Sonal Shah India Wedding

(WOMENSENEWS)–A cameraman focused his frame on a stage. Production staff draped gold fabric on the backdrop and fastened crimson and orange bouquets to gilded columns.

As they set up the mundup–a sacred area where traditional Hindu wedding ceremonies are performed–the cameraman checked the color contrast among the flowers and six white chairs placed in a half-circle around a shrine.

The wedding director, Sonal Shah, examined the layout and adjusted the lighting. Looking at the red hues of the roses and the sparkle of the foil basin of the shrine, she gave her approval. The camera zoomed in on the women’s saris, gold jewelry and dramatic makeup common to Bollywood stars.

This was the wedding of Sowmia Nair and Sachin Kamath at Crest Hollow Country Club in Woodbury, N.Y.

The November 2007 event was organized by Shah, an ethnic wedding planner and founder of Sonal J. Shah Event Consultants, a company known for making wedding venues look like ornate movie sets.

Shah said ethnic wedding planners such as herself are still a novelty; she guesses there are about 20 to 30 in the United States.

In the past, many families used what she calls “in-house wedding planners,” or family members, to organize the event. “But what people are starting to realize is that the aunt or cousin can’t really help them get through a 600-person wedding and be a guest. Who’s their team?”

Even in the struggling economy of 2009, Shah doubts her business will suffer.

“The economy has not changed the fact that Indian families still show success and ‘making it’ by having lavish events and it is still tradition to give your daughter the best wedding possible,” said Shah, whose New York company plans and produces between 20 and 25 weddings a year across the country. She says each one costs anywhere between $100,000 and $600,000. “I don’t think people realize the amount of dollars spent on our weddings.”

Business Grew From Her Own Wedding

Shah’s career as a consultant began six years ago after she planned her own wedding without the resource of ethnic wedding Web sites or an ethnic wedding planner. The Indian vendors she found for her own wedding later formed the core of the company.

For all the years she has been in business, the U.S. wedding industry has been booming.

The Bridal Association of America, in Bakersfield, Calif., estimates that from 2007 to 2008, the wedding market value expanded by more than 11 percent–from $66 billion to $71 billion–outpacing the increase in weddings, which grew 2.4 percent.

Indian weddings, at the high end, fed the boom.

“Let’s say you went to a florist and you were having your wedding for 130 people with maybe 13 or 16 tables,” said Shah in an interview in her midtown Manhattan office. “Great. For us, it’s like 60 tables, which is 600 guests, or 90 tables, which is 900 guests.”

Sowmia Nair and Sachin Kamath at their wedding.

Shah glanced at her watch and added, “I mean, these are not out-of-the-ordinary numbers. The sheer volume that people spend on Indian weddings, just because of their guest lists, is enormous.”

While the Bridal Association reports an average of 169 guests at most U.S. weddings, Indian weddings often attract between 500 and 900 guests.

But the number of such events, if not the scale, could subside this year.

Kyle Brown, founder and executive director of the Bridal Association, predicts a 15 percent decrease in the number of weddings in 2009 due to the recession. At bridal shows across the country, he says, about 60 to 65 percent of brides are planning for upcoming nuptials this year, down from 80 percent in prior years.

Ethnic Wedding Planners a Novelty

Celebrity makeup artist Lily Rivera, founder of BridalGal, has made ethnic weddings her specialty. “We have been working with Indian brides for the past five or six years now and are busier now than before,” said Rivera.

Due to the recession, however, she says Indian couples are doing their homework more than before and being choosier about vendors.

Many Indian weddings last three to four days and have multiple venues.

Nuptials can last for four or five hours in India, but in the States they are sometimes shortened to an hour and translated into English.

Brides’ mothers often contribute to higher costs. Some want their daughters to look like Bollywood actresses wearing theatrical makeup, glamorous saris and layers of gold jewelry as a marker of status or to keep up with the Patels. And since most parents attend many weddings a year, they have long guest lists.

Nair wore a mango-colored sari with dozens of gold bangles and a traditional gold necklace and earrings that required numbing cream on her ears because of their weight. She and her mother decided on a different ensemble for the reception: a white dress with champagne-colored beading and another set of bangles in white gold and diamonds.

Maintaining Cultural Traditions

Unlike other expensive elements of the event, her mother, Suja Nair, says jewelry isn’t about decadence. “Jewelry is given by the parents as a form of wealth to the bride. When she goes to her husband’s house, traditionally, she brings along her own wealth from her parents.”

Rivera, the makeup artist, tries to help mothers and daughters balance traditional and modern elements in ethnic weddings.

“The younger generation of Indian brides is more conservative, a lot of them struggle between a more natural look and love the look of glamour, yet are afraid that it may look too heavy like traditional Indian makeup can,” said Rivera. “She still wants to look traditional yet glamorous, and more stylish and modern in their styles.”

At the Nair-Kamath wedding, Shah and her staff communicated through headsets connected to walkie-talkies.

In their matching orange-and-gold tunics with black pants, the consultants managed problems that arose from 9 a.m. until after midnight. That included traveling 45 minutes back to the bride’s parents’ house for Nair’s suitcase and explaining some of the cultural elements of the ceremony to the bridesmaids.

Inside the lobby of the Crest Hollow Country Club, chandeliers and a piano player greeted guests as they arrived in stretch-Escalade limousines. Women dressed in saris floated inside wearing violet, tangerine and blue fabrics, making the room bloom with color.

Later at the reception, laughter and chatter passed across chocolate brown table tops as votive candles lit smiling faces. Nair’s white beaded dress and diamond bangles sparkled as she and her new husband held each other on the dance floor.

At that moment, Nair and Kamath’s marriage was about to begin.

But for Shah, nine months of preparation had culminated. “It gets very emotional when you are planning every detail,” Shah said as she watched the couple. “It’s kind of sad when it’s all over.”

Christa Fletcher recently graduated with her master’s degree in journalism from New York University and works as an editor for Channel One News. She has written about women’s issues for Marie Claire and The New Black Magazine

This story, part of our New Writers Program, was funded by the McCormick Tribune Foundation.

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