The serene hills of Uttrakhand recently became the venue for two high-profile weddings of the South Africa-based NRI Gupta family. As I explain in my book Money, Culture, Class: Elite Women as Modern Subjects, a destination wedding has become synonymous with belonging to the Indian elite. Though this trend can be traced back to the ostentatious Mittal wedding in Versailles in 2004, increasingly the elites (and indeed even the upper-middle class) are opting for destination weddings.

Even those who choose to marry within the city they live in, such as the Ambanis, ensure that they host pre-wedding ceremonies at an international location. It was thus only expected for the Guptas to join this trend of elite-ness, not only by organising an extravagant wedding but also by choosing a destination that took them back to their roots – India.

Politics of destination

My research revealed that there is latent competition amongst the elites in almost every aspect of weddings, especially in choosing more exotic or unique locations. The Guptas’ choice of Auli, nestled in the pristine hills of India, did seem like a crowning choice: the location exudes simplicity and had the potential to make a statement that the rich can appreciate calm and serenity as much as opulence and extravagance.

Indeed, as I found out, the choice of destination is rather poignant for it can indicate a sense of identity, uniqueness and values with which the elites would like to be associated. For example, for those who prefer a less-frills more-party vibe for the wedding, Thailand serves as an appealing destination due to its visa-hassle free access, vast beaches, and plush and relaxing resorts.

Others who desire an opulent and traditional appeal, prefer Rajasthan as a destination in order to curate a feeling of royalty and bestow regal hospitality on their guests.

In December 2018, we saw Isha Ambani’s pre-wedding celebration held at the luxurious Oberoi Udaivillas in Udaipur and Priyanka Chopra’s nuptials held against the backdrop of the majestic Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur. Indeed, the destination of the wedding is more than just a show of money and desire of ostentation: it communicates the essence, ethos, or values with which the elites want to be associated.

Actress Katrina Kaif performs at the wedding functions of the sons of South Africa-based businessmen brothers Ajay and Atul Gupta in Auli, Uttarakhand.

The Guptas’ decision to host two weddings in the hills of Uttrakhand also needs to be interpreted in the larger context of politics of identity, migration, and feelings of nationalism. Their choice of destination is a move to reinvigorate their connection to their roots and play up their nostalgia for a past identity.

More importantly, with this decision, they re-position themselves as those elites who have left India for economic prosperity and mobility yet who remain committed to the business of India. This wedding destination choice allows them to partake in the narrative of nation-building and national identity, as they demonstrate their desire to continue to be Indian.

Significantly, Auli is about 100 kilometres away from the Hindu holy site of Badrinath, meaning that the destination also invokes strong sentiments and values of Hindu identity, which are increasingly becoming synonymous with Indian national identity.

Entitlement and philanthropy

The more concerning aspect of this wedding, however, is that it exposed the elites’ sense of entitlement and privilege as they went about damaging the fragile environment of the hills. Not only did they use vast amounts of plastic to transport food and other items to an area where plastic is indeed banned, but they also left behind 220 quintals of waste.

Auli could serve as the new-age eco-friendly elite destination wedding, which at once promotes ideals of simplicity, nature, and glamour. It could be the much-needed chance for the elites to present themselves as concerned with the dangers of climate change, as green conscious, positioning themselves as sensitive to the inequalities and sufferings around them. Instead, Auli faced the wrath of competition over status and money, and conspicuous consumption.

The Uttrakhand High court has slapped a fine of Rs 3 crores on the Guptas to repair the environmental damage their caused in the Uttarakhand hills. Credit: AFP

Crucially, this has exposed the elites’ insensitivity and indifference to engage with any charitable acts concerning preservation and culture. Indeed, my research revealed that the business houses that rose to success in the post-liberalisation era, do not tend to engage with any form of philanthropy. This is in contrast to the previous era’s business families, which tended to either dedicate themselves to institution building (Srirams, Tatas) or provide generous religious donations.

There are exceptions though –Nandan and Rohini Nilekani have pledged half their wealth to philanthropy, and Azim Premji has contributed towards higher education. Yet compared to the number of Indian and NRI millionaires, philanthropic acts by the elites are very rare indeed.

The Gupta’s high-profile wedding then is another example of this trend I have noted whereby elites prefer to cocoon themselves in their world of competition, luxury, and opulence, displaying little interest in engaging in charitable or sensitive acts towards the larger population and nature.

The Uttrakhand High court has slapped a fine of Rs 3 crores on the Guptas, but is this enough? The more important question is why the state government allowed a wedding of this scale to take place in the pristine hills, and why it did not ensure that the rules were strictly enforced. Perhaps the intent was to put the serene and lesser-known hills of India on the map, as it were. But this came at a great cost.

Perhaps the Guptas could take a tip or two from Indian eco-friendly designer Anita Dongre, whose son’s wedding took place in the hills of Mussorie, also in Uttarakhand, without any damage to the environment. I have discussed elsewhere that elite Indian weddings are about competition, networks, and establishing a global Indian identity. I’d like to add that these weddings also serve as prisms through which we see the entitlement and pride of the rich, in front of which no human or tree stands unaffected.

Parul Bhandari is a sociologist and a Visiting Scholar at the University of Cambridge. She is the author of Money, Culture, Class: Elite Women as Modern Subjects. The Indian edition will be released in October.