A cameraman focused his equipment on the stage while the production staff draped gold fabric on the backdrop and fastened crimson and orange bouquets to gilded columns. As they set up the mandap , with six white chairs arranged in a semi-circle around a shrine, the cameraman checked the colour contrasts.

The wedding director, Sonal Shah, examined the layout and adjusted the lighting. After taking a final look at the arrangements she gave her approval. The camera zoomed in on the women's saris, gold jewellery and dramatic makeup common to Bollywood stars.

This was the wedding of Sowmia Nair and Sachin Kamath at Crest Hollow Country Club in Woodbury, New York. The event was organised by Sonal J. Shah Event Consultants, famous for creating wedding venues that resemble ornate movie sets.

Sonal says ethnic wedding planners like her are a novelty and there are only about 20 to 30 of them in the US. Traditionally, families relied on “in-house wedding planners”, namely family members, to organise and take charge of the big day. But that may be slowly changing. “What people are starting to realise is that the aunt or cousin can't really help them get through a 600-person wedding and be a guest. Who's their team?” Sonal explains.

No slowdown for lavish weddings

Even under the current tough economic conditions, Sonal doubts her business will suffer. She says Indian families still believe in hosting lavish events as a way of displaying their financial success and achievements. “…it is still tradition to give your daughter the best wedding possible,” she says. Her New York-based company plans and produces 20 to 25 weddings a year across the country. They each cost between $100,000 and $600,000, she says, adding, “I don't think people realise the amount of dollars spent on our weddings.”

Sonal began her career as a consultant in 2003 after she successfully planned her own wedding, with no ethnic wedding Web sites or wedding planner to guide her. The Indian vendors she found for her wedding later became the core of the company.

The timing couldn't have been better, as the US wedding industry has been booming over the years. The Bridal Association of America, in Bakersfield, California, estimates that during 2007-08, the wedding market value expanded more than 11 per cent — from $66 billion to $71 billion — outpacing the increase in weddings, which grew 2.4 per cent.

Indian weddings, at the high end, fed the boom. “The sheer volume that people spend on Indian weddings, just because of their guest lists, is enormous,” says Sonal, seated in her midtown Manhattan office. While the Bridal Association reports an average of 169 guests at most US weddings, Indian weddings often attract between 500 and 900 guests.

Celebrity makeup artist Lily Rivera, founder of BridalGal, has made ethnic weddings her speciality. “We have been working with Indian brides for ... [some] years now and are busier now than before,” she says.

Due to the recession, however, Indian couples are becoming choosier about vendors, she adds. Many Indian weddings last three to four days and have multiple venues. Nuptials often take four to five hours in India, but in the US they are sometimes shortened to an hour and translated into English.

Mum wants the best

Brides' mothers often contribute to higher costs. Some want their daughters to look like Bollywood actresses wearing theatrical makeup, glamorous saris and layers of gold jewellery as a marker of status. And as most parents attend many weddings a year, they have long guest lists.

Sowmia wore a mango-coloured sari with dozens of gold bangles, a traditional gold necklace and earrings that required numbing cream on her ears because of their weight. She and her mother decided on a different ensemble for the reception: A white dress with champagne-coloured beading and a different set of bangles in white gold and diamonds.

Unlike the other expensive elements of the event, jewellery isn't about decadence, says her mother, Suja. “Jewellery is given by parents as a form of wealth to the bride. When she goes to her husband's house, traditionally she brings along her own wealth from her parents,” she says.

Tradition meets chic

The makeup artist Lily tries to help mothers and daughters balance traditional and modern elements in ethnic weddings. “The younger generation of Indian brides is more conservative… yet they are afraid the traditional Indian makeup may look too heavy,” she says, adding, “They want to look traditional yet glamorous, and more stylish and modern.”

At Sowmia and Kamath's wedding, Sonal and her staff communicated through headsets connected to walkie-talkies.

In their matching orange-and-gold tunics with black pants, the consultants managed problems that arose from 9 a.m. until after midnight.

That included travelling 45 minutes back to the bride's parents' house for Sowmia's suitcase, and explaining some of the cultural elements of the ceremony to the bridesmaids.

Inside the lobby of the Crest Hollow Country Club, chandeliers and a piano player greeted guests as they arrived in stretch-Escalade limousines. Women dressed in saris floated inside wearing violet, tangerine and blue fabrics, making the room bloom with colour.

Later at the reception, laughter and chatter passed across chocolate-brown table tops as votive candles lit smiling faces. Sowmia's white beaded dress and diamond bangles sparkled as she and her new husband held each other on the dance floor.

For Sowmia and Kamath's it was the beginning of their married life. But for Sonal, it was the culmination of nine months of preparation. “It gets very emotional when you are planning every detail,” she Sonal. “It's kind of sad when it's all over.”

© WeNews/ Women's Feature Service