Why the pandemic couldn’t kill the big, fat Indian wedding

The quintessential Indian wedding has a reputation for being big, fat, glitzy, and recession proof. And while India’s harsh lockdown of 2020 brought virtual and micro weddings into the spotlight, celebrations at the scale Indians have been used to — and look forward to — are back in full force.

“When covid first hit, everyone said virtual weddings are here to stay,” says Mehak Sagar, co-founder of wedding planning platform WedMeGood. “Those are a total no-show now.”

The pandemic may have changed some Indian traditions for a brief time — single-event weddings, most attendees joining virtually, and DIY hair and makeup — it did not alter the essence of the ideal, aspirational wedding. These celebrations, over 10 million of them every year, fuel India’s $50 billion wedding services industry.

According to Karan Torani, founder and creative director of Indian clothing label Torani, during 2020 and into early 2021, some people chose to have small weddings during which they were legally married, and simply waited for restrictions to be lifted to host the giant gala they had long wanted, “If there is revenge travel, I call this revenge wedding,” he says.

The Indian wedding gala is here to stay

If 2020 was the year of uncertainty and lockdowns, 2021 was the year when most people began to get comfortable with the idea of living with the virus. Despite a devastating wave of covid-19 in the months of April and May, the Hindu wedding season in India, which peaks between September and December every year based on the lunar calendar, saw remarkable numbers.

A typical north Indian wedding could have anywhere between 200 to 2,000 guests, often with multiple events hosted at large venues spread across a few days. That is not to say all Indian weddings are like this. Some traditions in southern India, such as the weddings of the Nair community, or Parsi weddings in western India, are far more minimalist.

Pandemic-related restrictions during 2020 and the first half of 2021, led to a glut of weddings making up for that lost time. Between Nov. 14 and Dec. 13, 2021, in what is traditionally the busiest part of the wedding season, 2.5 million celebrations generated revenue of 3 lakh crore rupees (approximately $40 billion), according to Confederation of All India Traders.

“Even in January, when some weddings got cancelled (because of the omicron wave), couples and families made bookings for the summer (March to July) wedding season,” says Anam Zubair, associate director of marketing at WeddingWire India, an online marketplace for the wedding industry. “So, there’s no halt on bookings at the moment, pandemic or no-pandemic.”

This is reflected in search data from yellow pages platforms like JustDial. According to its consumer insights report released on Jan. 4, people living outside of large metropolises like Delhi and Mumbai were looking for wedding venues and musical acts in far greater numbers than they were till the first half of 2021.

“The demand for wedding services across the country grew by 49.7% quarter-on-quarter, with most of this demand being generated by tier-II cities that saw a growth of 106%,” the JustDial report said.

WeddingWire India saw a surge of 57% on search queries in November compared to the year before. “We don’t think that the wedding industry has become slim and trim,” Zubair says.

Indians, Torani says, are accustomed to large celebrations, and experienced pandemic restrictions as a cultural shock. “The pandemic put us indoors, and if the world felt caged, we felt caged 10 times more,” he says. If a wedding in the western world was scaled down by half, Indian weddings were reduced from “a scale of 100 to five,” Torani says.

“Indians may have been spending less on things like decor and venue, but even during the lean wedding phase, they spent the same amount on photographers, makeup, and catering,” says WedMeGood’s Sagar.

But while the idea of a mega wedding lives on, the pandemic did change a few priorities, even if those changes were subtle.

The pandemic-led cultural shift

A shape-shifting virus has forced wedding planners and couples to look at hosting a wedding differently. For one, guest lists have become smaller. “If an average wedding had about 800 people, families are now thinking if they can make do with 400,” Sagar says. The pandemic necessitated bare-bones guest lists of 100-200 people, and once families realized this was possible, a 400-person wedding seemed reasonable.

Micro-weddings, those with fewer than 100 guests, though still a niche idea, have also taken hold. Vinay Aravind, a Chennai-based photographer, says he has chosen not to cover big galas during the pandemic. “But there are now enough small weddings for me to shoot and be able to refuse the big ones,” he says.

Aravind says that smaller weddings have birthed a small industry around livestreaming. Often, guests cannot travel, due to domestic and international covid restrictions. “This has made livestreaming a big booming part of the industry,” Aravind says.

Families are also opting for fewer wedding events. More weddings now have a small mehendi (henna ceremony), a cocktail, and the main nuptials, Sagar says. “Rapid tests for covid-19 and a preference for outdoor wedding venues are also direct consequences of the pandemic,” she says.

Couples are looking at contracts more closely, and choosing to go digital with their wedding invitations, two changes that may outlast the pandemic. “Refunds and cancellations are the second thing couples consider now after the price of the venue,” says Sagar.

About 40% of the couples surveyed by WedMeGood say that they are now opting only for evites. “This is something that never used to happen and the invitation printing industry has taken a big hit because of this,” according to Sagar.

But in the overall wedding budget, invitations may still be a smaller expense, compared to, say, clothes and jewelry.

The era of multi-functional wedding fashion

“We forget that the bridal market also includes guests,” Torani, the designer, says. Pre-pandemic, during a typical wedding season, guests would have multiple invitations to attend multiple wedding events. That segment of the wedding fashion industry has taken a hit. “If a client was buying 10 outfits in a year to wear to weddings and associated events, that number has come down to three,” Torani says. An average wedding outfit could cost anywhere from Rs10,000 to several lakhs several hundred to several thousand dollars, depending on the family’s overall budget.

Indians are also looking for more value. “For instance, if a woman is buying a lehenga (an embellished skirt), she will want to wear the blouse that’s a part of the lehenga set with a sari to a different event. Essentially, clothes they can repeat to events,” Torani says.

Similarly, with jewelry, clients who come to Torani to match their outfits with their necklaces, have switched out maharani necklaces — long pieces like those worn by Indian princesses — for smaller options. “I see brides opting for simpler pearl chokers or more understated pieces of jewelry that they can wear again,” Torani says. Like many wedding events to be savored over several days, those smaller, more enduring pieces are “like a small piece of tamarind that you can relish over time.”

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