Life & Style | Culture

The Big Fat Indian weddings in the West

Elephants, pop stars, Bollywood legends and diamonds for every guest – Indian weddings are now lavish events costing up to $60 million. Lavina Melwani meets the expat families who believe the bigger the bill, the better the wedding

  • By Lavina Melwani, Friday magazine
  • Published: 12:12 November 21, 2012
  • Friday

  • Image Credit: Supplied picture
  • The South Asian wedding market is a multimillion-dollar business with caterers, wedding planners, decorators, photographers, designers, jewellers, singers, dancers, beauticians, DJs and entertainers.
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Vanisha Mittal couldn’t have expected a grander wedding. Her father, Indian-born UK-based steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, pulled out all the stops when she tied the knot with businessman and philanthropist Amit Bhatia. The 20-page invitations were sent out in silver boxes to 1,000 guests who were flown in 12 chartered Boeings from across the world and put up for five days in five-star hotels in Paris. The reception was at the Palace of Versailles while the gardens around the Eiffel Tower were cleared to make way for one of the year’s most spectacular fireworks displays. The bride wore a dress from designer Vera Wang and was entertained by Kylie Minogue and Shah Rukh Khan. Guests received a set of diamond earrings as keepsakes. The total cost was estimated at $60 million (Dh220 million).

That was in 2004  and yet fairy-tale Indian weddings are now becoming common all over the world.

With Indians migrating to the far corners of the globe, they have not forgotten to carry with them at least part of their culture and rituals, and for many the most important is the wedding of their children – an event most parents dream of from the day their children are born. And quite frankly, the bigger the bill, the better the wedding, think the parents.

Who, for instance, can forget the £10-million 2002 wedding of Indian diamond magnate Vijay Shah’s daughter Vishal and Priya Shah in Antwerp? There 7,000 guests were invited to witness a fairy-tale wedding where a majestic Rajasthani palace had been created by Bollywood set designer Nitin Desai.

As Andy Mukherjee of Bloomberg.net reported, the fibreglass mouldings took 250 workers six weeks to make in Mumbai’s Film City before being transported to Antwerp in 47 large containers on two ships and reassembled in Belgium in 23 days by 87 craftsmen.

Asked why he was arranging such a mammoth wedding, Vijay Shah summed up his motive succinctly: “I am doing it for my children. Nothing can be more important than that. It’s once in a lifetime.”

Multimillion-dollar industry

Indians living in the US, too, are going all out to emulate these big bashes and, to help them, an entire ethnic wedding industry has arisen providing everything from fresh bridal garlands to wedding outfits and bejewelled sets.

Every Little India – from Jackson Heights to Flushing in New York to Iselin in New Jersey to Artesia in California – seems to have jumped into the raucous wedding procession.

The South Asian wedding market is a multimillion-dollar business with caterers, wedding planners, decorators, photographers, designers, jewellers, singers, dancers, beauticians, DJs and entertainers.

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Ayesha Hakki, editor of US-based Bibi, a South Asian fashion and bridal magazine, has seen her share of upscale weddings where guests are flown in from various parts of the world, ferried around by a fleet of limousines and the entire hotel tab is picked up by the parents of the bride or groom.

“Many families want to make a grand gesture like stunning indoor pyrotechnics that can average out to several thousand dollars for ten minutes of grandeur,’’ says Ayesha. “I remember an extravagant wedding in Texas where each invitation card came with a 5-gram gold biscuit worth around Dh1,000 stuck on the wedding card – and these cards went out to around 500 people!

“At another wedding the entire Houston Symphony Orchestra was hired to play during the event because the groom’s brother had gone to Juilliard (a fine-arts school in the US) and wanted to play a piano recital!’’

Today, it’s not unusual to see a bedecked Indian bridegroom arriving for the wedding ceremony at a hotel on an elephant, horse, sailboat or vintage car. In fact wedding planners are constantly bringing in brand new surprises, turning the wedding into a Bollywood extravaganza.

Event Consultant Sonal Shah, a noted wedding planner in New York, has created some lavish weddings for second-generation Indian-Americans. She says couples often look for top-notch venues: a New York couple recently checked out some of the best venues available – Mandarin Oriental, the Plaza Hotel, Cipriani, and Bungalow 8. “However they couldn’t decide on one, so they ended up using them all for the various ceremonies and over different days,” says Sonal.

She has also gone jumbo using elephants to ferry the groom to the wedding venue. “Yes, you do need city permits and police supervision but it can be arranged.’’ The price to ride a pachyderm? Over $15,000 for under an hour.

“Indians are highly, highly competitive – whether it’s jobs, cars, education... It gets translated into weddings too. What your friend did for her daughter’s wedding, you’ll want to do it five times better – and five times better also means five times more expensive.”

Certain communities are so well-connected that the weddings just tend to be bigger, say planners. The Patels, for instance, are a formidable Gujarati family, so a recent Patel wedding in New Jersey had over 1,400 guests and the total wedding expense came to around $240,000. The average budget for an Indian wedding though is $300,000 in the US, Sonal says.

A rising trend

Preeti Shah of Spotlight Style is another leading wedding planner in New York, and has seen a huge change in the industry since she got married ten years ago. “A really fancy wedding would set you back $250,000,’’ she says. “The weddings we have done over the past few years have cost between $1 million and $3 million!” She adds that, “very often the parents have just one daughter or a son and they are unwilling to stint or compromise on the quality of the event.’’

The most extravagant wedding Preeti helped organise in Florida was for a Gujarati family and it had almost everything, from a horse and an elephant to ferry the bridegroom, pyrotechnics, dancing firegirls and flamenco dancers.

The dramatic Broadway show kind of weddings with acrobats and entertainers happen more in Florida and the West, while in New York, she says, the emphasis is more on crème de la crème locations.

Preeti remembers a wedding she organised there where the bill for the fresh flowers for the three day event came to  $650,000. “Just to make sure the guests and photographers had unhampered views of the proceedings, the 23-metre high dramatic floral displays were hung from the ceiling and seemed to float in the air!’’ she explains.

Location, location

Destination weddings are taking place from Las Vegas to Bali to Hong Kong, and even Greece and the Grand Cayman Islands, and often a favourite make-up expert, hairdresser and DJ are flown in to cater to the wedding party.

For Sanjana Vaswani, a New York based cosmetologist, it’s become a case of constant travel to far-off places, magic bag of makeup in hand. She says she uses her expertise on not only the women but also the men of the bridal party. “Grooms are now part of the package!” she smiled.

“Very often the bride looks so glam but the groom appears tired so now we do a spot of touch up on the guys as well. After all, with the unforgiving cameras and strong lighting, even the grooms need a little touch up, don’t they?”

One of the biggest changes has been in the food served. Buffets are giving way to the Western-style sit-down dinner as it is regarded as more elegant. In fact, understated elegance seems to be the trend. Tables used to be laden with scores of desserts, from Indian to Western, which were wheeled in with fireworks to announce the grand finale. Now couples are opting for just a few really high-quality desserts rather than several fancy stations.

As Preeti Shah points out, “Very often couples pay for their own weddings. They are smart young adults who are making big bucks and have clear ideas of the weddings they want - and so parents step back, and let them organise the wedding of their dreams. Often these couples emphasise quality over quantity.”

East and West merrily embrace in these weddings, since these young couples have so many Western friends or maybe even choosing a spouse from another culture. So Western food and music are a part of the Big Fat Indian wedding, along with Bollywood and bhangra, making for a truly mind-boggling mix.

But few marriages are complete without the groom riding a horse with special embroidered and sequinned red silk outfits for the all-important ‘baraat’ or wedding procession.

Bonnie Poling, owner of the A and T Stable in New Jersey explained once, “You have to have a certain kind of horse for an Indian wedding. The revellers go right behind the horse – there’s yelling, clapping, music, dancing, and the drums and the tambourine. You have to have a horse that can handle all that!”

Yes, everyone from the horses to the caterers to the florists are becoming a part of the Big Fat Indian Wedding.

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