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Photographs: Katherine Sidelnik
At first glance, the normally empty plot of land off the highway between Gurgaon and Delhi looks like a construction site for an open-air theatre. It’s a large-scale operation: the props are loud and there’re a lot of them – hundreds of huge fibre-glass gold bells, about 30 000 metres of gold ribbon (as long as the distance between Gurgaon and Delhi), a gilded stage, huge digital prints of Rajasthani royal figures and 40 000 square feet of bright-coloured carpeting are being worked into one giant set.
About 300 people are frantic with their various tasks. In one corner, a couple of tailors are sewing at their temporary workstations, seated in the midst of an ocean of brocade. A huge, plywood pavilion is being erected with what appears might give way to a central courtyard – a stack of gold and silver chairs and enough plywood to build a few small houses sit there now. Towards the back of the site a group of young men are seated under a tent, amongst prints of Rajasthani royal figures. They squeeze glue patterns onto the images then sprinkle glitter on top. Every now and then one reaches into a pile of plastic jewels to further embellish the prints. One boy, seated in the middle of a circular print, has fashioned a floppy, jewelled tiara on his head and the faux gems glint as he rotates slowly, distributing glitter. They are covered head to toe in sparkles. A van pulls up with some packed lunches. A few people stop working. The van, now having unloaded the food, backs out, taking care not to get in the way of men who are criss-crossing the gold, tinsel-like ribbon across arches. The sound of hammering into plywood is constant.
Amidst the chaos, scenographer Sumant Jayakrishnan is picking his way through the construction, taking note of the progress. He cuts a striking figure, a head taller than the busy workmen, wearing green pants, Reebok sneakers and holding a walkie-talkie, into which he murmurs at regular intervals. He’s looking very calm for someone who’s on a tight deadline. The set looks nowhere near complete. The wedding is tomorrow night.
“You do things like this also sometimes overnight. Which is crazy. Which is why I don’t get too fazed by seeing it like this,” says Jayakrishnan. He’s had a week to pull together a space that will bring to life his interpretation of the “Rajasthani royal” fantasy that his clients have asked for; hence the glittery prints and golden props. On the wedding night, about 3 000 guests are expected.
With 17 years experience of working in different areas of scenic design, in theatre and film – he was the art director for Water (2005) the film by Deepa Mehta, fashion shows, art installations, music festivals to exhibitions – Jayakrishnan has, over the last three years, come to add wedding design to his repertoire.
Jayakrishnan came into wedding design by accident; his friend, fashion designer Tarun Tahiliani convinced him to work on a wedding together. “So I took him up, as a kind of lark, a bit of a fun thing to do,” he says.
When it comes to weddings, Jayakrishnan says he directs space. “It’s really how you create a mood, and since my first inroad into this space was through performance, most of the spaces are performative,” he says. “There’s a sense of the theatrical.”
Jayakrishnan only designs about five weddings a year, but specialist designers like himself are increasingly sought after as India’s wealthy are pulling out the stops on throwing more experimental, standout and upscale celebrations.
Geetu Goyal, 30, a wedding planner with Shaadionline, a professional wedding management services company, says in the last five years high-end clients have moved towards theme-based weddings.
“Every client wants something different. Nothing repeated. They say ‘make it different for us.’ If they’re investing a lot, they want difference,” agrees Shyam Lal Rajput, who works on a freelance basis with Shaadionline. Shaadionline, says Goyal, is progressively enlisting people with backgrounds in set design to conceptualise thematic weddings.
“When we are talking to our client, we understand what is their kind of taste. For example, if it rustic or royal or if someone wants to go for an English theme. We make them meet different set designers who specialize in that kind of a theme,” says Goyal.
For such clients, whom Rajput refers to as “VVIPs” – high-end businessmen, industrialists, politicians – Goyal says it’s a momentous occasion where all the host’s personal and business relationships come together. It’s both a special occasion for the family and an opportunity to woo contacts.
“Because they can afford it, they would like to bring their fantasies into reality.” And these fantasies range from weddings themed “a night in Paris,” to lotus-flower filled events, to evocations of Indian states – Kashmir and Rajasthan are popular. Some clients ask for a classic church setting. Others want to whisk their guests away to a casino in Macau or to ancient Egypt. One client in Punjab, says Goyal, wanted to recreate, in their expansive farmhouse grounds, a village with a pond, temples, and Banyan trees; after the wedding, the village stayed on.
It’s that intangible “wow factor” that Goyal says guests should feel as soon as they enter a wedding. And both Rajput and Goyalrattle off a short list of names, people who are renowned within the wedding planning industry for their design prowess. Some have garish websites. Others operate on word of mouth, like Jayakrishnan.
Jayakrishnan says he is allowed a large degree of creative control. “Generally the people that come to me come because there is a certain amount of trust.” But it’s not just set designers that are being called upon to conceptualise more experimental wedding spaces.
Arjun Bahl, 27, has in the last four or five years found his technical expertise in sound, video and lighting being called upon more for such events. From his small, lofty office in Delhi’s Satya Niketan, a neighbourhood popular with university students, Bahl runs his two companies, Most Technical, which designs sound, video and lights for events and nightclubs, and Crayon Event and Entertainment, which takes care of talent for events – DJs, performers and entertainers. While his business partners say work overseas is slow, Bahl says he’s run off his feet with his India-based clients.
Seventy percent of his work, says Bahl, is involved with nightclubs, for example, Bahl’s team built the technical components for Elevate, the mega nightclub in Noida. Bahl also works on events and about four weddings a year, where he programs sound, lighting and video and is also working to bring in talent such as Cirque du Soleil’s world renowned circus performers, as opposed to the circus “leftovers” he says are the norm at weddings.
He may not strictly deal with set design, but as the name Most Technical would suggest, Bahl is introducing state-of-the-art technical know-how to create a “sound experience” which can enliven the mood of a wedding.
One innovation that Bahl has been pioneering the sale and use of, in India, is a product from the UK called the Timax Soundhub; he plans to introduce its use at weddings at a marriage in February next year. The machine, says Bahl, “maps sound in 3D.” What does that mean? For example, he says, if you’re sitting in a hotel lobby, the machine would be able to induce a complete sound experience akin to sitting in a garden: birds would sound like they’re chirping past, a lawnmower motor in the distance would start up and then a scent machine would be triggered to give you, the person in the lobby, a wafting smell of freshly cut grass.
“So we can manipulate sound with this [machine],” he says. “That’s the future of integrating things. It’s immersive sound technology.” While the rental market for such products is small now, Bahl believes that the potential for products that can create sound experiences at weddings is huge. “We get more and more queries,” he says.
“This is only the beginning. Right now we don’t even have the right equipment in India. I have to get projectors from Europe [or] Mumbai. Slowly the right equipment is coming into India. The rental companies are buying this equipment. People are learning how to work this equipment.” Presently, Bahl only deals with high-end wedding clients amongst which he’s noticed a move away from old-school extravagance.
“Caterers are coming in from Paris. Florists are coming in from Paris. No big deal. There’s no wow factor,” he says. “People have been doing the same thing for many years; the idea is to do things differently and the way you can do things differently, is by spending money, unfortunately, at the moment.”
Like Jayakrishnan, Bahl’s recommendations come from word of mouth. “I don’t even have a website,” he says of his wedding work. Both Bahl and Jayakrishnan believe that weddings have the budgets and scope to allow designers to experiment with and test technology. Jayakrishnan says trained set designers that he’s worked on different projects with have started to specialise in wedding design.
“If I were somewhere else in the world I would be doing opera, that’s the scale of event I like. Now I’m living here. In India you don’t have those kinds of budgets and very few of those projects,” says Jayakrishnan. “So what I like about the wedding is the scale.”
And when the expected 3 000 guests arrive the following night, it’s not just the props, textures, colours and images that are visible now, that will stand out. When the sun goes down, just like a night at the theatre, it’ll be the dramatic lighting that will bring the event to life, says Jayakrishnan. As just as a theatre set is ephemeral, the day after, the ribbon will be uncoiled, the plywood packed away until the next wedding’s performance.