Wealthy Indians count the cost as they say ‘I do’
Vendors unfurled rolls of embroidered, glittering fabrics in the meandering alleys of Mumbai’s Mangaldas market, where brides-to-be and their families have come to pick out sarees, lehengas and other outfits for their upcoming weddings.
India’s wedding season is underway, packing out palaces, hotels and banquet halls across the country as young couples celebrate their marriages with world-famous style, scale and abandon.
But the mood at Mangaldas is different this year, with India a year into a painful economic slowdown that has cost growth, jobs and consumption. Even the country’s traditionally lavish wedding industry is now feeling the pinch.
Vidhi Bhatia, a 27-year-old physiotherapist shopping with her mother ahead of her marriage in February, said she had pared back some of the wedding party’s more indulgent instincts in order to control costs. She opted for a one-day event at a local banquet hall over a multi-day affair, picked out simpler decorations and chose to serve “High Tea” with snacks such as cookies and samosas instead of fully fledged lunch.
“We’re simplifying things,” she said, as she picked out textiles for her outfits. “We’re seeing where the money goes.”
Ms Bhatia has tried to reel in the guestlist for the reception, but some things cannot be helped. “We’ve stuck to close family only. So 300 people maximum,” she said, before conceding that as many as 800 may attend for the actual ceremony. She added quickly: “We’re not inviting half of Mumbai.”
India’s weddings are widely said to be recession proof, the momentousness of the occasion shielding them from the pressures that might limit spending on houses, cars or holidays. Families traditionally save for years to finance festivities spread over days, with guest lists across social classes often running well into the hundreds and even thousands.
India’s wedding services industry was estimated to be worth Rs3.7tn ($51.5bn) in 2016, according to a KPMG study, commissioned by matchmaking site Matrimony.com, with spending expected to have increased since then. The company forecast that 12m weddings would take place in 2019.
But spouses and their families, wedding planners and designers said their resolve to spend was being tested by turmoil in the Indian economy, where growth in gross domestic product fell to a six-year low of 4.5 per cent year on year between July and September. They said that budgets had been cut, guest lists trimmed and standalone ceremonies like the haldi or mehndi consolidated into single days.
Dinaz Noria, a luxury wedding stylist based in Hyderabad, said her clients had held back on spending since January last year, which has hurt her profits.
“Everybody is just being careful. It’s a feeling of, ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen, don’t know how it’s going’, so they are tightening the belt,” she said. “They all said before that weddings are a recession-proof industry. I beg to differ. This year has shown us different.”
Jaydeep Trivedi, who runs a bridalwear shop at another Mumbai market, said his profits since November — a key time for pre-wedding shopping — were down about 15 per cent compared with a year earlier, as clients showed more restraint. Instead of buying a new outfit for every event they attend, he said, they would opt for fewer items and recycle older pieces.
“Although people have saved for weddings, they decide that even if they want three pieces, they’re making do with two because of the fear,” he said, adding: “They don’t hesitate to take the more expensive piece if they like it.”
KPMG estimated that a low-income couple would spend up to Rs200,000 ($2,788) on their wedding, while the budget would rise Rs2.5m for a high-income pairing and more than Rs10m for an elite wedding.
Even India’s rich, who can face pressure to invite extended networks of social and business peers, have had to find ways of controlling the spending. One, organisers said, was the counterintuitive option of getting married abroad in places such as Italy or Thailand.
“If a businessman from Delhi is having a wedding in Delhi, he cannot exclude people. If it’s 2,000 or 3,000 people, he has to call them,” said Gunjan Bansal, a high-society wedding planner. But for an international bash this can acceptably be cut to as few as 100 invitees, she said. “People find it much cheaper.”
Ultimately these spendthrift instincts have their limitations. Kebab restaurant owner Shafiq Ahmed, shopping at Mangaldas market with his daughter Yildees for her upcoming wedding, said the difficulty in the economy was being felt. But, with a shrug of the shoulders, he made it clear he was not in charge.
“Whatever she likes,” he said, discussing their planned spending for the wedding. “It is a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”