Forget food, music or even cocktails — it’s the table setting that’s become the highlight of a party, finds Suvasini Sridharan

As we head into the festive season, let’s talk parties. My idea of a dinner party has always been to cover the table with a pretty cloth, lay out the best cutlery and crockery, dim the lights, make sure the bar is well stocked and the food catered. Until I attended a meticulously put-together Mad Hatter inspired dinner party. Sitting under the night sky with lanterns bathing the pretty table in a warm glow, surrounded by people wearing funny hats provided by our hostess, to the sound of tea cups clinking and laughter, I finally understood what all the fuss was about.

My friend had found tiny tea cups, which would serve as wine glasses, colourful Japanese lanterns to string above the table, tiered cake trays to serve the appetisers, and playing cards to form the table centrepiece. And the whole party took place outdoors on the lawn. Just the scene that Alice wandered into… Themed parties are quite the rage and one important element is the table setting.

“Table setting really creates the mood and ambience,” says Meera Ganapathi of Two Material Girls, a DIY blog that Meera and Purvi Shetty run, where they put their spin on everything from accessories and home ware to fashion you can recreate at home. “An appropriate table setting adds to the charm of the party you throw.”

The duo has opened The Whimsy Store in Bengaluru to sell their creations. “We recently threw a tea and cupcake party at The Whimsy Store,” says Purvi. “It was an afternoon party, and we set a relaxed table. There were little tea cups with lavender flowers, all the cutlery was in white and pastel tones to highlight the main protagonist of our party, the cupcakes.”

Pragnya Rao and her team at Groovy Two Shoes, a party planning company, specialise in creating personalised table settings for their clients. “Table settings differ on the kind of mood or vibe you want to create,” says Pragnya. “You can have a casual setting with different seating options (table for 4/6/8) for a brunch or a long table for a formal sit-down dinner. You can even create a dessert or food bar that serves pre-plated items at the centre of the set-up.”

The table setting echoes the occasion. Monisha Reddy’s bachelorette party was all about fun. “There were little disco balls all over the table with cloth and napkins in shades of black and silver,” she says. For her daughter’s baby shower, Vandana Kumar had a centrepiece of feeding bottles filled with coloured confetti, while table cloth and napkins were polka-dotted in purple and white. For a musically inclined client, Pragnya planned a Retro Rhapsody setting. “We had little gold elephants trooping beside feathers and deep pink velvet. Tablemats were printed to look like old TV screens and an old gramophone was the centrepiece.”

Other factors are important as well. “A good table setting allows for enough space between the guests, and between the tableware and stemware,” says Pragnya. “Another thing to keep in mind is the seating at a sit-down meal. Take the personality of guests into account and ensure no one feels left out.” The great thing about table settings is they can be done on a budget and still look fancy. “You don’t have to splurge on table mats. How about laminating folded newspapers as a charming replacement?” says Purvi. “And if you are serving South Indian food, don't shy away from banana leaves. It looks elaborate and authentic.” Adds Meera, “For kids’ parties or bachelorettes, jazz up drinking glasses with glitter and sequins, or add moustaches to straws.”

For your dinner party this season, find a theme. It could be inspired by a country, think Morocco, with lamps and jewel tones; or a book like The Great Gatsby, with twinkling lights, diamante-studded napkin holders and a crystal centrepiece. “Just ensure there’s harmony in terms of colours and patterns. Go crazy with materials if you must,” says Pragnya. “Another thing to remember is to lift the centrepiece. It must leave enough clear space for plateware and stemware.” Finally, add that simple, quirky element to lift it up. “For example, use a stack of books to raise an accent piece, or use chai glasses for flower arrangements,” says Pragnya. Once your table setting is down, the rest of the party is a piece of cake!