Sushen Dang, 26, a competitive intelligence analyst based in Toronto and his fiancee, Keerti Narang, had dreamt of a wedding to remember but not this unique. Guests did not descent on a resort, cocktail parties were not held and elaborate feasts were not served but instead the couple got married over the video conferencing app Zoom. The date of their nuptials, set for its auspicious astrological coordinates, fell amid a stringent national lockdown precipitated by the coronavirus.
Dang appeared on the screen from his parents’ home in Mumbai, a traditional turban fashioned out of his mother’s red scarf. Narang, a makeup professional, was hundreds of miles away in Bareilly in central India, wearing her mother’s wedding lehenga skirt. The priest, based in yet another city, Raipur, chanted hymns in front of the ritual fire and asked the bride’s father to lead a “digital kanyadaan,” or giving away of his daughter. A hundred guests logged on from their homes to bless the couple, then light up a tiled-screen montage as they danced to the latest Bollywood hits.
As the pandemic upends industries around the world, India’s $70-billion wedding industry has skidded to a stop in the midst of peak marriage season. Nuptials fixed months before on dates dictated by astrological charts have been hurriedly transformed into digital ceremonies over Zoom, YouTube and Google Hangouts. Gone are expensive hotel bookings and caterers, along with related industries such as home buying. The virus has helped achieve what the government has been trying to do for years: limit unbridled wedding-time extravagance.
Families in India, even the poorest ones, spare no expense to marry their sons and daughters in style, digging into savings or taking on huge debt. Though poor by global standards, the country can claim some of the most expensive weddings ever: About a year ago, the nuptials of billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s daughter Isha Ambani hit a reported $100 million, complete with private jets for guests like Hillary Clinton, a concert from Beyonce and dances for the traditional sangeet ceremony choreographed by Bollywood celebrities.
The Dang and Narang families had planned elaborate ceremonies for months, from pairing lavish dessert menus with each meal to buying plush gifts for guests. For the main rites, the groom planned a showy entrance on a quad bike rather than the ritual horse. But at the digital wedding, an element of chaos pervaded the celebrations, as unmuted microphones picked up side conversations and pets strolled on screen as people danced.
“It’s the great Indian Lockdown wedding,” said Anupam Mittal, founder and chief executive officer of online matchmaker Shaadi.com, which facilitated the Dang-Narang event. “We are helping them make the best out of the situation in these times of adversity.”
For startups, the pandemic requires innovation. Shaadi.com has helped coordinate several digital weddings with online makeup and mehendi (or henna) professionals, digital wedding invites and food deliveries to guests’ homes. The online matrimonial service, with about 2.5 million live profiles, plans to build a separate resource for digital nuptials.
Still, Mittal can’t imagine that extravagant ceremonies will disappear. “In India, weddings are social statements,” he said. “A marriage is between the families, not just the couple.”