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Big fat Indian weddings slim down in tough times

Young Indians are skipping many of the lavish traditions that have become common in weddings in the recent boom years

By Salil Panchal  /  AFP , MUMBAI

A designer fits a customer with a Sherwani — a wedding suit for the groom — and a paghdi — a groom’s cap — at an exclusive wedding shop in Hyderabad, India.

PHOTO: AFP

Preeti Punamiya is a young and excited bride-to-be, preparing to get married in a traditional Indian wedding, which usually features days of lavish celebrations.

The impact of the global economic downturn, however, has caused her to rethink the extravagance, following a trend that has seen many Indian families scale down their celebrations over the past 12 months.

“It’s our families who wanted to make it a grand affair,” said Punamiya, a biotechnology researcher in her early 20s who is marrying a US-based software engineer.

“I have wanted it simple, keeping costs under check,” said Punamiya, who has cut back the days of festivities to three from the five customary in her family and also slashed the number of ceremonies to three from nine.

India’s wedding seasons from mid-October to January and April to July bring with them street drummers and musicians, processions and open-air ceremonies where the statement often seems to be: The bigger and louder the better.

The industry is estimated to be worth 1.25 trillion rupees (US$27 billion) a year. One leading wedding Web site, ­Shaadi.com, put the average cost of a high-end marriage at US$44,000.

Wedding planners say, however, that as the effect of the worldwide recession hits exports, imports and the service industry, India’s wealthier urban upper classes are cutting back on costs.

“People are curbing expenses,” said Tejal Kadakia, who founded Knot Forever, a Mumbai-based wedding management firm. “For Indians, a wedding is a one-time event. People want a stylish, quality event, but they are trimming catering costs and even those on the guest list.”

A traditional Asian wedding is lengthy and elaborate, starting with a trip to the astrologer or family priest who chooses the auspicious day and time of the ceremony considering phases of the moon.

Rings are exchanged at the engagement, followed by the mehndi ceremony, where the bride’s arms and legs are intricately painted with brown henna dye to ward off evil and strengthen love.

The next day sees an elaborate sangeet — a musical, dance or even Bollywood-style extravaganza. The wedding itself usually comes 24 hours later, followed by cocktails and a lavish evening meal.

Moroccan — or Turkish-style weddings — with billowing tents, vast pavilions, hookah smoking pipes and finely-upholstered, low-slung divans — have proved popular with expatriate Indians who travel home to tie the knot.

However, Tejal said, “these themes are vanishing. People prefer Rajasthani or Luckhnowi themes which are traditional and cheaper.”

“Until three years back there was a certain childishness, an urge to show wealth. That has gone. Now it is not who beats whom. I would say we all seem to have been beaten by recession,” he said.

Candice Pereira, creative head of “Marry Me” wedding consultants, said: “Some people do prefer to combine the mehndi and sangeet events.”

Tejal also said families were choosing to skip the music and dance altogether.

“Earlier there was a demand for only well-known singers or bands,” she said. “The musical event is becoming optional or is personally choreographed. A lively family dance is considered enough.”

Nevertheless, Bollywood song-and-dance events remain hugely popular with overseas Indians, particularly those from the US and Canada.

Compared with many Western countries, wedding planners like Tejal and Pereira, whose firm charges upward of 1 million rupees per event, are a new breed in India.

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