New Delhi: Piyali Paul was all set to get married towards the end of June in Dehradun. However, the Gurugram-based advertising professional is now getting cold feet — of a very different kind.
Thanks to the rapid spread of coronavirus, she’s not sure if she should go ahead with her plans. But her family has already made some non-refundable down payments, and now find themselves in a fix — if they go ahead with their plans and pay the full amount, they might end up losing it all, and if they don’t, they stand to lose the venue and other bookings.
All over the world, people are either postponing or cancelling their weddings because of COVID-19. Bollywood actor Varun Dhawan’s wedding with Natasha Dalal, and Richa Chadha’s with Ali Fazal have been reportedly postponed. Pop star Katy Perry in the west is also said to have put the ceremony on hold.
The wedding industry by numbers
Given that India is home to 1.3 billion people of multiple faiths, communities and languages, from regions with varying climates, wedding traditions, cuisines and sartorial styles, it stands to reason that the country’s wedding industry is massive — venue, catering, outfits, rituals, photographers and videographers, jewellery and much more.
About 12 million weddings take place in India every year, and the market has been growing at a steady rate of 25-30 per cent. The nearly 50-billion dollar industry has typically been considered recession-proof. This is also because India is a deeply traditional country where marriage is still seen as the end goal for many.
The average Indian spends at least one fifth of their life’s savings on hosting a wedding. This could be anything from Rs 5 lakh to Rs 5 crore, and the ceremonies could span over two days long or two weeks, with multiple cocktail evenings, a qawwali night, mehendi, haldi-chooda, youngsters’ party — and that’s not even counting the actual wedding ceremony and reception (sometimes multiple).
Marriage loans offered by several banks charge hefty interest rates ranging anywhere from 11.25% to 24% per annum. But all of this is taking a huge hit now.
Sanna Vohra, founder of The Wedding Brigade, tells ThePrint, “The coronavirus outbreak has sent ripples through the wedding industry. From vendors, wedding planners and venues to guests, relatives of the couple and couples themselves, there is a thick layer of caution and concern.”
In Rajasthan, a popular wedding destination with some of India’s most popular hotels, a wave of cancellations has badly hit the state’s thriving hospitality industry. The state’s Hotel and Restaurant Association president Kuldeep Singh tells ThePrint that he estimates losses to be anywhere between Rs 1,000 crore and Rs 1,500 crore as tourism and the wedding industry are taking a beating.
“The state government should ask the RBI to tell banks to defer interest on loans and EMI payments by hotels for at least one year.”
The association is preparing to meet Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot to discuss this.
Florists, kaarigars among worst-hit
Even with a lot of money at stake and hefty payments already made to the venue, photographers and other vendors, Mumbai-based teacher Sonia Oliveira decided to postpone her wedding, which was to happen on 18 April.
She started worrying when guests who were scheduled to come from abroad started cancelling their tickets earlier on, but it was when things got worse closer home in Maharashtra (the state has reported 65 cases — the highest in India when this article was written — and two deaths), that she made the decision to indefinitely postpone it.
She’s not the only one, by far.
Rachna Pathak, owner of My Wedding Planning, a Mumbai-based organisation that only plans destination weddings, was looking at a promising summer ahead. But the pandemic put paid to all her hopes as clients rapidly cancelled or postponed their ceremonies, costing her at least Rs 5 lakh just in March.
India has a booming destination wedding industry (it was poised to reach Rs 45,000 crore by this year).
Radisson Blu in Goa, which hosts five weddings a month on an average, has come down to just one. “In March itself we have lost the business of about 1,000 rooms per night,” says Macenzia Rodriguez, assistant sales manager at the hotel that has seen a sharp drop in tourist footfall and almost 80 per cent cancellations.
But it is not the swanky hotels or expensive event planning organisations that will be the worst affected by this pandemic and resulting cancellations. The wedding industry is also a major employer of the informal sector, and those not on company pay rolls are suffering the most, according to Shreya Dutta, partner at Krafted Knots Weddings and Celebrations in Bengaluru.
“A lot of my vendors are in a very bad position. Florists, lighting companies, caterers — these businesses are taking hits because they work with much larger volumes of work than wedding planners. Plus, it’s the daily wage worker, the kaarigar who is really suffering economically.”
A designer might be able to withstand the cancellation of bridal lehenga orders, for example, but the artisan who actually makes these outfits will not.
In sickness and health, literally
Some couples are going ahead with their wedding plans, though. There is either too much riding on the wedding, or scaling down the ceremony only to save up for a bigger, fatter reception later on made sense to them.
Akshita Kulshreshtha’s Xplorika Events, for example, went ahead and organised a wedding in Jodhpur’s Castle Mandawa, where, she says, Rajasthan’s primary carriers of COVID-19, an Italian couple, had stayed. “All the COVID-19 related developments happened, just two or three days before the couple was to tie the knot. It was too risky to postpone,” she explains.
But the wedding happened in a quarantine of its own — amid hospital-like sanitisation efforts and an emergency medical team on standby, and no non-wedding guests were entertained inside for the entirety of the wedding attended by less than half the guests invited, according to the planners.
Ankush Nagpal, founding partner of Event Shapers in Jaipur, observes that most people in the city are scaling down their events instead of cancelling them as they are reluctant to let go of a shubh mahurat (an auspicious time).
While some stick to their plans because of monetary reasons and others hold on to them because of beliefs and superstitions, Sonia Oliveira hopes people realise how dire the situation is and postpone their nuptials to a later date. “I felt a strange sense of relief when I postponed my ceremony. Having a huge gathering right now would’ve put my guests at risk.”
She feels, “We’re living through history right now,” and says that history will clearly remember the couples who sacrificed their wedding for the sake of a larger cause. “In a sense, it becomes a memorable wedding, even if it doesn’t happen.”