India’s first ever woman event manager, who is now the go-to professional for Bollywood’s dreamiest weddings – Vandana Mohan
India’s “Master Wedding Planner” on how fantasy weddings turned out to be a very lucrative business – and how un-glamourous it can get behind the scenes
The wedding day is the most important day of a couple’s life. But thanks to Bollywood’s infamous ‘big fat Indian weddings’ it is now every couple’s — and more so every bride’s dream. Making these dreams come true is India’s ace wedding planner, Vandana Mohan. And mind you, ensuring all the taam–jhaam is in place is no cakewalk. This is the story of a lady who majored in political science, aspired to join Jawaharlal Nehru University and wanted to work for the United Nations. But as fate would have it, she went on to become one of India’s top wedding planners. Looking at her eventful journey thus far, one might say she does have a Midas touch — not everyone has the ability to steer things in their favour at every turn of life.
It all began around 28 years ago, when Mohan became India’s first woman event manager by starting her own company, Backstage Productions. Few years into the business, she had her hands full doing corporate events and luxury brand launches, when one of her clients asked her to manage his daughter’s wedding in 2003. Mohan’s initial reaction when asked to plan this wedding was, “Weddings? I don’t do weddings!” Sensing her reluctance, he asked her to treat it like a corporate party with 600 people and no branding.
Nearly two and a half decades later, the board outside her office in the crowded Masjid Road in Delhi still reads Backstage Productions. But its big blue door opens to the ethereal and classy setting of The Wedding Design Company (WDC), which has now become the face of its parent company. Today, Mohan makes weddings a dreamy affair for Indians across the world and has to her credit some high profile clients, such as the weddings of Prince Shivraj Singh and Princess Gayatri Kumari, Vikram Chatwal and Deepak Parekh’s son, amongst many others.
Mohan hails from a middle class family in Delhi and was interested in modelling and TV compering during her college days. As time went by, she started working more on documentary filmmaking, scripting, writing and anchoring and from there on, progressed to production. And in the 1980s, a Hong Kong-based production company, hired her as a consultant where Mohan eventually went on to become the production head. But soon the entrepreneurial bug bit her, and she decided to branch out on her own.
When she launched her company in 1989, event management was not popular, but she was determined to take that risk. Daughter of an army man, she had no one in the family with any experience of running a business. Being new to the world of business was not her only challenge; she was also a woman in an industry dominated by men. Mohan recalls, “I would lose contracts only because people didn’t know how to approach a woman for business or they were simply embarrassed to do business with a woman.” It was even more frustrating when she had to explain what she did — people often thought she was a caterer or ran a tent renting business.
Backstage Productions started off as a six-member, all-women team. Mohan remembers Fanta’s launch event that her team organised in Delhi in 1996, where the team got into some trouble with the police — a riot-like situation arose as those in attendance went berserk after being denied an encore of Daler Mehndi’s performance. Mohan narrates her experience of walking into the Hazrat Nizamuddin police station with her colleagues. “The gentleman first looked at me and then behind me to see if somebody else was coming. He asked me, ‘Where are the men?’ I curtly told him, ‘there are no men,’” she says. After initially being taken aback, the surprised officer finally helped clear the entire mess. Things got easier once she bagged international clients like Moet Hennessy, Gucci, Ford Motor Company and Chanel.
Finding her feet
Once Mohan began working in the wedding industry, she discovered that it was highly unorganised and there was no finesse. But Mohan decided to ensure a degree of structure, processes, and responsibility. People tried to dissuade her by saying that the business works on trust, confidence and general figures being thrown around. Mohan, though, stuck to her plan and brought in a format where there was an estimate sheet and a fee for every service that was being provided.
Even the first step of putting a team together came with its own set of challenges. Since she wanted an all-women team, she had to convince the girls’ families about their daughters’ safety. The work involved late nights, so she ensured that all women were dropped back after work. Being creative especially in terms of design wasn’t easy. These were times before the internet and 3D tools; there was no help in demonstrating venue settings. So Mohan used to refer to books on architecture, theatre and movies for ideas and she hired artists to sketch out venue layouts.
The business of wedding planning is not as glamorous as it sounds. She recalls an assignment where she had to deck up an 80 x 150 ft space. Although everything was planned, when she reached the venue a day before the event the place looked empty. The décor covered only the floor and understandably, Mohan panicked. She ran to Sharma Farms, a popular antique furniture seller to find some chandeliers. “We nearly died that day. When people came in later and said it was fabulous, my team and I had a good laugh because only we knew what we went through to make the place look fabulous,” she recalls.
About 10 years back, WDC started getting requests for destination weddings. Initially it was only Goa and Udaipur, but since then Mohan has travelled around the world giving people their fantasy weddings. With a team of 25-year-olds along with senior management, Mohan has done over 500 weddings till date. But what makes them stand out? Probably, the fact that Mohan overlooks details at every stage of the planning and ensures there is a signature of integrity in all of it.
All through the journey, there has been one solid pillar of support — her husband. In fact, it was Vikram Mohan who pushed her to start something on her own. She was only 20 when they got married in 1983 and he didn’t understand why life needed to change after marriage for a woman. “He was my biggest support, always. He would tell me to be sure of what I wanted to do and then never look back,” she says. Her husband has his own real estate business, but both of them managed their timings well to ensure at least one of them was always around for the kids. “I would start early and be home by 1 pm. If I had to get out, I would do so by 3 pm and Vikram would be home by 6 pm. I would be back for my kids’ playtime, homework and head out again at 10 pm if I had to,” she reminisces. She loves cooking and continues to cook on Sundays. “In my personal life, I know for a fact that it’s a very equal relationship. I contribute to the house as much as Vikram does. I truly believe that’s the way life should be.”
But then, who planned the wedding of India’s master wedding planner? “My mother did it all; I didn’t do a thing,” she laughs. Mohan believes a lot of her work is inspired by her mother. Her mom used to work in boutiques and taught in schools and set up a beautiful house with limited resources. Mohan believes her love for flowers — which is known to be WDC’s signature — comes from her mother who was very creative with her flower arrangements. Meanwhile, her dad was a great stickler for templates and following processes — a trait, which Mohan picked up later in her life.
But does she think she could have achieved more if she was a man? “May be I would have received more awards,” she laughs. “I didn’t face any restrictions, neither did I hesitate to go out. Often I needed to get government permissions for some events. Although, I had no clue how to go about it when I started, I would just pick up my bag and ask around,” she notes. She wasn’t worried about her safety, neither did she notice if people were uncomfortable when she walked into spaces where women didn’t at that time. “Even if there were problems it was in somebody else’s head, not in mine,” she smiles.
Today, she draws inspiration from Coco Chanel, who moved away from the crowd and thought out of the box, and respects Anand Mahindra for his multifaceted genius. After nearly three decades of running a successful business, Mohan has enough confidence that nothing really fazes her anymore. “I have never felt less equal to anyone. We are all human beings after all,” she says. So is there anyone she truly reveres? “Just Amitabh Bachchan,” she breaks into a laugh.