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Lifestyle – For Wealthy Indians, Trip Down Aisle Often Requires a Passport

PUNE, India — When Indian entrepreneur Suniel Mutha had his wedding, he tied the knot in his wife’s hometown of Chennai, then known as Madras. The nuptials lasted three days and included more than 900 guests.

He and his wife wanted something different for their children. So when it came time for them to marry, the Muthas jumped on the latest trend sweeping India’s bridal business: destination weddings. Son Sidaarrth, now 26, was married in a dazzling display in Macau last year; daughter Shweta, 27, was wed in a big bash in Bangkok in July. Each wedding stretched over five days, included hundreds of guests and had all the trappings of a traditional Indian wedding — down to the team of 60 chefs and kitchen assistants flown in to prepare thousands of special meals, and a horse for the groom to sit astride for his grand entrance. The tab for the Macau wedding alone totaled $4 million to $5 million.

India has long been famous for its lavish weddings. For many, a wedding is a status symbol, and families often save for decades to host a big fat one. And while the global economic slowdown may have pinched incomes and reined in conspicuous consumption elsewhere, Indian weddings appear recession-proof, as wealthy families strive to host an unforgettable event. Now, the Indian wedding has hit the road as families try to outdo each other in far-flung locales like Dubai, Thailand, Macau and even France.

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.”If there was a large enough rocket and spaceship, you can be sure that the first big wedding in space will be an Indian one,” says psychoanalyst and author Sudhir Kakar, who lives in Goa. “It is not keeping up with the Joneses but keeping ahead of them—’Eat your heart out, Joneses, you pretenders!'”

“People spend like crazy!” marvels Achinto Bose, the New Delhi-based marketing manager of Tourism Malaysia, which has invited Indian wedding planners on junkets to scenic locations such as the beach-resort island of Langkawi. Next month, Thai tourism authorities are planning a campaign across India to lure more weddings to Thailand. Macau is stepping up its marketing efforts, too. When Bollywood’s International Indian Film Academy awards were held at the 3,000-suite Venetian Macao hotel in June, hotel staff slipped a wedding brochure under TV remote controls in the rooms so fans and stars alike would take notice, says Gene Capuano, the hotel’s executive director of conference management, who was in India this month drumming up wedding business.

One draw of an overseas venue: “Comparing five-star to five-star, the hotels in Thailand are 40% to 60% cheaper than in India,” says Sid Sehgal, managing director of Sehgal Group, which has interests in catering, travel and wedding arranging. Mr. Sehgal says he recalls fewer than 10 overseas Indian weddings held in Thailand in 2006. But in the first half of this year alone, he knows of at least 14, about half of which were held by ethnic Indians living outside Thailand, as the diaspora also takes to the overseas-wedding trend.

Tourism boards and travel agents also are turning out in force at wedding exhibitions. At one held last month in New Delhi by Vivaha, an Indian bridal magazine that holds twice-yearly exhibitions, there were international stalls—from France, Austria, Mauritius, the Maldives and Switzerland—pushing themselves as wedding destinations. There were none three years ago, organizers say. Red Events India, an Ahmedabad-based events planner that helped plan the Mutha wedding in Macau, says it has arranged a dozen weddings outside India since it got the first request to handle a wedding in Malaysia in 2006.

For both the Mutha family weddings, astrologers picked the auspicious July dates. But the parents chose the locations.

Mr. Mutha, a trim 49-year-old patriarch with a penchant for clothes made by prominent Indian designers such as Rohit Bal and Arjun Khanna, along with Italian wear from Ermenegildo Zegna and Brioni, is an ethnic Marwari who owns food-commodity trading and real-estate companies. Like many other successful entrepreneurs in India, he traces his roots to Rajasthan.

When his children were small, Mr. Mutha recalls, he and his wife, Raajkumarri, dreamed of marrying them off in “princely style.” Today, one of their proudest emblems of success is under glass in a corner of the living room of their modest two-story 1960s-style house in Pune — a sculpted elephant decorated with 24-carat gold and Swarovski crystals. It was a gift from the grateful management of the InterContinental Bangkok hotel, the venue for his daughter’s wedding.

For the marriage of his son to Niyati Karia, a 26-year-old jewelry designer from Pune in western India, Mr. Mutha made six trips to Macau to pick a venue and arrange the logistics. He settled on the MGM Grand, mostly because the hotel was willing to give the group unfettered access to the kitchen that serves its ballroom.

Initially, the bride’s father, Yogesh Karia, a Pune construction company owner, had flagged Macau as a good wedding spot after he attended a New Year’s Eve celebration in the former Portuguese enclave that’s a gambling Mecca in December 2007.

His daughter already knew the Muthas’s son, having first met him by accident while shopping for shoes. The two had taken a shine to each other and asked their parents to arrange a marriage. The engagement was finalized in August 2007, a few months before Mr. Karia visited Macau. All told, the wedding, held in July 2008, was 11 months in the planning.

“Once we decided about the marriage, both of us (fathers) had the ‘destination’ concept in mind,” says the 57-year-old Mr. Karia, who adds that they first considered then dismissed Turkey, partly out of concern that visa requirements might discourage last-minute guests from attending. “We wanted something different, something exclusive.”

And Mr. Mutha wanted everything to be just so. Determined to get every step right, he hired a coach to prepare him for a dance routine he was expected to perform with his wife at the wedding. “Without perfection, what is there in life?” he told the coach during a practice session in Macau.

Mr. Mutha paid for the wedding guests to fly commercial airlines to Macau; in-flight hand towels and toothpicks were printed with special wedding logos. The Karia family footed the bill for the accommodations.

In India’s multireligious, multicultural society, there’s no set agenda for a wedding. Some last a single day; others for many days with rounds of rituals, parties and entertainment. Each community has its own set of rites. But the weddings often share such traits as a big musical celebration that includes members of both families singing and dancing, along with professional entertainers. Hence Mr. Mutha’s need for dance lessons.

The Muthas are Jain, a religious group that adheres to a strict vegetarian diet that precludes onions, garlic and potatoes, and this added a layer of complexity to arranging the ceremony outside India. Each morsel of food had to meet the exacting standards of tradition-minded elderly Jain guests, otherwise the event would be judged a failure, no matter how flashy the décor. For the team of chefs and kitchen assistants flown to Macau from Ahmedabad in northern India, its first order of business was to sterilize the hotel’s ballroom-access kitchen, removing any trace of carnivorous Chinese feasts.

Set decorators, choreographers, hairdressers and photographers were imported. Artists who apply henna to the hands of the bride and her friends during a special party known as the mehendi were summoned from India. A pandit, or priest, was brought from New Delhi along with an assistant to officiate the nuptials.

All told, 250 support staff, including the culinary team, were flown to Macau. The $4 million to $5 million Mr. Karia gives as the total cost is about double the average price of an overseas Indian wedding these days, according to Technopak Advisors, an India-based consulting firm. Technopak notes that costs can climb as high as $30 million. Some wedding planners note, however, that more modest weddings held overseas can start from about $300,000. And planners say India’s diaspora is splashing out on “destination weddings” at luxury resorts from Aruba to Bali.

“Both the weddings in Macau and Bangkok were done in an absolutely traditional way as far as the rituals are concerned,” Mr. Mutha says. “The guests were amazed.”

A highlight of the traditional wedding pageantry is the groom’s entrance riding a white horse or a more prestigious elephant. It’s a custom that harks back to days when the groom was usually a boy from another village and would travel in style to the celebrations.

Gurleen Puri, a Mumbai-based wedding planner who assisted with the Macau nuptials, says because there was no elephant in Macau, the wedding party wanted to bring one in. But Macau authorities turned down the request for an import permit. (A Macau veterinary official says elephants can be imported to the Chinese territory only for such purposes as performing in a circus.)

Ultimately the Muthas settled for a local horse—and a brown one at that. The cost was more than $5,000 for the groom to make his 20-minute debut in the saddle. Other transportation included a white 1950s MG car that was leased from Hong Kong and brought to Macau by ferry to be used in the wedding procession for about 25 minutes. The tab? Nearly $10,000.

(To avoid problems animals that can be skittish in a noisy crowd, Michael Szarata, who plans Indian weddings in Bali, often suggests the groom opt to arrive on a nicely decorated Vespa scooter. And for Caribbean weddings, New York-based nuptials planner Sonal Shah recommends substituting a golf cart for a beast.)

An essential ritual for Hindus and Jains is called the pheras, where the bride and groom circle an open fire seven times, symbolizing the vows a couple makes, including fidelity.

Because hotels are wary of open fires inside—and of caterers from outside—the parents had to sign contracts indemnifying the hotel against any damage or illness resulting from the fire or the cuisine. Luckily, no one got sick or singed. The risk was worth it, says Mr. Karia. (An MGM Grand Macau spokeswoman stresses “the scale of the fire we allowed” was small and “only a symbol of the traditional one.”)

It’s the kind of risk other venues like cruise ships are reluctant to take. For instance, during an Indian wedding in July aboard SuperStar Virgo, which sailed from Singapore to Thailand and Malaysia, the Star Cruises management allowed an open fire for just 15 minutes on the pool deck, and had staff standing by with fire extinguishers. (At a traditional wedding on land, the fire can remain lit for hours.)

Following the Macau wedding, Mr. Mutha flew to several destinations to check out venues for his daughter’s wedding. Besides the Thai resorts of Koh Samui and Hua Hin, he visited Istanbul, Bali, Kuala Lumpur and Langkawi. Ultimately he says he ruled out a Malaysian destination because there is “too little for the guests to do,” and Bali because of the time it took to get to the Indonesian island. Mr. Mutha and his wife settled on Bangkok for its cultural cluster of museums and temples—and good shopping close to the InterContinental.

The actual planning for the event took less time—four months—than for the one in Macau because Mr. Mutha knew the ropes. He won’t say how much he spent on his daughter’s wedding to Mukul Bafana, who lives in the U.S., but he says it cost more than the Macau wedding, mostly because of the raft of celebrity entertainers flown from India, including the famed team Vishal Dadlani and Shekhar Ravjiani, who sing and direct music for Bollywood films. Mr. Mutha paid for the hotel rooms in Bangkok for the 550 guests, as well as 290 support staff.

Among them was the same team of chefs that handled the Macau wedding, summoned to Bangkok to prepare another marathon of authentic Jain fare for the multiday affair. Ready for a second round of culinary combat, the Mutha clan shipped to Thailand three 12-meter containers of lentils, spices and special cooking utensils from India two weeks before the big event. Every day during the wedding, a variety of fresh desserts was flown in from India, along with an ample supply of paneer, an Indian form of cottage cheese. (The chefs had tried to make paneer with local Thai ingredients, but it proved too chewy for Mr. Mutha’s taste.)

The families also transported other paraphernalia needed for the ceremonies, including four long swords that are used in a ritual by male relatives who swear to protect the bride, and kumkum, powder for marking foreheads.

A traditional white horse was found in Bangkok to perform the groom’s entrance, and the open-fire ritual was observed—but not before Mr. Mutha indemnified the hotel.

Both weddings were carefully documented. Professional videographers from India shot about 90 hours of footage during the Macau wedding, and more than 100 hours in Bangkok; about 8,000 professional photographs were taken at each wedding.

Wowed by the horses, marching bands and Bollywood entertainers on display at the Macau and Bangkok weddings, Mr. Karia’s 23-year-old son, Mit, who recently got engaged, says: “I want something like that.”

“When you get married in your own city, the wedding becomes a fish market,” he says, pointing to the weddings in Mumbai and New Delhi that bulge with 1,000 or more guests because of social obligations. And with weddings sometimes back-to-back, one celebration can blend into another.

That’s why these days many young Indians long to set themselves apart with an overseas wedding. Geetika Mehrotra, editor of Bride & Style magazine in New Delhi, was one of them. She and her husband originally wanted to hold their 2007 wedding in Phuket. “It’s more relaxed, more fun,” she says. But neither side of the family could whittle down its guest list to 150 people. In the end, the wedding celebrations proceeded in New Delhi—for 3,000 people.

Mr. Karia is considering getting married in Singapore next year. His father knows it will be time to up the ante, given an anticipated guest list with mostly the same faces. And the family is braced—this time not to outdo the “Joneses” but to best themselves.

“Obviously,” says the senior Mr. Karia, the invitees will “expect more than the last one. That’s basic human nature.”

—Margot Cohen is a Bangalore-based writer


September 28, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized |

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