India's super rich push the envelope on marriage invitations
In contrast to the simple white card that Prince William and Kate Middleton issued to their guests, wedding invitations among the Indian elite are exercises in excess. It's difficult to pinpoint the moment when they started getting so outrageously lavish; when they went from being simple cards to sturdy booklets or even wooden boxes that could double up as coffee tables.
One possibility is the 2006 wedding of British-based steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal's daughter in Versailles. The wedding entered the record books as the most expensive ever at US$78 million (still a record). It's not known how much the invitation contributed to the bill but it was a pretty elaborate affair that ran to 20 pages and was laid inside a solid silver box.
Since then, making ornate invitations has become a sub-sector of the wedding industry in India. The king of the specialist producers is arguably Sandy Khurana, founder of the Entertainment Design Company that he runs with his brother Kapil.
In the reception area of his offices in Okhla, south Delhi, Khurana displays a 60cm brass-decorated red box weighing 20kg. Khurana lifts the lid to reveal panels and drawers containing Indian sweets. In the middle sits a 10kg brass statuette of a horse - a gift for the guest.
It's a far cry from weddings in his family when he was growing up. Then the local printer would come to the house, where, over a cup of tea, he would discuss the wording the family wanted on the gilt-edged cards. Then he printed them.
The Khurana brothers rarely use 'invitation' to describe their creations. And it would be a gross insult to call the brothers printers because their invitations are so intricate. 'Project managers' is probably a better description.
Khurana sometimes describes them as a 'turnkey solution'.
'We create an entire concept,' he says. 'Everything has to conform to the colour, decor and theme of the wedding so we create monograms and crests that are used on napkins, design matching luggage labels for the guests and ensure the cutlery and other small details all have the same look.'
In India, the invitation is the first statement that is made about the family's wealth and social standing. The more lavish it is, the wealthier the family; the more distinctive it is, the classier the family; the more expensive it is, the more spectacular the wedding will be.
Just as friends ask the bride who designed her dress (expecting a brand name) and who is doing the catering (another famous name), so they ask now about who is doing the invitations, again expecting a premier company such as EDU or Entertainment Design Company.
'The idea is that when guests receive it, they go: 'Wow, if the invite is so spectacular, what's the wedding going to be like?'' Khurana says.
In the quest for something unusual and striking, invitations have burst traditional boundaries. They come in silk and brocade bags, in ornate boxes with drawers full of hand-made chocolates or trinkets, in mini leather trunks, on marble slabs inscribed in gold, on silver plates and even - this is one of the very latest - in digital photo frames programmed with the information guests need to know about each of the many parties and soirees.
When New Delhi entrepreneur Kunal Malhotra, 31, got married last month, he issued an invitation encased in a large wooden box painted with peacocks and filled with chocolates.
'It had to be right,' Malhotra says. 'The invitation is very important because it gives you the first impression of what the wedding will be like. The colour theme on the box is matched to my outfit and other items at the wedding.'
As celebrations become more ambitious (week-long extravaganzas in Bali, Macau or the Maldives) and wedding planners conjure up ever more exotic fantasies, it is only to be expected that a simple card would not do the trick.
Last month politician Kanwar Singh Tanwar spent a staggering US$20 million and invited 18,000 guests to his son's wedding in the Indian capital. The couple received a helicopter as wedding gift. It's not known what the invitation looked like but it surely wasn't just a card.
The astounding amounts being spent on weddings prompted a politician recently to demand a ban on ostentatious weddings, but his was a voice in the wilderness. There were no takers for his views because everyone knows that the trend is skyward and invitation makers are responding to the growing demand for something special.
Ritika Tiwari, an interior designer who got married in February, speaks for many when she says: 'We had to have something different, something that stood out.'
Tiwari opted for a hot pink card embossed with a tree of life motif, repeated on gift chocolates. Others want big pop-up cards with scenes designed around the theme, but specialists such as Ravish Kapoor of The Design Studio in Greater Kailash, New Delhi, also place these invitations in gold-plated or suede-lined boxes and raw silk bags.
'It's pretty standard to receive a card with a box of chocolates or sweetmeats - exquisitely wrapped of course - but I was taken aback when I got an invitation inscribed with semi-precious stones on a silver plate,' says Nandita Tuli, an infrastructure analyst.
Specialists such as Khurana and Kapoor have catered to India's top industrialists, politicians and Bollywood stars. They are sought after by wealthy Indian families in the US, Britain and Hong Kong.
'The whole thing is crazy, it's totally out of control,' says social commentator Parsa Rao. 'Just imagine, if so much effort and money is going into the card, how much is spent on the wedding? Everyone is vying to outdo everyone else to show off how wealthy and powerful they are.'
With some cards costing 20,000 rupees (HK$3,470) each, money is no object for India's rich. The only limitation is their imagination.
Kapoor is able to cater to these fantasies thanks to an army of artisans in India who can deliver the most complex confections with amazing craftsmanship. Among his handiworks is a carved chest that opens to reveal a 3-D tableau of palanquin bearers carrying a bride through a forest.
Even more elaborate was Kapoor's creation for the CEO of a mobile phone company who presented guests at his daughter's wedding with a cell phone, placed in a beautiful box that doubled as an invitation. The device was programmed with information about the celebrations - venues, times, dress codes, directions and 'things to do' list in the city.
'You can give me your dream and whatever it is, I will turn into reality,' Kapoor says. 'Everyone is obsessed with being unique.'
His latest request from a customer is an iPad invitation.
'People tell me they want to get re-married just so they can send out such invitations,' he says, smiling.