Conspicuous consumption: The very worst excesses of the Indian wedding

Conspicuous consumption: The very worst excesses of the Indian wedding

By VINEET GILL | | 12 September, 2015
Hiring foreigners as hosts is the new fad at Indian weddings. Photo: Tarun Chawla
The vulgar display of wealth and social standing among the privileged classes reaches fever pitch during the wedding season, writesVineet Gill, as he discovers our society’s bizarre fixation with the white skin keeping wedding planners in business.
Aside from being a ceremonial concord uniting two individuals and their families, a wedding — the traditional Indian kind — is also a statement made to the rest of the society, a show of strength of some sort. The wedding marquee is right up there as a status symbol, to be compared with the insignia on the bonnet of your car or the pin code on your postal address. So throwing a memorable wedding soirée, by getting everything right, making everything big and indulging every imaginable excess, becomes a moral responsibility for the class-conscious Indian. This distasteful display of wealth is one of the reasons I don’t attend many weddings (the other is I don’t get invited to any). 
But even my limited exposure to the wedding juggernaut has given me a lifelong supply of horrific memories. The one that stands out relates to the wedding of a childhood friend. It was the biggest wedding in town, a few hundred miles off Delhi, and in the parking lot outside were cars with red beacon lights on them. A little towards midnight, the bride and groom were placed on an elevated, revolving pedestal for the varmala ceremony, while giant speakers all around us blared conch-shell sounds and air-pumps were engaged to simulate a shower of rose petals over the couple. The spectacle had made me feel dizzy, and the draft of wind up there on the pedestal had become so forceful, that even the couple were disconcerted and requested for it to be stopped. 
This, of course, is nothing compared to what passes for conspicuous consumption (to borrow Thorstein Veblen’s memorable phrase) at an average upper-class Indian wedding. In 2011, a particular political wedding made headlines the world over. The groom was gifted a chopper by the bride’s family, which, alas, could not land at the venue due to the monsoon clouds. According to a BBC report, around 2,000 guests attended the wedding “and each was given a silver biscuit, a safari suit and $500 in cash, while at a different ritual the bride’s family welcomed the groom with gifts worth $5 million”. And yes, before the wedding, the groom’s “barber” — why didn’t he at least call himself hairdresser? — was paid over Rs 3,40,000 (all for nothing, as a newspaper photo of the groom confirmed the next day: the superstar hairdo was mostly kept concealed under a massive turban). 
The presence of a celebrity or a political figure can also add some serious mojo to your wedding night. But all this costs serious money, even if you’re planning on getting some A-lister from Hollywood to perform, then you better be ready to declare bankruptcy soon after. But actually it doesn’t matter if Hollywood lies beyond your reach. So long as you’re willing to settle for the second best, by throwing in a smattering of white folks at the venue. 
The whole thing sounds as crass as it looks: hiring foreigners (Caucasian only) and having them play “hosts” at a wedding is a raging trend in the event management industry. “I’d also like to hire some white people for this thing,” is a perfectly legitimate demand to make of a wedding planner in urban India. 
The whole thing sounds as crass as it looks: hiring foreigners (Caucasian only) and having them play “hosts” at a wedding is apparently a raging trend in the event management industry. “I’d also like to hire some white people for this thing,” is a perfectly legitimate demand to make of a wedding planner in urban India.
It makes one wonder, in a sociological vein, whether our society’s fixation on the white skin is behind this bizarre custom. Or some post-colonial angst, a racial drive, that impels us to show the white man his proper place — there outside the door greeting people with a Oriental namaste, or serving drinks and appetisers off a tray. However, the white man rarely ever figures in the contemporary wedding planner’s itinerary. It’s invariably the white woman — usually from countries like Russia or across the Eastern Europe, some of them students, looking to make an easy buck. In June 2014, Vice magazine, an American publication, ran a piece by Megan Lambert entitled “I Work as a ‘Human Table’ at Indian Weddings Because I’m a White Girl”. In the article, which generated genuine interest and follow-up pieces in India too, Lambert talks about the humiliation of having to stand at a wedding ceremony wearing a ridiculous, puffed-up dress with the rim of a round table effectively extending outwards from it. She wrote of “handing out drinks while dressed as a table — then standing there waiting to have the empties deposited back onto me. It really is as interesting and embarrassing as it sounds”. To top this disgrace, Lambert was also made to wear a “glow-in-the-dark fireman’s hat”. 
For sheer vulgarity and dehumanising potential, it’s hard to beat the idea of a human table. Samuel Beckett be damned, we’re off to see the human table! But it’s sad to find that this isn’t by any measure an Indian invention (think how proud our ancestors would have been). An online search reveals that British and American clients can order any of the following theme-based human tables for their big night: “Geisha Living Human Table”, “Caribbean Tropical Fruit Lady”, “Mrs Santa Living Human Table”, and so on. 
Wedding planners in India aren’t as advanced as yet to advertise similar props and arrangements (apparently, white girls on stilts is also a popular offering among wedding planners in India). In fact, when I called a few well-known wedding firms in Delhi and NCR, most of their representatives, having heard that I was a journalist looking for grist, 
preferred to clam up. “I am actually at a meeting?” one of them said, phrasing his sentence as a question, in keeping with, I suppose, a code of public-relations politesse. 
So there was only one way out — I had to go, I am proud to say, undercover. The next call I made was at a wedding planner’s in a posh south Delhi colony. “So when’s the wedding?” he asked. And I started fumbling: “I think November... er... 24 or 25.” “You don’t know when your wedding is?” came the reply and I felt busted. 
During the next call, however, I was more composed as I had decided to play the no-nonsense customer: “I’ll tell you when the wedding is, but first you tell me if you offer all the latest services or not?” The voice on the other side said something like yes indeed, and you bet. 
Foreign hostesses? I asked. And the man responded: “Yes, but that would cost you a little more.” When I called another planner in Vasant Kunj, he gave me a rate list for white hostesses: “Rs 1 lakh each, if we have to get them from other cities. But if we find some locally, it will be about Rs 10,000 apiece.” But by the time I expressed my interest in buying a human table or two, my interlocutor had had it with me. “I can’t answer so many of your questions over the phone?” he said to me in his PR-inspired, politely inquisitive tone. 
With the wedding season now almost upon us, it is likely that in the coming months we’ll see the extravagant Indian wedding crossing many more lines of decency, and that wedding planners will devise newer and more absurd ways to flaunt the wealth and social standing of their clients. My sympathies are with those who’ll have to attend these freak-show festivities. As for me, I am still glad I don’t get invited to weddings. 

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