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Big Fat Indian Weddings

Big Fat Indian Weddings

Recently, the fat Indian wedding got a makeover – in substance and scale – when the daughter of country’s richest man Mukesh Ambani tied the knot with the scion of yet another filthy rich clan. Isha Ambani’s wedding to Anand Parimal, son of a diamond and real estate tycoon, spread over a week across Indian cities, has turned out to be a full scale and rather grotesque public display of money and power.

The saddest and the worrying part of this story is that the family’s personal event was lapped up and projected as a national event by the media as well.

The rich, or for that matter the poor too, have all the right to spend their monies; but in a country where millions have no roof over their heads and the other millions go hungry every day, the  least the rich can do is to be sensitive towards them and hold their extravaganza in private. The Ambani wedding was clearly meant to feed the TRPs of the news channels, some of these owned by the bride’s father and a common man felt the rich mocked at their relative poverty.

No doubt, Isha Ambani’s wedding was a choreographed show of wealth and power by her oil-telecommunication-media-retail-refineries-merchandise tycoon father whose Reliance Industries Limited (RIL) is listed among the global fortune 500 companies. He left no stone unturned to show off his power and wealth at an event that many other rich people across the world would keep private and simple.

Ambani, rated as the 20th richest man in the world with personal wealth pegged at $ 42 billion and his bejeweled wife Nita and three children were shown happily posing for news cameras while doing the charity bit of the mega celebrations – they fed three meals to 5,100 poor children in Udaipur during three days of the pre-wedding extravaganza in the lake city!

This act of benevolence pales in the face of an estimated $ 15 million or Rs 110 crore, as per the most conservative estimates made by the international news agency Bloomberg, spent on the Isha-Anand wedding. Ambanis had invited the virtual who’s who of the world including the former US first lady Hillary Clinton and Saudi Arabia Oil Minister Khalid al-Falih in private jets with their convoys choking the airports and cities. The most expensive US singer Beyonce Knowles staged a spectacular show before the star audience; Bollywood big guns like Amitabh Bachchan anchoring the show of wedding rituals and other stars seen serving as waiters to the guests.

Udaipur saw some 100 private planes flying in on a single day, each carrying the guests of Ambanis.

Beyonce charges $3 million to $4 million (About Rs 21-28 crore) for private appearances and one can only guess how much RIL chairman paid for her performance in the pre-wedding celebrations. The diamonds and jewels worn by the ladies of the family and the bride were rated as equivalent to the GDP of some smaller nations!

Indian media, a part of which is owned by Ambani, mostly showcased the entire wedding as a gala event and raised no questions but the foreign media did express shock at the grotesque display of wealth by the wealthiest man of not so wealthy a country. The British media pointed out that as compared with the Ambani wedding, that of Prince Charles and Diana 37 years ago reportedly cost $110 million in today’s dollars and the latest Royal wedding Prince Henry to Meghan Merkel cost $40 million. Taking into account the high labour costs in UK, where these weddings took place, the Ambanis splurged unabashedly.

On social media people have started questioning the style of Ambani wedding, wondering how many schools the money spent on festivities could have been used for or how many hungry could be fed etc.

However, the serious issue that needs to be raised is that the Ambani wedding show was in contravention of the traditional belief system and moral values of the Indian society. One wonders what impressions Hillary Clinton and others must have carried home after seeing Nita Ambani and family dancing and singing in typical filmi style in front of the mega-sized images of Gods on the stage. Interestingly, the Ambani family was trying to display ‘Indian culture’ before a global audience at the wedding and pre-wedding functions in Mumbai and Udaipur. 

Traditionally, Indian wedding is a simple affair: the groom and bride can take their vows in front of the fire or their deity. The social function is complete with a meal served to the invitees. The Indian wedding rituals are beautiful in their simplicity as these are in other cultures. Why did Ambanis try to distort it that too in front of the powerful and the influential global audience?

Besides, the shows they held sought to distort the Indian philosophy of life that believes that the higher one goes in life, the humble he turns out. Adages like the fruit-laden tree has droopy branches are the perfect way to describe the expectations of society from a person of wealth and power.  Unlike many other south Asian countries, Indian leadership has displayed the path of simplicity and renunciation. People have never respected the powerful but the humble and the giving persons. An established Barrister Mahatma Gandhi donned a loincloth and lived in mud houses in Ashram to lead the freedom movement and to be people’s person. He travelled in third class during his rail journeys and commanded the respect of millions of Indians.

The family of Jawaharlal Nehru donated all their houses and possessions to the nation. Keeping up with these traditions and values, the picture of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi wearing a khadi Sari the yarn of which was spun by her father in jail, and with no jewellery is the most elegant of Indian brides. The traditions of simple weddings followed in the family and this led to the fashion of ostentatious wedding being looked down upon by the Indian elite for a long time.

The Ambani wedding was negation of this and is, probably, expression of the new age Indian rich elite who believe in the power of money. Nobody envies their wealth but one wishes its display was not made public, as the rich and the powerful do in other parts of the world

Along with Isha-Anand wedding extravaganza, the nation also keenly followed the weddings of film stars Deepika-Ranveer and Priyanka Chopra-Nick Jonas. The wedding of actor is expected to be a pompous and glitzy affair but credit goes to them that they chose to keep the ceremonies private and issues just a few pictures of it for their fans.

Amidst this chain of noisy and glittery weddings the badminton world number one Saina Nehwal and Purukal Kashyap threw a pleasant surprise. The couple avoided a big fat wedding and announced it by positing their pictures on the social media after the event. No wonder, the couple looked elegant; some websites rating them as the couple of the year. The people on social media have also showered copious praises on them.

People like Ambani have to realize that like his 27-storey house Antilia manned by some 600 employees that stands as a sore thumb in a middle class neighbourhood, the display of wealth and power on his daughter’s wedding has not gone down well with the people. 

These kinds of events are likely to put pressure on middle class Indians who are already spending beyond their means to stage glitzy weddings. The Indian wedding market is one of the fastest growing industries and the bad news is that foreign companies are eyeing this as an opportunity. This is surely going to  raise the level of commercialization of weddings and put a great financial burden on the middle class people. Already, there is evidence that in States like Punjab and Haryana many farmers take farm loans for hosting gala wedding ceremonies. Some of them are unable to repay and get stuck in debt trap while a few even committed suicide in the past.

Coupled with this is the worrisome discovery made by the Paris-based World Inequality Lab about the richest 10 percent of India’s population being in control of 63 percent of the wealth, way up from 45 percent in 1981.

One wonders where India is headed to!

(Published on 24th December 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 52)