Horses and elephants and helicopters, oh my!
When Pinky Rangi got married in 1978, nearly a thousand people gathered in her parents’ five-bedroom house in Long Island.
There were no wedding halls large enough to accommodate the number of guests that’s requisite for a big, splashy Indian wedding. There were no Indian caterers, so Rangi’s mother did all the cooking, using spices the family had brought over during trips back to India. There were no DJs well-versed in Bollywood, so the women sang and played tapes. Rangi’s father asked a friend to provide a racehorse for the baraat, the groom’s procession.
At that point, Rangi says her family was among only a handful of Indians in America. Her father emigrated to the U.S. in 1964 to open the Indian office at the World Fair.
But today, Rangi is helping her son Karan plan his big day. They considered a destination wedding in Greece or Turkey, but finally decided New York City would be more convenient for family members. Rangi is worried about the table settings and trimming the guest list. But she has a plethora of vendors to choose from, and the venues are all familiar with the ins and outs of Indian weddings, from the ceremonial fire to the horse for the baraat.
“I don’t need to educate anyone. In fact they’re teaching me,” she says.
The Indian wedding industry in America is booming. Professor Devesh Kapur, director of University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Advanced Study of India, points out that the Indian community in the U.S. has grown enormously over the past few years. Members of the second generation want to combine Indian and American wedding traditions, which results in what he calls “the big fat Indian” wedding.
Pinky Rangi and her family were the forerunners of the Indian immigration wave. A 1924 act banned immigration from Asia, including India, to “preserve the ideal of American homogeneity,” according to the Department of State’s Office of the Historian.
The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act lifted this ban, but the barrier to entry was high. Indian immigrants had to be well educated to qualify for a green card. Still, thousands of middle-class Indians poured in, driven away by India’s mounting economic problems and lured by America’s educational and professional opportunities, Kapur says. The next wave of Indian immigrants in the 1990s came on H-1B visas, which require that applicants have a master’s degree.
Today, the children of these immigrants are in their 20s and 30s. Their average income is $88,000, compared to the overall American average of $50,000, according to the Pew Research Center. They are young; they are in love; they have money to spend. They also sit at the juncture of two cultures that fetishize weddings: American bridezillas and Indian Bollywood.
The average American wedding costs $29,000 and has 140 guests, according to TheKnot.com. The average cost of an Indian wedding in the U.S. is $65,000 with 500 guests, says Ruchir Mewawala, a wedding planner who specializes in Indian ceremonies. While hard data on the size of the Indian wedding industry is not easy to come by, he estimates that it’s a $4 billion to $5 billion business and that is outpacing India’s own industry, which is growing at about 25% to 30% a year.
Sunita Sadhnani, a wedding planner who does high-end events, pegs the average cost at $200,000. A typical Indian wedding has at least four events and requires 15 to 20 vendors. By comparison, an average American wedding normally consists of a ceremony and reception requiring four to seven vendors.
Indian wedding ceremonies vary, and the rising number of mixed marriages has led to fusion ceremonies. However, a typical (if there is such a thing) Indian wedding in the U.S. usually includes four events. During the ladies sangeet, female relatives sing to the bride. Then the bride is decorated with henna during the mehndi ceremony. For the wedding, the groom rides to the venue on a horse or an elephant in a processional called the baraat. For Hindu weddings, vows are said over an open flame. Everything wraps up with a reception.
In the past, some of the features of Indian weddings—say, an open flame, or the presence of an elephant or horse—tripped up venue owners. Now, that’s old hat in major metropolitan areas, where Indian populations are concentrated. Allan Kurtz, managing director of Gotham Hall, a favorite venue for Indian weddings in New York, says live animals didn’t faze him, but the flame gave him some unease. “It was a concern originally, because if you’ve never seen it, you envision a barn fire,” he says. Now, he just gets an open-flame permit. “It’s like having a large candle,” he adds.
The challenge for brides and grooms now isn’t throwing an Indian wedding—it’s about creating a unique one. Twenty years ago, Marc Schumacher launched Equishare Baraat Horses, which provides decorated horse for baraats. “The groom used to arrive in a limo and get on the horse and ride it to the venue,” he said. “Now, I lead the horse to a pier and the groom arrives by boat. Or I go to an open field and the groom arrives in a helicopter, or parachutes in.”
The biggest trend is destination weddings. Mewawala spends a good part of his year traveling to Mexico, where there’s a thriving industry for North American Indian weddings. In Cancún, there are vendors who provide white horses dressed up for the baraat. While some families still fly out priests, caterers, and DJs, there’s a healthy supply of options in Mexico, including a Sikh priest in Mexico City.
Destination Indian weddings can ease some of the expense. Jessel Taank, 31, is the public relations director for HL Group in Los Angeles. She started planning a destination wedding in Mexico after she found the cost in California prohibitive—$80,000 for just the reception. Now she’s budgeting $100,000 for a four-day extravaganza in Mexico. Highlights include the groom arriving on jet skis and a reception in a cave at Xcaret Park, a Mayan archeological site.
Yet there’s an irony to all the pomp and circumstance. While some of the brides and grooms are well-versed in the traditions, others know very little about Indian weddings and find themselves the central characters in a lavish event they don’t understand.
Still, many can’t imagine doing anything differently. Ruchir Patel got his lawyer involved when his venue wouldn’t let him bring in an elephant. Patel had a mostly American crowd of friends and says he knew little about Indian weddings, despite attending his cousins’ as a child. “I wouldn’t want it any other way,” he says. “I always wanted to be part of that. I always wanted that for myself.”