Dimapur: A showroom full of dazzling white gowns studded with stones, beads, sequins and other embellishments is overflowing at Kats Collection in Nagaland’s Dimapur. The shop – tucked away from the bustling market area – houses some of the most beautiful dresses that many Naga brides dream of wearing on their big day. Yet, from the outside, the place belies the treasure it stores.
Kats’ bridal gown range starts from Rs 10,000. And the most expensive one? “Well, sky’s the limit,” said Visituonuo Rio, who co-owns the store along with her elder brother Keneivor.
Sky is indeed the limit when it comes to spending on every aspect of a wedding in Nagaland, not just the gown, much like anywhere else in the world. However, in the last decade, a tectonic shift has taken place when it comes to Nagas throwing a wedding gala, particularly in the capital Kohima and the business hub of Dimapur. If Hollywood romcoms have shaped the Indian imagery of a White wedding till now, Nagaland is here to dismantle the picture and replace it with its jaw-dropping settings that stun everyone with its larger-than-life venue decorations.
A glance at the Instagram pages of some of the most popular event decorators in the state – ADL Wedding, CM Weddings or Favors – shows the scale at which Nagaland runs the wedding show. Their elegant creations have got people from other northeastern states rushing to seek their services, even though hiring a Naga wedding decorator means bearing extra costs due to travel and lugging all the decoration items across hundreds of kilometers.
Whether it’s having garden-theme or forest-theme décor, or hiring a pianist or getting artists paint live portraits during the wedding ceremony, the Naga society isn’t looking at the rest of India for inspiration but to the West.
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A big, beautiful Naga wedding
In contrast to a Hindu, Muslim or even some Christian weddings in other parts of India that span over two-three days with rituals and events such as sangeet and mehendi, a Naga wedding is a one-day affair.
The day begins with the union being solemnised at the church. The ceremony – replete with the bridal march, hymn and songs – concludes within an hour’s time or so and the couple along with the guests move to a different venue for the reception. However, there are weddings where both ceremonies (the exchange of vows and reception) are held at the bride’s home or at a separate venue altogether.
“Many people prefer that (the latter option) because it’s one venue and everyone can gather at the same place. It’s more convenient,” Visituonuo said, adding that only close family and friends attend the church ceremony because of space constraints.
A Naga wedding might wrap up in a day but that doesn’t mean the occasion comes cheap. An entire industry hustles to make the big day count. And it all comes with its own hefty price tag. Decoration takes up the biggest chunk of expense.
The brother-sister duo, who has been operating Kats Collection since 2016 and also offers wedding decoration services, said that Rs 10 lakh would get a couple “the bare minimum” setup and decoration to deck up a place for a reception hosting around 400 guests.
“Rs 10 lakh would be the starting. The fanciest ones can go up to Rs 5-10 crore too,” Keneivor said.
Another wedding decorator, Aboli Dina Yepthomi from ADL Weddings, has been in the business since 2008 and witnessed how the wedding industry has transformed in the state. She said that when a wedding happens, there will be professional make-up artists, photographers and music bands involved.
“For bridal entry, clients will hire professional musicians or pianists. In the food section… We usually serve Naga food and for vegetarian options, we will have Indian food. But now, people have started with very elaborate dessert tables, grazing tables, continental tables and Indian starters. Even the food section has become elaborate,” she noted.
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Weddings in the state have always been a grand community affair involving the entire village. With Christianity’s introduction in Nagaland 150 years ago, the people adopted the customs of ‘white wedding’ while keeping alive tribal customs in their unique way. And while the church program has remained the same, with the advent of internet and social media, receptions have transformed into a heady mix of creativity and extravagance for the ultimate show of wealth, and Nagas aren’t shying away from the display.
Kats Collection owner Keneivor explained why Naga society loves to go big for that one day. Despite people moving to urban locations, ties to the village run deep in Nagaland. He said that Naga weddings have always had a big crowd as all the relatives, friends and people from the village are invited. With money entering Naga lives, weddings became the litmus test to rate one’s status and wealth.
“Marriage is also believed to be a marker of status, prestige and pride. Bigger, grander weddings are a symbol of status,” he explained.
What could be a better way of displaying wealth than putting together the most stunning venue.
“The decor has evolved a lot and it has taken a decade to come to this magnitude. Earlier, weddings were very simple…The size was always big but the decor, it has become like a competition now,” Aboli said.
In Dimapur, a tiny road — littered with potholes and open drains running parallel — takes people to the residential area of Metha Colony. The surroundings give no inkling that a beautiful rustic-themed reception is being hosted in the area. A bride’s residence had been transformed into an open-air wedding venue.
“The wedding theme is blush and white. It’s soft pastel colours and everything is very natural. You will hardly see any drapes. They have not cut down any trees, it’s rustic and minimal and it reflects the bride’s personality,” pastry chef Pito Kiba, who was looking after the food spread at the venue, gave a rundown of the decor by ADL wedding.
To provide the clients with aesthetic diversity, the decorators are importing items such as artificial flowers and furniture from China and Thailand.
“Earlier, we used to have morung (a traditional Naga structure for social events) for the stage. But in the last 10-15 years, wedding decoration has become more Westernised. With access to internet, the decor has become more and more extravagant,” Aboli said.
In terms of stylistic additions, she remarked that the design of the aisle and the stage has become elaborate and there is more usage of accessories, flowers and lights.
“We don’t remember using lights 10-15 years back but now, lighting has become part of the decor and people have started getting married in the evenings also, for the light to be more enhanced,” Aboli, who started her venture with two friends Loye Tungoe and Asangka Imchen, said.
CM Weddings, a player in the wedding market since 2013, started off as a service that provides rental material for weddings. “Then she (mother Tokhuli) saw that this wedding thing was booming, so she started buying artificial flowers and learnt about flower decoration, and decoration in general. It grew slowly,” said Likati Tuccu.
She said that most of their clients are interested in pastel, all-white or green-and-white weddings.
“Naga weddings are mostly quiet and sophisticated. They aren’t very loud,” she said.
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The indispensable elements
Flexibility seems to be the hallmark of Naga weddings. “There are no strict rules to follow, it’s up to our own convenience,” Dina said.
Nonetheless, there are some must-haves at every wedding, like the presence of a ‘chairman’ who hosts the reception as well as the program at the church. Then there is the mandatory cutting of the cake, which marks the beginning of the reception. There can be speeches by family members and friends. After that, guests go to congratulate the newlywed and then head towards the food segment. In Naga society, the first dance (by the newly wed) is not an essential ritual.
There would be a small reception box room or counter for people to drop their gifts or cash at. There is also the concept of the couple giving a ‘wedding favour’ – akin to a return gift.
“In our tribe (Angami), we call it ‘mudi’, which is cooked meat tied in banana leaves, or it can be some small gift,” Keneivor said.
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A searing red flag
From a distance, a venue that glitters and glows the brightest could be a fancy wedding. But a race to outdo each other is a red flag for the society at large.
Kilang Longkumer, who has been serving as a church minister for the last 20 years, noted “tremendous change” in the way people organise weddings in the Naga society, which he said “is not rich”.
“People have the attitude that they don’t mind spending more than they earn. That’s why many couples, after they get married, run into debt. That’s the trend I’ve been seeing in the last few years. Of course, not all are the same. There are some people who are rich, they earn and spend accordingly. But there are many who spend more than they can afford. Sometimes, they also use the money that has been kept by their parents,” said the pastor of Dimapur’s Nükmen Baptist Church.
He also observed that the average marriage age has gone up compared to some years ago.
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Nagaland setting the trend
Nagas might be marrying late, some even running into debt by splurging on fat weddings. But this new found indulgence has led to the wedding industry players becoming a mammoth presence in the northeast.
Kats Collection boasts of four outlets in the region, with two of them outside the state in Meghalaya’s Shillong and Tura. And it’s looking at newer markets in the northeast.
“Arunachal is good for the time being, maybe. Manipur and Mizoram basically have rental (wedding gown) services, so it’s a little difficult for us,” Visituonuo said.
Last year, they organised ‘Kats Collection Top Model’ – a competition to pick a model for their bridal gowns, while exhibiting their products.
“It’s the first-ever in the northeast and also in India I believe,” he said.
Over the last 14 years, ADL Weddings has been summoned for its services in several states in the northeast and even from south India, including Bengaluru.
“People in Arunachal, Meghalaya and Assam seek out Naga wedding decorators because they want that Western look which their local decorators cannot do. The themes, the colours, the setting are different,” Aboli said.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)