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Global economy crashing Indian weddings

With the economy no longer booming, families are cutting back on extravagance
Saturday, January 10, 2009 | 5:18 p.m. CST; updated 10:41 a.m. CST, Wednesday, February 11, 2009
Harbinder Singh Gill takes a break from fixing the display at this New Delhi shop to enjoy the wedding gowns that sell for up to $10,000. The economic downturn has forced Indians to scale back on opulent weddings.

NEW DELHI, India — For couples about to be married here, the global economic crisis has forced the big fat Indian wedding onto a crash diet.

Gone are the so-called helicopter grooms of last year's wedding season — the most opulent on record — where in a still-booming economy some husbands-to-be abandoned the traditional white horse procession and arrived at their nuptials on landing pads, amid a whirl of wind.

Now, couples pick and choose from a menu of possible cuts, including trimmed guest lists, slightly less sumptuous matching sari and jewelry sets — think pearl- and ruby-encrusted beadwork with only a smattering of diamonds and emeralds — and floral canopies looped with marigolds instead of orchids and lilies, according to wedding planners, florists and turban tailors, all of whom reported slumps in business. (Proper turbans — silk, with real feathers and jewels — can set a prospective groom back by as much as $1,000. This year, though, many are halving the cost by substituting chiffon for silk.)

"Guest lists have fallen, invitations are less ornate, DJs have replaced Bollywood performers and dance troupes. Even instrumentalists are no longer commonly requested," said Jai Raj Gupta, chief executive officer of Shaadionline, one of the first and largest Indian companies devoted to planning weddings, known as shaadi in Hindi. "The main wedding is still a grand affair, but on a much smaller budget. Even in India, marriage isn't always inflation-proof. One has to settle for second-best now if there are financial restraints."

In India, the prestige of staging a lavish wedding has collided with the harsh reality of global recession, with many economists predicting that last year's record 9 percent growth rate will sink to 5 or 6 percent this year.

Indians spend on average $32,000 for a wedding, about $7,000 more than the average bill for American nuptials, according to industry experts — despite India's significantly lower average annual family income. Weddings here often include elaborate ceremonies spread over a week, with separate parties for the bride and the groom, all requiring special outfits, hairstyling, jewelry, shoes and catering.

It's all seen as a once-in-a-lifetime extravagance that most families save for over decades or even generations. Marriage is the engine of traditional Indian society, an occasion that links families permanently and is often seen as an indicator of wealth and status.

"To save something, anything, we made a risky, even shocking strategic move to combine some of the ceremonies and just spend on one grand night," said Kanha Ram Meghwal, 50, the father of the groom at an enormous wedding held recently at a posh hotel in the northern state of Rajasthan.

Meghwal, a government tax official, is painfully aware of India's stock market plunge.

"I sat everyone down and quietly said, 'Look, guys, we might enjoy it more if it's not a bankrupting expenditure.'" he said. "There were tears. But we pushed through it. In the end, the day of the wedding still had 1,500 guests and a horse-drawn carriage ride for the groom."

As India has prospered, so has the country's vast wedding industrial complex, now estimated by analysts to be worth $10 billion.

But as with diets, many couples are finding it a challenge to stick to a strict plan for economizing. Temptations include features that have become obligatory for many middle- and upper-class weddings: 100-dish multi-cuisine food stations; a chocolate fountain, the gold-standard item; and over-the-top lighting with dozens of gas burners, chandeliers, lanterns and candles to simulate a starry sky.

Many families in India's small towns and rural areas, where inflation and job losses have hit harder than in the cities, are experiencing the wedding crisis more intensely.

Kamlesh Kumar is from Uttar Pradesh, one of India's poorer states, and is organizing his younger brother's wedding there next month.

 

"The financial crisis has definitely had an impact on us. We're trying to keep a smaller tent for the wedding area, which will reduce the amount of lighting and decor needed. We've had to negotiate and bargain with decorators and caterers again and again," he said, adding that the family was trying to keep the cost of the wedding under $5,000. "'Trying' being the key word here."


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