In Chennai the end of the month of Karthigai in the Tamil calendar is normally witness to a spate of weddings as people rush to complete wedding ceremonies before the beginning of the month of Margazhi (not considered auspicious for weddings). Even a social recluse such as myself received half a dozen invitations to weddings in the first half of December and I even managed to attend one of them. I’ve always wondered if it would be such a big deal to actually wait one month and conduct the wedding in the month of January when the month of Thai (pronounced differently from the country) begins but I guess the logistics of an arranged wedding where the groom or the bride or both fly in from different locations to get married might not be too conducive to postponement. In addition with a country of 1 billion + people there would be tons of people getting married in January as well so I guess there would not be much of a point in waiting.
Anyway let me get straight to the subject of why I am talking about weddings in case you are wondering. Many of us would have recently come across the news items talking about the big fat wedding of the daughter of Pramod Mittal, brother of billionaire tycoon Sunil Mittal. A lot of us still remember the wedding of Sunil Mittal’s daughter at the Palace of Versailles in 2004 at an estimated cost of 34 million euros (about 200 crore rupees at the then prevailing exchange rates). So in some ways news that his niece got married at Barcelona for a whopping cost of 500 crores (about 60 million) did not seem new. What I did see was a lot of commentary on social media that talked about what a waste the spend was, how shameful it was, how the money could have been better spent and so on. All these arguments are sound on their own- however we also need to look at it in the context of big fat Indian weddings in general. (There was one newspaper article in the Telegraph India that estimated the expenses at not more than USD 1.5 million – I believe the truth lies somewhere between the 1.5 million USD and the 60 million euros)
I thought about the Mittal wedding whilst I was at the only wedding of the season I would attend. In front of me I could see signs of lavish spending. Starting with renting a wedding hall in the city to gifts for the guests no expense had been spared. A standard South Indian wedding normally comprises the following expense heads (only the major ones) and the family (the daughter’s parents specifically as most of the expenses is taken up by the bride’s family- I have a problem with that but that is not the theme of this post) I estimated had spent the following amounts (some are conservative estimates, some are actual amounts)
(To those unfamiliar with the counting system, 1 lakh- 100,000. At current exchange rates 1 lakh rupees is slightly over USD 1500)
Wedding Hall Rent- 5 lakhs
Expenses for food over 3 days- 4 lakhs
Gifts for Guests- 3 lakhs
Invitations, Photographer etc- 1 lakh
Bridal wardrobe & jewellery (and I am not considering jewellery that can be later considered as investment that is normally bought years and years in advance)- 2 lakhs
Other Misc Expenditure – 1 lakh
Bringing the total expense of the wedding to a whopping Rs 16 lakhs (USD 25,000). I am sure I have missed many more expenses such as transport etc but you get the picture.
To just take a small element into consideration, almost 30,000 rupees was spent on just the make-up for the bride for the 3 days. I was initially stunned at the amount spent (my immediate thought was that it was the price of a return ticket from Chennai to Hong Kong), but later read in the Economic Times that this amount is more at the lower end of the spectrum and that the sky is literally the limit for spending on bridal make-up.
I am not privy to the financial status of the family in question but would estimate that their net worth (assets such as cash, investments, real estate over liabilities such as loans etc) at the current point of time could not be over 1 crore rupees or about USD 157,000 (1 crore= 10 million). So this family had in essence spent about 16% of their net worth on this one wedding.
Going back to the Mittal family- I did a quick & dirty research on the internet about the total worth of the family- Uncle Sunil & family alone is worth almost 76,000 crore rupees (please don’t ask me to convert that into any other figure as I am unsure of how many zeros I need to include- just understand that Sunil Mittal is one of the richest people in the world). Papa Pramod & family worth another 300 crore rupees (sources here as of March 2013). Even assuming that they did spend 60 million euros on the current wedding & 34 million euros on the Versailles wedding ten years ago and lets make that a nice 100 million euros accounting for inflation and so on that brings the wedding costs to about 850 crores in Indian rupees. That is about 1.1% of the published, estimated net worth of the Mittal family for two weddings combined.
Let’s pause for a moment there to let the message sink in.
Before I go any further let me assure you that I am not trying to justify the expenditures on the Mittal wedding- I am a big believer of the fact that most of the expenses in a normal Indian wedding are redundant and that this money can be better used elsewhere (especially as the money is no guarantor to the longevity of the wedding). Arguments such as the once in a life time experience is common to everyone and cannot be used as a discriminator.
What I am trying to say is that ordinary Indian people- my friends and acquaintances on social media and otherwise crying foul over the Mittal family spending less than 1% of their net worth on a wedding is not fair when an average Indian family spends about 15%. The Mittals have more money- ergo they spend more money. I am sure that if the family whose wedding I attended had access to more financial resources, the wedding would have been even more lavish.
The fact is this- Indians spend a lot of money on weddings- this is probably very good news for one segment of the economy that caters to the burgeoning marriage market- anybody from freelance wedding planners, make-up artists, photographers, chefs to hotels, wedding halls and so on. But the truth is that you can make an ethical argument that the money could have been better spent elsewhere. One of my friends made quite a commendable gesture during their wedding requesting guests to make donations to a specific charity rather than bringing in wedding gifts. That is just one example but many others exist.
More and more people are making a conscious effort to rein in wedding costs making weddings a small & intimate family affair rather than a “let’s bring the city to a stand still” circus a la Mittal. But this is still a miniscule minority of the population. Big fat weddings are and will continue to be the norm for a variety of reasons- social status not being the least of them.
So the next time we hear of a big fat Indian wedding of an industry tycoon let’s not rush out with our pitchforks but pause to consider how much the last wedding in our family/ social circle cost for the family concerned. Chances are that the Mittals would probably have a lot more money leftover from their weddings than us. Let them really eat cake!