India’s lavish weddings, sidelined by the coronavirus, are back at the altar

A typical wedding in India is usually an extravagant affair involving hundreds or even thousands of guests.
PHOTO: WeddingNama

The US$50 billion (S$ 67 billion) Indian wedding industry, knocked on its lavish backside during the coronavirus lockdown that started in March, is set to return with a flourish.

Known for their opulence, with guest lists running into the thousands for elaborate banquets and ostentatious displays of wealth, most Indian weddings were either postponed or whittled down to small, intimate affairs during the coronavirus lockdown, sometimes turned into online proceedings held over Zoom or otherwise streamed online .

But those involved in the business side of the wedding industry say they are now gearing up for a busy winter season that traditionally starts on Nov 25 – when a flurry of auspicious Hindu astral calendar dates begin.

The recent news that promising Covid-19 vaccines will soon be made available globally, combined with the relaxation of lockdown restrictions across India and package deals on offer by luxury hotels and resorts, have generated renewed optimism within the industry and from couples who were forced to put off their weddings plans.

India’s loosened pandemic restrictions since the first nationwide lockdown ended in late May allow for social gatherings including weddings , although potential brides and grooms are mostly thrilled that wedding parties will nevertheless be capped at 200 guests.

This means only close relatives and friends will be invited to most weddings, translating into major savings for the couples-to-be and their families, who would normally be on the hook for inviting several hundred or even thousands of people, including distant relatives and even entire hometowns for fear of social opprobrium.

Akash Agarwal, the co-founder of Mumbai-based wedding photography and filming firm WeddingNama, said when India’s lockdown came into force in March, “our business came to a grinding halt”.

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Things are looking up for the next month, though, he said. “Destination weddings are back in full swing and we’re doing quite a few of them in Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Udaipur and Goa. The hotels have been quick to incorporate changes to ensure the safety of guests.

The size of the weddings is relatively smaller as compared to pre-Covid-19 times and the celebrations are muted, but recovery is on the cards.”

With the auspicious dates available for a limited period – from Nov 25 to Dec 11 – the country’s matchmakers, who are traditionally given the task of setting couples up, often online, are also scrambling to clear backlogs of weddings that were postponed earlier this year because of lockdown restrictions.

Online matchmaking portals are relieved that the worst is over. According to an official at India’s largest such online platform, Shaadi.com, the industry has witnessed a 30 per cent spurt in business recently.

Another matchmaking platform – OYO’s Weddingz.in – said it had 1,500 bookings for the October to December period.

The overall optimism is rubbing off on the Indian fashion industry as well. An integral part of Indian weddings, the textiles and apparel industry is the second-largest employer in the country, providing direct employment to 45 million people and to 60 million more in allied industries.

“We can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Priti Bajaj, a Delhi-based fashion designer who specialises in wedding apparel. “During the lockdown I had to relieve most of my staff as there were very few orders coming in. But now we’re very busy again and have had to turn down many orders. Most of our staff is back and we’ve even had to hire stringers, too, to cope with the rush.”

On the back of a spurt in demand for wedding finery, vendors are reaching out to customers. Bridal Asia, one of India’s largest wedding exhibitions, curated a virtual luxury wedding exhibition during the last weekend in October to showcase the latest in wedding trends.

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It allowed brides- and grooms-to-be to shop for wedding necessities and paraphernalia from the safety of their homes. Leading Indian fashion designers and jewellers showcased their latest collections through images and videos, filtering their products based on price and other parameters.

What has further added to customer delight is the sharp decline in gold prices.

As Indian weddings are inconceivable without the glitter of the precious metal, this has translated into a rush of customers seeking deals from gold merchants, many of whom have been quick to introduce new designs and loan offerings to lure customers.

“Sales were abysmal due to Covid-19 restrictions this summer,” which brought weddings to a virtual standstill, said a shop manager at PC Jewellers in New Delhi. “But now we’re selling very well for the current wedding season and have fresh designs coming in daily.”

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The global enthusiasm over the announcements by pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Moderna that Covid-19 vaccines are on the way to market has further instilled hopes that a recovery is around the corner.

Vikaas Gutgutia, founder and managing director of Ferns N Petals, a florist chain and wedding planning company, said with the renewed hopes for recovery came expectations for a busy wedding season, which traditionally runs until February.

“We’re organising 125 weddings for November-December, and though this compares poorly to the 350-odd weddings we normally do this time of the year, it is a huge leap forward from the bleak times at the start of the lockdown, when there was bulk cancellation of weddings,” Gutgutia said. “By summer 2021, we hope the big fat Indian wedding will be back with a bang.”

With more compact weddings, many couples also are opting for destination weddings at offbeat locations. What has facilitated this trend is the opening up for domestic tourism by many Indian states to get their economies back on track.

Hotels have been permitted to function at 50 per cent capacity since September, allowing families to opt for intimate weddings at their dream destinations.

ndian weddings are expected to be in full swing starting this week through to Dec 11 – a period full of auspicious dates, according to the Hindu astral calendar. 
PHOTO: WeddingNama

Taking advantage of the opportunity, boutique hotels and resorts have launched wedding packages that include discounted wedding decorations, astrologers on demand, discounts on food and drinks, honeymoon suites for newlyweds, free masks for guests and an assurance that all necessary coronavirus precautions are firmly in place.

Heritage properties as well as smaller hotels and private villas located in scenic locations are witnessing an uptick in demand for destination weddings.

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Goa, with its pristine beaches, azure waters and unique mix of Indo-Portuguese culture, has emerged as a popular venue.

Ditto for Rajasthan, with its royal history and stunning palace-hotels that have previously hosted nuptials of celebrities like Elizabeth Hurley, Priyanka Chopra and others.

Despite the buoyancy in the market, however, challenges remain. Wedding planners say that with Covid-19 protocols in place, their expenses have shot up and margins have shrunk.

The paucity of wedding industry workers, the need to maintain social distancing and mask-wearing requirements have all added to a slower pace of business. A surge in prices of many commodities due to transport restrictions and cancellation of flights has added to their woes.

Smita Gupta, left, of Wedlock Events, said that profits in the wedding industry were down considerably.
PHOTO: Smita Gupta

Wedding planning businesses say that while they could previously fly in orchids and other exotic flowers for decorations from Thailand and Malaysia , this option is no longer available because of flight restrictions. Similarly, expat gourmet chefs will not be flying in to manage large, catered affairs.

“The price of many commodities has also shot up considerably during the pandemic” because of transport restrictions and cancellations of flights and “labour has become more expensive”, said wedding planner Smita Gupta, co-founder of the Noida-based Wedlock Events & Services.

“Despite these problems, clients are insisting on discounts because they say that the size of the wedding we’re handling is not on the earlier mega scale,” she said. “This has reduced our profit margins considerably.”

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This article was first published in South China Morning Post.