Indian weddings: a niche market for Southern California event planners

Planning a wedding is never easy.

But with 500 guests, two conflicting cultures and an elephant to handle, things can get complicated pretty quickly.

In India, lavish wedding celebrations go on for weeks and guest lists top 1,000 — butthe country is full of vendors and planners who know the ropes.

In California, fiancés who want an Indian wedding don’t have that safety net. The state has the largest Indian population in the country, but planning a traditional Indian wedding is still much more difficult when most wedding planners are more familiar with white dresses and towering cakes.

Putting together days of ceremonies with intricate props and rituals requires a threshold for stress and attention to detail that only comes with years of experience.

A network of more than a dozen Indian wedding planners has developed in Southern California’s most densely-populated Indian areas — San Diego, Orange County and Los Angeles County — to capitalize on this niche market and finesse the differences.

“If you aren’t experienced in a South Asian wedding, then it can seem impossible to plan,” said Mili Shah, the co-owner of Los Angeles-based Planning Elegance. “There are so many different religious aspects, different ceremonies at different times, different requirements. Couples that are born and raised here don’t usually even know how it works.”

How the ceremony works depends on the faith, sect and geography of the bride and groom. Northern Indian weddings are different from southern Indian weddings, and Indian expat, Indian-American and Indian-inspired weddings each have their own list of demands.

Traditions vary even more when couples aren’t the same religion.

Although budgets and guest lists can vary, just as with any type of wedding, the minimum a couple should expect to pay for a Hindu wedding is $50,000, said Bhanu Kotecha, who owns Diamond Bar-based Phoolwadi. Costs can go as high as $300,000 for the most lavish ceremonies.

The bride’s family traditionally pays for all wedding costs, Kotecha said, but modern tradition has created more of a sense of equality between families.

The price tag includes the costs of venues, food, ritual supplies and – of course – the wedding planner.

The planner works to secure everything from the fresh flowers (“an American tradition,” Kotecha said) to elephants and tigers that can participate in the groom’s choreographed procession at the beginning of the marriage ceremony.

Many of the religious supplies and clothes come from India, and can take up to six months to arrive in California. If orders are incorrect, Kotecha is on the phone on deadline, arguing with vendors on the other side of the world.

Although the beetle leaves, the different powders and kumkum (red powder) matter deeply, much of the wedding planner’s work also lies in learning, communicating and compromise. Hinduism is so complex and varied that even if the couple comes from the same faith, their expectations for what the ceremony should include could be completely different.

“When customers say, ‘We would like a Hindu wedding,’ that can mean two different things to two different people,” Kotecha said. “We have to learn all the traditions to get the wedding exactly right.”

Shah has married a Jewish man and a Sikh woman. Most recently, she worked with a Hindu man and a Catholic woman. The couple combined their faiths in a series of events that included two marriage ceremonies, two ordained priests and multiple celebrations.

“They did the Hindu ceremony first, and then we had a little bit of a break, and the bride went and changed from her Indian clothes into her white dress,” Shah said.

There’s always some degree of fusion when a wedding happens outside the home country, Kotecha said. The majority of customers for traditional South Asian weddings are either born in the United States or mainly raised there. Many do not know what the intricacies of a wedding may entail. Others have expectations about what a wedding should include, “Americanized” or not.

In California, Kotecha hears more requests for fresh flowers, receptions and cakes, but less insistence for a huge guest list. Relatively, that is.

“One mother said, ‘We are just going to have a very small wedding in the back yard, only the family,’“ Kotecha said. “But still, they had 100-150 people. For Westerners, that definition of ‘small’ can be mind-blowing.”


Reach Contributor Laura Nelson here or follow her on Twitter.

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