May 17, 2008 1:41 am

Sari nights and henna parties

On a recent spring afternoon the sound of hammers and saws drifted from my neighbour’s house. This was not another example of the feverish construction that is changing the landscape of Delhi. Rather, it was part of a seasonal ritual that transforms homes all over India for the precious cool months of the year. The neighbours were preparing for a wedding.

Over the course of the day, carpenters built the frame for a tent and created a temporary foyer of white and red fabric. Trucks loaded with rolled carpets, bolts of cloth, bundles of flowers and assorted equipment pulled up and emptied their wares. In the evening guests were greeted by the bride’s sisters dressed in colourful saris and throughout the night the sound of music and singing filled the air.

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This is a common scene during India’s wedding season, which lasts roughly from October to the end of May, before searing heat and monsoon rains set in. In recent months at houses on my street, and indeed all over India, tell-tale signs of weddings sprouted like spring flowers. An otherwise anonymous gate to one property on my street was strung with garlands of bright orange marigolds and dark green paan leaves. Another home was festooned with diaphanous fabric from its rooftops so it resembled a grand ship about to set sail.

Across cultures, marriage is one of life’s most important rites of passage but in India it is a milestone for which middle-class families assiduously save for years, then go all out to host a marathon of parties and rituals leading up to the wedding.

As Indians become wealthier they are spending more to stage elaborate multi-day events leading up to the ceremony. India’s $31bn wedding industry is growing at 25 per cent a year, according to a report in the Indian magazine The Week.

Today, a reception might be held at a hotel in order to accommodate hundreds of guests and the largest million-dollar weddings are held at venues such as country clubs that can accommodate thousands. But for many Indians, some part of the wedding festivities is still held at home.

“Home is where your memories are. You belong in that space,” says Chiara Nath, who was married at her parents’ home in New Delhi this spring. “The significance of every moment you spent at home before you leave becomes really poignant.”

The mehndi, a party where the bride and female guests have their hands decorated with henna, is usually held at the home of the bride or her relatives. The sangeet, a party of singing and dancing that precedes the wedding, might also be held at home.

“One big reason to have the mehndi at home is to integrate the whole household into the wedding festivities. Relatives and friends gather to celebrate in a more intimate way,” says Mohini Bhatia, whose sister Radhika got married in Delhi in March.

Yet even in family spaces the look and feel of Indian weddings is undergoing dramatic changes. For Hindu weddings, red and gold hues used to dominate the decor. The flower of choice was the marigold, an auspicious bloom typically used for religious offerings, strung into long garlands on the house.

But conventions are shifting. Rising incomes and greater awareness fostered by more travel have made many Indians more demanding and discerning. There are also more cross-regional marriages that might combine elements drawn from the different cultural traditions of the bride and groom.

In the past, weddings were organised by the bride’s family. Now brides and bridegrooms can have more influence. Pastel shades and light fabrics might replace red and gold hues and heavy cloth. Themed celebrations might draw on different cultures and aesthetics. The ubiquitous marigold might be jettisoned for roses, orchids, lilies and gerbera daisies.

Amrish Pershad, a wedding planner who designed the sets for Mira Nair’s 2002 film Monsoon Wedding, estimates wealthy upper middle-class Indians spend up to Rs600,000 (£7,300) on design and decor for a single event and as much as Rs2.5m-Rs3m (£30,500-£36,500) for all the expenses of one event, which might include food, drinks, music and service. The costs of the weddings of the wealthiest Indians could amount to the equivalent of millions of dollars, wedding planners say.

Preeti Singh, whose daughter married in Delhi this February, hired Pershad to help plan and co-ordinate six events, including the marriage ceremony. Five of them were held at her home in Delhi and her sister’s farm – a sprawling estate complete with swimming pool on the outskirts of Delhi.

For a cocktail party at Singh’s home metres of lime green and yellow fabric were draped from a second-floor balcony over the front yard to transform the house into a pastel cocoon. Pershad, originally a florist, covered the front gate with delicate roses and used hanging ivy and creepers to hide parts of the house from view. Instead of setting the residence ablaze with white lights, as per convention, he subtly interspersed strands of lights amid the ivy.

The farmhouse was the venue for the sangeet, which was themed around Buddha. Statues of the deity, paintings and candles were set up at the party, attended by 700 people who danced to Hindi pop music played by a disc jockey.

It was just one in a series of events in the week leading up to the wedding that transformed the farmhouse day after day, like a theatre set. The mehndi had an Indian “village” theme, where 350 guests ate, drank and mingled beneath large umbrellas made from old saris, “like in Mughal times”, says Singh. “Vendors” gave guests bangles, hand-crafted shoes and hair ties as though a village mela (or ”gathering” in Hindi) had been transported to Delhi. About 600 people attended the outdoor wedding reception, which had an “English” theme characterised by pink tablecloths, rose bouquets and a canopy draped in pink fabric.

Traditionally, the home of the bride’s family would be open to visiting family members for about a week before the wedding but in return for access to an open house of eating, singing and celebration, relatives would take charge of organising food, decorations, flowers and other tasks. But times have changed. “Now no wedding goes without a wedding planner,” says Singh. “In the old days you just had a caterer and the tent-wallah [wallah denotes a vocation in Hindi] would do the needful.” Families used to cook for themselves. Now caterers are de rigueur and more exotic menus are in demand. “Now you have to have sushi, Chinese and continental food,” adds Ms Singh. Pradeep Bedi, another Delhi-based wedding planner, says the marriage industry has gone through enormous changes in the past five years. “People are coming up with their own ideas. They are concerned about minute details now.”

He attributes the shift in attitude to increased spending power of middle-class Indians, not to mention “Indian movies showing glamorous things”.

Arab, Hollywood, Bollywood and a “crystal ball” are themes he has recently worked to produce. As expectations increase, so does the pressure to stage ever more opulent events. Although Singh says an impressive wedding means you’ve “said goodbye to [your daughter] in the best manner you could ever do”, she also laments that they are becoming too commercialised.

But in another take on the tailoring of the modern Indian marriage celebration prompted by increasing affluence, Chiara Nath had a simple, elegant event at her parents’ farmhouse on the outskirts of Delhi. Only 250 guests were at the sangeet and just 80 people attended the reception.

Nath said there was initially great resistance to the idea of such a small occasion from her parents. She was told she would offend a lot of people by restricting the guest list but Nath, a designer who lives in the coastal state of Goa, insisted on a pared-down event. “For me, none of that formality was necessary.”

Her restrained aesthetics shocked Bedi, her wedding planner. She requested cream hues and gold accents for the reception tent, table cloths and chair covers. “Mr Bedi thought I was crazy,” admitted Nath, explaining he thought the palette was too cold and drab, especially as white is the colour of funerals in India. “I said: ‘It’s OK. Less is more.’ It was an exercise in patience,” said Nath.

Ultimately, Bedi was converted to her vision. Weeks later he lauded the wedding as “subtle, simple and classy”. And though the celebration was more restrained than most, the result was an intimate affair held at the bride’s childhood home.

“I wanted it simple,” said Nath. “I did what was most necessary to me.”

Amy Yee is an FT correspondent in New Delhi

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