Kirti Agarwal had always imagined her wedding to be a dream affair even if a simple one: nuptials under a canopy of flowers and lilting music ushering her into the venue, friends & family by her side, as the groom waited on stage.
On April 14, when the 31-year-old technical programs manager with travel platform Expedia, did tie the knot to Avinash Singh Bagri, it involved moving from the bedroom to the balcony of his two-bedroom apartment in Gurugram near Delhi. The entire two-hour proceedings were relayed online over a Zoom call.
Agarwal never wanted too many guests anyway. Yet, “I never expected small would mean this small,” she says. Leave aside the well-wishers she had wanted, her own parents couldn’t make it. Of the 80 who attended the wedding, only two were physically present. Others had to witness it from far away.
Her dream was upturned after one key element from the movies, the villain, ruined all plans: Covid-19, which has been ravaging India since its appearance in the country in January, and forced the country into a ruthless lockdown. Markets, courts, government offices, transport facilities, retailers, and almost everything else had shut down operations since March 25.
Yet, like in many a Bollywood movie, love—and technology—won the day for the duo even though a virtual wedding was still the stuff of science fiction.
Initially, the couple had given up hope.
“Kirti had given me a deadline in December that we had to tie the knot by April,” laughs Bagri, the 31-year-old co-founder of intercity bus service gogoBus. “We had prepared ourselves for a court marriage or a small ceremony at a temple,” he says. Now even that seemed impossible.
However, a friend who works with creative agency Leo Burnett put them in touch with matrimonial website Shaadi.com. While the site doesn’t organise weddings, it offers virtual wedding planning services as part of a campaign. The idea was also necessitated by the Hindus’ need to abide by astrological deadlines for weddings and other happy events.
Hopes were, thus, renewed for Agarwal and Bagri.
The first piece of the puzzle was to find a pandit (a Hindu priest) who’d be willing to officiate an online wedding—something unheard of in India. “Interestingly, we found cases of Indian Army soldiers, who would be married while on posting over the telephone, and their brides would hold a sword in their hands as a proxy,” says Adhish Zaveri, director for marketing at Shaadi.com.
Agarwal and Bagri also had to consider if this marriage would be legally valid. “But we found that for a marriage to be recognised under the Hindu Marriage Act, all that we needed was an invite, a traditional wedding ceremony, witnesses, and photographs,” Bagri says.
Their invite, thus, was an e-card with the date, time, and link to the video call.
Once a priest was found, Shaadi.com went about exploring how best to get things done without violating social distancing norms. This included tutoring Agarwal on how to do her own makeup and hair and sari draping. Even a mehendi (henna) artiste was made available online, who tutored Agarwal to do it herself.
Then came the most boisterous part of a typical northern Indian wedding—the sangeet.
Usually organised a day before the wedding, this is a time for general merriment, where music, dance, and sometimes alcohol flows freely. This time, though, family and friends were sitting all decked up inside their own respective homes.
Vanita Sharma, a wedding singer, sang from popular folk and Bollywood her home in Faridabad, Haryana. “I’m used to singing live, so it was a bit awkward at first. But when I saw that the guests were enjoying, it bolstered my confidence,” says Sharma. “I sang Kajra Mohabbat Waala especially for the couple’s parents.“
She also played emcee, coaxing family members to dance wherever they were.
Hours later, it was time for Agarwal to dress up for D-Day, but there was little to do compared to the usual fare.
“All the clothes and jewellery I bought for the wedding were stuck at my home in Bareilly,” Agarwal says. For all her splurging on wedding shopping, she had to ultimately make do with humbler options. “I didn’t think I would have to wear borrowed clothes on my wedding day, but it was an adventure nonetheless.”
On the wedding day, April 14, the pandit chanted the wedding mantras over a video call as Bagri and Agarwal took their ritual pheras—circumambulation around the holy fire to solemnise the marriage—on the small balcony of the apartment.
A mobile phone holder was fixed to the balcony wall from which a phone relayed unobstructed images of the pheras. Inside, a lamp acted as a makeshift tripod to click photos and shoot videos.
Instead of giving their daughter away in the traditional, teary-eyed manner, Agarwal’s parents had to contend with offering their blessings over Zoom.
Usually what follows the ceremony is a general bout of gluttony with massive, multi-cuisine buffets. In this case, Shaadi.com got the wedding lunch delivered to the couple’s home. Dinner, however, was an anti-climactic homemade khichdi, a dish one usually has when one is sick or trying to eat light.
Agarwal and Bagri, thus, fought for and won their own version of a happily-ever-after against all odds.
Bagri and Agarwal may have unwittingly set a new benchmark for “the new normal.”
This wedding, according to Sanna Vohra, CEO and founder of The Wedding Brigade, an end-to-end wedding service provider, could be a sign of the times to come. “Weddings this year are going to be a lot smaller and more intimate. Even those that are organised on a larger scale will be mindful of at-risk relatives and following social distancing norms.”
The time for showmanship and theatrics is gone, according to Devika Narain, founder of wedding design firm Devika Narain and Company. Now, more than ever is the time to consider what is truly important, she says. “The focus is not going to be on quantity but quality,” Narain said.
However, will it really turn into the new normal?
“So far, we have received requests for about 20 such virtual weddings. And during this process, we also realised that there are a lot of people who do not want this,” says Shaadi.com’s Zaveri. “I doubt this trend will last beyond the pandemic.”
Bagri and Agarwal, themselves, hope they’ll eventually get to wear their wedding fineries and celebrate with friends, family, and fanfare.
“And one day, when it’s safe, we hope we can finally go on our honeymoon,” says Bagri.