Last November, helium balloons with pictures of the bridal family floated over Bangalore Palace in southern India, welcoming some 50,000 guests to a $75 million wedding.
In a country of over-the-top weddings — lasting three days or more, featuring bridal gowns decorated with real diamonds, and guest performers like Enrique Iglesias — this one was big enough to make headlines: "Big fat Indian wedding — no cash crunch for Janardhan Reddy!"
But now there is a wedding backlash.
A member of Parliament is proposing a bill to not only recommend how much a family could spend on a wedding, but also tax them for extravagance. Families who spend more than $7,500 have to declare their estimated expenditure to the government beforehand and earmark 10 percent for a fund that will defray wedding costs for brides-to-be from poorer segments of society.
The proposal comes from Ranjeet Ranjan, a 42-year-old Harley-riding minister of Parliament from Bihar, who issued a statement saying, "These days, marriages are more about showing off your wealth and as a result, poor families are under tremendous social pressure to spend more."
There is anecdotal data and academic research on how poor families feel pressure to undertake wedding ceremonies that outstrip their liquidity, often taking out loans that could take anywhere from a few years to a lifetime to repay.
But it's not clear whether that pressure comes from within their own social class or is a trickle-down effect from higher socioeconomic classes.
Indeed, wedding excess is everywhere. "From designers to wedding planners to wedding blogs and Bollywood, all create a fantasy and imagery of what a wedding should look like," says sociologist Parul Bhandari, a research scholar at New Delhi's Centre for Social Sciences and Humanities.
Geeta Jetpura is a cleaning lady in Mumbai. Last October, with her mother and sister, she contributed toward her brother's marriage. Her brother took a loan of about $1,500 from his boss at the IT firm where he works, earning $300 a month as part of the support staff. The family put in around $750, borrowing from people they work for. "We paid for the invitation card, the band, new clothes and a bit toward the decoration," says Jetpura. The bride's family paid for the rest, about $2,500.
Some of the family's employers attended, Jetpura says, and were impressed by the rich food and decor. Could they have not taken loans and held a simpler ceremony? Jetpura, her mother and her sister giggle and shake their heads. "What's the point then?" Jetpura asks. "Our neighbors would say the marriage didn't happen at all."
Anil Bosak, a migrant from the eastern state of West Bengal who now lives in Mumbai, concurs. "You only get married once. You have to make it count. It's a question of pride and self-respect." His sister's wedding in the village cost about $2,200, which covered "the cost of the reception hall, the priest's fees, and the banquet food. Plus jewelry, gifts and new clothes for everyone." Half of that amount was a loan from the bank at 5 percent interest; two years later, the family is still paying it off.
"Some people do take loans to pull off weddings for their children they can't afford, we try to step in and prevent that," says Kulbhushan, national secretary of the Bharat Vikas Parishad, a nongovernmental organization for social progress. (He uses one name.)
"Making comparisons is a human trait; it's natural to look up at the rich and try to emulate what they have," says Kulbhushan. The organization tries to level the wedding field, though, by conducting mass weddings for underprivileged couples. Over the past three decades, they've conducted thousands of weddings, from 30 couples to 500 at one time.
Here's how it works: People sign up across the country for one of several community weddings held each year. A couple can invite up to 50 guests. There's no charge for the ceremony or the banquet. All the costs are underwritten by donations from the organization's volunteers and from fundraising. Sometimes, state governments extend some aid.
At the last "samuhik vivah," or community wedding, in January, 72 couples were married.
But for some families, a community wedding is seen as losing face. Geeta Jetpura and her mother laughed outright at the suggestion. "You may as well elope then for the respect you'd get in the neighborhood."
The ultra-expensive wedding trend started in 2004 when tycoon Lakshmi Mittal hosted his daughter's $36 million wedding at the palace of Versailles. Since then, India's high society has been trying to one-up him both at home and abroad. Traditionally the bride wears red for prosperity (and fertility), but nowadays it's a designer outfit that costs $6,000 on average. And the groom might show up on a white mare — or a hired elephant.
The ostentation can start with the very invitation. For Janardhan Reddy's daughter's wedding in Bangalore last year, the invite came in a gold-plated box with an embedded LCD screen that looped a music video featuring the family.
Ranjan has proposed that the expenses should not exceed $7,500 but provides a loophole for overspenders to "contribute 10 percent of such amount in a welfare fund which shall be established by the appropriate government to assist the poor and below poverty line families for the marriage of their daughters."
Criticism has been vocal, both against interference in personal celebrations (the press was quick to point out Ranjan had 100,000 guests at her own wedding) as well as the tax and what it would be used for. The bill "does not tackle root issues of this traditional practice," says Suparna Gupta of Aangan, an organization that works for the rights of children, particularly to abolish child marriage. If there is a tax on lavish weddings, that money shouldn't go toward a marriage fund for poor people, says Gupta: It should be "linked to scholarships, education or economic opportunities."
Private bills introduced in Parliament have a mixed rate of being passed, but several NGOs across the country have thrown their weight behind this issue before. So it's entirely possible that the big, fat Indian wedding might actually get squeezed.