The pandemic-era wedding portal is the sanitation booth. Gone are the arches covered in flowers and lights; the red carpets and hints of tinsel. Instead, you walk into an all-white box, where you’re greeted by contractors covered in safety gear.

The questions aren’t, ‘Arre, pahunch gaye aap… kaise hain sab?” It’s ‘Namaskar. Can I check the status on your Arogya Setu app?”

There’s a quick temperature scan. Expect the fancy hairdo and make-up to get dampened a bit by the sanitising spray, it probably won’t hurt your clothes, but it has marred your entrance.

You are now in a quarantine wedding; enjoy your hamper of sanitiser, mask and gloves.

At the start of the nationwide lockdown in March, couples scrambled to postpone or cancel. Some put off tying the knot by six months, some by a year. As it became clear that they would have to rethink their celebration entirely, or put them off indefinitely, the wedding celebration made a (rather unrecognisable) comeback.

Some are taking the restrictions in their stride and making them a part of the party — one couple put little dolls of themselves, in masks, atop their cake.

Others are doing the best they can, so they can start their lives together, and hoping they can have a real party when all this blows over.

The change is palpable either way —masks covered in zari and beads; barricades around the bride and groom; awkward conversations about the guest list (and why you’re not on it); rituals live-streamed to those left out; and sangeets on Zoom.

It’s also palpable in the special zones for seniors (no photographers allowed); the plated wedding dinners; and the fact that the crowds are tiny and the ceremonies less than three hours long.

Naani first

“No bride wants to get married without her grandmother there; no groom either. So that has been one challenge,” says Gurleen M Puri, a high-end wedding planner with an eponymous agency based in Mumbai.

Since seniors, especially those with comorbidities, are at higher risk from Covid-19, this has meant special seating areas with servers in full PPE gear, and photographers shooting with zoom lenses from far away.

Shubh Muhurat Luxury Weddings, Delhi, which saw bookings for the whole year plummet by 50% as soon as the lockdown was enforced, responded by adding a new specialisation to their bouquet — the Covid Kit.

“We now offer designer masks, tiny pocket sanitisers you can hide even in wedding wear,” says director of Shubh Muhurat, Shrawan (who goes by only one name). “We also offer the option of a dedicated team that will tour your shaadi or sangeet ceremony to ensure social distancing is maintained.”

Of course it’s not ideal having a set of hall monitors at a celebration, but people tend to forget the rules and it makes everyone breathe a bit easier, planners say, knowing someone has an eye on enforcing them.

The long queues of well-wishers are gone; instead couples do the rounds and are wished from a distance. Still, habits die hard. Guests have to be requested to stay off the stage, take their photos from a distance. Nilma Dileepan, a wedding designer in Bengaluru, went so far as to construct a dainty white picket fence around the chairs of the bride and groom, as a visual reminder to guests to keep their distance.

“There’s still a fear psychosis, of course — should I hug this person? Is it safe to take food from this server?” says Puri.

Safety was the main reason Pearl Noronha from Mumbai cancelled her big church wedding with fiancé Ashwin Noronha, a dream bash with a guest list of 600.

“We had planned it for April 18 but finally did it on July 10,” says Pearl, an RJ with All India Radio. “Thankfully, I got my dress before the lockdown. Still, the chapel wedding had just 10 people. The food came from a home chef. We had a tiny reception at home, with decorations done by my brother and his friends.”

The most disappointing thing, Pearl says, was having to cancel the Bollywood dance performances her cousins and friends had planned and rehearsed for months. “We’d even hired a choreographer to help. I just didn’t have the heart to try and do it on Zoom, with everyone scattered. And it’s sad, because I won’t ever get to do that again in my life.”

Madhura Lingayat also saw her wedding whittled down — from a five-day affair including destination events for the bachelor and bachelorette parties, to one three-hour event with 50 people present.

“We did a Facebook Live so that everyone who couldn’t make it, could still attend from home,” says Lingayat, 34, a photographer, who married Yatharth Joshi, 33, an oil-field engineer, on the date they’d fixed — June 30.

The run-up was dramatically different too. In June, when some shops reopened, the couple rushed to arrange everything from clothes to caterers to return gifts. “We did it all in three weeks, just the two of us,” Lingayat says.

The shopping, which some brides take a year to do, was finished in two days, with most of the outfits and jewellery bought online. “That was actually a relief,” Lingayat says. “I had been dreading the going shop to shop to look at never-ending fabrics. Myntra and Amazon were like my bridesmaids.”

Yatharth has one regret — not being able to have the sangeet / engagement party and the cocktail reception they had planned. They plan to have a big party next year, though (see revenge weddings for more on that trend).

What’s for dinner?

With no option but to limit the guest list to 50, and with a buffet out of the question, couples are finding that their food budget goes much further. Some are opting to send guests who can’t be at the venue, a packed spread they can enjoy at home. Typically, these hampers contain the dinner, or treats such as chocolate, cookies and wines; either as something to sup on while streaming the ceremony, or as an apology for not being able to invite them to it.

Puri and the Taj Hotels are both offering this option now, as part of their wedding services.

At the venues, meanwhile, the food has gone from generic buffets where everything tastes more or less the same, to pre-plated, seven-course, leisurely sit-down dinners, topped off with decorative desserts.

“It’s a bit like going back to the old days, before weddings became quite this big,” says Renu Basu, senior vice president of global sales and marketing at Indian Hotels Company (IHC), which owns the Taj brand. “The gatherings are personalised and there’s a greater attention to detail.”

Present and available

Makeup and photography have seen business dwindle by about 90%. “We had 40 brides on our list before the lockdown; only five went ahead with the ceremony,” says Aniruddha Chakladar, a wedding make-up artist from Kolkata.

His costs have boomed because of the new protocols. He takes makeup out of its bottles to minimise the risk of cross-contamination. This means some is wasted. He’s had to invest in disposable makeup brushes, hundreds of sets of gloves, sanitiser and masks.

“I’m asking each bride to use their own maskara and lipstick for safety. I pour foundation out of the bottle for each use. I’m sanitising the palette each time. Costs have gone up a lot,” Chakladar says.

Photographers have fewer gigs but need more gear on site than they did before — zoom lenses, for instance, and 360-degree cameras for the live-streaming.

“I’ve worked 10 weddings in the last six months. Despite the lengthy sanitisation processes, the fear of the virus — or maybe because of it — the ceremonies feel a lot more intimate, more emotional,” says Megha Israni, a wedding photographer from Mumbai.

Parents aren’t stressed about the guests; they’re enjoying watching their children take this step. “At one pre-wedding shoot, we had the whole family there for a whole hour, relaxed, laughing and posing. That never happens when you have halls full of guests to take care of,” Israni adds. “Earlier, it used to feel like a marathon, everyone running from one place to another. Wondering if things are okay, who’s talking about what. Now it’s more relaxed. Everyone has a lot more time on their hands.”

The revenge wedding

The one thing that hasn’t worked is the virtual sangeet. In the early months, wedding planners got requests to hire a DJ, set up the lights and the playlist, mail out special invitations.

“But as much as everyone was talking about it, it died a quick death, by May,” Puri says. “People just hated it. Customers paid a huge amount for the artist or DJ to perform but the sound and picture quality were usually terrible with so many people logged in. There was always someone talking or background chaos ruining the event. The whole idea is to have fun at a sangeet and it was not fun.”

Now, analysts predict that 2021 (or 2022 or whenever the world rights itself), will be the year of revenge weddings — events so lavish they could only be born of rebellion. More food, more photographers, makeup artists everywhere, and hotels crowded with guests dancing the night away.

“Zoom weddings and minimalism are not the future,” Basu says, only a little wishfully. “The weddings next year will be bigger, fatter. Bookings are already coming in. People are optimistic. Hoping for a medical breakthrough. We’re keeping our fingers crossed,” says Puri.

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