 70 per cent of the 800 tonnes of gold annually imported goes to the wedding market’
on her. At today’s price, the gold alone would have cost more than Dh12 million.’’
And that’s only for the jewellery. Expenses for the venue, food, song and dance shows, transport and hotel rooms for the guests run up a bill for just as much or even more.
Sunitha Saldanha, a freelance events manager in Bengaluru who has organised several big marriages in southern India, is not surprised. “Marriages that cost a few million rupees are quite common,’’ says the 35-year-old. “While such marriages are the talk of the town, families prefer not to make a big song and dance about it, fearing the taxman could make a beeline to their homes.’’
In a country that boasts a population of 1.2 billion between four to 10 million weddings
are held in India every year, according to independent trend analysts. In fact, on what was believed to have been an auspicious day in November last year, an estimated 30,000 weddings were conducted in Delhi alone, which reportedly brought traffic in the city to a standstill as the pomp and show in most of these weddings spills out on to the roads.
If the average budget for a middle-class wedding in cities is around $34,000, it shoots to upward of $1 million for an average upper-class wedding, says Sunitha. And that doesn’t include cash and valuables the bride and groom receive from the bride’s family.
Nishad Mohan, another event manager in Bengaluru, has organised several high-profile weddings in India. Nishad recalls reports of the marriage of Yogita and Lalit Tanwar. “One lucky groom in northern India got a five-seater helicopter from his father-in-law as a gift,” he says. “Another was given a racehorse. Gifts of Aston Martins and BMWs are passé. Indians who have the money are happy to flaunt it.’’
He mentions a wedding he helped to organise in Kerala. “I can’t reveal the families’ names,’’ he says. “But the bride was given gold jewellery weighing close to four kilos. In fact, she couldn’t wear much of the jewellery she was given because it was so heavy, so she had to carry it in a small jewel chest. And so that the groom didn’t feel left out, his father-in-law presented him with a five-bedroom villa that cost around Rs4 million.’’
A toast to one-upmanship
According to Shamlal, “Today, parents prefer giving gold because for the common man, a kilo of gold is perceived to have more value than, say, a luxury car. They don’t think twice when splurging on their children’s weddings because in many parts of India, a man’s status in society is often judged by the amount of gold his daughter wears on her wedding day. The gold she receives is also a kind of security cushion in case she may need it in a crisis situation.’’
But apart from ensuring the girl has a comfortable married life, India’s newly minted millionaires and billionaires are happy to finance a no holds barred wedding as they’re keen to create larger-than-life sagas that mirror over-the-top Bollywood movies and soap operas.
“A lot of it has to do with one-upmanship,’’ reveals Nishad. “I’ve had clients tell me, ‘I want my daughter’s wedding to be on a larger scale than Mr So-and So’s. I don’t care how much it costs. Just do it.’’’
Not long before Vega, 23, and Aakash, 24, were married, Indians witnessed another grand wedding. Tausief Alam, who represents Congress Party in the Bihar state assembly, hails from Kishanganj, one of the state’s poorest districts. According to media reports, his marriage to the daughter of Hari Izhar Asafi, the head of Barbatta village, in the same district cost about Rs10 million.
Alam fetched his bride in a helicopter, even though she lived just a few kilometres away, and more than 50,000 guests attended the reception. Alam defended his extravagant spending by saying, “I am an elected representative of the people and very popular. I cannot say no to anyone and so invited over 100,000 people.” Alam also claimed that most of the expenses were borne by his friends.
Not every marriage matches the kind of opulence seen at these two weddings. But many want to get close. Delhi-based Aditya Loomba, director of sales and marketing at Eco Rent a Car, the firm that claims to own the only two 28-foot long stretch Chrysler limousines in India, says his cars are frequently booked for weddings in Mumbai and Delhi. “It’s all about giving the couple a memorable experience,’’ he says.
And at Rs51,000 for four hours his decorated limos are no doubt unforgettable.
Caroline Hurley, founder of Quintessentially Weddings, a UK-based wedding planning company, opened a branch in New Delhi two years ago. Hurley says, “Indian weddings are getting bigger and longer. We’ve done a few Rs20 million weddings already.”
Such extravagance has to be captured for posterity. Enter high-tech photographers who ensure the wedding video is of movie standard. Mumbai-based photographer Hitesh Gusani is one of the few dabbling in three-dimensional photography. Gusani explains, “We use two cameras to take snapshots of the same scene.
‘One lucky groom got a five-seater helicopter from his father-in-law as a gift’
These are then processed to create an image that has an illusion of depth when viewed with [3D] glasses.” Similarly, Delhi-based Narendra Patel says his clients demand movie-level production quality. Some of the best photographers charge as much as Rs300,000 for an album. Patel justifies this by saying, “Even a millisecond of a difference can ruin the photograph, so we have to be alert all the time.”
If Bollywood movies have revolved around weddings, popular soap operas have carried endless episodes on the rituals. Anuranjan Jha, a businessman, has gone a step further by launching a 24/7 TV channel called Shagun.
Anuranjan says, “Indians crave two things – lavish weddings and celebrity status. And my channel is offering them just that. We shall soon get into airing weddings live on TV.”
And from the look of things, nobody is going to press the pause button anytime soon.
In a typical Rajasthani wedding, the bride wears Rani mala, a necklace made of gold and precious stones. This particular one has a gross
weight of 555g
Yogita and Lalit Tanwar, seen here with family, celebrated their marriage with a lavish feast of 100 dishes, 12 giant TV screens to broadcast proceedings, and even a gift of $5,500 for the groom’s barber. The cost of the 2011 Delhi wedding was estimated to have been Rs1 billion
After Yogita and Lalit’s wedding, the happy couple flew off in a five-seater helicopter given to the groom by his father-in-law