'Top Notch' is a fortnightly column where journalist and editor Namrata Zakaria introduces us to fashion's elite and erudite club.
Devika Narain launched her eponymous wedding planning business only in 2015 when she was barely 25. In two years, she was putting together one of the most discreet and famous weddings India has ever seen " that of cricket and Bollywood royalty Virat Kohli and Anushka Sharma.
One would think that would catapult Narain into instant stardom. But thanks to the uber high-profile nature of the wedding, everything about it had to be the country's best-kept secret. "When I'm asked about any of my clients' weddings, my simple answer is no. It's important that all couples stay private. To date, I don't know what most of my clients do," she laughs a still-young-girl laugh. "But I find it very cool how people just find me."
To-be-weds find her because her weddings are simply gorgeous. Not in the everything is over-the-top manner that we understand 'the great Indian wedding'. Narain's weddings are simple, small, and with everything from the flowers to the dÃ©cor to the food sourced within a 50-mile radius. Several people, including famous stars like Yami Gautam and Dia Mirza are now having "green" weddings, but Narain has been putting them together for six years.
"I was raised in Lucknow so I am infatuated with all things craft. We used to have karigars at home regularly. My mum is obsessed with handloom and has a sari from every state, even the trousseau she gave me has a sari from every state. So craft was a big part of my growing up years, and then obviously it became my design language. Plus, it was cheaper to source locally, so when I was starting out that was a huge factor," she says. "Pinterest had just come to India and we were obsessed with white western wedding dÃ©cor. But I wanted to see Pinterest filled with Indian weddings. Sabyasachi calls being local and artisanal a new sort of nationalism."
Narain's weddings are simple, small, and with everything from the flowers to the dÃ©cor to the food sourced within a 50-mile radius
Narain was featured last year in a blockbuster Netflix show called The Big Day produced by Conde Nast. Did she ever imagine she would get here? "There's no straight route to what you end up doing in life. I'm always amused when people ask young kids what they want to be when they grow up, because I don't know anyone who ended up with the career they said they wanted as a child. I wanted to be a journalist, but I realised I was far too optimistic for that," she smiles. "I grew up in a large family where it was very common to have 20 people over because India had won a cricket match. We are obsessed with celebrations. I remember going to a wedding when I was 10, and everyone was so happy in the room. I'm fortunate I could make a career out of celebrations."
Narain says we have the image of craft as a handicraft emporium. But once we realise that it can be brought up to a luxury level, there's no going back. "There's a potter between Jaisalmer and Jodhpur who can only make one type of pot, that's all he's done his whole life. But when you order 100 pots from him, you realise that no two pots are the same," that's the beauty of making by hand, it's just so unique. I may not be the best wedding planner, but you have to understand our values," she explains. Narain sometimes has the locals grow special flowers for a wedding and had a field in Lucknow switch from wheat to mustard for her own wedding.
People have been choosing smaller, more tasteful and personal weddings. Young people are beginning to pay for their own weddings and thus make their own decisions how they want to do it, says Narain
Narain is married to the renowned wedding photographer Joseph Radhik, who she says she met on the job because she's always working. They married in a village called Itaunja outside Lucknow where she had spent some years while growing up. "We had no venue and no dÃ©cor, we just didn't want to work. The focus was entirely on family, friends and food and my father ensured the local khansamahs (cooks) would be up at the crack of dawn to cook up something delicious. I wore my mother's wedding lehenga and my family heirloom jewellery that went back to five generations. Jo gave me his grandmother's ring. And yes we grew a mustard field around the house."
She recalls a wedding in Srinagar where she wanted to source everything from Kashmir but was arriving there just 10 days prior to the wedding." The bride was from Dubai and wanted a cherry blossom tree dÃ©cor. But we found apple and peach blossoms looked just the same, and I had to go door to door asking for locals to give me one branch from their trees. I was able to see a city and state that people would find difficult to navigate otherwise. The same with Dhaka, in Bangladesh, it was just beautiful and filled with art."
Her toughest wedding had to be a Chennai wedding last June. "We couldn't travel with all the restrictions and had to organise everything over zoom calls. I was like, 'can you move that vase two inches to the right?'"
Does a sustainable, green wedding, cut the expenses in perhaps a very tasteful way that the giant wedding industry may collapse? Is this the end of the Big Fat Indian Wedding then?
"It's been dying for a while, and my work is the biggest testament to it. People have been choosing smaller, more tasteful and personal weddings. Young people are beginning to pay for their own weddings and thus make their own decisions about how they want to do it. They want to have fun, they want to only call people who matter to them. So yes, the smaller, more elegant wedding was always happening, Covid just fast-tracked the change. Now, I feel there's no going back. We have begun to appreciate artisanal. We have more respect for the vegetable vendor down the road who kept us going for two locked down summers when the larger chains did not," she avers. "The wedding as a theatre is over. The spend has not changed but what we spend on has definitely changed."