Indians are obsessed with weddings and obsessed with reality television. Now Shagun TV, a new television channel headquartered in a sprawling suburb of India's capital, is hoping it has found a can’t-miss idea - merging the two into a 24-hour matrimonial TV station.
Shagun TV can itself seem obsessed. Artwork on the windows of its lobby depict an Indian wedding procession, with turbaned men beating drums and an elephant-drawn carriage carrying the groom. In the main TV studio, a large cardboard astrology chart lies against a wall, used by one host to answer wedding and relationship questions. And a plasma television loops video of a bridal ceremony.
Then there are the programs. There is a bridal makeover show, a show featuring dreamy honeymoon destinations and one on the often-fraught relationship between mothers and daughters-in-law. There’s “Gold n’ Beautiful” that showcases bridal jewelry. Coming soon are marriage-themed soap operas.
“There is no reining in the penchant for [wedding] celebrations in India,” said Dheeraj Sinha, author of ‘Consumer India: Inside the Indian Mind and Wallet’.
“They are only becoming louder and more professional.”
Media analysts say the channel is the first in India offering round-the-clock wedding entertainment. It looks to cash in on a big fat Indian wedding market valued at an estimated $38 billion a year and expected to grow 25 to 30 percent annually, according to Alex Kuruvilla, the managing director of Conde Nast India, which publishes a string of luxury magazines.
The Indian wedding season, which starts in October and lasts until spring, can at times seem like a bridal invasion. Traffic grinds to a halt in major cities on wedding dates thought to be astrologically auspicious. On particularly lucky days, newspapers reported up to 60,000 couples tying the knot in New Delhi alone.
For centuries, Indian marriages were alliances between families of similar backgrounds, and the weddings were displays of status and wealth. In many ways, the quest for status is only intensifying as India’s economy grows.
Nidhi Gaur, 25, a recent guest on a Shagun talk show, said the TV channel has helped her prepare for her fairytale wedding.
“I can decide: ‘This is the place I want to buy my dresses, my jewelry’,” she said.
Nidhi’s family began saving for her wedding when she turned 18. Five hundred people are expected at her catered November nuptials at what she calls a “lavish five-star hall.”
If much of the channel is dedicated to astrology and matchmaking shows, it is also breaking privacy taboos by bringing on couples to openly share private details of their relationships. But don’t expect risqué American-style confessions. This is a family-friendly channel, where feel-good content is the rule.
In one talk show, “So It’s Final,” engaged couples share details about how they met, the qualities they like and dislike in one another and expectations of married life.
The show is designed as a “pre-marriage therapy session,” said Anuranjan Jha, Shagun TV's managing director. But, he acknowledges, there’s no talk about sex or serious marital discord. Its aim is not to create drama, but “to help in guiding how to lead a good life,” he said.
If things are fairly tame now, the show’s hosts intend to raise pricklier wedding issues, like dowry demands and inter-caste marriages.
Shagun TV says its aim is to give a platform to middle-class Indians who want to be in the spotlight. In fact, couples shell out between $11,000 and $19,000 to flaunt their multi-day wedding festivities on the channel - with the price depending on how many nights of the celebration they want aired.
“You want to put your life on display more and more,” said Santosh Desai, a sociologist and writer. “Earlier, your hierarchy was based on the community that you came from. As that becomes less and less important and as you become more cosmopolitan, how do you communicate who you are and where you have reached?”
But some media analysts say Shagun’s model may not work, amid the proliferation of channels and fragmentation of audiences.
“Nobody wants to watch nobodies on television,” said Anil Wanvari, editor-in-chief of Indiantelevision.com. “With 700 channels available, there is a problem of plenty. It’s not an easy game.”
But Shagun executives say they’ve got a built-in target audience of tens of millions of Indians: Singles and newlyweds aged 22 to 32 as well as family members closely involved in the extravagant marriage process.
Many of those families are wondering: How do you hold onto ancient traditions in a modern India where the family structure now faces working women and greater individual aspirations?
Nidhi’s mother, Durgesh Gaur, says the answer may be found on television.
“It’s possible that Shagun TV, through emphasizing marriage and family, brings back our Indian values and traditions,” she said.