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How Indians are tying the knot amid COVID-19 pandemic

Tanika Godbole New Delhi
May 19, 2020

A nationwide lockdown has caused wedding cancellations across India. But many couples are still determined to get married, swapping traditional customs with online weddings and socially-distanced ceremonies.

An Indian bride
Image: picture-alliance/Photoshot/F. Farooqui

Anantika, a 26-year-old Mumbai-based teacher, was intent on getting married on April 7. After India went into lockdown to contain the coronavirus outbreak, she had no choice but to cancel her wedding.

India's coronavirus cases surged past 100,000 on Tuesday, the day after the country further eased its months-long nationwide lockdown in a bid to revive the economy.

It seems the world's largest lockdown has also taken a toll on India's billion-dollar wedding industry.

"The lockdown seemed like a necessary evil at that point. Of course, we were upset too because airlines refused to cancel tickets and issue refunds. Some of the venues also refused to give back our initial deposits," said Anantika.

She has since been trying to have the marriage legally registered with the help of a lawyer friend, but without much success. Court registrations are not considered a priority amid lockdown.

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India coronavirus wedding industry
The COVID-19 social distancing measures have brought the wedding industry to a virtual standstillImage: DW/T. Godbole

Pandemic takes toll on wedding industry

India's wedding industry was estimated to be worth $50 billion (€46 billion) in 2019, according to a report by KPMG. The estimated growth rate was 25-30% per year.

It seemed even the financial crisis of 2008 had little impact on the country's wedding industry, as did the New Delhi government's introduction of tax measures on goods and services and its demonetization policy. India’s social fabric — coupled with its dominant young population — kept the wedding market immune to economic upheaval.

However, the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent social distancing measures have brought the industry to a virtual standstill. Thousands of weddings have been canceled across the country, disappointing eager couples and those working in the wedding industry — a largely informal sector. Many of the country's wedding service providers including decorators, caterers, make-up artists, technicians and photographers work on a freelance basis.

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Mahima Bhatia, a Delhi-based wedding photographer, is scheduled to work at an upcoming wedding with 30 guests — much smaller than what she is accustomed to. She has already asked the family of the bride and groom to provide protective personal equipment (PPE) for her and her team so that they can maintain hygiene rules. However, Bhatia still feels apprehensive about how the lockdown and other coronavirus containment measures will impact the wedding and her rate.

"With smaller weddings, people might want discounts on our rates … but this may not be viable for us. We still have to pay our freelancers the same rates, and the workload remains the same for us. Many in the industry may have to take pay cuts, and cut down on employees,” she said, adding that future prospects in the wedding industry already seem bleak.

Phased exit in India

Digital weddings

India's strict coronavirus measures did not discourage everyone from tying the knot as originally planned, albeit with some adaptations.

Nilu and Animesh had set their big day for May 8 but as the lockdown rolled out – the couple became separated in different cities.

Wanting to go ahead with their marriage plans nevertheless, they arranged for a priest to conduct a traditional Hindu ceremony via video conference. Their family and friends were able to attend the ceremony — virtually of course.

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"We had our wedding outfits ready at home. We thought this was a nice concept, and it also meant we didn’t have to postpone our wedding. We are not planning any ceremony after things normalize, but we will have some small post-wedding ceremonies at home,” the couple told DW.

Their wedding was made possible by the online matrimonial service Shaadi.com. The digital provider also holds online mehendi (henna) tutorials and even throws musical performances to add a more authentic touch to pre-wedding ceremonies.

"We are witnessing a rise in new customer registrations and platform engagement during the lockdown period. This is largely on the back of people having more time at hand and having mental space to think of big decisions … That said, revenue continues to stay below expected levels," a spokesperson for Shaadi.com said.

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The future of weddings

Zoya Bhushan, a choreographer and makeup artist, thinks that social distancing regulations will change the future of India's traditional wedding scene. She is somewhat pessimistic that grand ceremonies will continue in India.

"I think people will also be apprehensive to socialize. The scale of weddings will also be impacted wherein people might downsize their events with limited guests. Destination weddings might also decrease. This seems to be the new normal for a while at least," she said.

For Rebin Vincent Gralan, elaborate, big weddings aren't everything. He managed to hold a small but successful church wedding in the southern state of Kerala with only 10 attendees in total, including himself and the bride.

"As per the state Health Department’s suggestion, we provided contact details of every person who attended the ceremony. We are glad to share that even after one month, no one is infected with COVID-19."

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