The Czarina of Indian Weddings – Neeta Raheja
The Indian wedding industry is pegged at an all time high of 50 billion dollars where every event planner, stylist, decorator, florist, caterer, makeup artist, set designer, choreographer has made a beeline to work in this dream industry. The grandiose nature of each wedding attended gets curiouser and curiouser: a world unexplored, an unseen sight, a splendid experience. Then of course, there are those mortals who give shape to these dreamy weddings.
A little back in time, things in the wedding industry weren’t what they look now. It was micro managed with separate units working on the end product (phoolwala, band wala, light wala et al). It was a family affair where everybody from the uncles to the cousins chipped in to make the marriage ceremonies successful. A role was assigned and it was taken seriously,
says Neeta Raheja of Very Truly Yours, Bespoke Weddings, and she would know. Neeta, who has now taken a larger role as a wedding consultant, has been often credited as the pioneer of the wedding planning industry in India.
Foray into wedding planning
It was in the early 90’s when Neeta was visiting family and friends in New Jersey that by sheer chance she met a wedding planner who was her friend’s neighbour. It was almost pre-destined. She had never heard of the term wedding planner and out of curiosity went across to meet her. This wedding planner was preparing for an Indian Raj themed wedding and sought Neeta’s help. Loreto-educated Neeta came back excited and started her research by reading up books and visiting libraries. At that time there was no internet. She went around town visiting Cottage Emporium and various state emporia in Delhi buying Bankura horses, elephants, organzas, motifs etc and shipping it to her new friend in New Jersey.
Sensing an opportunity, Neeta thought of making a career out of it. So she enrolled herself in a wedding planning course in Columbia. Fresh out of her course, she came back to India and discussed her plan with then boyfriend and now husband, who also bore the entrepreneurial spirit. “He egged me to place an advertisement in the newspapers,” tells Neeta. “One of the few calls that I received as a result of the advertisement was from one of the Mittal families of Delhi,” she adds. “When I went to them they bombarded me with curious questions as to what I brought to the table.” She looked at the grandmother and cheekily said “I will be the grandmother and will be the core of all planning.” And since then, there has been no looking back. In fact the Ansals were also recommended to her through them, which took her to the next level.
It was a desert theme that she was executing and unlike now when there is a trend of creating sets etc. she put up caves, live goats as part of the decor and that marriage took Neeta to page 3. Suddenly, she had arrived without knowing where to head next.
Holding the ground
This was also the time when she realised that she was organising so many weddings around town and each of them was very different. All that she studied in her course was not applicable because in India no wedding is alike. Forget the differences between the North/South/East/West Indian diaspora, there were so many different rituals being followed in North India itself. There were the Punjabis, Marwaris, Kayasths and many more. The challenges were many. As she herself spells out,
Once I faltered at what I thought was a gorgeous set with upturned cots. Flowers were hanging from these cots. It turned out to be a symbol of mourning for that community. That is when I took a step back and delved deeper into marriage vows, customs, heritage, traditions etc.
And a result of her research was a book that she compiled with all her new gained knowledge: ’How to Arrange an Indian Wedding.’ Without being preachy about the topic, she gave facts like the essence of sagan and left it for people to interpret. For instance, traditionally sagan was an Indian Anna given with a roundel of jaggery for sweetness in relations.
The revamped wedding industry
Cut to the present and people have started gifting gold Annas, eleven gold Annas and even Mercedez keys atop jaggery.Neeta Raheja says, “The wedding industry in India is never affected by the economic slowdown because all families have different pockets of savings kept aside for marriages.”
By now, Neeta was busy planning almost all the high profile weddings around the country from the Singhania’s to the top industrialists in Indore, Ludhiana, Kanpur. All of a sudden she realised that she was doing everything afresh for every wedding and a lot of wastage was a part of what she was doing. Be it excess food, flowers, decorations and so on. It was almost the end of the road for her as she stopped taking wedding planning assignments for a long time. Neeta says, “While I was contemplating what to do next, I realised that because of me a lot of associated people like the trousseau packers, florists, caterers and other hands were earning less because I was inactive.” This thought haunted her and taking strength from within, she started focussing on more intimate weddings.
An uncharted territory: Destination weddings
Corporatisation of the Wedding planning industry was bound to happen. Event planners came to the fore, contracts were integral to wedding planning, Bollywood set designers sprung up, mood boards were made, 3-D walkthroughs of sets could be undertaken. More importantly, Neeta found her peace by planning more intimate weddings. And an opportunity cropped up as she was asked to do a wedding in Goa, and from there, began her tryst with destination weddings. Whether it was the beaches of Mauritius, islands of Greece or the hip South East Asian shores, she touched them all. She brought together all elements of a traditional wedding to make alien shores look like home.
Neeta now devotes her time and energies as a wedding consultant, advising NRI clients, helping them organise inter-cultural wedding affairs with a personal touch.