More often than not, we do not look beyond the surface ‘beauty’ of beauty pageants –– judged on their looks and how they carry an outfit, women are crowned winners through a rather skewed lens of what beauty can truly mean.
Of course, decades ago, when the events of Miss India began, the sole purpose was to find an individual closest to ‘the perfect woman’, whatever that may mean. Rarely did these events go beyond superficial attributes and delve into their lives as humans and what they are capable of.
We go back to where, and with who, this all began –– Indrani Rahman, the country’s first Miss India. We take a look at her life, family, abilities and all that she offered the world. We will come to see, that even then, women like her were shattering ceilings and paving the way for the rest of us.
In 1952, Indrani was crowned Miss India. Prior to this, too, she had been leading a colourful life. She was the daughter of Ramalal Bajpai and Esther Luella Sherman –– the latter was an American by birth, but took so deeply to Hinduism and Indian culture that she later renamed herself as Ragini Devi. Mesmerised by the dance form of Bharatnatayam, Ragini toiled to make a name for herself in the field. After much practice and hard work, she was one of the most celebrated dancers in the 1930s.
Young Indrani followed her mother’s footsteps in not only the famed art of Indian classical dance, but also learnt attributes of independence and strength. After being trained in Bharatnatayam, Indrani, under the guidance of Korada Narsimha Rao, forayed into Kuchipudi. Later on, she would move to Orissa to master Odissi –– a dance form that barely had any relevance at the time. Stepping into an unknown field, Indrani took to the dance form unlike those who tried their hands at it.
The mother-daughter duo took Indian culture to a global stage with their knowledge in Indian classical dances. They travelled around the world and put up performances of classical dance forms –– opening up a doorway of Indian culture to the world. On Jawaharlal Nehru’s visit to Washington DC, Indrani performed for him as well as John F Kennedy. Having performed for various global leaders such as Queen Elizabeth II, Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro and more, Indrani was no less than the face of the culture of the country.
Apart from excelling at the arts, which in itself was a rather out-there step given the time and its social landscape, Indrani followed her heart and married Habib Rahman, a man of Muslim faith from Bengal. By 1952, she was a mother of two –– a mother participating in a beauty pageant was unheard of, but that did not stop Indrani. Having won Miss India, she had then qualified for Miss Universe –– which, of course, as expected, she agreed to participate in. This is a rather momentous act, given that in a freshly independent India, women still did not hold equal rights or place in society –– inferiority to men and curtailed freedom were still very much part and parcel of their lives. The India of 1952 was not too accepting of women having their way, so for Indrani to participate in Miss Universe as a mother of two was a bold shutdown of ‘Log ka kahenge?’.
Proud to be Indian, Indrani made sure to make a statement at the international beauty pageant. She donned a bindi and a gajra, all while she sported a swimsuit –– another strong statement against India’s prevailing patriarchy.
In 1969, she was awarded the Padma Shri Award and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1981 –– although, we would like to believe that Indrani Rahman’s life was not epitomised by her accolades or her achievements. Rather, her grit and fire to excel at the arts that she took up, her wish to raise her children in a world sans the judgement against women, and her sheer power to stand up to the then-India’s stance on women and their rights, and the determination to take Indian culture to various parts of the world –– that’s what we wish her life be defined by.
Women like Indrani are the ones that began paving the way for feminist movements, and for that, one can only be grateful.
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