Hard Times: Planners and photographers struggle with uncertainty in ‘big fat’ wedding industry – Scroll.in

In 2019, Scroll.in’s Hard Times series sought to explain and illustrate how India’s slowest economic growth in a decade was affecting ordinary people. This followed reporting by Scroll.in in 2016 and 2017 on the effects that demonetisation had on the lives of Indians around the country.

As the world continues to grapple with the Covid-19 crisis, Hard Times now takes a look at the impact of India’s draconian lockdown on individuals and firms from all corners of the economy. Read all of the pieces in the Lockdown Hard Times series here.

When India enforced a nationwide lockdown in March to rein in the coronavirus pandemic, the country’s flourishing wedding industry – worth over $50 billion – was upended.

Fears about the virus and state restrictions on gathering of people have meant major changes for those who were planning to get married this year. Weddings have been postponed en masse, with a few couples downsizing their events to small affairs at home or simple online ceremonies.

For those whose livelihoods depend on the wedding industry, once believed to be recession proof, the path forward is less clear.

“The life of a wedding planner is a life based on the calendar,” said Joshua Karthik, the co-founder of Stories by Joseph Radhik, a wedding photography company whose client list consists of the likes of Priyanka Chopra, Anushka Sharma and over 400 other brides and grooms.

From shooting against the backdrop of lavender fields in France to the sun-kissed landscapes of Rajasthan, Stories by Joseph Radhik are chroniclers of the Big Fat Indian Wedding in its truest sense. At the moment, however, there are few stories to tell.

“This uncertainty – in a business which is dictated by the idea of mahurats – has put a lot of us in a spin,” Karthik said. “The problem is that when your revenues have taken a hit, your expenses also need to be downsized accordingly and some people in this industry don’t have the ability to do that.”

‘Weddings aren’t going anywhere’

Though some communities prefer specific times of the year, India’s sheer diversity means there are usually weddings happening all year round. And wedding specialists are typically at the center of everything.

But with stay-at-home orders in place for the longest, these service providers are now spending their days navigating every wedding planner’s worst nightmare: the mechanics of postponement.

These are complicated guesses about how to adapt without their expected revenue stream, rescheduling dates, as well as last-minute changes of venue, which often span continents. All of which raises a simple but pertinent question: How will the pandemic change weddings in the years to come?

Karthik thinks there are two ways to go about this.

Either the economic hardship of the pandemic will result in simpler gatherings next year and bring down the scale of weddings. “Or these months of isolation will underscore the importance of human gathering and make them even more special,” he said.“Either way, weddings are not going anywhere and neither is wedding photography.”

Company founder, Joseph Radhik, agrees and says that the chain cannot be broken. But he wonders if all service providers at a wedding will be viewed with a certain level of circumspection in the days to come.

“There is going to be some sense of discomfort,” he said. “The thing is, you never know, we’ve seen plenty of cases where completely asymptomatic people have tested positive.”

Photo credit: Devika Narain.

‘Indefinite pause’

Celebrity wedding planner Devika Narain runs an eponymous company, which was behind the decor at Anushka Sharma’s Tuscany wedding. Her creations are typically large-scale affairs, which she brings together along with her eight employees. But none of Narain’s lush, colorful weddings is going to happen anytime soon.

So far, four weddings have been postponed during the lockdown period. Some couples had no choice, with governments closing their borders indefinitely. Many plan to keep their date but get married in a different venue instead, and have asked Narain to still plan the day.

There were two other weddings with a guest list of little less than 50 people. But in one the bride tested positive and in the other, someone else from the family did.

“Things are on an indefinite pause,” Narain said. “For the next six months, we don’t know where we are going.”

Narain too thinks that some of the slick extravagance associated with Indian weddings will lose its charm. But at the same time, she also believes now is the time when people like her are needed more than ever. “When weddings become smaller you only spend on things that matter and design matters,” she said. “Because you can’t expect a tent guy to figure out physical distancing for you, can you?”

No work, for now

As a wedding designer, Narain likes to incorporate the work of traditional craftspersons and local karigars, many of whom are daily wage workers. From lattice screens to lanterns, she uses a kaleidoscopic variety of cultural motifs to turn venues into objets d’art.

But as the livelihoods of these workers evaporated overnight, hundreds and thousands of them fled big cities back to their hometowns and villages in search of a better life. This has created a vacuum in her business. “There is a shortage of workers in a smaller time frame,” she explained. “So, the impact is undeniable.”

Narain says that none of her craftspersons or daily wage workers have asked her for money, though she is paying her employees anyway. “They ask me for work,” she explained. “And the fact is that there is no work in the next two months.”

For Karthik, one thing is clear. If businesses are to survive, all additional expenses such as purchasing equipment and travel will have to be on the backburner. “And local is going to win, for as long as the pandemic is on,” he said.

But Narain is certain that the lull is temporary, she is even positive. “The workers will return,” she said. “In the end, this [the big cities] is where the work is.”

“When I made my company four years ago, it was with this very idea, of making weddings more intimate and personal, and we are enjoying experimenting with that ,” she explained. “Plus in the end, you can’t cancel love, can you?”

Read the other articles in this series here.