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

By Zoya Mateen and Meryl SebastianBBC News, in Delhi and Kochi

Reuters Anant Ambani, son of businessman Mukesh Ambani, poses with his fiance Radhika Merchant on the red carpet during the sangeet ceremony at Jio World Centre, Mumbai, India, July 5, 2024Reuters

How much is too much?

As the months-long wedding celebrations for the youngest child of Asia’s richest gentleman enter their last cycle, many in India are asking this question.

Anant Ambani, the youngest child of Reliance Industries president Mukesh Ambani, is expected to tie the knot with Radhika Merchant, the daughter of pharmaceutical magnates Viren and Shaila Merchant, this weekend for the festivities.

Four decades of beautiful events took place before the ceremony itself. All the elegant outfits, magnificent jewels, fairytale-like design and unique performances by Indian and global stars have been the focus of many people attention.

According to author and journalist Shobhaa De,” It is nothing short of a imperial marriage.” ” Our businessmen are the fresh Indian goes. Their owners expect nothing less than a big feast. “

Indians “have always loved pomp and pageantry- just like the British”, she says, adding that” the scale [of the wedding ] is in keeping with the Ambani wealth”.

But the hullabaloo around the wedding has drawn as much ire as public fascination. Many have criticised the opulence and the sheer magnitude of wealth on display 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 a mockery, a sort of blindness to the reality of the country at one level. At another level, however ridiculous this might be, it is still in keeping with the grossly distorted, almost grotesque bloating of Indian weddings in the last decade or so,” writer and commentator Santosh Desai tells the BBC.

It is a component of a larger shift that is occurring. A generation or two ago, wealth was spoken of in whispers. Today, wealth must speak as loudly as possible. Even then, the scale of this wedding makes it an outlier. “

Getty Images The Ambani house in MumbaiGetty Images
EPA Reliance Industries chairman Mukesh Ambani (R) and his wife Neeta Ambani gesture during a mass wedding ceremony for underprivileged couples at Reliance Corporate Park, in Navi Mumbai, India, 02 July 2024EPA

The Ambanis are well-known in India and have a ferocious following in their lives, with their vast business empire spanning oil, telecoms, chemicals, technology, fashion, and food.

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

According to reports, Ambani senior and fellow Indian business tycoon Gautam Adani are close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration, with opposition parties accusing the authorities of unfairly favoring the two businesses, allegations that both the government and the businessmen deny.

While the Ambani family’s enormous wealth and influence are well known in India, many people outside the region may not have yet realized how much money they are worth.

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

Reuters Indian actress Janhvi Kapoor poses on the red carpet during the sangeet ceremony of Anant Ambani and Radhika Merchant at Jio World Centre, Mumbai, India, July 5, 2024.Reuters
Reuters A band plays drums during the pre-wedding ceremony of Anant Ambani and Radhika Merchant outside the residence of Mukesh Ambani, in Mumbai, India, July 3, 2024.Reuters

The family’s hometown of Jamnagar, Gujarat’s western state, is where Mr. Ambani’s largest oil refinery, which is located there. Some 1,200 guests attended, including Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft’s Bill Gates.

A dinner served inside a specially constructed glasshouse was the start of the celebration. The stunning structure, which was Ms. Merchant’s favorite while she was a college student in New York City, reportedly resembles Palm House, a crystalline Victorian-style structure in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

Following the feast, Rihanna performed a performance, and viral videos showed the Ambani family dancing with the popstar on stage. If people had n’t been paying attention, they definitely were now.

Reuters Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg poses with Anant Ambani, son of Mukesh Ambani, the Chairman of Reliance Industries, and Radhika Merchant, daughter of industrialist Viren Merchant, during their pre-wedding celebrations in Jamnagar, Gujarat, India, March 2, 2024Reuters
Reuters Rihanna performs in Jamnagar for the Ambani pre-wedding partyReuters

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

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

The bride-to-be wore a number of specially made outfits, including a pink version of a Versace dress Blake Lively wore to the 2022 Met Gala, and two lehngas ( long bridal silk skirts ), one of which was said to have taken 5,700 hours to make.

The groom primarily donned Dolce & Gabbana. A Richard Mille wristwatch, estimated to be worth$ 1, was spotted in Gabanna attire and flaunted. 5m. A viral video of Zuckerberg and wife Priscilla Chan yelling at the watch went viral in India.

The opulence of these glitterati from around the world was perfectly captured in the newspapers and websites. ” It was almost like the time of maharajahs 100 years down the line,” the New York Times reported.

Reuters Akash Ambani and Anant Ambani, sons of Mukesh Ambani, the Chairman of Reliance Industries, pose with Shloka Mehta Ambani, wife of Akash, and Radhika Merchant, daughter of industrialist Viren Merchant, during pre-wedding celebrations of Anant and Radhika in Jamnagar, Gujarat, India, March 2, 2024. RelianceReuters

There was also a backlash following India’s overnight decision to convert the city’s small airport into an international airport, increase its staff, and deploy military and air force personnel in the name of the family.

The final night of the three-day jamboree, which ended with a shower of confetti, fireworks and a lightshow, 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 revelry that reportedly brought complaints from local people.

The Backstreet Boys, singer Katy Perry, and Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli gave performances this time around to mark the occasion.

This week, yet another set of wedding celebrations kicked off on the family’s home turf, Mumbai, with a performance by Justin Bieber.

38 million people have watched a video of him singing along to the bride and her friends while they are on the edge of the stage. It depicts thrilled women styling their fists in glee as they sari and sequined gowns. The crowd does n’t miss a beat to Bieber’s verse: You should go and love yourself.

Instagram Justin Bieber performing at party for the AmbanisInstagram
Reuters Anant Ambani, son of businessman Mukesh Ambani, arrives with his fiance Radhika Merchant on the red carpet during the sangeet ceremony at Jio World Centre, Mumbai, India, July 5, 2024.Reuters

Nothing is out of the reach of the family, as evidenced by the scale of the celebrations. And there is speculation that Adele could be performing at the actual wedding this weekend- the family, however, are tight-lipped.

India is undoubtedly familiar with the idea of big fat weddings because, after the US, it has the highest percentage of weddings spent.

Tina Tharwani, co-founder of the Shaadi Squad, says in recent years, there’s been a noticeable trend where weddings have become larger-than-life events that veer towards excessiveness, 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, such as this $74m wedding in 2016.

Other Ambani children have also had lavish pre-wedding festivities. At Isha Ambani’s pre-wedding bash in 2018, where Beyoncé performed, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry were among the guests. A year later, Akash Ambani’s pre-wedding bash featured a performance by Coldplay.

Reuters Nita Ambani, wife of Mukesh Ambani, the Chairman of Reliance Industries, shares a moment with Ivanka Trump during pre-wedding celebrations of Ambani's son Anant Ambani and Radhika Merchant, daughter of industrialist Viren Merchant, in Jamnagar, Gujarat, India, March 1, 2024Reuters
Reuters Actor Shah Rukh Khan, his wife Gauri and their son AbRam pose during the pre-wedding celebrations of Anant Ambani, son of Mukesh Ambani and Radhika Merchant, daughter of industrialist Viren Merchant, in Jamnagar, Gujarat, IndiaReuters

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

” It’s like the bible for the industry with the best of logistics, tech, design and grandeur.

You’re talking about preparations that will take at least two years, multiple recce trips, approvals and permits from various nations, as well as the logistics of arranging security and transportation for some of the biggest personalities in the world, he says.

EPA Ambani family hosts mass wedding for underprivileged couples in Mumbai, India - 02 Jul 2024EPA

The Ambanis have not disclosed how much this wedding will cost them, but according to Mr. Arya, they have already spent between 11 and 13 billion rupees [$ 132 million to 156 million ] on it. Rihanna was rumored to have received$ 7 million ($ 5 ) in compensation. 5m ) for her performance, while the figure suggested for Bieber is$ 10m.

In order to showcase India’s cultural heritage and serve as a backdrop for the wedding, money was also spent on the construction of 14 temples inside a vast complex in Jamnagar. As part of the celebrations, the Ambanis hosted a mass wedding for 50 underprivileged couples too.

According to reports, the family made a “pull out all the stops” because this would be their last wedding in the near future with all the Ambani children getting married.

However, as each event progresses, the public’s criticism of the occasion in India has grown, from enraged residents of Mumbai to the city’s traffic jams and monsoon flooding.

Reuters Decorations seen outside the Ambani residence, Antilia during the pre-wedding ceremony of Anant Ambani and Radhika Merchant in Mumbai, India, July 3, 2024.Reuters
Reuters Actors Salman Khan, Ram Charan, Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan perform during the pre-wedding celebrations of Anant Ambani, son of Mukesh Ambani, the Chairman of Reliance Industries, and Radhika Merchant, daughter of industrialist Viren Merchant, in Jamnagar, Gujarat, India, March 2, 2024Reuters

For India’s wedding industry though, it ’s still an exciting marketing opportunity.

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

Ms Tharwani says the wedding serves as “an exemplary case ” of orchestrating a multi-event, multi-location celebration” that combines tradition, modernity, and unmatched hospitality standards”.

Meanwhile, in Mumbai, Varindar Chawla, one of Bollywood’s best-known paparazzi, is sifting through the photographs of the celebrations.

A few famous people pose at the entrance as they travel to the various events.

Millions of views and shares have been circulating on each of these photos, even the less flattering ones, like one where a star appears stunned as a camera flash hits them in the face.

It is typically difficult to penetrate events of this magnitude. However, this family has made an effort to cover every single detail, he claims.

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