The big fat Indian wedding is only getting bigger

Kira Bindrim: It’s 2018 and actress Priyanka Chopra is walking down the aisle towards her soon-to-be-husband, singer Nick Jonas. The two are getting married in nothing less than a royal palace under a giant canopy of flowers on a raised stage fit for a concert venue. Chopra is wearing a $2 million custom gown with a 75-foot veil, which five ushers have to carry behind her. Fireworks light up the sky as the couple ties the knot in a Hindu wedding ceremony.

The Chopra-Jonas wedding was one of the most anticipated weddings in recent memory. Over three days in the Indian city of Jodhpur, the nine-event gala featured three separate ceremonies, celebrity guests, Bollywood dance performances, and several costume changes.

But scenes like this aren’t only common among the rich and famous. More than 10 million weddings take place in India each year, and a lot of them are over-the-top. Not every Indian wedding is a spectacle — the country is huge, and ceremonies are as varied as the religions, castes, and communities who host them. But the spectacular Indian wedding — an expensive combination of Hindu tradition and Bollywood influence — does have fascinating staying power. Through economic turbulence, social reform, modern technology, and even a pandemic, the big fat Indian wedding is only getting bigger.

This is the Quartz Obsession, a podcast that explores the fascinating backstories behind everyday ideas, and what they tell us about the global economy. I’m your host, Kira Bindrim. Today: Indian weddings, the priciest party of your life.

I am joined now by Manavi Kapur, who is a reporter with Quartz India based in New Delhi. Manavi has covered both the business of culture and lifestyle, and more recently she’s been one of our main pandemic reporters. That makes you kind of uniquely situated to have this conversation, Manavi, because I feel like Indian weddings sort of sit right at the center of those two topics.

Big fat Indian weddings

Manavi Kapur: Oh, yeah. Indian weddings have had a very turbulent few years.

Kira Bindrim: I want to start by almost defining our terms. Because for the purposes of the episode, we are talking about ‘Indian weddings,’ but what we’re really talking about when we talk about these sort of big, fantastic weddings, are weddings that reflect Hindu tradition and are more common in northern India. I’m hoping you can tell me a little bit more about that distinction.

Manavi Kapur: Yes, that’s right. So Hindu weddings are, in fact, not a monolith. There are, India has a multitude of religions — we have Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains. And even within the Hindu community, weddings can be so different across regions. I have attended several, and there hasn’t been one that is identical to the other. And for the purposes of this conversation, I think the most mainstream wedding is the north Indian Hindu wedding, and it has the most cultural power over the wedding culture in India.

Kira Bindrim: So what are like the bare bones of a traditional Hindu wedding? What does a typical ceremony, or ceremonies, entail, even conceding your point that not every wedding is the same?

Manavi Kapur: Typically, there will be a henna ceremony. Then a ceremony where your families slathers you with turmeric paste. There is the main nuptial, which is when you walk around a small, little fire. And then there’s also the post nuptial reception. But I think lately, the most anticipated event of any wedding is the song and dance evening, which turns into like a cocktail night, which has been influenced most by Bollywood and has the most influence on Bollywood.

Bollywood inspired Sangeet rituals

Kira Bindrim: Who is doing the singing and the dancing? Everyone? Is it choreographed?

Manavi Kapur: Oh, yes, it is choreographed. There’s weeks of very serious practice that goes into it, teaching everyone from baby boomers to Gen Zs how to dance to old songs, new songs, reels, you know, all the viral trending music. Everybody dances. There are props. You can have a little fireworks, some confetti. It’s the whole nine yards.

Kira Bindrim: The whole nine, yeah. It sounds nice. I mean, I have to say the dancing is my favorite part of a wedding.

Manavi Kapur: It’s actually a lot of fun. You do feel like a star for that 30 seconds that you prepared. And it’s awfully short given the weeks that you put into actually preparing how to dance. But those 30 seconds you do feel like a celebrity, it’s wonderful. You’ve got lights, you’ve got like a drone flying over your head trying to capture all your moves, then there’s this little video that you get at the end. It’s amazing.

Kira Bindrim: Okay, so let’s get into some of the details. And for this, I thought we could play a little game, because I love a good game. And I’m calling this game ‘Embrace your inner bridezilla’ so I’m asking you to do that, Manavi. So in this game, I am your wedding planner. I’m very good at my job. And you’re a young bride with endless money at your disposal. So let’s assume you want to go for the most, like, big-budget, spectacular version of a big fat Indian wedding that we can imagine. So I am going to give you something that one traditionally plans when one is planning one’s wedding, and you give me an example or your vision as our bridezilla of what you might expect to see at your giant, spectacular wedding.

Manavi Kapur: Yes.

Kira Bindrim: Okay. First item we need to plan is the venue. What kind of venue are you looking for?

Manavi Kapur: I mean, if I had all the money in the world, I would probably, you know, take Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas’s wedding venue, which was the Umaid Bhawan palace in Jodhpur. It’s gorgeous, it’s a fairy tale venue. But truth be told, I’ll just take any palace or fort since we’ve got so many of them in India and just have like a royal look-alike wedding.

Kira Bindrim: I appreciate your flexibility on the palace. Alright, next thing: guest list — both the size, how many people you think would be at your wedding, and the type of people, if that makes sense. Like, obviously, your immediate family is going to be there. But how far afield of your immediate circle do we get in this vision for your grand wedding?

How the covid-19 pandemic hurt India’s wedding industry

Manavi Kapur: So the pandemic has trimmed our guest lists down from a crazy 5,000- or maybe a reasonable 1,500-people wedding to perhaps 500. So since it’s a palace that I’m going to host my wedding at, yeah, they should be able to accommodate those many people and have enough social distancing as well. And, of course, that includes my relatives, my to-be-husband’s relatives, our friends, and I mean, yeah, their plus ones, and if we have, you know, some white friends visiting from the US or the UK. So yeah, 500 is, I think, a reasonable number.

Kira Bindrim: Okay. And since I’m sure your mom and I will be talking, how many people would she want to invite to this wedding? Like, what are the expectations of the size of our wedding here?

Manavi Kapur: Well if my total guest list is just 500 people, she alone would want to call 500 people, because if I have a neighbor who’s living on the same block, and, I mean, if they can see into my house, and they’re not invited to my wedding, it’s going to be an issue.

Kira Bindrim: What you’re making me think of is, when I was doing research for the intro to this, now my YouTube history is all of these videos about Priyanka Chopra talking about her wedding. So I’m getting served all of these recommendations for wedding videos. But in one of them, on Ellen, she was saying that their wedding was actually only 200 people and that that was extremely small relative to what would have been expected.

Manavi Kapur: Apparently, her mother was really upset that she couldn’t call more people, which is the case with most Indian mothers.

Kira Bindrim: Okay, next on my list: music. How many types of music events are we planning? Are we getting DJs? Are we getting bands? What should I expect?

Manavi Kapur: There’s going to be music on all the days, it’s partly a given. So there’s folk music, for which you have live singers. There are these groups of women who come and play at weddings, and they have their musical instruments. We have a tradition where we use a spoon on a drum, and we sort of use that for the beat. So it’s like almost part of the turmeric ceremony. There’s folk music, which will be live. Since it’s a palace, I’m going to also have folk music of that region and have, you know, local artisans come and play. I’m going to, of course, have a DJ for the night where we also have choreographed performances. And the DJ is going to be strictly Bollywood. And if I have it my way, then from the 90s and 2000s, early 2000s.

Kira Bindrim: So we have a lot of music playing. We’re basically planning like a small Coachella here.

Manavi Kapur: Somewhat, yes.

Kira Bindrim: Okay, last one we’ll do in our game. I mentioned earlier that Priyanka had a $2 million dress. What kind of wedding dress are you looking for? Or dresses — are there multiple?

Manavi Kapur: Well, I mean, currently, every Indian bride aspires to wear Sabyasachi lehenga. A lehenga is basically like this gorgeous, embellished skirt, and it has what we now call a crop top and it has a dupatta, which is basically like a veil. So that is the big aspiration currently in India, and I wouldn’t, I mean, I have to give into that trend. So of course, it will be a Sabyasachi lehenga. For my cocktail, of course I’ll get like a sequined something-something from Manish Malhotra, who basically supplies to all of Bollywood and he designs all their outfits. So, of course, if I’m going to dance like a Bollywood star, I have to look like one. And for an intimate turmeric ceremony, I’ll probably just buy some Banarasi silk from a handloom designer to honor my roots.

Kira Bindrim: So, again, versatility, variety, and luxury.

Manavi Kapur: Absolutely.

Kira Bindrim: After the break, how Bollywood inspires bigger and bigger weddings.

Bollywood’s influence on wedding rituals

Kira Bindrim: Hearing all of this, as someone who has never planned a wedding, it’s stressful. Like, it sounds like so much to plan and, logistically, very challenging, though it sounds extremely fun to be there. But I’m also think about how expensive all of this is. And obviously, I gave you the challenge of being someone who had a ton of money at her disposal. But as we were talking about earlier, a lot of these habits or parts of the ceremonies are common in a more widespread way, beyond people who are just super, super wealthy. In India overall, how much money is spent on weddings every year? Give me a sense of the size of this industry.

Manavi Kapur: So the wedding services industry in India is roughly $50 billion. It may have shrunk during the pandemic, but even so that $50 billion figure is likely an underestimate. That’s because a lot of the industry operates informally. It includes matchmakers, wedding planners, designers, jewelers — whoever you can think of who’s going to contribute to your wedding. By that figure, it contributes about 0.5% to India’s GDP as well. And it is one of the largest employers as an industry.

Kira Bindrim: And if I am planning a wedding, what does that financial impact look like for me? How much money am I spending on an average wedding, with the excepting that of course I’m sure there’s a lot of variation?

Manavi Kapur: Right. So the variation is staggering, given India’s inequality. But on an average, families spend about 7.5 to 10% of their net worth just getting their kids married. Which is huge when you consider that people push themselves into loans that they cannot repay. So it is a huge expense, and one that families spend their entire lives saving up for.

Kira Bindrim: Yeah, that 10% is powerful, like, thinking about spending 10% of your net worth on a on a wedding. Are their traditions around who pays for what?

Manavi Kapur: So, again, it varies region to region. We do have examples of matriarchal societies in the south and in the east where, in fact, the groom’s family pays for the wedding and is actually sort of paying the dowry for the bride. But in most north Indian weddings, I would say the bride’s family incurs the maximum amount of expenses. Now, with a little more cosmopolitanism setting in, families tend to split the expense, younger people take on loans on themselves and don’t want to burden the parents, so they end up splitting the cost between the two of them.

Kira Bindrim: We have this event that costs a ton of money relative to what any given person has. And then we also have a country with a lot of inequality. Do families feel compelled to put this much emphasis and attention on weddings, even if it is outside their financial means? And if that’s the case, what do they do to make that happen?

Manavi Kapur: Oh that’s definitely the case. In smaller towns, for instance, people take out loans that they don’t have the ability to repay. So it pushes them further down the class pyramid. Because weddings are so expensive, and because the bride’s family still takes care of most of the expenses, a female child is considered a burden, which is also why female feticide rates are very high in India. It’s improving, of course, generation after generation, but the problem still persists.

Kira Bindrim: So there’s an element of economic inequality. But there’s also this enormous element of gender inequality, it sounds like.

Manavi Kapur: Yes, absolutely.

Kira Bindrim: One of the other things we keep circling, and I feel like there’s a connection here, is that having a big wedding ceremony isn’t just about the rite of passage of getting married — that it’s also kind of a status symbol, or one of the biggest public-facing things that you do. And I want to talk about the celebrity connection there. You know, I talked at the top about the Chopra-Jonas wedding. And I think, no matter where you are in the world, you will see some desire on people’s part to emulate what celebrities are doing, and that feels pretty strong here to me, but I’m hoping you can you can elaborate on that. What is the celebrity connection to the big Indian wedding? My guess, based on our conversation so far, is that Bollywood is a big part of it, but I’m hoping you can tell me more.

Manavi Kapur: Oh, yes, it is driven by Bollywood, both on- and off-screen. To give a recent example, an Indian actor, Katrina Kaif, married another Indian actor, Vicky Kaushal. There was such a huge craze about that wedding, and we knew nothing about it, because they had banned phones inside the wedding venue. There was no paparazzi allowed. But, yeah, there was just so much anticipation about what she’s going to wear, who’s going to do her makeup, who the photographer is going to be, are they going to be drones, what kind of music are they going to dance to, are they going to dance to music from their own films? These are people we see on screen and then you see them on your phone screens and it’s just aspiration driving up aspiration, I feel, in a lot of ways.

Kira Bindrim: Do you feel that Bollywood movies — so, on screen — are reflecting sort of a cultural obsession with marriage and weddings, or creating or exacerbating a cultural obsession with weddings and marriage, or both?

Manavi Kapur: I think it’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation. There are some traditions that have been popularized by Bollywood so much that even cultures within India that didn’t follow those traditions have started following it. For instance, the karwa chauth fast, where wife fasts for her husband’s life and longevity, it used to be just a Punjabi north Indian phenomenon, but it’s become nationwide. Like people across India follow it now.

Kira Bindrim: Because it was in a Bollywood movie?

Manavi Kapur: Yes, it was in a 2001 film called Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham. And there’s this whole song about it, and it’s so beautifully shot and, of course, there’s family and togetherness. So there’s a lot of soft power being wielded through that one film. So in that sense, yes. But it’s also, Bollywood takes from life and it picks up traditions which are already prevalent, and it makes them chic and aspirational and adding a little dash of designer wear, and it’s just something that you want to do, and it’s so Insta-friendly.

Kira Bindrim: If I think about these characteristics — something very driven by celebrity culture, extremely expensive, not the best financial move for a lot of middle-class or low-income families — I’m curious if there’s any sort of backlash. As with the US, you have a country with a lot of inequality. And I’m wondering if people see this outlay that has to come financially from weddings and are starting to push back on it, or find it inappropriate, or, I don’t know, gauche?

Weddings are a costly affair

Manavi Kapur: Well, I wouldn’t say that I find it inappropriate. There is definitely a pushback from the current generation, either Gen Zs or sort of younger millennials, just to sort of understand that, you know, this money can go towards so much better, like buying house, for instance. But I still think that the older generation prevails, and they feel like this has been something that they’ve been dreaming about for their lives and they want to see their children married a certain way. Because you would have assumed that a pandemic of this proportion would curtail the wedding to a size which is, you know, manageable for most families. But what has happened is that people have had their little ceremonies during the pandemic, and when the restrictions open up, they have their gala events, too. So it’s not like the expense or, you know, the ticket size has gone down. It’s just that they found new ways to spend that money.

Kira Bindrim: So let’s spin this forward, I want to talk about the future of the big fat Indian wedding, because we’ve talked a lot about where it’s at now and what brought us to this place. My first question is, are we starting to see more international recognition and adoption of some of the aspects of Indian weddings?

Manavi Kapur: Yes. And Bollywood, again, is a huge influence on this international recognition because the music is just endearing. It’s something you want to dance to, it’s something that you want to look like a Bollywood star while dancing to. And, yeah, I see a lot of people using old Hindi Bollywood songs for their Western or Christian weddings. And they’re dressed in a tuxedo and a white dress, but they’re dancing to a Shah Rukh Khan song. If that’s not real international recognition, then really what it is.

Kira Bindrim: I’m curious if you see anything problematic about that? I mean, I think, I don’t know that I would feel super psyched if I had a white friend who did a henna ceremony not necessarily understanding the roots of it. What is the line between some of these aspects of Indian weddings becoming exported and appropriation?

Manavi Kapur: I think definitely a lot of the ceremonies do get fetishized. And there is some amount of appropriation, especially with the henna ceremony, because a lot of people don’t understand the roots or the history of it. Which is why I think song and dance and Bollywood ceremony is the easiest thing to do, because you’re not going to offend anyone. You’re just honoring our great film industry. But, yes, there is definitely that risk of cultural appropriation.

Kira Bindrim: Is there any part of the Indian wedding that you think should be exported? That you think would be cool if everyone embraced?

Manavi Kapur: I think everybody should dance to a choreographed routine. It’s something I cannot recommend enough. It’s so exhilarating to be able to perform a task and, you know, excel at it. It’s like it learned a little hobby while also getting married. Why not?

Kira Bindrim: You’re also convincing. I think also, like, how many times in your life do you learn a dance routine with your like, close friends and family? Not that many. So it’s a unique bonding experience, I imagine.

Manavi Kapur: There was a year. I think, 2016 or 2017, where I attended seven such weddings. And I danced a different routine to the same song for all seven.

Kira Bindrim: When you’re like out at the club, and a song comes on, do like a bunch of people like break into a dance they learned for a wedding.

Manavi Kapur: I did that. I have done that.

Kira Bindrim: I would be. I mean, you better believe if I’m going to learn a dance, I’m going to be doing it every chance I can.

Manavi Kapur: Absolutely.

Kira Bindrim: One last question for you: Tell me about the best wedding you have personally attended — I don’t know if you’re going to offend someone by answering this question — and why it was so great. What was your favorite part of it?

Manavi Kapur: Oh, it was actually a very recent wedding of my very close friends. And, given the pandemic, there were no restrictions. The wedding was trimmed down, considering both sides of the families had like a large extended social circles, they did trim it down to about 100,150. So it was mostly friends. So it was people our age, and there was alcohol flowing on all three days. And I had the best food. I danced a lot. And I failed that all the choreographed dances, but I still made it work — I mean, we all did like as a bunch of 20 people on one tiny stage. Yeah, it was it was absolutely marvelous for the simple reason that the bride and groom also had fun. They weren’t stressed. They weren’t stuck on a stage. They weren’t just doing, you know, all the rituals and ceremonies. They were actually actively involved in dancing and drinking with us.

Kira Bindrim: I love that. I love that it’s like the barometer of a great wedding too is, for everybody, or the bride and groom are having fun. Thank you so much, Manavi. I know I asked so many dumb questions in this conversation, but was really fascinating, and I appreciate you taking the time.

Manavi Kapur: Thank you.

Kira Bindrim: That’s our Obsession for the week. This episode was produced by Katie Jane Fernelius. Our sound engineer is George Drake and our executive producer is Alex Ossola. The theme music is by Taka Yasuzawa and Alex Suguira. Special thanks to Manavi Kapur in New Delhi.

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