| Aishwarya Rai
Mechelen (Belgium), Sept. 1: It was a double wedding that cost Rs 70 crore — give or take a few crores — but it still wasn’t as expensive as the bill Bharat Shah ran up just to be present.
Shah, diamond merchant and film financier arrested on suspicion of links with the underworld, put up a bail close to Rs 77 crore to be present here at the weddings of his nephew and niece.
A guest at the weddings of Vishal and Priya — son and daughter of Vijay Shah, one of the biggest diamond dealers in Antwerp and probably in the world — placed the cost at between £5 and 7 million, with another tossing in £10 million (around Rs 70 crore). But that could be an underestimate.
Was it the most expensive Indian wedding ever' One of the guests, Aditya Mittal, was modest when asked how his marriage ceremony compared with the current affair. “No comment, but it was smaller,” Aditya said with a smile.
His father, steel baron Lakshmi Mittal, had taken over part of Calcutta’s Victoria Memorial lawns for his son’s wedding reception, where Shah Rukh Khan was in attendance.
At Mechelen, near Antwerp, the world’s diamond trading centre, an entire exhibition building, Nekkerhal, has been transformed into a Rajasthani palace — 1,000 feet long, over 300 feet wide and 60 feet tall.
Inside, Bollywood designer Nitin Desai has created the architectural splendours of India, along with mandaps for the wedding on Saturday of Vishal, Vjiay Shah’s only son, and today of Priya, one of his three daughters.
After an early reception, Vishal drove off with wife Shriya Mehta in his yellow Ferrari which had been parked next to his father’s more sedate Rolls-Royce. He had arrived for the wedding, though, in a horse-drawn carriage.
Today, it was the turn of Vishal’s sister, Priya. Her husband is also called Vishal (Mehta), but is not related to Shriya.
On Friday, guests were entertained by a galaxy of film stars, among them Aishwarya Rai, Salman Khan, Akshaye Khanna, Akshay Kumar, Saif Ali Khan and Preity Zinta. Wearing a white sari with a red border, Aishwarya did a turn from Devdas. For one act, the red carpet was cleared of guests — anywhere between 5,000 and 7,000 — so that “action hero” Akshay Kumar could roar along an aisle and up a slope on to the stage on a motorcycle.
Bharat Shah received a special mention from his nephew, Vishal. The bridegroom thanked guests for coming from all over the world to attend the festivities, his “Mom and Dad” for their parental love and then went out of his way to welcome “Bharat Uncle”, “who had come all the way from Bombay”.
To loud cheers, Vishal added: “The occasion would not be the same without him.” Bharat Shah, wearing a dark Nehru jacket with a green collar, beamed.
Rashmi Mehta, whose son, Bhavin, is married to Vijay Shah’s daughter, Shweta, was not exaggerating when he enticed guests with the comment: “Please come, you won’t see anything like this in your lifetime.”
All agreed that even by the lavish standards of Indian weddings, this one had set a new standard for opulence and innovation. The Hinduja brothers, Srichand and Gopi, who were among the guests, should know. They had once hired the Mahalaxmi Race Course in Bombay for a triple wedding.
According to Desai, the architectural mouldings from fibreglass were made at Film City in Mumbai over a month-and-a-half ago, and then transported in 47 containers in two ships to Antwerp, and turned into an Indian palace in over 23 days by 87 craftsmen imported from India.
“This was like a military operation,” said Desai, who has produced an extravaganza, featuring thousands of metres of colourful silk and tonnes of flowers flown in from Bangkok.
“Hats off to Vijay Shah,” enthused Desai. “He basically gave me a free hand. He told me, ‘We want the best. Don’t calculate anything.’ I was not limited to a budget.”
Vijay Shah, who personally received all the guests and paused to be photographed with many of them, said his instinct was to maintain a low media profile. “I rejected requests from the BBC and CNN,” he said.
Explaining why he had mounted such an elaborate wedding, he said: “I am doing it for my children. Nothing can be more important than that. It’s once in a lifetime.”
Guests who came from abroad were allocated rooms in the best hotels in Antwerp free of charge, met at the airport and assigned personal limousines to ferry them around. Two well-known designers, Rohit Baal and Manish Malhotra, have been doing the clothes — the former for the men, the latter for the women.
“The look was going to be royal but after Devdas, the look is all Devdas,” commented Baal, who showed his reverence for the host by touching Vijay Shah’s feet.
“His (Vijay Shah’s) hospitality is legendary,” emphasised Moni Varma, the basmati baron whose logo for Vettee rice brand can currently be seen at Test grounds in England.
The food was strictly vegetarian but there was a choice of Chinese, Italian, Lebanese and south Indian. Dozens of cooks, some wearing red Rajasthani turbans, from such firms in Bombay as Jyoti Caterers and L.S. Caterers Private Ltd, sat in front of a mock-up of Jaipur’s Hawa Mahal and dispensed red bread and mixed tawa chaat and other hot delicacies.