On a sultry evening last month, a raucous procession of men wearing embroidered designer kurtas and women in glittering silk saris danced through a banquet hall's parking lot behind an eight-piece brass band belting out bhangra beats.
The groom, his face hidden behind a floral veil, trailed the line, perched on a dappled white horse. In keeping with the Indian tradition, it was an extravagant wedding, full of ceremonies and loud, all-night celebrations for the nearly 2,000 guests. Such splendour was lost at Indian weddings last year. The country's recession turned them into relatively modest affairs, with brides and grooms cutting bank on ceremonies, feasts and wedding attire.
But as India's economy rebounds, the grandeur is making a swift comeback this wedding season, which runs from April to the end of next month. With Indians splurging again, the big, fat Indian wedding has grown bigger and fatter, observers say. "Those days when people just don't see the absurdity of spending millions on a wedding dress are back," says Kalyani Karandikar, a wedding planner in Mumbai.
Ms Karandikar says that in the past two years, especially in the peak of the recession, the wedding budgets of her clients shrivelled from about 20 million rupees (Dh1.5m) to 10m rupees. Brides wore diamonds instead of increasingly expensive gold jewellery. Some settled for unlabelled dresses instead of designer bridal clothes. Now, with the recession blues fading fast, Indian weddings are grander still.
Ms Karandikar's job entails arranging not just the nuptials but the pre-wedding ceremonies such as the sangeet, the traditional music and dance extravaganza, and the mehendi ceremony, where the bride's arms and legs are painted with dried henna. She was reluctant to disclose how much her clients were spending but did report that budgets have grown by millions of rupees this season. The guest lists have also grown longer. A wedding she is organising for a Mumbai-based industrialist at a five-star hotel today will welcome 4,000 people.
Some of the lavish celebrations bring in Egyptian belly dancers, French crystal jugglers and Bollywood actors to entertain the growing numbers of guests. It is estimated that 10 million weddings take place in India each year, according to the 2001 census. Some of the high-end weddings cost as much as US$500,000 (Dh1.8m). Indian weddings are estimated to be worth 1.25 trillion rupees a year and that amount is growing at an annual rate of 25 per cent, according to Technopak Advisors, a Gurgaon-based management consultancy.
And the country's jewellery market is worth 600 billion rupees, half of which is spent on weddings. The growing wedding industry has created a demand for a new set of professionals - the wedding planners, cinematographers, set designers, even the telemarketing agents who provide reminders to guests. Sumant Jayakrishnan, a New Delhi-based "scenographer" and set designer became a wedding set designer eight years ago "quite by accident".
A friend asked him to design a set for his friend's wedding. His popularity then spread by word of mouth and he soon had a clientele comprising wealthy industrialists and businessmen. They want artsy venues for weddings, which can cost as much as "6m to 7m" rupees, Mr Jayakrishnan says. "For me, the recession never existed," he says. "People are pulling out all the stops to have a classy, memorable wedding, recession or no recession."
For the wedding in the family of a New Delhi industrialist in November, Mr Jayakrishnan created a set with Tanjore paintings - a centuries-old art form native to the town of Thanjavur in southern India involving Indian gods and goddesses - "which was a rage". "The demand for quality, style and taste is growing in the wedding business," he says. This boom may be related to the increasing affluence of some Indians. The World Wealth Report released this month by Capgemini and Merrill Lynch Wealth Management said India has 126,700 dollar millionaires, the second largest number in Asia after Hong Kong
This year eight Indians were on Forbes magazine's list of the top 100 billionaires. "People are spending huge sums of money to plan their weddings and get their outfits made in style," said a recent report by Insight Instore, a Bangalore trend research and retail consultancy. "Luxury brands can cash in on this trend and target the uber rich." Cartier, Christian Dior, Louis Vuitton, Armani and Versace are among the luxury retailers that have entered India in the last two years to serve the super rich.
Data from Luxurion World 2009, a trade event for the luxury market that took place in Mumbai last November, showed that India's luxury market was worth about $4.35bn and should grow to $13.28bn by 2015. "The Indian market is important for jewellery brands because globally the demand for diamonds during a wedding is usually restricted to the rings," Binita Cooper, the country head of Forevermark, the diamond brand of the mining giant De Beers, told the Press Trust of India.
"But here there is demand for elaborate necklaces, bangles and even the guys wear diamonds as buttons on their sherwanis." The wedding season is also expected to buoy sales of gold, which had fallen sharply in recent months because of soaring prices. India's gold jewellery sector accounted for 75 per cent of the country's total gold demand last year. But gold imports fell by 39 per cent last month from the same month last year as gold prices hit a record 18,000 rupees for 10 grams. Just two months earlier, 10 grams of gold cost 16,500 rupees.
The "average 10 million marriages [taking] place in India every year could help maintain the gold demand in the country", the World Gold Council said. Along with the booming wedding industry, e-matrimony, or the web matchmaking business, has grown. The number of online matrimonial registrations is expected to hit 20.8 million by next year with revenue of $63m, according to a 2008 report by EmPower Research.
"One of the most popular milestones emerging on the web is marriage matchmaking," said Kyung Han, the managing director of EmPower. "Its popularity has grown mainly due to convenience and cost savings." email@example.com