Taking the cake

Ten years ago, birthday parties were like traditional Pakistani “daawa­ts” with chaat and pakoray for food and plenty...


Amena Jafri July 20, 2010

Ten years ago, birthday parties were like traditional Pakistani “daawats” with chaat and pakoray for food and plenty of relatives in tow. But with the advent of party planners birthday parties have been given a sudden face lift. Invitations, decorations, foods, entertainment and goody bags are the ingredients of a perfect birthday party. While the concept behind each element remains the same, the final result has changed drastically.

Sara*, a party planner who has been in the business for three years, says “We handle everything for the client from making made-to-order invitations - sometimes by hand with up to a hundred invites — personalised decorations; games and other activities - which are sometimes designed for each party individually; and goody bags.”

Nasir, another planner, provides dancefloors, DJ and sound systems with compilations of children’s songs. Sometimes, he also has songs performed and recorded by his personal band for a particular party. Unlike other party planners whose work predominantly involves birthday parties, Nasir’s makes arrangements for “adult parties”, as he calls them, too.

Every aspect of the birthday party is designed to knock ‘em dead. The classic card no longer suffices as an invitation. Today’s invites are handmade, framed or even painted on a piece of glass or mirror. The latest trend in birthday party invites, however, is to dispatch a gift along with the invite. And starting with an elaborate invitation, it is only natural for expectations regarding the rest of the party to rise. The first impulse is to top the last birthday party.

The multicoloured streamers and balloons bought from the supermarket, blown up by dad and hung around the house no longer suffice. The vogue is now for fancy streamers and helium balloons that adhere to a theme. The party planner makes centrepieces for the tables and customised decorations for clients who can afford the extravagance.

Sara specialises in arts and craft as entertainment in birthday parties and children work with art material trying to make something that is their own creation. Some parents insist that Sara and her team create craftwork and portray it as their child’s. But arts are not the only genre of entertainment. The bouncy castle has been popular for quite a while and magic shows are becoming so routine that they now bore children. Interestingly, games like Passing the Parcel and Pin the Tail on the Donkey haven’t become extinct, but instead have been modified to reflect the theme of the party. The “parcel” has gone from being a packet wrapped in layers of newspapers to a musical box containing a surprise gift, while Pin the Tail on the Donkey has transformed into Place Cinderella’s Shoe or the Hulk’s Cap. Nevertheless, the focal point of entertainment at children’s birthday parties continues to remain the same: to make sure the children go home exhausted after an evening of fun.

Food, though not provided by most planners, has also undergone an extreme makeover in recent times. No longer does one see chaat, haleem, pakoras, samosas at a birthday party Instead these dishes have been supplanted by “hipper” substitutes like candy floss, popcorn, chocolate fountains and elaborate finger food.

And the grand finale of any mega-successful birthday bash is an award-winning goody bag. Because the invites are eventually misplaced, the decorations forgotten, the entertainment over, and the food digested, something must serve as a constant reminder of the wonderful time he had at the party and be a source of popularity not just for the birthday child, but for the parents. According to Sara, the lower-end goody bags are around Rs250 per piece while the higher-end ones can easily go up to Rs800. With large-scale parties of 500 guests, simple maths shows the amount of money spent on these tokens alone.

According to Shireen Halai of Perfect Party, thematic parties were the first trend when planned parties became a norm. The children would pick a theme usually from the Disney studios or the Cartoon Network and have it reflected in every aspect of the party starting with the invites, and the décor, to the crockery and goody bags. However, a child might have a thematic party maybe twice or three times but will then want variety. Hence lately, parents have preferred to stage birthday parties without a particular theme but with a unique touch, designed to stand out.

Halai has been in this business for the last 10 years and claims to be the pioneering entrepreneur in this field in Karachi and perhaps even in Pakistan. Her party shop is based in Bath Island and is full of goodies meant to tempt any party-throwing parent.

It’s interesting to see parents’ varying opinions about birthday parties. Mrs Khan*, a mother of two children aged eight and 11 years says, “Both my children are studying at an upper-end school which means that they attend the lavish birthday parties of their friends. But they know clearly that their birthdays will not necessarily be similar and will vary depending upon how much we can afford at the time.”

However, Mrs Ali*, a mother of a seven-year-old says that she sometimes has to go out of her way to arrange birthday parties that would please her son. She says, “I don’t want my son to grow up thinking that he’s inferior to the rest of his classmates or that his parents failed to provide for him adequately.”

Social networking sites have added a new dimension to birthday parties. Most party planners have their fan pages on Facebook where enthusiastic discussions on their merits take place. Then there are the ensuing pressures of uploading birthday party pictures on Facebook that determine the success of the party. The more comments a party’s picture gets and the more references are made to it on wall posts, the more successful it is considered to be.

Birthdays are an important rite of passage and with time, their social significance has increased. But as long as there is big cake to bite into and birthday presents to tear open, their essence will remain the same, though its manifestation is getting competitively slicker by the day.

*Names have been changed.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 18th, 2010.

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