Varanasi: City lawns, marriage halls and hotels are decorated with lights. There is more traffic on the roads than last year. Band Baja musicians are chasing autorickshaws to go back home at midnight. On the side of the road, a DJ group is waiting for one of their team members to board the car. There are more than 100 guests in the barat. “Dhol jageeron da” and “Ankhya ka kajal” are playing at a distance. Wedding season is back in small-town India, after three off-seasons.
But due to Covid constraints, budget to guest lists, everything is being chopped. Even the expectation of a perfectly suitable boy.
“Kai ladkiyon ki shaadi delay ho gayi hai, isliye iss season mein jo ladka mila hai, log keh rahe hain teesri leher aane se pehle kar do (Marriages of many women has been delayed. So, people are saying get them married to any man you find before the third Covid wave),” says Rekha Sonkar, a woman living in Varanasi.
ThePrint travelled to the city in eastern Uttar Pradesh, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency, to peek into the wedding industry in small-town India. It is not only a source of employment for thousands but also a status symbol for middle-class and upper-middle-class families. We talked to marriage hall owners, caterers, tent suppliers, DJs, bands, beauty parlour workers, and flower sellers.
Budgets cut and guest list reduced
Subhash Sonkar, a man in his late 40s, lives in Varanasi. On 17 November, he went to meet M.K. Sonkar in Meerpur Basahi area to negotiate the rent of a marriage lawn. M.K. Sonkar, who has been in wedding industry since 2007, also represents a business body in the city.
Subhash Sonkar’s niece is scheduled to get married on 27 November. The middle-class family, whose printing business has been badly affected due to the two consecutive lockdowns, finds itself in a great dilemma. Sonkar wonders whether they should go for a “cliched hotel wedding or make arrangements according to the new financial status”.
Sonkar, who had a list of 700 guests for his niece’s big day, told ThePrint, “Earlier, it would have been more than 1,000 guests. But like many others, we filtered down the guest list.” And a wedding lawn will have to do instead of the fancy hotel.
According to him, the wedding would have cost at least Rs 12 lakh before 2020. Now, it’s Rs 4 lakh.
Subhash Sonkar’s wife Rekha has noticed another change — the niceties have been dropped when it comes to distant relatives.
“Ab dur ke rishtedar ko WhatsApp par jankari bhej do. ‘Main’ logon ko bula lo (Send the news on WhatsApp to distant relatives and invite the ‘main’ people only),” she says.
Rekha hasn’t attended any wedding in the last one-and-a-half years, but she says the conversations around her have only been about marriage. Referring to her niece, she says, the family could not wait for another year to find a suitable groom with a government or private job, so they are going for an unemployed man.
“This season, the ‘hunt’ for the right one has taken a back seat,” she added.
Less lagans, more discount
M.K. Sonkar would usually rent out four wedding lawns on a contract basis. Then the Covid pandemic hit.
“After the lockdown was announced and only 50 guests allowed, we were forced to return the advances. Now, I only have two wedding lawns. I terminated the contract for the rest as I was paying a hefty amount, around Rs 12 lakh per year, and there was no business,” he tells ThePrint.
His main clients were middle-class families.
“I am not speaking for the poor or the elite. The middle class was our backbone because this class believes in spending money. But their budgets have been affected now,” he says.
Another businessman in the wedding industry, 36-year-old Anoop Kumar Singh, agrees with Sonkar.
“Before the family starts the negotiation, I announce a 20 per cent off on the bookings. This is another way of getting the business back on track,” he says.
Singh, who caters to the lower-middle class and upper-middle class, says that he had 70 bookings in 2019, less than 40 in 2020, and in 2021, about 25 bookings so far.
“This year lagan (auspicious) dates are few, compared to the last year,” Singh notes.
Soumitra Aggrawal has received only three bookings for his “Marriage Joint” lawn since 14 September.
“There is uncertainty about the third wave that we might see in January or February 2022. I was apprehensive of taking advance payments because I had to return every advance in 2020,” he says.
What did not change
Hari Nandan Mishra, a priest in Varanasi, says no matter Covid, the rituals remain.
“There has not been any change in the ways ceremony and rituals are conducted now. However, for a short period, families had to arrange tilak, sagai, vrakasha and vivah on the same day.”
Hotels such as The Amaya and Rivatas in the cantonment area also share this view. They say that families are booking hotels for sangeet, wedding and reception for different dates and there is no hurry to hold all the ceremonies on the same day.
The people who work in the lighting, band and catering, who had gone back to the adjoining districts in UP or left the industry for odd jobs, are also back after Diwali this year.
A beauty parlour owner, who wished to remain anonymous, told ThePrint, “During the last three seasons, we were only able to finish the assignment for those who had given advance to us. But it was a nightmare. Salons were not listed in the exemption list, so we had to do the makeup behind closed shutters. One person would keep an eye on the police patrol.” She adds that after Navratri and Diwali this year, the parlour is getting bookings again.
Pawan Kumar from Soni recently re-joined a wedding band.
“We were earning Rs 350 per day even as labourers but that was not our identity. This band gives us a sense of identity. Many, like me, are happy to be back,” he told ThePrint.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)
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