Anant Ambani and Radhika Merchant: The Indian wedding is turning heads around the world

Caption, After months of festivities, the Ambani wedding is finally coming to an end

  • Author, Zoya Mateen and Meryl Sebastian
  • Role, BBC News, in Delhi and Kochi

That’s the question many in India are asking as the months-long wedding festivities for the youngest son of Asia’s richest man enter their final phase.

The celebrations are expected to culminate this weekend when Anant Ambani, the youngest son of Reliance Industries chairman Mukesh Ambani, ties the knot with Radhika Merchant, daughter of pharmaceutical tycoons Viren and Shaila Merchant.

It has been four months of lavish events leading up to the actual wedding. All the glamorous outfits, stunning jewellery, fairytale decor and rare appearances by Indian and global stars have been the focus of much public attention.

“It’s nothing less than a royal wedding,” says author and columnist Shobhaa De. “Our billionaires are the new Indian maharajas. Their shareholders expect nothing less than a mega extravaganza.”

Indians “have always loved pomp and circumstance – just like the British”, she says, adding that “the scale (of the wedding) is in line with the Ambani’s wealth”.

But the chaos surrounding the wedding has sparked as much anger as public fascination. Many have criticized the abundance and great wealth displayed in a country where tens of millions live below the poverty line and where income inequality is extreme.

(The wedding) can easily be seen as a kind of mockery, a kind of blindness to the reality of the country on one level. On another level, as ridiculous as this may be, it is still in line with the grossly distorted, almost grotesque bloat of Indian weddings over the last decade or so, author and commentator Santosh Desai told the BBC.

“It’s part of a larger shift that’s going on. A generation or two ago, wealth was spoken in whispers. Today, wealth has to speak as loudly as possible. Even then, the scale of this wedding makes it an extremist.”

image source, Getty Images

Caption, The main wedding will take place at the family residence in Mumbai
Caption, Parents Neeta and Mukesh Ambani leave no stone unturned to make the celebration memorable

With a sprawling business empire – ranging from oil, telecom, chemicals, technology and fashion to food – the Ambanis are a ubiquitous presence in India and their lives are the subject of intense public fascination.

Mr Ambani’s personal fortune is estimated at a staggering $115bn (£90bn). Anant, 29, holds a position on the board of Reliance Industries.

Ambani senior, along with Indian business magnate Gautam Adani, are reported to be close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, with opposition parties accusing the authorities of improperly favoring the two business houses – allegations both the government and the businessmen deny.

While the vast wealth and influence of the Ambani family is well known in India, many outside the country may not have realized the extent of their wealth until now.

That changed in March, when Mr Ambani hosted a three-day pre-wedding bash for his son.

Caption, Some of Bollywood’s biggest stars, like Janhvi Kapoor, have attended the pre-wedding events
Caption, The festivities have included musicians, parties, luxury cruises and several traditional ceremonies

The festivities were held in the family’s hometown of Jamnagar in the western state of Gujarat, which is also the site of Ambani’s oil refinery – the largest in the world. About 1,200 guests attended, including Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft’s Bill Gates.

The party began with a dinner held in a greenhouse specially built for the occasion. The stunning structure reportedly resembles the Palm House, a crystalline Victorian-style building located in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, which was a favorite of Ms. Merchant when she was a college student in New York City.

The party was followed by a performance by Rihanna and viral videos showed the Ambani family grooving with the pop star on stage. If people hadn’t been paying attention, they definitely were now.

Caption, Meta’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg was among the guests at the wedding celebration in March
Caption, Pop star Rihanna performed for the family in March

Through it all, dozens of specialty chefs served approximately 2,000 dishes, carefully selected from around the world, to guests in luxury tents, with personal makeup artists and stylists at their service.

There was also a 10-page dress code manual for the events, which included a “jungle fever” theme for a visit to a family-run animal sanctuary, followed by a Moulin Rouge-themed “house party” held on the sprawling grounds of their palatial residence .

The bride-to-be wore a number of custom-made outfits, including two lehngas (long silk bridal skirts) – one studded with 20,000 Swarovski crystals and another that reportedly took 5,700 hours to make – and a pink version of a Versace dress worn by actor Blake Lively wore at the 2022 Met Gala.

The groom wore mostly Dolce & Gabanna attire and flaunted a Richard Mille wristwatch, worth an estimated $1.5 million. A viral video of Zuckerberg and wife Priscilla Chan staring at the clock went viral in India.

Newspapers and websites perfectly captured the exuberance of these dazzling events, attended by glitterati from all over the world. “It was almost like the time of the maharajas 100 years later,” the New York Times reported.

Caption, Akash Ambani and Anant Ambani with Shloka Mehta Ambani, wife of Akash and bride-to-be Radhika Merchant

There was also a backlash after India’s government overnight designated the city’s small airport as an international airport, expanded its staff and deployed military and air force personnel to serve the family.

The final night of the three-day jamboree, which concluded with a shower of confetti, fireworks and a light show, set the tone for what was to come next.

In June, the couple and their guests took their pre-wedding celebrations overseas, literally. The party, which included top Bollywood stars, embarked on a luxury cruise along the stunning azure coastline of the Tyrrhenian Sea in Italy, to the French Mediterranean.

They stopped in Rome, Portofino, Genoa and Cannes for late-night parties that reportedly drew complaints from locals.

This time the celebration featured performances by 90s heartthrobs The Backstreet Boys, singer Katy Perry and Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli.

This week yet Other the wedding celebrations kicked off at the family’s home turf, Mumbai, with a performance by Justin Bieber.

A video of him singing at the edge of the stage as the bride and her friends sing along has been viewed 38 million times. It shows ecstatic women in sequined dresses and saris as they punch their fists at the sky in joy. The crowd doesn’t miss a beat to Bieber’s verse: You should go love yourself.

Caption, Justin Bieber’s performance captured worldwide attention
Caption, The bride and groom have made public appearances throughout the celebration

The scale of the celebration shows that nothing is out of reach for the family. And there is speculation that Adele could perform at the actual wedding this weekend – the family are being silly though.

Of course, India is no stranger to the concept of big fat weddings – the country is the biggest spender on marriage ceremonies after the US.

Tina Tharwani, one of the founders of Shaadi Squad, says that in recent years there has been a noticeable trend of weddings becoming larger events that are moving towards excess, driven by societal expectations, competitive displays of status and a desire to create memorable moments.

So we’ve seen expensive weddings routinely make headlines in recent years, like this $74 million wedding in 2016.

Other Ambani children have also had lavish pre-wedding festivities. Hillary Clinton and John Kerry were among the attendees at Isha Ambani’s 2018 pre-wedding bash, which featured a performance by Beyoncé. A year later, Akash Ambani’s pre-wedding party included a performance by Coldplay.

Caption, Ivanka Trump (left) met Nita Ambani at the pre-wedding celebration in March
Caption, Bollywood heartthrob Shah Rukh Khan has been attending the pre-wedding events

When it comes to scale, however, this is the mother of all weddings, says Ashwini Arya, owner of an event management company that organizes weddings in dozens of countries.

“It’s like the bible of the industry with the best of logistics, technology, design and grandeur.

“You’re talking about at least two years of preparation, multiple tours, multiple country approvals and permits, along with the logistics of arranging security and transportation for some of the world’s biggest personalities,” he says.

Caption, As part of the celebration, the family hosted a mass wedding for underprivileged couples

The Ambanis have not disclosed how much this wedding is costing them, but Arya estimates that they “have already spent somewhere between 11 billion and 13 billion rupees ($132m-$156m)”. Rihanna was rumored to have received $7m (£5.5m) for her performance, while the figure suggested for Bieber is $10m.

Money was also spent on building 14 temples in a sprawling complex in Jamnagar to showcase India’s cultural heritage and provide a backdrop for the wedding. As part of the celebrations, the Ambanis hosted a mass wedding for 50 underprivileged couples as well.

The family is said to have taken it upon themselves as with all the Ambani children married, this would be their last wedding for the foreseeable future.

But with each event, public criticism of the celebrations in India has grown – from people horrified by the huge jewels worn by Nita Ambani to resentment and anger among Mumbai residents over traffic restrictions in a city already struggling with traffic jams and monsoon floods.

Caption, The celebration has caused anger and resentment among the residents of Mumbai
Caption, But for Bollywood’s biggest names, this is the place to be

But for India’s wedding industry, it remains an exciting marketing opportunity.

This is a great chance for designers to showcase the more refined side of India’s couture, artistry and craftsmanship,” said Anand Bhushan, a fashion designer. That said, the frequency, with celebrities changing five-six outfits per event, can sometimes feel “a bit saturating,” he admits.

Tharwani says the wedding serves as “an exemplary case” of staging a multi-event, multi-venue celebration “combining tradition, modernity and unparalleled standards of hospitality”.

Meanwhile, in Mumbai, Varindar Chawla, one of Bollywood’s most famous paparazzi, is sifting through the photographs from the celebrations.

There are some celebrities who pose at the entrance when they come to attend the various events.

Each of these photos – even the unflattering ones, such as of a star looking shocked when the glare of a camera flash hits them in the face – has received millions of views and shares.

“Usually events of this magnitude are difficult to digest. But this family has gone out of their way to ensure we are there to cover every little detail,” he said.

“It’s a royal wedding and we’re getting the royal treatment.”

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