This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here.
In 2004, the then most expensive wedding in history (outside of royalty) took place in France.
Yet the couple getting hitched were not French. They were Indians.
The bride was Vanisha Mittal, daughter of one of the world’s richest men, steel billionaire, Lakshmi Mittal. The wedding was held at the historic 17th century Chateau Veaux le Vicomte near Paris with the engagement having taken place at the Palace of Versailles. Kylie Minogue was flown in and paid more than $300,000 to perform for just half an hour. Barely enough time for the pop princess to gyrate her way through a handful of her most well-known hits.
In total the wedding cost $66 million, twice what it cost Prince William and Kate Middleton to marry several years later.
Image credit. Shankar S. CC 2.0
Asian weddings have gained worldwide notoriety for their colour, pageantry, and lavishness. The subcontinental wedding industry is huge business, but at its heart lurks a sinister social dilemma: in countries where the average income is still close to poverty levels, how do these communities justify such extravagance?
The answer lies in the perception that weddings have in these regions. They are far more than the coming together of two individuals to share vows and begin a life together. In fact, it might be argued that the bride and groom are the least important people at their own wedding.
Asian weddings are, primarily, about the families, and the signals they are broadcasting to the community within which they are entrenched. Wedding expenditure is proof of the socioeconomic status of a family. As such, upper-middle-class families spend a small fortune on their offsprings’ weddings, with parents beginning planning years in advance. No expense is spared: lavish venues, tailored costumes, eye-wateringly expensive bridal jewellery, banquets to shame a king’s table, entertainment schedules to rival major pop concerts, herds of caparisoned horses, camels, elephants… If you can think of it, some Asian family has probably spent a fortune on it.
Unsurprisingly, this frenzied Keeping up with the Patels and the Khans has bankrupted many – all to impress friends and family.
Yet, for those who are not steel billionaires, for those at the lowest levels of society, this type of social pressure can lead to ruin.
Poor families often end up borrowing from moneylenders, at extortionate rates of interest, to finance their children’s marriages, with the result that they themselves end up as little more than bonded labour.
This is particularly the case for the bride’s parents. Though the 1961 Dowry Prohibition Act in India ostensibly outlawed the practice of dowry, it continues to persist. These days, instead of asking for an out and out cash payment, grooms’ families often demand expensive wedding gifts or the wedding costs to be borne by the bride’s parents. In such circumstances, the pressure to spend on a wedding can lead to truly terrible consequences for those bearing the brunt of the expenditure.
Bollywood and social media have exacerbated the problem, peddling images of the ‘big fat Indian wedding’ that feed into the cycle of aspirational competitiveness that has infected the new, educated, middle-class. (Indeed, one of the biggest Bollywood hits of all time was basically one very long wedding video.) Hiring wedding planners has now become commonplace, as well as the fusing of western and Indian traditions. Foreign destination weddings are on the rise – for those that can afford them.
Yet, social conservatism remains at the heart of the Asian marriage.
Asians, no matter how westernised in their thinking, wouldn’t dream of a simple beach wedding, the bride and groom dressed in Hawaiian outfits, with just a handful of their best friends in attendance. Parents and families continue to exercise control over almost every aspect of the process – using family networks and hiring marriage brokers to ensure good matches (for instance, the right caste or community and social standing), and ensuring that nothing is left to chance on the big day.
The mythology of the Big Fat Asian Wedding has seeped into every aspect of culture in countries such as India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
Until the level of social importance attached to such occasions diminishes, there will be little curbing of the vast excesses that have caused both delight and heartache for so many.
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This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.
All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff.