* The destination wedding is now local. Nobody would dare go near an airport now. Everyone’s preference of travel now is by road. Fear will now drive a lot of choices

Anil Thadani remembers how it all began. On March 22, he was sitting in Delhi and frantically coordinating with his team miles away in Goa. The team was scheduled to travel back to Delhi and all trains were being cancelled. The pandemic was already national news. Thadani’s century-old company, REM band, which has provided the background score to hundreds of weddings, was flooded with cancellation requests and people were showing up at his office demanding refunds.

Two days later, the prime minister announced an unprecedented nationwide lockdown. Thadani’s business and, with it, the Indian marriage industry, came to a standstill.

A KPMG report in 2017 had pegged the Indian wedding industry at $40-50 billion. Given how unregulated and informal this industry is, that projection is perhaps conservative. Going by social media accounts, ‘the big fat Indian wedding’ before Covid-19 indeed appeared in no mood to slim down. “Crazier, more expensive, more ludicrous” was how Rituraj Gupta, co-founder of Q events, one of Delhi-NCR’s oldest marriage planners, saw it all heading. In a normal year Gupta would have handled about 30 destination weddings, with the project cost anywhere from ₹1-10 crore. This figure increases several fold in the case of prominent weddings, and a planner’s CV is really built around such big-name gigs.

Ankit Malhotra, of Comme Sogno Vero (Italian for Dream Come True), most recently oversaw India’s biggest post-lockdown wedding — that of film star Rana Daggubati and Miheeka Bajaj. This was a rare happy occasion amid all the gloom and doom swirling the marriage industry. “Most customers we had on board in March have deferred weddings to December because nobody wants to have an event where they spend money but can’t invite as many people,” Malhotra says.

“Not many people are willing to commit to contracts or events,” Malhotra adds.

On March 24, when the first lockdown was announced, Gupta knew it was the end of the season. “We couldn’t risk it. Even if I got requests to organise smaller parties or functions I refused. I employ close to 280 people and a marriage is, simply, no place for social distancing, come pandemic or Armageddon,” he says. The lockdown came at the peak marriage season — April and May. “We paid everyone on the staff till the end of May. We of course hire a lot of contractual labour, but after a point I could see that the whole year would go down the drain,” he says.

Unlike other industries with assets that command a market value even when lying unused, the asset in the marriage industry is largely temporary or transient in nature, posing a different, perhaps acute, challenge. Take, for instance, wedding decorations, in particular floral arrangements, where roses play a starring role. “I have never in the history of my business seen wastage to this degree,” says Dhruva Kumar, owner of one of the biggest rose farms in Bengaluru. The city accounts for the sale of 5 crore flowers a day.

The flower industry’s success relies as much on an effective supply chain as on the quality and quantity of produce. A rose lasts anywhere from 24 to 48 hours. Within this period it has to be harvested, transported and delivered to its destination, where it must hold its own for at least 12 hours. Kumar’s roses travel all over the country and beyond, up to Dubai. But they are going nowhere from his six-hectare holding at the moment. “The biggest problem in my business is shipment. With so much confusion around transport, around the movement of flights, I simply can’t take orders,” he says.

At Thadani’s REM wedding band, three generations of artistes from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan have played continuously over the years. “Because our business is seasonal most of my artisans arrive from their villages during the marriage season. This year, they had to go back.”

On May 3, the Central government okayed the conduct of marriages with 50 people in attendance. In business terms it was ‘the last straw’. “Small weddings mean people forego most expenses. They would rather do away with things that really drive this business, excess,” Gupta adds. A quiet wedding is unlikely to have a lavish champagne brunch or a big brass band. The number allowed at a wedding includes professional service providers. “The first one to go will be the band because I need to send 5-6 people,” Thadani despairs.

A lot of these changes may be short-term in nature, depending on how the pandemic situation evolves, yet there has been a long-term impact, which Gupta believes is here to stay. “The destination wedding is now local. Nobody would dare go near an airport now. Everyone’s preference of travel now is by road. Fear will now drive a lot of choices,” he says.

Gupta has been working towards a world where sanitisation tunnels are part of the decor, and designer masks and lehengas with pockets for the now ubiquitous sanitisers become a part of wedding dressing. He laughs at the absurd side of it all, but quickly adds that all this is “inescapable” now. “Either we adapt or perish. But we can’t just put a [sanitisation] tunnel that looks like [the one found in] a hospital. What sells in an Indian marriage is the ‘showsha’ (ostentation). There is no way past that,” he says.

For now, the all-too-select wedding guests can expect to be ushered in by a bright pink tunnel, winking with sequins and flapping with zari-laden frills, and spewing disinfectant in place of the de rigueur rose water.

Manik Sharma writes on arts and culture