Indian weddings are most famously imagined as enormous spectacles. This image is surely real, though representative of a small segment of the Indian population, and realised only in the world of the super-rich. Some reports have estimated the super-rich to constitute 1% of the total population, which contributes to 22% of Indian GDP.
Sociologist Patricia Uberoi writes that in South Asia, weddings are “the most visible site of conspicuous consumption and conspicuous waste”.
But my ongoing research, on the elites reveals that their weddings are more than about conspicuous consumption or celebrations of new kinship bonds. They are a show of strength, a glamorised return to tradition, and a celebration of social conservatism.
The glamour of traditions
The most luring aspect of an elite Indian wedding is its claim to a global yet Indian sensibility, bringing together the “western” and the “Indian” into the wedding experience.
Consequently, the line-up of the wedding events includes traditional ceremonies associated with community-specific wedding rituals like dholki – a Punjabi ceremony of singing and dancing to the beats of a drum (dholak) – as well as westernised events such as cocktail parties, bachelorette parties, and grand receptions with multi-tiered cakes.
This Indo-western fusion is best exemplified in gastronomical selections that invariably include Chinese, Lebanese, Italian, Japanese, North Indian and South Indian cuisines all reaching the humble palate of their guests.
The most popular appropriation of a globalised culture is the hiring of professionals to oversee the wedding preparations. In Indian weddings, the uncles, aunts, and cousins usually perform organisational tasks, often at the directions of the family priest (pandit for Hindus). However, the elites have set the trend of hiring a wedding planner who has most conspicuously displaced the pandit, and taken on the roles of the extended kin who have little more duties than to look their very best.
In this professionalised approach to wedding planning, elites have begun the trend of celebrating some of the most traditionally muted rituals with much glam and glitz, which would otherwise be celebrated with austerity especially in a middle class setting. For example, at the elite weddings I attended, for the small ceremonies of haldi (smearing the bride and groom’s body with turmeric powder) and gharcholi (bathing the bride and groom with holy water), a troupe of singers was invited and silver coins were given to the attendees.
The practice of giving a dowry is also modified. At one elite wedding I studied, the groom was given an Audemars Piguet watch costing approximately £10,000, a BMW 7 series car, and £50,000 in cash. There is an insistence, especially by the father of the bride, to treat this not as dowry, but only as a gift, as the bride-to-be too, it is argued, is gifted expensive jewellery and clothes by her in-laws.
Dowry then, assumes a muted presence, shrouded in the ostentatious display of wealth and generosity of gift-giving.
As the elites flirt with western lifestyle trends, they often still remain married to a strict social conservatism, specifically of marrying within caste and class (endogamous marriage). Often introduced by marriage brokers, who charge anywhere between £1,500 to £10,000 for their services, or through networks of family, young elites marry someone with a similar social, caste, and financial status, thereby ensuring that the exclusionary boundaries of their communities are well maintained.
Creating a phenomenon
The elite weddings can be seen not simply as series of ostentatious events but a phenomenon for much effort and money is put into creating an experience.
The journey begins right from the wedding invitations, where simple paper invitations are giving way to outrageously luxurious ones: the most recent being a box inlaid with LCD screens, playing a Bollywood-style video message.
The next step is to choose a destination away from home to perform the wedding ceremonies. Elite families compete most conspicuously on this decision, as they jostle to hire the most expensive heritage hotel or palace in India, popularly in the cities of Udaipur and Jodhpur. Some claim the highest bid by choosing an international exotic destination, such as Vienna.
It is not that the Indian super-rich do not marry in Delhi, however. I noted that the invitations to the “in-house” weddings often took an apologetic tone. The son of a leading businessman in Delhi, at no probing on my part, followed up his wedding invitation with an explanation of why he was not organising a destination wedding. He said:
Everything was decided so quickly [referring to his arranged marriage] and the auspicious dates are only five months away. So we couldn’t plan a destination wedding this soon. We are keeping it at the Marriott in Delhi.
The other important aspect of the spectacle of the wedding is the bridal wear and trousseau. The ever-increasing bridal magazines and websites and the rise of the domestic fashion industry has propelled the Indian bride to forsake dresses handed down by mothers and grandmothers in favour of high-end designer clothes.
A bridal lehenga (skirt and blouse with a drape), at some of India’s top designers, are priced from £4,000 to £40,000.
G Janardhan Reddy, a mining baron from the Indian state of Karnataka, of the LCD wedding invitations fame, yet again stole the show in the fashion department. His daughter wore a sari bejewelled in diamonds costing approximately £2 million. Together with jewellery, her bridal wear was estimated to cost a whopping £10.5 million.
The main show of strength of any elite weddings is in its guest list. Attendees reflect the power and position of the host. It is mandatory for top-level politicians, senior bureaucrats, and successful businessmen to attend such weddings, even if they are not personally known to the hosts.
In fact, it is a fairly common site for the hosts to extend invitations to the powerful friends of their extended family members to ensure the who’s who of the country attend their spectacle. These weddings then also serve as informal sites of brokering among political and business elites.
As a prominent “fixer”, a middleman of sorts for the political and social honchos, whose job it is to introduce influential figures to one another to expand their networks, told me, “The most effective meetings are outside the meeting rooms”. At one wedding, on citing the presence of a senior politican, the fixer said to me, “This indicates that he [the politican] is willing to negotiate the business deal or else he would not have attended the wedding.”
Attendance at weddings is not only a matter of prestige and power for the host but also for the guests, and a snub of non-invitation may transform into an open feud lasting many years.
In one such incident, a leading exporter “forgot” to invite a real estate baron to the marriage of his son, straining not only their social and business ties but also of their networks. It took more than a decade and multiple attempts by common friends to restore their relationship. The politics of invitation most certainly resonates with the politics of businesses and survival.
The elite Indian wedding, therefore, is not simply an ostentatious celebration involving an unabashed display of money and taste. It is about competition, conservatism, and assertion of power. It is nothing less than the coronation ceremony of an elite status.
“Oh my God!! Look at that… isn’t it gorgeous??!” squealed my neighbourhood’s most eligible spinster, as she waltzed into my living room at break-neck pace, looking almost like she’d been possessed by the spirits. I went up to her, curious to witness the objet d’art that had brought about such ebullience… and then, one glance at the red crepe with the Swarovski crystals, and I knew her astute businessman father had just settled for the worst bargain of his lifetime – a Rs. 86,000/- trousseau for her dainty wedding, a designer piece that would, after the big day, invariably be relegated to the deepest confines of her wardrobe, possibly never even seeing the light of day again.
Ostentatious weddings are anything but a rarity, ironically, in this country of starving and impoverished millions. It is hardly surprising to see over-enthusiastic parents end up debtors for a lifetime, thanks to that elusive shaadi ka joda that their daughter deems her wedding unthinkable without, or that collection of noisy crackers that people will anyway have to close their ears to, causing the money to go up in smoke, pun intended. What is surprising though is the indifference with which India’s not-so-privileged middle classes choose to turn a deaf ear to the inanity of it all. What began as a simple ceremony to bring blessings on the ones at the threshold of a new life has today become the most imaginative circus possible – everything from the Bollywood-inspired mandap to the Bidaai accentuated by musicians in the background highlights the one undisputable truth that we’ve managed to make even a once-in-a-lifetime event like a wedding look like a chore. If that sounds hard to believe, ask the parents and uncles and aunts and cousins of the couple, and you’ll know that the joy at the time of the big moment is effortlessly superseded by the sentiment of relief at the knowledge that the Herculean event is finally over.
If you were to closely observe the intricacies of a modern-day Indian wedding, you would know what it is that makes me want to call it the very epitome of hypocrisy – just how cool is it to partake in the most important day of somebody’s life because you’ve given in the customary gift, and now expect a complimentary meal so that your ‘investment’ in their big day pays off? The innumerable ‘well-off’ ladies and gentlemen who gorge at the aloo chaat stalls like they’ve been starved for years bear testimony to the popular notion that weddings are primarily for meeting and eating, the latter any day more important than the former. The wedding trousseau is not so much about beauty or simplicity as it is about looking designer and expensive; food counters are as much a symbol of what the family can afford for its guests as for gastronomical satisfaction. But the high point undoubtedly has to be the gifts: it is perfectly normal to see friends of the couple seated in a corner, accepting cash from the ‘well-wishers’ and making a mental note of the transactions.
In all this, what inevitably gets pushed to the backburner is the blessings, sincere and heartfelt, which is what the ceremony is actually intended for. While an overwhelming majority is present to play the unrequited critic, the remaining 10 percent’s good wishes get lost among the cacophony of the mandapwala, the pundit, the caterers, the firecrackers, the squeals of over-excited relatives at the sight of the blessed one’s clothes and jewellery etc. The worst part is the plight of the couple concerned: in most recent weddings, when the young man and woman taking their first steps into the proverbial sunset were supposed to be the cynosure of all eyes, I felt they reflected the months of toil and mounting pressure instead, which had obviously taken its toll.
I told my mother a few months ago that my dream wedding would be a civil marriage: one that shall take place within the confines of my home, amidst only those that I know shall come for no reasons other than to bless. While the apparent blasphemy of the idea still has her reeling, I’m already planning the destinations to cover in the 3 week-long Europe tour I shall be able to afford after my ‘humble’ wedding – hopefully, with all those cartloads of money saved, I shall also be able to support the child we found abandoned in the garage a few days ago. These, hopefully, will remain with me long after the crackers and Swarovski lehengas would have faded into oblivion.