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Vowing to be virtuous
At the Royal Western India Turf Club, a man balancing a pink turban on his head is doing the Govinda dance in front of a bemused horse, a mobile bar and DJ propped on to a tempo. Between chugs of whisky and thumps of Ooh la la, he tells other turbaned men and women wrapped in bling that the groom has flown a British Punjabi pop star firstclass from London to perform at the sangeet, rented a vintage car to take his bride home and bought each guest a Rs 3, 000-fondue set as a return present. When his audience begins gasping at the pretension, he quickly interjects: "But you know, we have visually challenged massage therapists for the guests. "
The big, fat Indian wedding will clearly never undergo bariatric surgery, even after food and consumer affairs minister K V Thomas reportedly slammed its "extravagant and luxurious functions", but it seems to have attempted a minor heart transplant. Wedding planners say that bridal couples and their families are increasingly requesting them to source the return presents for guests from charitable organisations;wedding gifts received by the couple are being donated to such organisations;and differently abled people are being roped into the wedding tasks.
It could be the urge to "make a statement" or the genuine desire to give a bit while splurging a lot, but the Indian wedding has made a tiny place for charity, with some help from wedding planners who are always on the lookout for "something different". Wedding planner Meher Sarid says she launched her own guerrilla movement to have brides and grooms splurge on products that eventually benefit the underprivileged. "I don't ask my clients if they would like to do charity, I just inform them that I will be sourcing some products from NGOs. I get cloth bags and wrapping paper from Literacy India and candles from blind schools. If I find that the products need to be dressed up, I take that up personally, " she says.
Meghna Chitalia, head of wedding planning agency Party Planet, also has a handy list of recommendations. "We've had differently abled people welcome guests at receptions, manage bangle-making stalls at mehendi ceremonies, perform malkhamb dances at sangeets and play the shehnai, " she says. "At one wedding, we had a visually challenged man tying turbans for the baraat, and at another the couple made a wish by releasing a helium balloon with a group of street children. "
Not all charitable gestures veer into cornball territory. When Meher Gandevia-Billimoria decided to have her saree border replicated on her wedding invite by Shirajul, a child affiliated to non-profit Akanksha, she was keen to spread awareness about the NGO. Billimoria, as former head of education at Akanksha, had spent years working with children from lowincome households and seen their lives transform through art. "I wanted my wedding card to be simple and resonate with my work and with the life of those who I worked for. If the invite is about sending a message, I wanted it be meaningful, " she says.
Hem Agrawal, the father of a bride, was so determined to "share the right values" with wedding guests that he ferried 250 photo frames and notebooks made by the children at Akanksha to England as return presents. Even more hearteningly, guests were requested to transfer funds to the Akanksha Foundation instead of giving gifts or cash to the couple. "We tied up with Kids In Need Of Education, a British fund-raising agency that helps educate disadvantaged children in India and Nepal. The guests could easily log on and donate the money, and all the funds were finally transferred to Akanksha, " says Agrawal, who even put up a couple of posters outlining Akanksha's work at some of the functions to give the guests a better idea of where their money was going.
Agrawal, who studied and worked in the US for many years before returning to India two decades ago, also funds a higher education scholarship program for children from the Mumbai slums. "With a wedding, there are so many things one can do, " he says. "If the wedding had been in India, instead of having a big party I would have a small gathering with the children from some of the charities we support. "
While it's hard to imagine the likes of the Turf Club wedding couple practising the form of self-abnegation Agrawal recommends, the fact that the money-churning wedding industry is embracing philanthropy in whatever way it can has had some heart-warming effects. Rita Rana, whose husband works as a driver in Delhi, has now mastered the art of making the sequined mehendi potli or little gift bag containing goodies given away at pre-wedding mehendi ceremonies. "We are happy that weddings are giving us work. My children can go to a good school, I can contribute to the household income and even work from home on days I have guests, " says Rana, who joined Literacy India a few years ago. "After I get a little more experience, I will start my own boutique to supply to weddings. "
Sali Munissa Shah, an Akanksha beneficiary from Worli who now works part-time as assistant art teacher, has in the span of five years worked on products for eight weddings. "It takes me less than half an hour to produce a wedding card design, " she says. "Of course, orders to make hand-painted wooden bangles for mehendi ceremonies can take a few days but we love our work here. "
According to Indraani Singh, secretary of nonprofit Literacy India and a pilot with Indian Airlines, while the idea of weaving philanthropy into wedding celebrations is yet to fully take off, the NGO sector has learnt to get savvier in terms of making and marketing products targeted at the wedding industry. Literacy India, for instance, provides silk wine bags, gift bags, ring pouches and other handmade paper memorabilia. "I've lost count of the number of projects we've done for weddings, " says Singh, adding that there is a lot of interest from NRIs who want to have a typical blingy Indian wedding but also do some social good. "For instance, a couple living in Philadelphia approached us to design wedding cards that reflected a simple Indian sensibility, " she says.
Ruchika Gupta, director of Art for Akanksha, says the NGO has done small but impactful work for weddings, from give-away bags and wedding invites to photo frames and bangles. And Dr Radhike Khanna, vice-principal of the SPJ Sadhana School which works with the differently abled, says the school supplies everything from hand-crafted chocolates to be sent out with wedding invites and baked goodies to decorative trays and garlands.
For Billimoria, who had her wedding card made by the kids at Akanksha, the invite helped connect with friends she had lost touch with. "One of my friends from Bangkok, where I lived earlier, sent me a message, " she says. The message was: 'It was nice to see the birds on the card that brought us the message of your wedding. What was nicer was that your invitation shared culture and sentiments. That's what weddings and the marriage relationship should be made of. We won't be able to join you but will ask the birds to carry back our blessings to you. '
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