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The Big Fat Indian Wedding Comes to AmericaA majestic decorated elephant lumbering down the streets of Washington DC, with an Indian bridegroom ensconced like a maharajah on top; scores of chanting, dancing wedding guests causing a traffic jam on New York streets as they accompany the bridegroom in the ‘baraat’ or wedding procession, dancing the bhangra to the beat of village drums. Hundreds of guests in a man-made Gujarati village in New Jersey especially set up for a wedding celebration, with stalls, carts and even mud huts!
Yes, all this has come to pass as Indian immigrants have brought their Big Fat Indian Wedding to America.
As Indians have migrated to the far corners of the world, they have carried their culture and rituals with them, and for them, the most important is the wedding of their sons and daughters – and parents dream of this day since the birth of the child. Indeed, in India’s wedding-mad culture, no expense is too great for a child’s wedding. The most affluent plan elaborate destination weddings, get Bollywood stars to perform at the celebrations and the sheer glitter of gold and diamond bling is blinding. At one such wedding celebration, guests got diamond earrings as a keepsake!
So when Indian immigrants leave home for foreign shores, they carry this taste for lavish celebrations with them. Everyone remembers the news stories about the grand Mittal wedding where the invitation cards alone were 20 pages thick and encased in silver. Over a thousand guests from all over the world celebrated in a 17th century chateau in France in a $ 55 million extravaganza.
And who can forget the wedding of diamond magnate Vijay Shah’s children in Antwerp where 7000 guests were invited to see a fairy tale wedding where a majestic Rajasthani palace had been created in Antwerp by Bollywood set designer Nitin Desai? As Andy Mukherjee of Bloomberg.net reported, the fiberglass moldings took 250 workers six weeks to make in Film City in Mumbai and these were transported to Antwerp in 47 large containers in two ships and reassembled in Belgium in 23 days by 87 craftsmen.
The recent five day wedding celebrations of Bollywood superstars Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor had a showstopper of a Mughal-themed reception, decorated in white and gold with mogra flowers, and the glitterati of the political and film world.
The South Asian Wedding Market – A Multimillion dollar industrySo Indians living in America are bound to try and 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 jeweled 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. Yes, the Big Fat Indian Wedding has come to America, and with the number of extravagant celebrations lined up, it’s probably a Godsend for the economy!
Indeed, the South Asian wedding market is a multimillion-dollar business with caterers, wedding planners, decorators, photographers, designers, jewelers, singers, dancers, beauticians, mehndi girls, deejays and entertainers. Ayesha Hakki, editor of 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 and where the entire hotel tab is picked up by the parents of the bride or groom, and where a whole barrage of limousines ferry guests back and forth.
Many families are looking to make the grand gesture like stunning indoor pyrotechnics which can average out to several thousand dollars for ten minutes of grandeur, says Hakki. She recalls an extravagant wedding in Texas where each invitation card came with a 5 gm gold brick stuck on the wedding card – and these cards went out to 400-500 people! At another wedding the entire Houston Symphony Orchestra was hired to play during the event because the groom’s brother had gone to Julliard and wanted to play a piano recital!
She recalls, “There was another wedding in Chicago where an entire convention center was converted into an outdoor garden indoors, complete with greenery and winding paths – for over a thousand guests, and the entire room erupted in color and sparkle.”
Bridegroom on an Elephant, Horse, Sail Boat, Vintage CarWith Indians entrenched in America, it’s no surprise that an entire wedding culture has exploded here. The bedecked bridegroom has arrived on an elephant, horse, sail boat and vintage car, and wedding planners are constantly bringing in brand new surprises, turning the wedding into a Bollywood extravaganza. After all, Indian cinema is big on wedding scenes!
Sonal Shah of Sonal J Shah Event Consultants is one of the noted wedding planners in New York and has created some lavish weddings for second generation Indian-Americans. She says couples often look for topnotch venues: a New York couple recently had their wedding- related events in the best of the best venues, Mandarin Oriental, the Plaza Hotel, Cipriani, and Bungalow 8. Says Shah, ” They did it all; they couldn’t decide on one, so they ended up using them all!”
Sonal Shah has also done several weddings with the ultimate maharaja touch, where the bridegroom comes riding on an elephant. As she points out, you need permits and police supervision and in fact there are now rules and regulations to prohibit bringing elephants into Manhattan. And pricing for the pachyderm? Says Sonal Shah, “It is over $15,000 for less than an hour.” You could probably buy a few Nano cars in that much money!
“In my experience, if you went to a regular American wedding and then an Indian wedding – it’s a night and day difference,” says Shah. ” Just the sheer number of guests, the colors, the jewelry, just how ostentatious it all is. But for us — this is what we normally, usually do! It’s normal for us, it’s normal for our parents.”
She adds: ” I always say Indians are highly, highly competitive. They are like athletes, they are highly competitive – whether it’s jobs, cars, whether it’s the education level. In my opinion 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. The Patels are a formidable Gujarati community so a recent Patel wedding, she recalls, in New Jersey had over 1400 guests. The average budget for an Indian wedding is $300,000. She says, “I’m very surprised at how much Indian families budget for the weddings. I shouldn’t be shocked but sometimes I am, especially on what people are spending on jewelry and outfits. Now women are spending $20,000 on just a few wedding outfits.”
Preeti Shah of Spotlight Style is another leading wedding planner in New York, and has seen a huge change in the industry since she herself got married ten years ago. She says that at that time even an average wedding cost $120,000 and a really fancy wedding would set you back $250,000. ” Now there’s hardly anything you can do under $ 200,000,” she says. “Over the last few years we’ve done, even with the way the market and economy is, weddings which have cost $1 million, 2 million, 3 million – without even a blink!” She points out that people no longer have 6-7 children, and sometimes it’s an only son or daughter getting married; people work so hard that this is the one time they are not willing to compromise on the quality of the event.
The most extravagant wedding she helped organize in Florida was a Gujarati wedding which had everything – the horse, the elephant, pyrotechnics, dancing firegirls, flamenco dancers and yes, the groom zoomed in on a motorbike, right into the hall! 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 top crème de la crème locations.
Wedding Tamasha – Price No Object!Preeti Shah has done several weddings where multiple high-end locations are used, with the sangeet or music party being held at Cipriani, the engagement at Espace and the wedding at The Pierre. Since so many weddings are held at these dream locations, the only way to make yours extra special is through the decor. At a recent wedding she did, $650,000 was spent just on fresh flowers for the three day event. Just to make sure the guests and photographers had unhampered views of the proceedings, the 75 ft high dramatic floral displays were hung from the ceiling and seemed to float in the air!
Often price is really no object as in the case of a family who held their events in upscale locations and spent $50,000 to set up a tent for an outdoor Hindu ritual ceremony which lasted barely an hour. The idea was the guests be protected from the hot sun!
Indeed, as Preeti Shah points out, the young Indian-Americans who have grown up here would rather spend big bucks on the quality of the wedding than in calling in a Bollywood star to entertain the guests.They would rather spend $ 8000 on an amazing videographer or even $20,0000 on a live American band with 13 to 14 musicians and a DJ for the Bollywood music. Yes, even $3000-4000 on a pair of shoes is quite acceptable! And of course, an Indian wedding lasts 3-4 days so it all adds up.
Destination Weddings from Las Vegas to Hong KongDestination weddings are taking place from Las Vegas to Bali to Hong Kong, and even Greece and the Grand Cayman Islands, and often a favorite cosmetologist, hairdresser and DJ are also 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 takes over not only the women but also the men of the bridal party.
“Grooms are now part of the package!” she says. ” The bride looked so glam and the groom looked so tired out – so now there’s air-brushing for the guys too, believe it or not! I think people forget that the groom is also part of the show. People are incredulous – they ask, guys do make-up? Of course they do! What do you think, all those celebrities are born handsome? With the unforgiving cameras and strong lighting even the grooms need a little touch up.”
Indian weddings in America are a wonderful blend of East and West, as young people who have grown up a continent away from India stick with age-old rituals but bring in their own American variations. Thus the western tradition of ‘Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue’ is often incorporated into the Hindu wedding ceremony. Says Preeti Shah, “I had a bride at a million dollar wedding who insisted on wearing her mother’s wedding saree, and another bride who could have bought any jewelry she desired but wore her sister’s borrowed wedding necklace.”
Indeed these Indian weddings now incorporate bridesmaids dressed in identical sarees, the best man, flower girls and even a ring-bearer, which are generally western traditions. Earlier for an Indian bride to wear white was a no-no but now some brides are wearing white, and even a white western style wedding gown!One of the biggest changes has been that rather than buffets, the Western style sit-down dinner is getting to be more popular as it is regarded as more elegant. Understated elegance seems to be the trend; earlier the tables were laden with scores of dessert around the room, from Indian to Western and 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. They are going for elegance rather than excess.
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 organize the wedding of their dreams. Often these couples emphasize quality over quantity.”
East and West merrily embrace in these weddings, since these young couples have so many western friends or may be 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.
And then you have the ‘ghori’ or wedding horse! Yes, American horses from the stables have been incorporated into Indian weddings for the all important ‘baraat’ or wedding procession. About ten years ago this was a rarity but now Indian weddings are a robust part of the business, and these horses even have special embroidered and sequined red silk outfits for the wedding!
As Bonnie Poling, owner of the A and T Stable in New Jersey explained to me once, “You have to have a certain kind of horse for an Indian wedding. The revelers 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 in America are becoming a part of the Big Fat Indian Wedding…
(C) Lavina Melwani
(This article first appeared in Friday magazine, Dubai)
Sonal J. Shah Event Consultants
Preeti Shah of Spotlight Style
Beauty on Wheels – Sanjana Vaswani