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Cover Story

Yes, I do, in Honolulu

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There’s a new marker in India for those who have well and truly arrived — destination weddings.

There's a new marker in India for those who have well and truly arrived - destination weddings. From Florence to Phuket, from Jodhpur to Jamaica, the rich and the well-heeled are announcing their presence in high society by organising nuptials in exotic locales.

When 30-year-old Rhea Singh, a Mumbai lawyer, decided to get married recently, it led to the inevitable family fight on the dining table. Her mother wanted to invite what Rhea dismissed as "random relatives whom I wouldn't recognise". She, on the other hand, wanted just close friends and family to be present on the special occasion. It was then that she suddenly had a brainwave. "Let's do the wedding away from Mumbai. How about Morocco?" she suggested, half-joking. "That way we can keep it small."

For young Pratik Aggarwal and his fiancêe, it was not guest elimination, but the search for an extra-special wedding venue, that led them to a remote hillside off the Mumbai-Pune expressway. It seemed perfect for the Bollywood-style dance show they put up, in which bride and groom played the roles of hero and heroine from different eras, much like Saif and Sonali Kulkarni in Dil Chahta Hai. And no one could complain about noise deadlines.

Whether it is driven by the desire to keep away gossipy aunts, or an appetite for 'something different', destination weddings are becoming the norm rather than the exception, especially among the wealthy and the aspiring. And it may range from Goa - for the more basic - to Istanbul, Mauritius and even Honolulu as you go up the wow scale.

Recently, two of India's wealthiest families made heads turn when they flew several hundred people to Florence for a wedding. Tanvi, the younger daughter of industrialist Sajjan Jindal, and Krishna, the son of businessman Raju Shete, had what many guests called a "dream wedding", with ethereal dinner parties held in Renaissance palaces and old railway stations.

Top vendors - ranging from chef Ritu Dalmia to make-up artist Cory Walia - were flown in, after signing nondisclosure agreements promising to keep all the preparations under wraps. Guests joked that it was going to be a gorgeous affair of dosas in the Duomo.

While the Jindals went out of their way to keep the event private and discreet, making special efforts to keep the press at bay. most well-heeled Indians use destination weddings as a new marker of their status and wealth, happy to solicit media coverage, says Parthip Thyagarajan, director of www. weddingsutra. com, an information resource on celebrity and destination weddings. "Ask a middle-class Indian who Lakshmi Mittal is and quite likely you'll hear that he is the man who hosted the most spectacular wedding for his daughter at Palace Versailles, " he says. "A whole lot of self-made billionaires work to give their son or daughter the most dazzling wedding and earn for themselves a name, an image or a reputation in the minds of millions. "

Destination weddings are nothing new, though. In fact, they have been very popular in the west, especially among the moneyed. The difference is that in India they are driven not so much by a desire to do something different as by the well-known malaise of the noveau riche to flaunt it. Then there is the oneupmanship to account for - if a business family can recreate a Mughal court as a wedding venue in Phuket, another can surely outdo it by conjuring up a mini-England in the heart of Rajasthan.

At a gutka baron's wedding last year, a 36-piece orchestra was flown in from London to play a range of tunes, from Beethoven to Raj Kapoor hits. The wedding venue at Jag Mandir was made to look like an English carnival, complete with human props.

But Goa and Rajasthan are now old hat. Even Phuket draws a yawn. The new wedding venues include Caribbean beaches, French vineyards, Spanish castles or aboard a cruise-liner. One luxury travel agency is even touting Richard Branson's Necker Island, which sits like a jewel in the Caribbean, as a wedding destination that can be hired out by wideeyed hopefuls.

Take the case of Josh Boaz and Reina Punjabi, who took their vows amidst the serene blue waters of the Indian Ocean, at a chapel with floor-to-ceiling glass walls in Bali. Tastefully placed orchids filled the Tirtha Uluwatu chapel perched on a cliff overlooking the sea. A select set of guests from Sri Lanka, Japan and India graced the wedding of the Indian-origin couple settled in the US. "It was an elegant affair, " says the groom's cousin, Asha Boaz Ramesh. "The couple wanted a romantic wedding by the sea. It also helped that Bali was a mid-point for all their relatives to assemble at. "

Santosh Desai, social commentator and author of Mother Pious Lady: Making Sense of Everyday India, says unusual and exotic weddings have become the new differentiator between the haves and the havenots, a way of distinguishing oneself from the average person. "If you look at the penetration of consumer durables in India, there is very little differentiation today between very wealthy people and ordinary people, minus a few tiny things here or there. So, at one level, because there is democratisation happening in things you own, you can only differentiate yourself in other ways. A wedding is universal currency. It speaks out loud, " he says.

Desai adds that there is another dimension to the obsession with these high-end weddings - the Indian's enduring love for fantasy. "Over a period of time, people who do well start believing that their blood has slowly turned blue. It is hardly surprising that a number of offsite weddings take place in erstwhile Rajasthani palaces that have been transformed into high-end hotels, with the bride and groom actually posing in full regal attire for photo-shoots, pretending they were born-again royals. It becomes especially fun when the guest list includes foreigners or even 'firangi Indians' who can then happily participate in the enduring fantasy of India as an exotic, princely, jewelstudded nation. " (See Got cash? Spend on experience)

One of the bizarre reasons why destination weddings are now popular is that there was a time when the multi-crore events attracted way too much attention from undesirables - from extortionists to angry activists. Some time in the late '80s, when the big fat Indian wedding suddenly became the new thing, a diamond merchant held an enormous wedding at Wankhede stadium in Mumbai which raised eyebrows across the city. The celebrations were marred by protestors and NGO activists who felt it was in terrible taste.

Not surprisingly, people started planning off-site weddings just to keep unwanted elements at bay. Take the case of Patna-based industrialist Keshav Mittal (name changed), who had no option but to plan a Goa wedding for his daughter Reema, engaged to a Kanpur boy. Though the father would have preferred a wedding in his home city, a lavish ceremony in the capital of Bihar would have only invited trouble. "As soon as my daughter got engaged, I started receiving extortion calls from local goons and workers of political parties. Their demands were exorbitant - they were asking for 50 per cent of the total bill. They even threatened me and my family with dire consequences and promised they would not allow the wedding to take place if I did not pay up, " he says.

Deciding against reporting the matter to the police, the family booked a five-star hotel in southern Goa instead. "We did not have to exceed our budget and all our guests were more than glad that the ceremony was in Goa. For them it was a holiday as well - unlike most traditional Marwari weddings, which can be really tiring for the guests. We did, eventually, pay the goondas but the amount was only a fraction of what they had originally demanded. In Patna, I'd have had to pay for the smallest things - even the electricity department officials - to make sure the wedding went off smoothly. "

It wasn't extravagance, but a need to keep it low-key that influenced Bangalore-based dancer Padmini Ravi's choice of venue for daughter Lakshmi's wedding. "Both Lakshmi and Varun, and their respective families, were very clear that it had to be a small, intimate, meaningful affair, " Ravi says. "In big weddings it's often an obligation for guests to be there and there's not much of a connect. By keeping it a small affair in a distant destination we were ensuring that only those who really mattered and wished the couple well were there. "

While the really rich could hardly care less, distant weddings do not come cheap. Dhaval Chandarana, associate vice president of Percept D'Mark wedding management services, says that the cost of organising a destination wedding works out to about Rs 10, 000 to Rs 15, 000 per person per day or $150 to $200 if the choice is one of the usual favourites (Goa, Rajasthan or Thailand). "If it's at a more exotic location, the costs will spiral with expensive inventories for the Indian dêcor and labour (which works by the hour), " he says.

Indeed, the offsite wedding has spawned an elaborate industry of vendors and planners. As revelries are on local residents definitely make merry, says Padmaja Kumari Mewar, joint managing director, HRH hotels in Udaipur. With elaborate and customised orders being carried out to perfection, it is natural for the local economy to flourish. Though ascertaining the exact amount is no mean task, an estimate can be gauged from the fact that for the Liz Hurley-Arun Nayar wedding, the designers spent two months doing research and employed close to 300 artisans for almost 30 days to put everything in place.

"It's a definitive boost to the economy. When we go ahead with a ceremony for close to 550 people, we deploy around 300 labour and 250 specialised staff for an extra two days, " says Mewar, adding, "All the things are locally arranged and we provide a coordinator who facilitates the proceedings. "

Celebrity weddings apart, the number of notso-famous yet lavish weddings of Indians and NRIs in palace-dotted Rajasthan is increasing every year, making the market flourish. Last year, for example, a Pune-based textile importer came to Jodhpur looking for a venue to host his son's nuptials. He booked not one but four heritage properties for the generous two-day wedding. His 100 guests stayed at Ajit Bhawan palace and Ranbanka;the sangeet was hosted at Fort Chanwa, 40 kilometers from Jodhpur, while the couple exchanged vows at Balsamand Lake palace.

Big or not so big, these weddings last year bailed out a clutch of hotels during the recession, helping them stay afloat. As the manager of a leading Rajasthan hotel says on condition of anonymity: "Last season, in just three months the Jodhpur region hosted close to 15 such weddings and the demand is on the rise. On an average, hosting 100 guests for a day at a place like Umaid Bhavan would cost the guest something close to Rs 30 lakh, Rs 15-20 lakh for stay and another Rs 15 lakh for catering. The same gathering at a smaller venue near Jodhpur, like Fort Chanwa, would cost anything between Rs 7-10 lakh a day. "

The locales, though, are getting more and more distant and exotic. And many are already bored with the usual Goa-Rajasthan-Thailand circuit. "There was this most exotic wedding set on the Hawaiian beaches, " exclaims Honii Sandhu, a designer and franchisee owner of a fashion school, who has been besotted with Hawaii ever since one of her clients wed there last year. "Though the wedding wasn't as grand as our regular big Indian wedding, it was perfect in every little detail they had incorporated, " says Sandhu, who was one of the bride's trousseau designers. Besides this one client, Sandhu has personally known more people who prefer Hawaii as a marriage venue.

Bali, with its pristine beaches and numerous resorts by the sea, is another favourite venue for those wanting a fantasy wedding, says Akila Srikant, CEO of Footprints Holidays. "You have the option of getting married with a setting sun as a fabulous backdrop. Or you can walk over a pool to reach a picturesque chapel. " With more young Indians finding non-Indian spouses, the weddings are also moving out, she says. "A family from Chennai picked a small village in the south of France for their daughter's wedding because the groom is part-French and part-Algerian. "

Needless to say, wedding planners have been quick to rise to the occasion. Chandarana says, "The planning process, which starts at least six months in advance, has a team of planners making a minimum of three trips with an entourage of close to 50 people. We need to figure out where to source things for the dêcor locally. Flowers are crucial. " He recalls a nightmarish time they had in Madrid where they ended up shouting their lungs out trying to make themselves understood to local workers hired by them. None of them spoke a word of English.

Undeterred by the long distance, Gautam Puniya, who runs his own consultancy in Delhi and is engaged to his long-time girlfriend, has his eyes set on a wedding in the Bahamas. "The Islands of the Bahamas are just so pristine and romantic to marry in. Surrounded by beauty of the waters and warmth in the air, tropical Bahamas is picture perfect for two people out to embark on a journey of love, " he says, already getting into a romantic mood for the nuptials. "Ideally, I would want to marry in a yacht amidst the water, " he adds. "And what's more? I will not have to invest too much in a honeymoon thereafter as we can proceed on our honeymoon there itself. "

Interestingly, destination weddings in places like Goa, and even Thailand, can also end up cheaper than ones in, say, a five-star hotel in Mumbai or Delhi. For one, the number of guests can be contained. Second, hotels in such places throw generous off-season discounts for wholesale bookings. It is hardly surprising, then, that the Indian wedding has dumped traditional ballrooms and marriage halls and moved onto a beachy resort or gorgeous hilltop.

(Inputs from Avinash Kalla in Jaipur, Vishant Agarwala in Delhi, Jaspreet Nijjer in Chandigarh, Priya Bala in Bangalore, Sandhya Soman in Chennai and Andrew Pereira in Panaji. Written by Namita Devidayal in Mumbai. )

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