Big fat Indian wedding: How to marry a millionaire
It isn’t called a big fat Indian wedding for nothing. It is when families — regardless of their social or economic standing — apply the full force of their bank accounts and social networks. It is when even the most tight-fisted and austere loosen their purse-strings. It is often a show of pomp a family prepares for years to put up.
But, among the wealthy, a wedding is all this, and much, much more. It is as much a social event, as a business gathering; the price tag of lehengas is as important as the finalising of multi-crore deals; the itinerary of wedding events needs as many organisers and planners as a convention of business leaders. And over-riding all this is sheer opulence. It is that ultimate statement of wealth, power and social standing.
Finding a catch
The preparation begins with finding the right match.
Most people would never have heard of Pankaj Shastri. The man is unimposing and works out of a single-room office in New Delhi’s low-brow East of Kailash. But in his hands lie the futures of many of our country’s young billionaires. Shastri is in the lucrative business of match-making among India’s elite.
I meet Shastri at the Belvedere, the private members club of The Oberoi, New Delhi, where he will soon be meeting two families to finalise the “marriage deal”. Shastri claims to cater only to India’s wealthiest. His specialty, he says, is the ‘billionare caste.’
“I have been doing this for a decade now and, based on my experiences, I can say with absolute certainty that what matters most to these families is money and status,” he says. “Education and looks — even for a girl — are secondary. At the end of the day, it boils down to bank balances. At the very least, wealthy families want a financial equal.”
The disclaimer: “In the case of a divorcee or other dire circumstances, there is room for negotiation.” Dire circumstances here gently hint to the possibility of family members serving terms in prison or having criminal cases filed against them, or a would-be bride or groom with a physical impairment.
“Usually, the negotiations will take place in the form of wedding budgets. Families have to agree on a budget that represents their status,” he says. Though he is reluctant to give details, Shastri says he gets paid a per centage of the wedding budget that is finalised.
What is the role of caste and community — crucial elements in most arranged marriages — in billionaire weddings? “There is no caste amongst these families anymore. Now, there is only one caste amongst them: The billionaire caste,” he says gravely.
Shastri says these marriages often make for attractive business alliances. He speaks of his recent brokerage success, where the son of a steel tycoon married the daughter of one of the owners of M3M India, a real estate group.
“This is a very good business alliance for both families. Steel is very good for the construction business,” says Shastri, with a proud smile. “It was the first Rs 100 crore wedding I arranged. It took place in Turkey, and was celebrated in a way worthy of the families’ status.”
But are bank balances the only crucial factor in weddings among India’s wealthiest?
I meet Scion (as he is known among his friends), the son of a South Mumbai business family who recently got married in a lavish five-day wedding at Jodhpur’s Umaid Bhawan Palace.
A popular Mumbai wedding broker introduced him to the woman who would be his wife, soon after he returned to India after graduating from the London Business School. After many years in the US and the UK, and after dating a bevy of women, was he comfortable with a bride his family had selected?
“The kind of girl I would choose is also the type of girl my parents would choose. So, for me it was not a problem at all,” he said. “Also, meeting girls through your family makes life much easier, given the joint family model of most industrialist families. I was born into a joint family and my paradigms are shaped that way. It is like this for most of my friends too. Money matters to the extent that it is easier to get along with someone with the same kind of background and exposure, but it is certainly not all about that.”
What is it about then? “Well,” he says, with a touch of asperity, “it is about similar values, upbringing and goals.” And then he adds, tentatively, “You can’t bank on the future, but you can definitely rely on the past.”
Devita Saraf, entrepreneur and daughter of Raj Saraf (CMD of Zenith Computers), has a contrarian view. “Weddings in India are all about the money. It has become a contest of sorts. I see it all around me. At a recent South Mumbai wedding, the gossip was that the Rs 100 crore spent on the wedding was recovered through deals struck during the function itself.
“Weddings involving business families are a place for people to network. I definitely would not like to get married this way.”
The big fat shopping list
The economics of Indian weddings are most certainly staggering, with the industry estimated to be worth around $25.5 billion, and growing at a rate of 20-25 per cent a year. The country’s economic upswing definitely has an effect on it.
Ambika Ananda has travelled around India, anchoring The Big Fat Indian Wedding on NDTV Good Times and has filmed more than 25 weddings.
“Budgets at these weddings were usually upwards of Rs 25 crore. Indians have the cash, so they see no harm in spending it. For most Indian families, a daughter’s wedding is perhaps the most important social event in their lives, and for many wealthy families it is an opportunity to make a statement that they have arrived.”
JJ Valaya, designer to the wealthy, says that bridal trousseaux very often cost a few crore. Recently, he created a lehenga for a “very special A-list client”, which, he claims. is the “most exclusive wedding outfit ever created in the history of contemporary Indian couture.”
“It is hand-embroidered by the finest in the trade on a gold custom-woven fabric, with the finest precious and semi-precious gemstones, such as onyx from Madagascar, Peruvian opals, fresh water pearls and garnets, along with Swarovski crystals and antique metals.” It took a hundred of his most talented craftsmen to create the outfit over six months.
There is a bazaar-like frenzy at New Delhi’s Emporio, the hotel-like luxury shopping mall. Frantic brides-to-be, with their eager mothers, bored fathers and fiancés, are shopping up a storm. Crystall-embossed trousseaux have to be tailored and, most importantly, branded gifts have to be bought for the guests. Retailers say the most popular gifts are Cartier bracelets, Chopard shawls and Mont Blanc pens.
At the Tarun Tahliani store, a certain bride-to-be’s father pulls out cash to pay for the five lehengas his daughter has just picked up. The bill: Rs 50 lakh. The outfit that the bride-to-be intends to wear for her engagement alone is Rs 20 lakh. The engagement will be the occasion when everyone will lay their eyes on her for the first time, and she has to look every bit the billionaire bride.
“My wedding is the most important moment for me, and also my family,” she says, playing with the pink heart-shaped diamond engagement ring on her finger. After graduating on the Dean’s List at New York University, the young heiress has taken a sabbatical from work to prepare for her wedding this winter.
“There is so much to do. I have 15 wedding planners, and over a hundred people working full-time on my wedding. It is practically like running my fathers company. I have to import flowers and gifts from Thailand, Japan and Holland. I have to export invitations to people all over the world. I have to manage human resources, operations, PR and marketing. It is the best job experience I could have asked for!”
The wedding card is the first announcement of the event and sets the tone. An invitee to the June wedding of Mallika (granddaughter of GV Krishna Reddy, founder chairman of the GVK group) and Siddharth (son of realty baron Syam Prasad Reddy) says, “The invitaton itself [a golden Tirupati statuette accompanied each one] must have cost Rs 50,000!” The wedding that followed saw more than 10,000 guests, with Bollywood stars, politicians and socialites in attendance.
The Event Calendar
“Like all things luxe and fashionable, weddings too show seasonal trends,” says Mumbai wedding planner Gurleen Puri. “Until just a few years ago, the Indian elite wanted to throw larger-than-life, Bollywood-style weddings. Huge sets were created and Bollywood actors and actresses were paid astonishing amounts for glitzy performances or to just attend the wedding. Themes such as ‘Jodhaa Akbar’ or even an Oscar night were very popular. Thankfully, this is changing.”
Increasingly, people want smaller, more intimate weddings. This does not mean they are spending any less. Just that there is greater attention to detail and elegance. Puri speaks rapturously of the Delhi wedding of media tycoon Aroon Purie’s daughter Koel, an intimate affair that didn’t compromise on cost.
Badal Jain, photographer to the rich and the famous, and his brother Raja, have been shooting high-profile weddings since 2002. Jain says the ‘youngsters party’ is the latest trend: “The bride and groom will fly down all their friends — about 200 people — to an exotic location for revelry, without family supervision, for a few days before the wedding.”
On his latest assignment in the Maldives, he chartered a helicopter to film the youngsters party of steel tycoon Sajjan Jindal’s daughter Tarini (who later tied the knot with Dubai-based businessman Rishi Handa). “The intention was to film a panoramic view of the celebrations. I wanted to tell the story of 200 people marooned on an island, where all they do is party and revel all day. The experience was simply amazing.”
Rohan Jetley has all the hallmarks of his tribe: A thriving global business, homes around the world, and a host of invitations to billionaire weddings. “Most of my friends don’t know 70 per cent of the people who attend their weddings. Even if they want a small, private affair, their parents won’t allow it. A youngsters party is usually a solution to that. You can’t really get drunk or have fun with all your aunties and uncles around.”
Weddings in beautiful Indian destinations such as Udaipur and Jodhpur have been a regular feature among the wealthy. Politician-industrialist Praful Patel recently celebrated his daughter’s wedding in Udaipur. Interestingly, the city got a spanking new terminal just in time for the wedding.
Wedding destinations have also moved beyond the country’s borders to locations such as Florence, Monaco, Venice and Bali. Jain, thanks to his profession, gets up close to the colour and drama at these events. Speaking of London-based industrialist Pramod Agarwal’s daughter’s wedding in Venice, he says, “It was the most elaborate wedding I have seen and it would be second only to LN Mittal’s daughter’s wedding. Every detail, including Shakira’s performance, was so well planned.” However, Jain’s most memorable wedding would be that of Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty and Raj Kundra: “It is really special when someone who has played a bride so many times on screen finally becomes a bride in real life. The emotions are incredible.”
Jetley says, “People want to remember these weddings by how opulent they are, and by out-doing the last big wedding. Isn’t timelessness supposed to be created by emotions? A year later, you don’t remember a thing and all you think of is the next big party.”