What to expect from one of India’s most anticipated weddings of the year

Billionaire heir Anant Ambani is set to marry his longtime girlfriend Radhika Merchant later this month, in a lavish ceremony widely described as the country’s wedding of the year.

Extravagant pre-wedding celebrations have already sent Indian media into a frenzy and social media feeds are abuzz over what’s to come.

In March, the couple had a three-day pre-wedding party in the western city of Jamnagar, attended by around 1,200 high-profile guests, including Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates. An elaborate light show featuring 5,500 drones lit up the sky above a glass palace custom-built for the festivities where partygoers danced the night away to a performance by none other than Rihanna.

Then, over a weekend in late May, the couple held a four-day Mediterranean cruise for friends and family, which made multiple stops through Europe, and included a bevy of Bollywood A-listers, with performances by Katy Perry, the Backstreet Boys and opera star Andrea Bocelli.

The Mumbai wedding is set to take place July 12 to 14 at the home of Anant’s parents Mukesh and Nita Ambani – a 27-story residence called Antilia – as well as the family-owned Jio World Convention Centre, a sprawling venue with a capacity for more than 16,000 people.

Details have been tightly guarded, but if the pre-wedding events are anything to go by, the upcoming nuptials are expected to be grand. Here’s what we know.

Anant Ambani, left, son of Chairman of Reliance Industries Limited Mukesh Ambani and his fiancee Radhika Merchant greet media persons during their engagement ceremony in Mumbai, India, Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023. (Rajanish Kakade / AP Photo)

Who are the bride and groom?

Ambani, 29, is the youngest son of Asia’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, who has an estimated fortune of US$118 billion, according to Bloomberg Billionaires Index. His son is responsible for driving the expansion of the energy sector of the family’s conglomerate, Reliance Industries.

The youngest of three siblings, Ambani graduated from Brown University. His brother and sister are on the board of Reliance and manage other parts of the company. Anant has been concerned about animal welfare since childhood.

He recently launched his passion project, Vantara, a 3,000-acre animal shelter, which was toured by VIP guests dressed in jungle-themed attire during the pre-wedding party in Jamnagar.

Merchant, 29, is the daughter of pharma tycoon Viren Merchant, and works for his company, Encore Healthcare.

A graduate of New York University, she told Vogue that she met Ambani through mutual friends during a drive in 2017. “That first meeting just sparked something special between us, and it wasn’t long before we started dating,” she said.

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Merchant is also formally trained in Bharatnatyam, a form of Indian classical dance.

Speaking of his wife to-be, Ambani said during a speech in Jamnagar: “I am 100 per cent the lucky one. It feels like I met Radhika yesterday, but every day, I fall more and more in love.”

What can we expect at the wedding?

In keeping with Hindu tradition, the couple’s wedding dates were reportedly chosen according to auspicious days on their birth charts.

Hindu weddings typically include several events and take place over more than one day.

The festivities usually include a haldi ceremony, where guests apply turmeric paste on the bride and groom’s arms and face for good luck and protection from evil spirits. Then there’s the mehndi, a ritual where an artist paints intricate henna patterns on to the hands of the bride and guests. The night before the wedding is usually reserved for the sangeet, when the bride and groom’s wedding party dances for guests.

According to a leaked wedding invitation posted by ANI, one of India’s largest news agencies, festivities will kick off on July 12 with the “Shubh Vivaah” or “auspicious wedding” ceremony. The following day is the “Shubh Aashirwad” or “divine blessing” ceremony, and festivities conclude on July 14 with the “Mangal Utsav” or reception. The invitation was placed in an ornate red box with a depiction of the Hindu god Vishnu on its front, according to a video published by ANI.

Manish Malhotra, one of the country’s most famous designers, has been appointed as the wedding’s creative director, collaborating with Nita Ambani and numerous vendors to execute the family’s vision.

Malhotra told CNN that he built on Nita’s “visionary approach,” with his team creating themes and experiences for the wedding that “embody the essence of India while reflecting the couple’s distinct personalities.”

“Each detail, from the decor and cuisine to the attire and ambiance; each event, from the vibrant Sangeet to the ceremonial wedding day and the grand reception, is designed to immerse guests in an atmosphere of joy, love and celebration,” he explained via e-mail.

Mukesh Ambani, left, poses with his family members on the occasion of engagement of his son Anant Ambani, third left, with Radhika Merchant, second left, during a ceremony in Mumbai, India, Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023. (Rajanish Kakade / AP Photo)

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What can we expect from the wedding fashion?

The bride and groom are expected to wear statement-making attire showcasing Indian craft and textiles, homegrown talent as well as pieces imbued with symbolism.

The couple’s outfits worn in the pre-wedding events included striking pieces from top Indian designers, such as Malhotra, Sabyasachi Mukherjee and Tarun Tahiliani.

Malhotra designed two lehengas that Merchant wore to the pre-wedding bash. The golden garment was studded with 20,000 Swarovski crystals and employed the knowledge of over 70 artisans while an Art Deco inspired blue lehenga took 5,700 hours to make.

Ambani’s looks have also been bold. At one of the events in Jamnagar, he wore an ivory sherwani, a traditional Indian two-piece suit, designed by Rohit Bal, with a custom brooch by Lorraine Schwartz.

Luxury fashion labels have been seen alongside up-and-coming labels. Merchant wore Versace during the March celebrations — a custom pink version of the gown previously worn by Blake Lively at the 2022 Met Gala.

On the Mediterranean cruise, Merchant wore a black and white gown designed by Hong Kong-born Robert Wun, with a love letter from her fiance printed onto the chiffon skirt. Coordinating with Merchant, Ambani also wore a custom black suit designed by Wun, encrusted with jewels.

For the July wedding, Malhotra said his team has “dedicated several months of meticulous craftsmanship to create exquisite pieces.” While he was unable to reveal the details of the garments ahead of the occasion, he said work on some of them began before the pre-wedding celebrations.

At the upcoming wedding, guests are expected to dress in “traditional Indian” attire on Friday, according to the wedding invitation, which could include a saree for women, and a kurta – loosely fitted pants with a tunic – for men.

Guests have been asked to wear “Indian formal” attire the following day and “Indian chic” for Sunday’s reception event.

Malhotra described the “Indian chic” dress code as something that “marries traditional Indian elements with contemporary fashion.”

For the couple, he said, this translates into “striking ensembles that honor our rich cultural heritage while reflecting their personal style. Think of intricate embroidery and innovative silhouettes that capture both tradition and modernity.”

As for the guests, Malhotra said, we can expect to see “timeless sarees and lehengas paired with modern blouses, or traditional sherwanis with a contemporary twist.

“The key is to celebrate Indian craftsmanship while embracing a sophisticated, stylish aesthetic that feels both timeless and fresh.”

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What it takes to pull off a wedding on this scale

An event of this magnitude takes months to plan and likely involves hundreds of people working behind the scenes to make it happen.

“Any kind of mega project like this usually requires about nine to 12 months of preparation work, and there is the involvement of nearly 40 to 45 big agencies or partners,” Mareesha Parikh, a Mumbai-based wedding planner and founder of Swaaha Weddings, told CNN on a phone call.

Separate teams will likely be dealing with reservations, securing entertainment, managing production design, handling logistics, among others tasks on the day, she added.

India’s wedding industry has dramatically evolved over the last decade, with Bollywood and celebrity culture inspiring couples to throw grander and even more expensive affairs.

But with the intense public fascination with Ambani and Merchant’s wedding, also comes some criticism. To some, the opulence of the event stands in stark contrast to the poverty affecting tens of millions in the country, and points to what critics say is an increasing wealth gap between the rich and poor.

The Ambanis, aware of their privilege, have carried out charitable acts before some of the celebrations. On Tuesday, they staged a mass wedding for 50 “underprivileged” couples in the city, gifting them jewellery as well as household items and groceries for a year.

Now valued at around US$130 billion, according to the Confederation of All India Traders, the wedding sector is country’s fourth largest industry, employing millions of people. In December, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a “wed in India” campaign to keep the money spent on weddings inside the country.

“Areas of specialization have also grown,” Parikh said. “Take gift hampers for example. We used to source those and wrap them ourselves. Now there’s a separate agency that does the sourcing and a separate agency that does the packaging.”

Vanessa Almeida, the Goa-based owner of The Gift House, who was responsible for packaging some 8,000 gifts for Ambani’s guests in Jamnagar told CNN she was in the city for two weeks to ensure all the preparations were going to plan.

“During the event, we were asked not to take photos of the event, of the people or of the work that we were doing,” she said in a phone interview. “They had very respectfully even asked the guests not to do so as they had their own teams capturing everything.”

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