Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

The big 'slim' Indian wedding

While Indians love their band baaja baarat, with the pandemic, celebrations have had to be scaled down. But, at heart, the Indian wedding remains big, moving towards personalisation, attention to detail and creating a luxury experience for guests

Published: Oct 4, 2021 11:59:52 AM IST
Updated: Nov 5, 2021 05:07:22 PM IST

Aditya Motwane and team took over the Leela Palace Hotel in Udaipur for  the wedding of Sonali Fabiani and Jaynit Raheja
Image: Anand Rathi 

In early August, a chartered flight took off from Mumbai, flew down to and hovered over Goa and then made its way back. A chartered flight usually has a capacity of 180 passengers, but on board were about 50 people who had taken to the skies to celebrate an engagement. There were no pictures uploaded, no making it a big deal, just two people quietly making the memories of a lifetime with their closest friends and family, in as much a way they could in the middle of a pandemic.

Under the Covid cloud, there are no grand baraats, massive sets, huge entertainment acts or guest lists running into thousands, but over sangeet, mehendi, engagement and reception, the big fat Indian wedding remains big, if not in size then in sentiment. And the focus is on detailed décor, personalised gifts, fine dining as well as longer dos spread over three-four days, with a complete buyout of luxurious properties.

Chennai-based Prethee M, who was supposed to get married in April 2020, was reconciled to a large 1,000-guest wedding and all that it entailed—a big hotel or resort, larger-than-life themes at events, a mandap, baraat, the works. Then the pandemic hit and she did a French registered wedding in August. Meanwhile, her husband and she took charge, steering the parents towards the idea of a more intimate traditional wedding that they started planning for, working with themes that were personal to them—from impressionist artists that they both loved to a reception based on their proposal song ‘La Vie en Rose’.

The courtyard of a small boutique hotel was filled with Van Gogh-inspired Sunflowers, the entrance had Starry Night installations, and flower arrangements and a green bridge recreated Monet’s garden, ideated and designed by wedding design and planning firm The A-Cube Project. “We had nothing to go on, no Pinterest boards or anything, so we started from scratch and replicated the places where the artists lived,” says Prethee, adding that the personalisation wouldn’t have worked had it been a bigger venue. “If you had to replicate that on a bigger scale, it would just get lost. Not many people who go to a wedding notice the smaller details, they just see the grand stages and the number of chandeliers.”

The wedding, which took place in November, and was originally to be held in Chennai and Madurai, eventually had about 50 people in picturesque Puducherry instead. The result: Elders catching up with each other and kids painting at a Van Gogh painting station even as mimosas flowed at brunch. Return favours included hand-painted canvases by Prethee and Starry Night gift bags sourced from an NGO.

Designer outfits and more: Bindiya Goswami with daughter Nidhi Dutta; Nidhi Dutta with fashion designer Manish Malhotra
Image: Recall Pictures

“When we used to do the large, big, fat Indian wedding, even a few years ago, the whole idea was to call as many people as you had ever been in touch with, and that’s a different kind of fun. People would construct a huge set, you’d experience luxury in terms of grandeur, but now the luxury is in terms of how you can make a singular person feel amazing,” says Ambika Gupta, founder and creative director of The A-Cube Project.  

For instance, at a recent wedding, she recalls, in the thamboolam bags (gift bags given after the wedding) for the closest 30 guests, besides the traditional betel leaf and sweet etc, the family also included an Amazon Echo, Fabelle chocolates from ITC and a Jo Malone/Tom Ford perfume. A bag that would have cost about ₹500-1,000 for a normal guest list went up to ₹20,000 for a selected number of people.

 For another wedding, she recalls, the billing of the invites for a shrunken guest list—a jewellery box with a German silver tray, bowls full of relishes and an interactive card—went up to ₹1 crore. “That happened because their usual number count would be, say, 15,000 people to be called, split between two people and two functions. But because they could not do that, they spread out their functions over various days so that we only had the maximum number of people they could call, with four categories of cards,” says Gupta.
 Whether for a home mehendi or weddings in hotels, planners and designers pulled out the stops. Clockwise from top left: A mehendi at home by Punit Jasuja Productions; The A-Cube Project for actor Kajal Aggarwal’s wedding; FB Celebrations did Nidhi Dutta’s wedding at Rambagh Palace, Jaipur; A Midsummer Night’s Dream theme for a wedding in Delhi by Punit Jasuja Productions
images: (Clockwise from Top Left) Nicky Ram, Joseph Radhik, Recall Pictures

It’s not just personalised décor or high-end gifts, the value of the experience planned for guests has gone up. From ultra-luxe venues to chartered flights, the aim is to create something special. “What happened in the lockdown last year was that there was a tremendous sense of appreciation for your close friends and family and for things that are available,” says wedding planner Devika Narain, adding that more than the amount spent, it is the way people are spending that has changed. “The spend is a lot more on the experience now, on quality versus just quantity. So whereas people were choosing to have, say, five kinds of cuisines, they want one cuisine with a lot of attention to detail, flying in khansamas from a specialised place etc.”

In fact, for actor Kajal Aggarwal’s wedding, the invitation comprised a tray with bowls filled “with her favourite goodies from childhood to curated bespoke things that a five-star hotel chef that they had hired had made”, says Gupta, who designed and organised the wedding that was held at the Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai in October 2020.

The same goes for the venue. The palace hotels of Rajasthan and other luxurious properties have, for long, been the go-to for a royal wedding experience, but with international venues out of bounds, even more budgets are being rerouted to spaces and experiences that make a close circle of guests feel like royalty. “Within India, there are only those four-five destinations that give you that grandness, whether it’s Jodhpur, Jaipur, Jaisalmer,” says Aditya Motwane, director, Motwane Entertainment & Weddings, who were behind the in-air engagement.
 The A-Cube Project did Monet’s garden and Van Gogh-inspired décor for a wedding in Puducherry
Image: Harsheen Jammu

The people who were looking at doing the 1,000-1,500 guest weddings started going to destinations, points out Prerana Agarwal Saxena of Theme Weavers Designs, “because they said that if we can call only a certain number of people, why not do it at a destination? Why not at Umaid Bhawan Palace?”

The smaller ultra-luxe properties, in fact, lend themselves beautifully to a smaller guest list. “All these hotels are only 70/80/90 rooms. So it’s really working for intimate weddings,” says Bhavnesh Sawhney, co-director and founder of wedding and event management firm FB Celebrations. Earlier, it would be an issue “when we went to Udaipur to do a wedding, like the Hinduja wedding when we had 1,000 guests or the one in December 2019, where we had 800 guests”, and they had to do two or three hotels with the guests spread out, but with the numbers going down, the properties work very well. 

The problem then is that there are only so many such venues and so many auspicious wedding dates. Step in newer venues being explored that are, in turn, turning wedding-friendly, from properties in places like Coorg to the Andamans. While actor Bindiya Goswami and film producer JP Dutta’s daughter Nidhi’s wedding took place at the ultra-luxurious Rambagh Palace in Jaipur, for influencer Juhi Godambe’s wedding in July 2021, initially planned at Taj Land’s End, Mumbai, FB Celebrations took over a 25-room property in Alibaug, a place perfect for the mandated guest limit of 50. “We had to size down her decor and everything because everything was planned on a grander scale. But she didn’t want to wait and it actually became a beautiful intimate affair,” says Sawhney.

With quarantine rules and travel restrictions, international acts may be out of the picture but the stage continues to be set where indie bands and Bollywood stars and singers help create once-in-a-lifetime memories. And the bride and groom continue taking the stage in designer outfits. “Because a girl’s wardrobe cannot change whether it’s a big wedding or a small wedding. She’ll still want a Sabyasachi, an Abu Sandeep or a Tarun Tahiliani, because those are memories of a lifetime and they are embossed in photographs,” says Motwane.
 Luxe masks and contactless menus became a hallmark of the lockdown wedding
Image: Nicky Ram

If anything, in these times, the dream wedding has possibly only become bigger and more festive. Even though “there’s a pandemic or even because there’s a pandemic, the reality of making your dreams come true is an even bigger deal because you want to have it even more now. Because you can’t”, says wedding planner Punit Jasuja of Punit Jasuja Productions. “People,” he adds, “might be doing smaller functions, but it’s all still beautiful and colourful and filled with lots of festivities and they’re still doing it in a big way.”

Coming up next

Though the lockdown months were a washout, the period between the first and second waves happened to fit neatly into the Indian wedding calendar, usually from November to February, and people who had postponed their weddings in early 2020 cautiously took their vows. Now, while an impending third wave brings in some uncertainty, there is the comfort of vaccinations, and families and planners are gearing up for the season, Covid clauses in contracts, alternative and floating guest lists, and Plan Bs in place.

FB Celebrations’ Sawhney, speaking from Rambagh Palace where he’s on a recce for a November wedding, is also all set for a wedding celebration in Maldives with a complete buyout of a resort. “This will probably be the first Indian wedding with the full buyout of a resort. The couple is married, but wants to celebrate, so they are taking family and friends for a three-day celebration,” says Sawhney of the 150-strong event.  

Up until the end of August, Gupta was booked out for November and December. And then a few NRI weddings, booked last year, got postponed to next year, leaving her diary open to take up projects for the here and now. With travel restrictions still in place, NRIs who don’t want to compromise on the big in the big Indian wedding, are putting things off, says Gupta, who is currently piecing together a red-carpet experience at the Oberoi Udayvilas for a November wedding with Mercedes pick-ups, chartered flights, welcome experiences and the works.

There’s excitement in the air and guests too are making the most of the invitations, even at local weddings. If earlier people would think about which events they would go for, today they will go for all the events, points out Jasuja. “Because they’ve been at home for so many months, they are excited about going to a wedding.” Besides, the thought also is, “if we’re on the guest list, that means we must be very important to these people so we will go to all the functions”.

As we bring out the lehengas and sherwanis, the juttis and stilettos for another round of cosy celebrations and nuptials, is the ultra-luxurious intimate wedding here to stay? A certain segment of people did so earlier and might still want to go small and high-end. But when it comes to the big, fat wedding, there’s no question. “We’ve done Shriya Saran’s wedding with 150 people. We’ve done [singer] Gurdas Maan’s son’s wedding last January in Patiala with 120-150 people. So those happened even pre-Covid,” says Sawhney. And then they’ve also done weddings that ranged from a 1,000 to 10,000 guests, and that’s not likely to stop. “Because, at the end of the day,” he adds laughing, “the beauty of our country is we have 1 billion-plus people. There’s never going to be a trend of small weddings. People are waiting for the pandemic to end and go crazy.”

(This story appears in the 08 October, 2021 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)