Neeta Reheja has planned more million dollar weddings that she cares to remember, but she can still get nervous when a big, expensive show is about to go off. On this occasion, she was standing on the wedding ground amid thousands of awed guests, watching the grandest entrance she had ever been asked to pull off. Two helicopters were flying in low, and as they hovered over the crowds, the groom was lowered from a cable onto the stage. A massive construction crane rumbled from just outside the wedding grounds, and its huge arm wheeled around to deposit the bride next to her new partner. The second helicopter started dumping fresh rose petals by the bucketful, and, right on cue, a DJ started playing a popular hindi song about lovers flying through a shower of rose petals.
For Neeta, it was a moment of celebration that all had gone as planned. For the friends of the hosts, who had their own weddings coming up, it was a challenge: how are we going to top that?
Neeta is considered one of India’s premier wedding planners, and is often credited with founding the industry in her country. She started the first wedding planning firm in 1993, Very Truly Yours, after meeting a wedding planner in New Jersey and taking a summer course on the subject at Columbia University. “There were decorators, florists, designers, but no wedding planners,” she said. The planning was traditionally headed by grandmothers, who delegated tasks to each member of the family. Indeed, she pretty much wrote the textbook on the trade, with “How to Arrange an Indian Wedding” released in 1995. She has planned the weddings of some of premier industrialists, politicians, and media starts. They are the only ones that can afford her services. Neeta will rarely do a wedding that costs less than a million dollars, and most of them cost two.
The industry that Neeta founded has exploded in the last ten years, rooted in the ever growing fortunes of India’s elite, a long tradition of extravagant weddings, and a culture of family one-upmanship. Weddings have always been given an almost sacred status in India. When a child is born, a family often starts two savings accounts: one for their education, and another, just as large, for their wedding. The wedding is less about celebrating a union of love—marriages are often arranged—and more about a display of the family’s prosperity, wealth, and influence. The events speak much more to the mothers than to the bride and groom.
The wedding as a show of prosperity has turned the events into somewhat of a competition, which each family attempting to make the events more lavish than the last. With the resources of India’s wealthiest, this competition often reaches preposterous levels. “I think you can do a decent wedding for about $1 million, but most clients want to spend more,” said Neeta.
The need to go bigger and bigger has turned the weddings into super-sized productions, with planning up to 1 year in advance. Neeta is more general than planner, marshaling the vast array of talent needed to create a fairy tale land that suits the tastes of her clients. The list of people to be hired might include DJs, special performers, bartenders, henna artists, choreographers, caterers, elephant handlers, decorators, set designers, hair stylists, and beauticians, to name just a few. She knows the best of all of them; each profession has become an industry of its own, reliant on wedding planners. Neeta also researches local customs and traditions, to make sure that all auspicious rituals from the families’ native regions are faithfully observed.
Indian weddings are traditionally divided into three parts: the pre-wedding, the wedding, and the reception. The guest lists are massive with the most intimate event—the pre-wedding—only for 3 to 500 of the family’s relatives and friends. It at this event that the real partying goes down, and no expense is spared that might hamper the festivities. Neeta has had weddings where clients demanded a full selection of single malts be shipped from Ireland, and caked flown in fresh baked from Paris. Scores of henna artists are hired to make sure that nobody waits too long to get their artwork done. Many clients want choreographers to train them to perform their favorite Bollywood dance routine for their guests.
At the wedding itself, the focus becomes on decoration and food. Here, Neeta can transform a space into anything you want. One client had a mini Eiffel tower built on the grounds. Clients try and one up each other on the variety and quantity of food, too. At a wedding that the authors attended in Jaipur, which cost about a fifth of those that Neeta plans, the food tables stretched for 60 yards and included pasta stations, food from all of India’s region, a wok station, a salad bar, a milk bar, a desert stand, a fresh bakery, and even a table for custom made pan, the local chewing tobacco wrapped in leaves. For Neeta’s clients, chefs are often flown in from each region of India to make their specialties, or sometimes from as far away as China, France, and Japan.
The leap-frogging in displays of wealth has created a bubble that has showed no signs of slowing. The craze has shifted to destination weddings, with each client clamoring to organize lavish events in destinations more exotic than the last. “If one client did a wedding in Turkey, another client will approach me to do one in Morocco. The more exotic the better,” said Neeta.
But Neeta’s job goes far beyond simply creating lavish parties. For her elite clients, she coordinates press, and even security for VIP guests. Special VIP sections are created, with extra luxuries and exclusive sit down dinners, to ensure that the most important guests have all the attention they need. She once did a wedding in which the royal families of India, the Clintons, and Sonia Chokshi all attended, among other major names in Indian and American politics. For clients that don’t have such esteemed friends, she can coordinate with the agents of Bollywood stars to hire big names for an appearance at the wedding.
Finally, Neeta has a whole wing of her consultancy, Very Truly Yours, dedicated to gift giving and wrapping, which is not included in the multi million budgets for the weddings themselves. Members of marrying families will give gifts not only to the bride and groom, but all their new in laws. This includes a lot of diamonds, precious stones, and gold, but also gifts like Armani suits, Rolex watches, and Ipads. Expensive goody bags full of designer goods are also given to each guest that attends the wedding, along with a thank you card. The wrapping and production of these gifts is an industry in itself, as is the production of the invitations, though Neeta outsources the latter.
In short, Neeta stands atop a booming industry of lavish parties, ostentatious shows of wealth among India’s elite. She is riding a tide of extravagance that shows few signs of slowing; her clients are rich enough to be recession proof. She’s now branching off into corporate events, and does only two weddings a year, for her firm’s most elite clients. The marriages are starting to get so glitzy even she is having trouble stomaching it. “I think it’s getting a little out of hand,” she admitted.