Jul 2, 2008

US tastes Indian wedding spectaculars

Young Indian men with deep pockets are queuing up for Minnie to realise their fantasies. Those who can't afford her settle for Sadie, Cindy or Penelope who cost about $500 an hour.
Minnie is an elephant and the other three are white mares rented out for Indian weddings.
The four-legged beauties are part of a booming wedding industry that caters to the ever-growing demands of rich Indians in the US.
'Huge cost'
Manan Shah had a childhood dream of taking centre stage in his marriage procession - or baraat - on an elephant.
He was inspired by the Indian blockbuster of yesteryear, Haathi Mere Saathi, a movie about a boy with elephants as friends.
A relative's wedding in India where he saw an elephant carry the groom to the bride added to the fascination.
"I knew it was almost a lifetime wish for him and so I decided to go for it despite the huge cost,'' says his father Suresh Shah, who has lived in the US for more than 30 years.
Five or six years ago, it would have been an impossible wish to fulfil. But not anymore.
A few calls to the wedding planner and Minnie, a 3,175kg (7,000 pounds) grey Asian diva, is on her way to Washington DC from Connecticut.
"Elephants are the latest trend - and because there are not many around the demand is always high,'' says Sonal Shah, who runs an event planning agency Save The Date.
The cost of hiring an elephant can go up to $30,000 depending on distance - but people still seem to have the money to pay for it.
She says most of her Indian clientele wants bigger, better and more elaborate weddings.
"There's a great craze for new unreleased models of cars like Aston Martins, Ferraris and Lamborghinis for the baraat and I am also doing one where the groom will land on a helicopter,'' says Sonal Shah.
She has 25 such high-end weddings lined up for the year.
Bollywood inspired
No wonder Indian wedding planners have mushroomed all over the US. And so have supporting professionals like videographers, hair and make-up specialists, henna artists and so on.
The music and dance must also be Bollywood inspired, with specialist DJs and choreographers.
Kumar Singh, whose son was married recently, says 10 years ago it wasn't easy to get any of the accessories required for an elaborate Hindu wedding ritual.
"Now with a little luck maybe we are able to fire guns in the air the way we do it in India,'' says Mr Singh, who is in the auto and motel business.
Many of these wedding vendors are from backgrounds and cultures with no obvious links to Indian traditions and this growing industry has nurtured cross-cultural ties.
The Commerford family that owns Minnie has been in the animal attraction business for 35 years organising pet shows, pony and camel rides.
"It was last year that we got the first call for an elephant to be used in an Indian wedding and then we realised it was an exciting business opportunity,'' says Darlene Commerford.
The wedding was in New Jersey and the Indian family had a blanket made for Minnie which they gave to her as a parting gift.
'Wedding market boom'
Five years ago Midge Harmon, the founder of Harmon's Hayrides that now rents out white mares in Virginia and Washington DC, wasn't even aware of the Indian tradition of weddings where the groom makes a dramatic entrance on horseback.
Then, she only rented out cars for American weddings and did not have a white mare.
Now, she has three - Sadie, Cindy and Penelope.
"The demand has been huge and I invested in their training and even got brocades and traditional wedding attires for them from India,'' she said.
She has a better understanding of Indian traditions now and can differentiate between a Sikh and a Gujarati wedding.
"In fact, the handlers of these horses have a better understanding than me, as they are the ones who go to the weddings,'' she said.
But what is it that has triggered this boom in the Indian wedding market here?
Midge Harmon says the second generation Indians have now reached the marriageable age and there's a large number of young Indians who are in 20s and early 30s.
"They are Americanised, want to get married here but in the traditional ways and so the support facilities have grown to service them,'' she says.
And one things for sure. It's here to stay.
As Sonal Shah puts it: "It's one business with indefinite longevity.''

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