Priyanka Sehgal interview: India, traditionally, has been a big marriage market. Across religions and cultures here, our society’s belief in the institution of marriage and its accompanying ‘sanctity’ is taken seriously. So seriously that we notoriously rank near the bottom on the world chart when it comes to divorce rates. Relationships here, once official, are meant to be permanent. You go all in or nothing. How does such a society take to the idea of dating?
But India has and how! Latest statistics projected India’s revenue in the online dating segment to reach $459 million this year, at an annual growth rate of 14.57 percent. Over 60 million users are expected to take slices of the dating pie by 2025, as per Statista. India has emerged as the biggest dating market in the world, behind only the United States. The pandemic, especially, has boosted participation on dating apps manifold.
Through late-night text exchanges and covert coffee catch-ups, India’s dating population is sustaining relationships despite the steady lookout of the neighbourhood aunty’s roving eye that has exceptional skills of sensationalisation. ‘Going out’ or ‘seeing someone’ for fun in a society like ours is still stigmatised; more so for young single women, who are labelled a hundred different offensives dare they go out on harmless dates.
“Why should there be a stigma attached to trying to find a life partner?” Priyanka Sehgal, a television producer and founder of Sparkles, a newly established dating service in the US, asks in the duration of an interview with SheThePeople. “Dating is about meeting people, getting to know them so you know who is the right person for you.”
“We need to encourage youngsters and people who are divorced, for instance, to find ways and means to get to the right partner by evaluating them through different circumstances and experiences.”
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Experiential dating is what Sehgal’s Sparkles is aiming at. Sehgal is at this juncture of entrepreneurship in the dating industry following a two-decade career in media strategy and a young divorce. “I did this mostly to solve a problem for myself,” she says. For someone whose social life had taken a backseat and who had never dated before, meeting new people after her divorce brought forth some revelations.
“People remain single for years not out of choice but out of compulsion. I found they didn’t know how to find the right partner, there was cognitive overload, they were going around in circles, there were bad past experiences.”
She describes the dating scene as sometimes being similar to Netflix browsing – next, next, next.
To address people’s dating woes, Sehgal sought to devise a solution. And for research, she says she went on 250 dates with people from different nationalities. To test the waters before launching an inclusive dating service, Sehgal says she even changed her orientation sometimes to get a full, unbiased view of the gap in the market.
There were some “crazy stories,” she recalls, including one where she apparently almost got shot! The sum of her own experiences, eventually, resulted in Sparkles, which launched this year in the US and is awaiting a release in India.
“India is a great market for dating,” Sehgal believes. “We must thank the Tinder, Hinge and Bumbles of the world because they brought dating to India.” She, however, recognises that these homegrown apps didn’t see a lot of traction in the initial years of India’s digital dating market.
A country that prides itself on its arranged marriage culture – that may or may not be relevant in this age and yet is still the more popular form of finding life partners – deigns concepts like temporary dating and fun flings as “polluting” Western constructs. Whereas, the fact of the matter is that India has always known how to love, and love passionately. Our ancient history and mythology texts are standing proofs.
Why then do our older generations shy away from the idea of love, no matter how short-lived? Sehgal has a spot-on answer when she says that “in India, our approach to relationships is that they have to culminate in marriages.” Social norms dictate that voluntary romantic ties are the crux of “evils” like sex and liberation and instability.
These are also what find citation when family elders advise against love marriages or picking partners by choice. ‘It won’t last,’ they declare, with the general perception being that loving into marriage has higher possibility of ending up in divorce than when one is arranged into marriage. However, beyond a Bombay High Court proclamation in 2012 (sans statistics, mind you), no solid data exists to prove the alleged truth in that belief.
Dating that doesn’t care for a happy marriage-ending?
The surface-level impression that divorce rates in India are shooting up today can partly be attributed to more women taking the decision to walk out of toxic, abusive marriages that don’t serve them. The climate today is far more accepting of women’s independence than it was until even a decade ago and yet, endless work still needs to be done for true and total empowerment.
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In marriage too, “we are traditionally conditioned to find partners with typical characteristics,” Sehgal says, counting off the traditional arranged marriage checklist. Family background, education, salary, profession, residence, car, bank balance, astrology. Matrimonial websites and Sima Taparia-like matchmakers have for years enjoyed leverage on these limiting metrics. According to Sehgal, homegrown dating apps are “glorified versions of matrimonial websites.”
“What I realised is that in India, homegrown dating apps are emulating matrimonial websites. And we’re doing a huge disservice to Indians with something like that,” she says. “I am not in favour of pushing out the same metrics and not empowering or enabling people to find the right partner in the right manner. India is changing, it’s evolving.”
“Sparkles is standing up for something else.” Her dating service uses hyper-personalisation to match people and make them go for the right kind of experiences. “We offer a compatibility score and a predictive score,” Sehgal says, adding that they are not just a ‘right-swipe app.’ A large percentage of dating app customers are married, data suggests. The AI technology being used on Sparkles elaborate, going the mile to ensure safety – especially for its female customer base – by completing the background verification of the person one is scheduled to go on a date with.
Do features like allowing women to initiate chats on a dating app first after matching with a prospective partner work effectively towards digital safety, as they claim to be doing? That may be a feature to “attract” more women but no, it won’t work in the long run to safety, Sehgal says.
“I think dating in the long term should bring down divorce rates,” Sehgal says. “It should also help bring in clarity of who you want to be with and not have to stumble your way through it.”