To anyone else, it would sound like an incredulous pairing: a cricket stadium and The Palm Islands, Dubai. But the two key elements in 29-year-old Neelabh Kapoor’s plans for a late-2007 wedding are part of his “larger than life concept, that works around the idea of earth meets sky”. The main stage is capped with a flying dome and London-imported floating real-life cupids, while water bodies inspired by The Palm are peppered across the floor space.
Kapoor is a wedding planner, who heads the creative department of Wizcraft, the Mumbai event-management company that was a front-runner in the race to organize the Aishwarya-Abhishek wedding. Folks like Kapoor’s clients follow one principle when it comes to a wedding: those who can, do.
Some of the shiniest examples of Indian-style weddings were seen over the last two years, with a spate of high-profile I-dos, each one more fanciful than the other. They kicked off in February 2006 with hotelier Vikram Chatwal’s nuptials, which was broadcast on Discovery, and reached new highs (one father-in-law might say lows) with the Hurley-Nayar bash last month, featured in Hello! magazine. The capstone event, despite the lack of a riot, was of course the Aishwarya Rai-Abhishek Bachchan wedding, carried out under the strictest gag orders by Prateeksha insiders. And then there are the events we don’t really know what to make of, like the Vaswani wedding in Dubai for which one half of Bollywood rehearsed and costumed.
The list of society nuptials has, if nothing else, refocused attention on the BIG Indian wedding, its grand, far-reaching themes and the community of people who put them together, the wedding planners. As marriages get grander in scale and scheme, they are more in demand than ever. For instance, for the Vaswani nuptials, Mumbai’s leading planner, Gurlein Manchanda, and her team were in Dubai a week in advance, to put the final touches to the event to which she said, “the entire world will come”.
Between Delhi and Mumbai, there are a handful of top planners. But these few execute some of our most colourful bashes, planning about 30 big weddings annually from the two metros. Your average “big” wedding is defined as one in which folks spend at least Rs4 crore on multiple events. “We do about eight weddings a year, and none of them are ‘small’, in fact we’ve had to turn people down because their events weren’t big enough,” says Martin Da Costa, CEO of Seven Steps, the wedding-planning group of Mumbai event-management company, Seventy.
It’s not a coincidence that in these large-scale events, the mandap and arena are referred to as a “set”, in fact some are even more complicated than a movie set. In Kapoor’s cricket stadium-meets-The-Palm project, the key element, the “flying dome”, is supported from outside the enclosure by three cranes. A three-year planning veteran, who used to be at Seventy, Kapoor will spend the next several months planning this extravaganza, with much of his team of 22 working on this one wedding. “It will take more than a month to fabricate,” says Kapoor, and more than 300 people working on-site.
At Seven Steps, the most idiosyncratic nuptials they’ve organized had 16 synchronized swimmers from Russia in a green pool in the middle of the Rajasthan desert; another was conducted inside a remake of Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom. At New Delhi’s FNP Wedding Events, a business family has a new demand for a November wedding in Udaipur: A silver boat—poised on a river—in which the couple will exchange garlands while being showered with flowers from a helicopter and Baharon phool barsaon playing in the background. Another client has requested that the colour of the curries in the buffet match the shade of the blue table linen. “A large part of a wedding is about entertainment. Only a very small part of the whole proceedings is about the ceremony,” says Preetha Singh, CEO of Percept D’Mark India (PDM), which launched Wedding Management Services last week.
For high-profile business families, a wedding is also about opportunities, for publicity, and reciprocity. “We know so many people, and when one is organizing a wedding in Delhi, the list of invitees is endless. Who do you leave out?” says Vandana Luthra, founder of the VLCC fitness chain, whose daughter, Meera, got married in Delhi last year. For planners, every wedding is an audition, the general rule being: If someone liked it, they’ll call. Especially important for companies like Seven Steps, among the largest with eight planners working full-time, in a business that’s cyclical.
Then there’s the veritable army of hundreds who put the event together, from carpenters to architects and designers. “I don’t want people sitting on steel chairs, so my teams do everything. I have a wrought iron team, a flower team, etc.,” says Manchanda. Since the main reason for hiring a planner is that the family can unload the nitty-gritty—sometimes doing everything from invitations to post-wedding replies—perfection is expected. “With business commitments through the year, it’s difficult to organize the small details. I don’t know what is happening in the market and it’s tough to find people like flower guys, lightwalas, etc., to translate a concept,” says Luthra.
Like most unorganized sectors in India, it’s difficult to put an exact value on the wedding market. Some quote valuations of almost Rs10,000 crore, but it’s impossible to corroborate, especially when the definition of a “wedding expense” can include anything from jewellery to the flower boys. Business families, diamond merchants and NRIs make up a significant portion of high-end clients. Some spend as much as Rs8 crore, but non-disclosure agreements are a part of that process.
PDM’s Singh says the business is worth Rs4 crore to Rs6 crore a year for her firm; in a good year, they do about 20 big and small weddings, so the figure can swing in either direction. Singh is especially open, most planners never delve into figures; at Seventy, they charge a flat management fee, while Manchanda and the single-name brigade usually do a percentage—anywhere till about 5%—of the wedding set-up cost (just a five-star banquet hall costs more than Rs10 lakh to hire, and then there’s the entertainment, hospitality and logistics). “75% of my payment comes from the plan, so it’s important to have a story to tell, not just what goes where,” says Kapoor.
The effort starts with a meeting. “One meeting at the client’s home is important. Once we understand what they like, we discuss budgets. Actual presentations and three-D models are executed only after this research is out of the way,” says Vandana Mohan, the Delhi-based planner who designed the Chatwal saga.
A minimum of three different concept presentations, complete with sketches and mood boards, are a must. “We often make multiple presentations, to the men, then the women, and finally to the family team that will be liaising with us,” says Singh. Everything goes back to the drawing board for mixing and matching, before a final call is taken. “Some clients like to see a visual before they decide, so we construct a miniature set complete with tableware, linen, and decorations for them to get a feel,” says Mohan. With contracts becoming a norm, she says some clients match every item on the contract with the output on the final day. “At one wedding, a family member went around with a checklist to see if the number of bulbs and the number of bows on the chairs matched the contract.”
One way to distract is a Bollywood star. They’ll mingle as one of the family or perform, depending on the demands of the occasion. But be ready to pay up; even Katrina Kaif, not quite the Zinta or Mukerji grade, commands up to Rs20 lakh for an appearance; the male superstars are double that figure.
But then, a floating cupid might also do the trick.
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