Indian weddings shrink, do not lose their sheen

Liza Maria and Gaurav Balani wave to and chat with relatives from across the world who logged on to Zoom to see them get married. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Niha Masih

NEW DELHI – The wedding that Liza Maria had carefully planned was not one but two ceremonies: one at a church and one in a Sikh temple, a nod to her interfaith love story. The revelries would span days. There would be elaborate choreographed dances, music recitals – and 300 guests.

Instead, Maria got married on Dec. 2 in a small and intimate ceremony at a Sikh temple with 25 people in attendance. As she walked around the sanctum in a shimmering pink Indian wedding dress, dozens of relatives – from the United States to Australia – watched on Zoom. Everyone present wore masks that they slipped off for photos. There were few hugs and lots of fist bumps.

A typical big, fat Indian wedding can last for days with multiple raucous events. In addition to singing and dancing, there are functions for ritual turmeric baths and to apply henna on the hands of the bride, as well as sit-down dinners – and then there’s the traditional wedding ceremony. The guest list with extended families, friends and co-workers can run into the hundreds or even thousands.

These affairs disappeared overnight when the country went into a lockdown in late March. Even when most restrictions were lifted nearly three months later, several limitations remained, including a cap on the number of wedding guests.

“This feels like a birthday party, not a wedding,” said Maria, a 34-year-old investment adviser at the British High Commission in Delhi. “Covid has been a dampener. But we thought, ‘What the hell, let’s have fun.’ ”

With more than 9.8 million coronavirus cases, India is the world’s second-most-afflicted country after the United States, though the rate of increase in cases has dropped in recent months.

Most state governments have instituted stringent rules for weddings. In Delhi, wedding guest lists have to be capped at 50 people. Bhopal, a large city in central India, has advised against hugs, group photos and loud laughs at weddings. In the western state of Gujarat, a former legislator was arrested last week after a viral video of thousands of people dancing at the engagement of his granddaughter.

Weddings hold a sacred place in largely conservative Indian society, regardless of class and demographics. They are marked as an extraordinary once-in-a-lifetime celebration, and families save for their children’s weddings for years. Borrowing to throw a bash is not uncommon, even among the poor.

For the country’s elite, weddings are a grand show of wealth. In 2018, Beyoncé flew to India to perform at the multimillion-dollar wedding of Isha Ambani, the daughter of India’s richest man. When Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra married singer Nick Jonas at an Indian palace, she wore a traditional red outfit that took more than 3,700 hours to make. India’s cricket team captain Virat Kohli tied the knot with Bollywood actress Anushka Sharma at an exclusive Tuscan resort where the Obamas and Kennedys have vacationed.

Twenty-nine-year-old fashion director Gopalika Virmani spent six months planning a dreamy wedding to be held in April at Lake Como in Italy. Bags were being packed, and tickets were booked. Then the lockdown struck, and months later the situation had not improved.

Virmani finally married her fiance at the end of November at a five-star hotel in Agra with sweeping views of the Taj Mahal, India’s iconic monument to love.

“We were really stressed, and so we took many precautions,” Virmani said. Her father devised an elaborate, 16-point standard operating procedure for the guests and the hotel. Among other requirements, every guest was asked to quarantine for 10 days before the wedding and test negative for the coronavirus. The family booked the entire hotel for the wedding, and every hotel staffer was tested at its request.

“We wanted it to be very, very safe. So that the time you wanted to take your mask off, you could do it without stress,” Virmani said.

The $50 billion wedding services industry in India is adapting to the pandemic. Taj Hotels, the oldest five-star chain in the country, has deployed marshals trained in coronavirus safety precautions. At the start of any event, marshals will request that guests wear masks and practice social distancing.

“It is not easy to ask guests to wear masks,” said Arun Sundararaj, executive chef at Taj Mahal Delhi. “We have to be very kind but keep informing them or offer a mask.”

For high-end wedding planners, constantly changing rules governing wedding events, particularly the number of guests allowed, have been a challenge.

But while the guest list may have shrunk, the sheen has not faded.

Celebrity wedding planner Devika Narain in November turned an ancient temple spread over 43,000 square feet into a stunning wedding venue lit by 12,000 earthen lamps, even though the original guest list of a few thousand had diminished significantly.

The pandemic-induced “wedding evolution,” she said, will require us to question “the very things that felt normal till a hundred days ago.” Narain said this will lead to “craft- and art-centric weddings that celebrate the spirit of India.”

Nitin Mathur, the chief executive of the Wedding Design Company, said his firm’s focus was on making weddings more personal and experiential during this era. For a wedding in October, Mathur’s team learned the names, likes and dislikes of each of the 50 guests. “Before asking, you should get what you want,” Mathur said. “Then, my job is done.”

Sociologist Parul Bhandari, who researches Indian marriages and weddings, wrote that the elite Indian wedding is “not simply an ostentatious celebration” but a “show of strength, a glamorized return to tradition, and a celebration of social conservatism.”

Bhandari said the big Indian wedding is unlikely to go away given that “weddings are deeply embedded in our social structures.”

This will be an era of “mindful weddings,” Narain said. “The worst thing about what I call ‘janta’ [public] weddings is that the bride and groom don’t even know half the number of people invited.” Now with only close family and friends, “it’s a bunch of people you truly love.”

Maria, the bride in Delhi, said she and her husband had always been in favor of a small wedding but had planned the large celebrations to accommodate the wishes of families and friends. The disappointment for her was not being able to have her siblings living abroad by her side. “But we will definitely celebrate again when we meet,” she said.

Virmani, whose Italian wedding was canceled, said that beside the initial uncertainty, they were not upset at downsizing. From the initial 300-odd guests on their list, they had only 50.

“At this point, you just want to be with your family and be able to spend time with everyone,” she said. “That’s what we did. That was the beauty of our wedding.”



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