Middle-class India plows new wealth into big weddings

At a wedding held in a five-star New Delhi hotel last winter, the groom stepped out of a two-door BMW sports car, specially flown in from Europe for the occasion. Spanish flamenco dancers, fresh orchids from Thailand, ice sculptures, even second-tier Bollywood stars paid to mingle - all are just some of the flourishes seen at recent Indian weddings. Forget being down-to-earth. The latest fad is to stage the whole shebang on pontoons, putting family and friends on a veritable flotilla of flaunted wealth.

"We receive such 'unusual' requests all the time," says Meher Sarid, a wedding planner in New Delhi. "It's not unusual anymore."

Indian weddings have always been grand and festive affairs, as reflected in films like Monsoon Wedding and Bride and Prejudice. But India's burgeoning middle class - now 300 million strong - are turning weddings into showcases of their growing disposable incomes and newfound appetites for the goodies of the global marketplace.

The largesse has spawned an $11 billion wedding industry, growing at 25 percent annually and beginning to rival the US industry valued at $50 billion. Top global luxury brands and local entrepreneurs are learning that the way into the pocketbooks of India's new consumers is through their nuptials.

"Weddings have become the single most visible expression of a person's social standing and wealth, an expression that is both acceptable and expected," says image consultant Dilip Cherian, who heads Perfect Relations, a leading Indian PR firm.

The minimum budget for a wedding ceremony is $34,000, say wedding planners, while the upper-middle and rich classes are known to spend upward of $2 million. (The average American wedding costs $26,327.) This doesn't include cash and valuables given as part of a dowry.

Businesses have taken note:

• Samsung, Sony, LG, and other appliance makers now time their discounts to the wedding season, which begins this month and runs until March.

• GE Money India has introduced an "auspicious" personal loan, a quick and easy loan exclusively for weddings.

• Gurgaon, a city built on new-economy money, will boast India's first wedding mall in 2006, built at a cost of $16 million and with 400 stores. Eight more wedding malls are being planned around the country.

"Over 18 percent of India's population falls in the top-tier socioeconomic class, which is a huge potential market for luxury goods brands," says Renuka Keron, marketing manager at LVMH Watch & Jewelry India Pvt. Ltd., which sells Tag Heuer and Christian Dior watches in India.

According to the National Council for Applied Economic Research (NCAER), the middle class are those making $4,545 to $23,000 a year. NCAER projects that the market for all categories of products, from daily consumables to consumer durables, will double in annual sales by 2010. With the economy expected to maintain steady 6 percent annual growth, India is widely seen as one of the world's 10 largest emerging markets.

With nothing opening up Indian wallets like a marriage, local entrepreneurs have devised one-stop wedding exhibitions, novel gifting and holiday options, and entertainment ideas.

"It is one of India's recession-free businesses," says Diivyaa Gurwaara, who organizes Bridal Asia, an annual wedding exhibition that brings together fashion and jewelry designers and luxury goods sellers under one roof.

Ms. Gurwaara is a trendsetter of sorts; in 1999, she was the first to see the potential of a one-stop shop where families could browse in air-conditioned comfort.

Since then, the number of participants in Bridal Asia has doubled to 80 and this October, she expects 60,000 visitors at the exhibition, which will sprawl over 40,000 sq. ft.. There are several such annual wedding extravaganzas, heralding the beginning of the wedding season with a mix of traditional and international offerings. Together, they rake in at least $50 million in sales.

The options on display reflect the well-traveled and increasingly internationalized tastes of many upwardly mobile Indians. Noticing the craze for Japanese food in urban India, caterers are offering sushi and tempura on their menus. Handmade chocolates from Lebanon are another new offering, as chocolates begin to replace Indian sweetmeats as customary wedding favors.

A wedding expedition "sure beats driving to different corners of the city to buy flowers, order invitations, and get your outfits made," enthuses Lisa Dutta, a 25-year-old bride-to-be.

Gurwaara notes that "costs are bound to go up when professional wedding planners take over the tasks traditionally performed by grandmas."

Not everyone is excited by the turn towards opulence. Newspaper columnist, publisher and Delhi's uncrowned cultural czarina, Malvika Singh, terms lavish weddings as "graceless." "Where weddings were once celebrated, today they are performed," she says.

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