Indian Weddings Go Mainstream

Cover Story- August 2008

A look at why these lavish, pageantry-laden affairs are making a mark in the U.S., and the rich stories of cultural enigma and endearment that come about as a result.

 

By DEVIKA RAO

 

“What’s a dressed up horse doing in our parking lot?!”

 

Jill Bish, catering sales manager at the Atlanta Marriott Gwinnett Place hotel in Duluth, Georgia, recalls being asked this frantic question by a bewildered hotel security employee during one of the first few Indian weddings that they had catered to. Bish, now a veteran of these weddings, describes them as “marathons at the pace of sprint.” At the time, though, she was yet to be fully exposed to the chaos, customs and intricacies of these otherworldly events. When she inquired with the mother of the bride about the horse in the parking lot, she got an “Oh, you didn’t know?” expression from her. This important detail of the baraat procession, for which the spruced up stallion was now adorning the front of the hotel, had never been communicated to the hotel!

 

Confusion and chaos, intrigue and awe, and a massive dose of cultural exchange are bound to be the byproducts as the world of Indian weddings lumbers into the cultural consciousness of mainstream America.

 

The in-your-face baraat, a staple of many Indian weddings, with its often large procession of colorfully-attired folks dancing to loud bhangra music, playing out in the parking lot of a five-star hotel in an American metro may well be one of the classic vignettes of our times: a vignette signifying globalization, the rapid metamorphosis of the American landscape, and the growing stock of Indian weddings in America.

 

The phenomenon is now widespread enough to have started to register on the radar of American pop culture. Sitcoms like Seinfeld and The Simpsons have generated laughter at the expense of themes surrounding desi nuptials. On the flip side, though, Presidential candidate Barack Obama mentions them in passing in his book, The Audacity of Hope, as one of the common multicultural experiences of our times that he has experienced. Earlier this year, WE tv, the popular women’s channel, aired an episode featuring an Indian themed wedding of an American couple, Kristen and Brandon. The episode was presented under their banner, “Culture Clash Weddings,” in which wedding couples agree to a surprise ceremony and reception arranged by the producers of the show. In this case the surprise was the Indian theme — complete with a traditional ceremony, havan (ceremonial fire), mehndi party, and a baraat. It was a total immersion for Kristen, Brandon, their families, and the thousands of viewers of the episode into what surely must have appeared to them as an exotic—and perhaps even strange—world. The families were dressed in full ethnic regalia, including silk head turbans for men. The topper of the show and the wedding was the groom’s grand entry on no less than an elephant!

 

Bish represents a growing number of mainstream hotels and vendors such as wedding planners, photographers, videographers, decorators, wedding cake bakers and other specialty providers that are now servicing this rapidly expanding market. In the process, these vendors are at the forefront of an industry straddling two very different worlds of wedding customs, dresses, rituals, traditions and cultures. Alice in Wonderland surely had a tamer experience than American wedding vendors who were, up until recent years, used to relatively muted, dignified and elegant proceedings, but are now taking up the challenge of serving Indian weddings characterized by complexity, regional variety, a never-ending set of mystifying rituals, bold color, loudness, chaos, and grandeur.

 

Growing appeal : the reasons why

 

Why is the Indian wedding becoming increasingly popular in the U.S.? Two reasons come to the fore — these weddings are a spectacular novelty and they are big business for the wedding industry. Indeed, a recent article on BBC News, titled “US tastes Indian wedding spectaculars”, epitomizes both those reasons. The article is sub-titled, “Traffic comes to a halt and heads turn when she walks down the street. A date with her costs anything upward of $8500.” The “she” in the sub-title refers to an elephant! The article goes on to say that Indians with deep pockets are queuing up to rent elephants and horses for baraats, and that the cost of renting an elephant can go up to $30,000 depending on the distance.

 

Rita Patel of Ribha Event Planning, an Atlanta-based wedding planner specializing in Indian weddings, estimates the average number of guests at these events at 350 and the average cost at about $70,000. In comparison, the average cost of an American wedding is pegged at $28,704 by The Wedding Report, Inc., a research company that tracks and forecasts the number of weddings, spending, and consumer trends for the wedding industry.

 

However, according to Patel and several other planners and vendors that we spoke to, Indian weddings with over 500 guests and costs in excess of $100,000 are far from uncommon. Krishna Murthy, one of several photographers who make a living serving this segment, said the average fee for his services alone could range from $3000 to $5000. For a recent wedding, his services cost $9,500 and included initial meetings with clients, location and mood photographs of the couple and their families in different settings and backgrounds, three days of shooting a variety of events surrounding the wedding, several hours of editing, color correction and lab work. The final deliverables to the client included a gigantic coffee table type album produced in Italy.

 

Being such a lucrative and rapidly growing segment, Indian weddings are naturally an increasingly attractive niche for the mainstream wedding industry. According to Bish, as much as 60 percent of the wedding business of the Atlanta Marriott Gwinnett Place now comes from this niche. In just two years, these weddings have doubled in number at this Marriott. Marsha Middleton, director of public relations at the Four Seasons Hotel in Atlanta, has also seen a rise in their number. Moreover, she confirms, these weddings are comparatively bigger, both in terms of the average cost and the number of guests.

 

Several major brand hotels have geared themselves to serve this rapidly growing market. It is not uncommon for them to have catering managers and other staff members such as wedding coordinators and chefs who specialize in or are well versed in Indian weddings. “Executive Chef Billy Skiber leads a creative and innovative flare to any Indian menu or cuisine,” advertises the Grand Hyatt Atlanta hotel in Buckhead, Georgia, on its Web site. Indian weddings are one of only two ethnic weddings advertised on their site, the other one being Jewish. The Sheraton, Westin and others routinely advertise in Khabar and other desi publications, offering themselves as venues for Indian weddings.

 

Robert Gerstenecker, executive chef at the Four Seasons Hotel, who has been called “one of Atlanta’s best chefs” by the Atlanta Cuisine magazine, has, over the years, been drawn to Indian food. Some of his Indian creations appear — in fusion form — on the menu of Park 75, the restaurant he heads at the Four Seasons. What drew this trendsetting chef into Indian cuisine is an amusing incident that eventually saw the mother of the bride helping out Gerstenecker and his staff right from the kitchen of the Four Seasons. It was the hotel’s first inquiry for an Indian wedding. The client had loved the venue but had insisted on having Indian cuisine at the wedding — even if it meant catering it from outside the hotel. Gersteneker’s first reaction to this was, “I don’t want people bringing food in my kitchen. That’s what I am here for.” That left him with no choice but to plunge head-on into the world of Indian cuisine if they were to be able to serve this client. He devoured books and watched Indian cooking videos online. He combined his newly acquired knowledge with his native ability as a chef and came up with a complete Indian menu for the wedding—including naans from a rented tandoor. Of course, Gerstenecker admitted, he couldn’t have done it without the active input and involvement of Mrs. Singh, the mother of the bride, who was frequently found in the kitchen of the Four Seasons during the run up to the wedding.

 

There is perhaps another significant reason for the spillover of desi weddings into the mainstream — the rising number of interracial marriages among second and third generation Indian Americans.

Many of the hotel venues and wedding planners interviewed for this story reported that more than a third, and in some cases, more than half of their total Indian weddings are of interracial couples. More often than not, in such marriages, the wedding is usually an Indian themed one, perhaps owing to the fact that such a ceremony is important to the tradition-bound Indian parents. Newlywed Jenna Haynes cites her mother-in-law’s strong desire to have a Hindu wedding as the reason why she and her husband Prem Shetty decided to have one, even though a traditional American one is also in the works. The Haynes-Shetty wedding was a full-fledged South Indian affair, with the bride as well as her parents dressed in traditional attire, along with the groom and his family.

 

Haynes and Shetty represent a growing population of such interracial couples. Not surprisingly, more and more Americans are finding themselves as family members or guests at these nuptials. As a result, there are now perhaps thousands of blue-eyed American families across the country that sport a wedding album of their son or daughter with photos of Caucasians (and other non-Indians) dressed in salwaar kameez and saris, or as jaunty participants of colorful baraats!

 

American wedding vendors: Speaking the language

 

As their repertoire of Indian weddings has grown, many American vendors have reached a point where they can now outdo their clients in their knowledge of Indian customs and requirements. “Professional associations are now teaching wedding planners how to plan and execute Indian weddings — in such detail that they also teach how to identify the region an Indian is from just by the last name,” observes Patel.

 

“We can speak the language now,” says Brian Ettelman, director of catering and conference services at the Four Seasons Hotel. “When we use words like ‘mandap’, their eyes light up,” he remarks about his interactions with Indian clients. Demonstrating a keen understanding of the various dynamics surrounding his Indian clientele, Etteleman observes that when they do receive conflicting input from family members, they tend to defer to the eldest female in the family.

 

Al Stauble, owner of the Gentle Giant Carriage Company, now knows a thing or two about servicing this market. About 10 years ago, she received her first call for a horse for an Indian wedding. Until then her company had catered mostly to American weddings, so the invitation for something new was a challenge. Stauble and her beloved horses rose to it with aplomb. They now do about 30 of these a year — all over the Southeast. Thanks to this segment, she has expanded her business to four horses that have likely heard all of the bhangra and other desi wedding music that one can possibly hear!

 

“Our clients definitely know what they want, and we have made it our business to cater to them,” says Stauble. Some clients request horse-drawn carriages to create a more regal effect for the couple’s big day. To blend in and keep up with the general ornateness of these weddings, Stauble has had red and gold covers custom made for the carriages. Her newest addition is the auspicious Hindu insignia of an Aum on the dash of one of the carriages.

 

Through the years, Stauble has also picked up on some of the nuances of the culture and adapted to the needs and sensibilities of her Indian clients.  Normally her staff wears black tuxedoes at major events to look distinct from the rest of the party. But she soon learnt that black was not an auspicious color to wear at an Indian wedding, and that her clientele would prefer her blending in. Thanks to a trip to an Indian clothing store, the stable owner and her staff now adorn themselves in saris, kurtas, and salwar kameez. 

 

A contrarian could well argue that despite these forays and the fact that each individual Indian wedding typically is a grand affair, collectively, they are still a tiny fraction of the multi-billion dollar wedding industry. The Association of Bridal Consultants is a professional organization for the wedding industry since 1955 and has over 4,000 members. Our repeated attempts over a couple of months to request a dialogue with them for this article were of no avail, although the association acknowledged our request. At least one mainstream wedding planner we spoke to admitted that while she recently planned a traditional American wedding for an Indian Catholic couple, she does not take-on Indian themed weddings, as she finds them too complex and unpredictable, and she doesn’t believe she can bring any of her expertise to it.

 

Cultural Osmosis

 

A phenomenon such as the growing visibility of Indian weddings in America is bound to have a cultural impact in its wake. Thanks primarily to them, Gerstenecker has perfected the cooking of basmati rice, offers samosas on his menu at Park 75, and keeps his kitchen well stocked with Indian spices. “Earlier, we would often make a mad dash to the Indian grocery store, but now we have all the necessary ingredients right down to the hing (‘asafetida’— a spice often used in Indian cuisine),” he declares.

 

Ettelman thinks Indian weddings may well be responsible for a broader trend he has been observing — of weddings becoming a whole weekend of festivities. “Families travel from far and there are multiple events throughout the weekend.” He also notices the infusion of strong colors in weddings as a broad trend. Bish feels that, inspired by the cultural significance of these weddings, more and more mainstream couples are now looking into their own roots to bring in family traditions. Cynthia E. Tucker of Ladybug Productions, an events planning company based in Los Angeles, California, now sees more henna parties at receptions. She also had an African American bride ask her about a doli — a decorated palanquin in which an Indian bride is brought — as she was completely fascinated by it at her Indian roommate’s wedding.

 

If Indian weddings are making an impact on the mainstream, however small, the reverse is also true. Small changes such as English translations of Sanskrit hymns — to accommodate the needs of non-Indian guests and family members who may not be familiar with the proceedings — have become common. Speaking of a broader, sweeping change, DJ Kumar of POHP Productions, a DJ firm serving this segment, talks about how the emergence of Indian weddings into the mainstream has made desi vendors more professional. “Ten years ago, we would DJ at places like Zyka or the old Maharaja restaurant. Now, the big hotels have opened their doors to our market, but they are also forcing professionalism upon us by making sure caterers have adequate liability insurance policies, and by insisting on forms and contracts.” “We are learning from American vendors, and they are learning from us,” adds Kumar.

 

Indian weddings: From the outside in

 

“Adventure” would be a great word to describe the planning of these affairs, says Bish, who was taken aback when she first heard the request for a havan in the ballroom.  “The only thing I could think of was ‘You want a fire where? In my ballroom?!’” she says, recalling frantically contacting her building engineers and the fire department to see if that could be done without compromising the safety of her guests. Now, after a few dozens of these weddings under her belt, she says, “Indian weddings are my favorite, because they are so beautiful and intricate, and the families are so warm and hospitable.”

 

Newlywed Lisa Bose says of her husband Danny Sullivan: “His biggest shock came from the amount of food [we had] and the expectation of feeding people every meal.” Ettelman concurs, “I don’t think I ever realized how hospitable Indian culture is. You pay for the hotel rooms, you pay for the flights, you pay for all the stuff. And you always want to make sure the guests are well-fed all through the day.”

 

According to Bose, Sullivan was also taken aback by how informal, loud and chaotic the whole event was. He forewarned his friends that it was not uncommon for people to be talking throughout the wedding ceremony, so they wouldn’t think the guests were being rude.

 

Bill Rubin of Vision Quest Photography based in Suwanee, Georgia, uses one word to sum up these galas: “chaos.” Through friends, Rubin landed his first Indian wedding, which turned out to be a bundle of surprises to say the least. It was far from anything he had experienced in all his years photographing American weddings. Talking about first impressions, he said, “A thing I noticed right off the bat was that the family was extremely warm and hospitable, and treated people like they were a part of the family rather than hired help. And even the other vendors were helpful. The videographer made sure I did not miss the important aspects of the ceremony.”

 

As the event progressed, Rubin found himself in a state of disbelief. “At first, I was absolutely shocked by the baraat,” recalls Rubin. He humorously describes the scene as a “mosh pit.” He had never had to fight so hard to stay inside the mayhem to get memorable photos. During the wedding ceremony, he was taken aback by the polar differences. “Western weddings are generally so quiet and calm, but the Indian ceremony was definitely where I had my first freak-out,” he recalls. Capturing every aspect of the ceremony was important, he was told; but with the animated guests, many of whom were also armed with cameras, Rubin found himself fighting for space to do his job.  

 

Another shocker to him was the vidai (when the bride bids farewell to her parents and the rest of the family). Rubin noticed everyone was teary-eyed. What really threw him off was the acceptance of those pictures being taken for the wedding album. “The videographer told me to capture these moments as it revealed the letting go of a family’s young girl,” says Rubin. “A Western bride would never have me taking pictures of her or her family crying.”

 

For Rubin, shooting the wedding was a visual treat. “Indian weddings are so much more colorful and I got fascinated by all the colors, which is a great canvas for photography. My favorite part was taking pictures of the bride because the dress and adornments were so ornate and so detailed.”

 

These experiences have made Indian weddings some of Rubin’s favorite assignments. “I have learned that every Indian wedding is different,” He now frequently comes across young Indian couples who might not know the reason behind certain ceremonies. “Although they know to do certain rituals, they do not know why these rituals must be done, and I can explain it to them confidently,” says Rubin.

 

Gaining confidence in serving these elaborate affairs is no small achievement. To begin with, Indian culture, as a whole, is alien to many of the American vendors. To make matters worse, each region and state in India has its own set of nuances and distinctions. Shadi Online, a popular wedding planning Web site based in India, with branches in U.S. and elsewhere, lists over 35 sets of “Rituals and Customs” for various communities such as Gujarati, Punjabi, Tamil, Bengali and on and on. A recent article in the Detroit Free Press stated: “Other weddings may incorporate ethnic aspects — a tea ceremony for a Chinese-American wedding, jumping over a broom in the African-American tradition, a groom breaking a glass under a chuppah in a Jewish wedding — but perhaps no other culture integrates as many traditions as Indian Americans do.”

 

Almost everyone who talks of Indian weddings from the outside in speaks about the significance of family as one of the most unique and significant aspects of these events. Bish points out that in most traditional American weddings, it is mostly just the bride and groom planning every little detail. But in the Indian ones, the planning was almost always a family affair. “There are layers of family!” says Ettelman, with emphasis.

 

Fernando Mill, executive producer of the Indian themed wedding on WE tv is quoted as saying, “I've always been a huge fan of [these] wedding celebrations. It’s really beautiful, meaningful. Every single step along the way has a lot of meaning and really does bring two families together.”

 

It is not just one episode about Indian weddings that aired on this channel. Rather, they are frequently featured on their popular series, Platinum Weddings, which is about big, bold and spectacular nuptials. Danielle Ostroske, a producer with the series perhaps puts it the best when talking about the lure of Indian weddings in the mainstream, “Indian celebrations on Platinum Weddings are very well received. WE tv viewers love the exotic and lush aspects of these cultural events. They tend to be bigger, longer and more dramatic. Also, Indian brides typically have several elegant saris and amazing jewelry, which appeals to our viewers. It is a beautiful take on the bridal fantasy that American women have.”