As the world emerges from economic slowdown, weddings in India are becoming more over-the-top than they normally are.

January 20, 2010. Vasant Panchami. The auspicious day in the Hindu calendar that heralds spring (and other good things) was a red letter day in the life of Akshay Narayan, a 26-year-old software engineer working in Bangalore. On that day, Narayan tied the knot with Anuja, a hotel management graduate from Mumbai, in a glitzy wedding in Jaipur.

It was a fairly typical affair: The big fat Indian middle-class wedding, colourful and chaotic by equal measures, with much fawning over the trousseau, much fussing made over the choice of caterers, a boisterous barat (in a chartered luxury bus travelling to Jaipur from Delhi), and an excited bunch of relatives turned out in all their finery trying out Bollywood moves on the sangeet stage to provide merriment. The budget: Just under Rs. 10 lakh.

One million rupees may be what an average middle-class Indian family lavishes on orchestrated galas that make up weddings in India, but look harder and you'll discover that the sum is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg.

International labels

As the world emerges from the shadows of the economic slowdown, and fond Indian parents shake off (both imaginary and real) constraints, the big fat Indian wedding has just got bigger and fatter. And we are not only talking about celebrity weddings like actor Shilpa Shetty's at the tail end of 2009 that saw the bride of the year wearing a Swarvoski-embellished, Tarun Tahiliani-designed, blood-red sari, reputed to have cost almost Rs 50 lakh!

Over-the-top weddings, each seemingly competing with the other on a scale of lavishness, have instead become almost regular. Apart from the usual bridal finery and Indian designerware, trousseaus — at least those in certain sections of society — now boast of an assortment of international labels like Louis Vuitton or Versace. For instance, stores such as that for Louis Vuitton in Delhi often see cash carried roughly by fond parents from Ludhiana or Jullunder exchanged for a handbag costing a couple of lakhs. And even at the glitzy Versace boutique at DLF Emporio (the first Versace store in the country), the salesperson will tell you how a particular set of heels will go equally well with a sari. Similarly, jewellery for the bride is not just traditional or even fad-of-the-moment polki-embellished one, but contemporary chic too. And often, even the trousseau boxes are chosen with care: The trademark Raro chest (meant for jewellery but often doubling up as a side table) is often standard accompaniment.

Now, certain families are going a step further. Social circles in Delhi were abuzz a couple of months ago, for instance, with talk of a heavyweight destination wedding held in Phuket that saw artist MF Husain “painting live” for guests. “Husain is a friend of the family,” explained a society watcher who didn't wish to be named. But guests also, apparently, carried back limited edition prints of specially commissioned works by some other blue chip contemporaries.

Destination weddings, of course, continue to be popular with couples (and extended families) living out their dream moments in Bali or Phuket. But the Indian hospitality industry too, beleaguered by the slowdown and terror attacks last year, has cause to cheer. “The Vilases (the Oberoi luxury hotels) are very hot right now,” mentions a Delhi socialite. Grooms here — and at other high-end heritage properties across Rajasthan — come atop elephants instead of the traditional yesteryear horse carriages. And sometimes this regal feat is replicated even in the heart of a city: a wedding in the diplomatic enclave in the Capital too, for instance, saw the trunked beast bearing the slight groom!

Food choices vary from community to community and, despite international trends veering towards the hearty and the simple, the big, fat Indian wedding has always tried to incorporate every imaginable delicacy inside the same shamiana.

From the ever popular chaat counters to vegetarian Thai and “Indian” salmon on menus, the effort is now to be more exotic and more diverse. So if at a rich Marwari wedding, you find khichdi being individually and stylishly served in small earthen containers, you are equally likely to come across an incongruous “Domino's counter” at a more yuppie outing. But the trend at some of the more stylish and tasteful receptions this winter, certainly, has been also to incorporate international dishes such as cheese (or chocolate) fondues.

Despite the fact that tradition still rules at most weddings across the country, Western-style wedding cakes too have assumed larger significance. Many bakeries and stores now specialise in these. While the cakes usually are in the traditional tiers there is no stemming imagination. “We recently did a cake with a deck of playing cards fanned out on top for a wedding. The theme for one of the pre-wedding functions was Casino Royale and so the cake was in keeping with that,” says the spokesperson at the Oberoi, New Delhi.

The hotel's swish Pattisserie has become a foodie destination of choice for such cakes (and others). And among others, wedding cakes made solely from Belgian chocolate with designer handbags or shoes (in marzipan) on top have also been customised. The price: Starting at Rs 2,500. Now calculate the sum for 20 kg; you have the final tab.

Themes

While weddings hosted by business families are obviously more lavish, even working professionals it would seem are not immune to the charms of jazzing up D-day. In Mumbai, a young advertising professional working on a project for a big international luxury brand was so impressed with her client's show in Paris that she instructed Swati Pandya Sood of Bollywood Dreamz, a company that customises wedding décor, to recreate the same “tree of life” backdrop for her nuptials. “We created the tree in white with candles on it for the ring ceremony. The backdrop was white and could have been part of any international fashion week instead of a wedding in India. For the main marriage ceremony that followed immediately after, the backdrop changed to blue using psychedelic lights. It was gorgeous. Even for the seating, we used blue tissue flowers with pearls and blue semi-precious stones to keep with the theme,” explains Pandya-Sood.

“Today's generation is more attuned to international lifestyle trends since it is better travelled. And people want to incorporate these even in weddings – affairs, which were traditionally not individualistic but community expressions earlier,” she continues.

The decorator also reports experimenting with themes such as “parrots” (instead of the more traditional peacock motif) for another high profile wedding where everything, including the florals, was in green. The invite was a parrot-green raw silk card inside a box also containing sugar-free cookies in “green flavours” such as kiwi, mint and green apple. So much for the green cause! The cost: While no one will give out the final tab for such extravaganzas, Pandya-Sood says that for a “decent wedding”, it should be around Rs 3.5 lakhs for a single day!

Gold, despite its prohibitive prices, is in high fashion internationally and in India it has never gone out of style. However, instead of traditional ornaments, more contemporary ways of styling are now sought after. Cluster earrings and long necklaces are in as are thumb-to-wrist cocktail rings, says jewellery designer Alpana Gujral.

“Indian weddings are recession proof,” she smiles, “even during the worst of recession, people may have cut down on the entertainment and décor but not on the jewellery and clothes they gave their daughters. The Indian mentality is such that parents feel they must give their daughters the best.”

What Gujral says is, of course, true, but then who is to decide what is “best”, not excessive?

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