vishal punjabi he sounds dazed on the phone. “You know when you can’t remember where you are when you wake up,” he says. “I am in Cannes, before Barcelona and before Dubai, London, Udaipur, Delhi, Chennai and Bangalore. Now to Charlotte, North Carolina and then to Napa Valley.” This globetrotting lifestyle would be familiar to those of high power. CEOs, venture capitalists or investment bankers. Mr. Punjabi is neither of these. Instead, he produces intricate wedding videos for Indian nuptials: 65 last year, two-thirds of them for Indian couples who married outside of India. His expanding workforce includes set designers, sound and lighting engineers, composers, video editors, and even screenwriters.
Indians take knots seriously. Consequently, Indian marriage is serious business. The amount of money that changes hands in connection with it can be staggering. Mr. Punjabi charges between $5,000 and $50,000 a day, with some productions stretching over a few weeks. The regions of India have different traditions, each of which demands specific services. The festivities often last for days and require constant attention from one business or another. Annual spending on these, from matchmakers and suppliers to film crews and construction, may exceed $130 billion, estimates Praveen Khandelwal, general secretary of the All India Confederation of Traders, which represents small and medium-sized businesses. If he’s right, he would marry the nation’s fourth-largest industry, behind energy, banking and insurance, but ahead of cars, steel and technology.
And India’s Matrimony Inc is getting bigger. In the short term, weddings are booming as couples who postponed the festivities because of Covid-19 rush down the aisle. Khandelwal expects 2.5 million weddings in November and December in India, in addition to 4 million events in the spring wedding season, from April to July, and not counting loose brides and grooms. In the long run, the ceremonies become larger and more lavish as the Indians get richer. Businesses in this vast bridal industry complex are adapting accordingly and growing.
In India, the wedding business often begins before the two people who are supposed to be its center have seen each other. Matchmakers operate in all parts of India, from rural shacks to urban skyscrapers. Classified ads (often placed by parents hoping their children will marry) still appear in the Sunday papers, often written in shorthand inscrutable to the uninitiated. Indian cyberspace teams with “marriage” sites; the largest publicly traded, Matrimony.com, has a market value of about $160 million, and last year reported annual revenue of $57 million, 850,000 subscribers, and 100,000 successful matches. For globetrotters and diasporas, a new generation of cross-border specialists charge an initial fee of up to $15,000, plus other commissions.
A company that invites
Once the pairing is done, preparations for the ceremony begin. Specialties have emerged to cater to all aspects of the event. A street in Mumbai is lined with more than 70 businesses dedicated to invitations, from calligraphers to printers. A Kolkata-based invitation guru travels Asia in search of elements that will make his personalized products stand out. Guests at the 2018 wedding of the daughter of Mukesh Ambani, one of India’s wealthiest tycoons, received a box containing an album and four smaller boxes filled with jewelry and goodies; an unboxing video on YouTube has been viewed 9 million times. Some invitation companies take advantage of export markets. Shantilal & Sons, a Mumbai firm founded in 1943, has just sent a shipment to an Indian couple in Australia; another is destined for Oklahoma.
Not far from treat lane is Zaveri Bazaar, the old jewelry district, with some 7,000 shops offering everything from “American diamonds” (the polite name for fakes) to precious gems. Weddings account for more than 70% of sales, estimates Siddharth Sawant of Tribhovandas Bhimji Zaveri, a chain founded in 1864. Other jewelers say the same. Weddings are one of the main reasons India is the world’s biggest gold importer, buying the yellow metal valued at $46 billion last year.
Parents and other relatives start shopping for wedding decorations in the first two weeks after a girl’s birth, says Devaunshi Mehta, owner of the DiA store at the posh Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai. When the newborn sits on the altar, she is bejeweled from head to toe (sometimes literally) with what she still serves as a portable dowry. To be a little less overshadowed, some grooms have also started wearing jewelry.
In addition to jewelry, the soon-to-be newlyweds and their entourages need clothing. Given the multi-day run time of Indian weddings, the bride and her bridesmaids may need at least half a dozen formal outfits, as well as custom ones. you-shirts to wear between wedding sets and even pajamas. Intricately handcrafted sarees from top designers like Tarun Tahiliani and Sabyasachi can fetch tens of thousands of dollars. One city in the state of Gujarat is said to have 4,000 people employed in bead and crystal stringing, both directly by fashion houses and by subcontractors. Making the bride fit for Instagram has led to a boom in professional saree clothiers.
The wedding venue is also embellished by architects, set designers, florists and, evanescently, fireworks artists. Hoteliers do a big business organizing the festivities and accommodating all the guests. Tata’s Indian Hotels, the country’s largest chain, estimates that weddings make up 20% of its business. Even a modest village affair involves extraordinary amounts of food and countless cooks. All marriages involve a lot of music and dancing: some Bollywood choreographers organize side concerts to teach clumsy family members how to dance with a modicum of grace. Large weddings often feature professional backup dancers. the biggest entrance A-listers, and not just from India (Beyoncé honored the Ambani festivities).
Managing all this is not for the faint-hearted, nor for the amateurs. When family members are assigned organizational roles, which used to be the norm, the result can be chaos. Increasingly lavish and complex celebrations have given rise to the wedding planner. Vandana Mohan, a Delhi-based planner behind some of the country’s largest and most elegant nuptials, begins by walking clients through a list of 712 distinct components, from the drab (how many color schemes to use) to the extravagant. (how many hotels to rent in full).
Many Indian metropolises now have dozens of such advisory firms. About 25 offer services nationally and a few internationally. A large part of their job is obtaining official permits for a variety of aspects of the event (such as live music, road closures, beach reservations, pyrotechnics, alcoholic beverages, power generators, and vehicles, including elephants). At least this is getting easier, reports Vikram Mehta, a senior planner both in India and abroad. Local authorities have become more welcoming of nuptials, he says, realizing how much of a boost a single event can give the local economy. ■
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