As we say goodbye to 2018, we also bid adieu to a very eventful wedding season which saw some of India’s most powerful elite host their lavish weddings. These weddings made headlines, not only locally but internationally, for their exotic locales and extravagant pre-wedding festivities. As the hysteria surrounding exclusive wedding photographs and lehenga designers recedes, people are left debating how costly the big fat Indian wedding has become. From being accused of ostentatious displays of wealth to signifying the excesses of a wealthy elite, this article looks at the various arguments surrounding the big, fat Indian wedding through an economic lens.
In order to do this, we must first address why a ritual celebrating the coming together of two individuals and their families merits discussion in an economic context. In numbers, the average Indian wedding could cost from Rs 20 lakhs to Rs 5 crores. The popular ‘Great Indian Wedding’ stereotype has come to include week-long celebrations coupled with travel to international destinations. Signs that the Indian wedding is getting bigger and fatter is evident in how the Indian wedding industry has flourished in the past two decades, growing at an annual rate of 25-30 per cent (The Hindu). But what is of crucial importance is the increasing share of income that families today spend on their children’s weddings; with data suggesting that parents are likely to spend one-fifth or more of the family savings on a wedding (Kaur, 2002). With one of the youngest populations in the world and an estimated one crore weddings taking place annually in the country, the Big Fat Indian Wedding is a bustle of economic activity, supporting a notoriously ‘recession-proof’ wedding industry worth approximately five billion dollars.
If these extravagant weddings give no obvious return on investment, how does one rationalise spending so much money on them? One explanation lies in the concept of conspicuous consumption. A term coined by economist Thorstein Veblen in his book Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), conspicuous consumption refers to the practice of purchasing goods or services for the public display of power as opposed to expenditure on items that serve our basic needs. Besides media and advertising, this kind of consumption is fueled by a mix of economic, social and psychological needs such as the need for social acceptance. Conspicuous consumption isn’t just limited to purchasing branded clothing or fancy cars. Today, elite weddings by Indians, at home and abroad, have become an exercise in conspicuous consumption. Elaborate musical performances, lavish hotels for guests and exotic destinations help showcase a family’s wealth and prosperity, thereby boosting their social status. On the other hand, the presence of political figures such as Hillary Clinton and Narendra Modi at an Indian wedding indicates the host’s political power and influence.
Spending patterns of the elite class in India have shown marked changes post liberalisation. Before it, an ‘era of muted celebrations’ prevailed wherein Lal Bahadur Shastri commented, “Parties, dinners and lunches are not in tune with the times at all. At weddings, there should be no exhibition of ostentation. There is no need for many dishes to be served…Austerity is the need of the hour and it must be encouraged by strong public opinion.” Periods of rapid economic growth followed policy changes in the 1990s. However, the growth was not evenly distributed and today, the top 1% of the population are said to control 73% of the wealth in India, starkly contrasting the luxury of these elite weddings against the backdrop of a poor and unequal India.
It raises the question of unnecessary extravagance at the expense of a major section of the population that remains steeped in poverty. But to label all elite weddings as a grand waste of money that perpetuate the inequality in our country would ignore the contribution these Indian weddings make to businesses and the incomes they generate. A so-called ‘trickle down effect’ can be noted wherein money spent by the ultra-rich on such event weddings supports businesses. A single grand wedding also employs a number of informal sector businesses such as wedding card printing, floral arrangements, etc. To illustrate, Isha Ambani’s wedding would have lead to higher earnings for local Rajasthani artists and a boost to Rajasthan tourism.
The display of wealth at elite Indian weddings elicits mixed responses and a growing cause of concern is of the implication such wedding expenditure can have on an aspirational middle class. A bride or groom today scroll through their social media feed, constructing their dream wedding using celebrity weddings as references. A growing middle class that wishes for upward mobility tends to mimic the spending patterns of the upper class and weddings are no exception. This is a case of rise in aspirational spending wherein one spends to attain a desirable lifestyle or show of affluence, most often by acquiring material goods. Propelled by this aspiration, the big, fat Indian wedding is yet another example of a consumerist society commodifying an intensely personal tradition and selling couples an experience that they have been conditioned to want. Families struggling to afford grand weddings risk falling into the wedding debt trap. In situations like these, an economist would prescribe a dose of austerity for the Great Indian Wedding. Attempts have been made by governments in the past to curb wedding expenditure, the most recent being The Marriages (Compulsory Registration and Prevention of Wasteful Expenditure) Bill in 2016. One of the restrictions the Bill sought to impose was a cap on wedding expenditure at 25% of the annual family income. However, the intrusive nature of such policies cannot be ignored for the government cannot dictate how much money one should spend spend on their special day. Another popular method involved mass wedding schemes, as seen in Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, that markedly reduce the wedding costs borne by poor families as the State pays for the wedding.
Some surveys indicate that flashier, more expensive weddings are reported to cause more stress and break ups among couples. Changes in the way millennials view the institution of marriage has also lead to decreased wedding spending in other parts of the world. In light of such findings, it is difficult to predict if extravagant weddings will remain on trend for long. The question- ‘Does the big, fat Indian wedding need to go on diet?’ does not have a clear-cut answer. But it is important to realise that elite Indian weddings are under a harsh spotlight today as they are the basis for a larger debate- if the wealthy and privileged in society have an obligation to spend responsibly.
Sources for further reading:
Datt, S. (2018). Economic relevance of wedding celebrations happily ever after. Retrieved from https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/voices/economic-relevance-of-wedding-celebrations-happily-ever-after/
Dore, B., & Dore, B. (2017). No band and no baaja: When Indian weddings were legally required to be austere. Retrieved from https://scroll.in/magazine/830027/no-band-and-no-baaja-when-indian-weddings-were-legally-required-to-be-austere
Frank, R. (2014). Conspicuous Consumption? Yes, but It’s Not Crazy. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/23/upshot/conspicuous-consumption-yes-but-its-not-crazy.html
Kaur, R. (2002). Viewing the West through Bollywood: a celluloid Occident in the making. Contemporary South Asia 11, (2), 199-209.
Pandit, V. (2018). Big fat Indian wedding market has foreign ‘suitor’ Zankyou lining up. Retrieved from https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/news/national/big-fat-indian-wedding-market-has-foreign-suitor-zankyou-lining-up/article9622383.ece
Why expensive weddings are a bad idea. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2018/05/19/why-expensive-weddings-are-a-bad-idea