arlier this year, Patiala-based Navneet Kaur Dhillon was crowned Femina Miss India. She will now be competing with 134 other national winners for the Miss World crown, scheduled for the end of September in Jakarta. If she wins, she will bring back the sapphire- and diamond-studded crown to India after 12 years -- and perhaps, along with it, some redemption for the idea of beauty pageants in the country.
It is not coincidental that beauty pageants, hotly debated and feverishly covered by the media in the 1990s, don't get half as much attention anymore – not a surprising trend, keeping in mind that the country's last win, with the exception of Nicole Faria's Miss Earth prize in 2010, came in 2000, with Lara Dutta, Priyanka Chopra and Dia Mirza making a clean three-tier sweep at the big beauty pageants.
If they didn't leave an impression on the ramp, the annually appointed trios by Femina Miss India in the past decade haven't even made their presence felt in what was thought to be the next, natural step in their careers – Bollywood. A movie or two to their name, they may have stayed afloat as item girls or chosen to stick to modelling. All in all, the frenzy around beauty queens and pageants that Sushmita Sen and Aishwarya Rai had managed to create and sustain through all of the '90s would seem to have fizzled out now, indicating either a sense of ennui around the subject since it couldn't even garner any attention from its critics, or, less possibly, a society that has miraculously matured into a more 'equitable' one.
But one need only look closer to home, perhaps rifle through a local newspaper or switch to a regional channel to see that the dream, and those who pursue it, are not lacking either in spirit or numbers. Even though, unlike the US, there is no 'federal' structure for beauty pageants in India – that is to say, participating in Miss India is an independent process, not a state-to-centre one – there is a range of beauty contests and pageants organised in almost every state. Fro m a Miss Himalaya to a Miss Tamil Nadu, it seems there isn't a part of India, geographically speaking, that does not have a pageant in its name.
Even though most of these pageants are structured on the lines of Miss India – with rounds to assess talent, wittiness, physical fitness and a sense of design – most of them have foregone the swimsuit round.
Essentially, these are talent scouting events registered and organised by event management companies, who consider the perfect way to find the right modelling talent in their respective regions. Says Feroze Khan, director of Dream Merchants and organiser of Miss Bangalore: "We started the pageant in 1994 because we thought the city needed a pageant. In the fashion industry, you don't find faces like Aishwarya or Sushmita easily if there aren't any contests of this sort." They then launched a fashion week as well in 2009, and both events generally give exposure to women interested in pursuing a career in modelling or acting, he adds.
Concurs Praveen Sinha, director of Ocean Vision Event Management, which organises the Miss Bihar pageant. "As a state, Bihar has developed a lot, and there is now a lot of guardian support, both morally and financially, for career-oriented girls," he says. In six years of holding the pageant, the number of applications has gone up from 35 in 2007 to 276 in 2012. While originally the girls came only from urban areas such as Patna, last year they saw participation from even Navada, Motihari and Dhanbad, he says. Dalip Sindhi, director of Sinmit Communications which organises the Miss Uttarakhand pageant also finds a rise in participation, "even from places like Lansdowne, Mussourie, Ranikhet", pointing to the rise in numbers wanting to 'make it big' in the entertainment industry as well as growing acceptance for it.
A picture from the Miss Bihar 2012 contest
The culture-specificity of these pageants can still not be denied. If the Miss and Mrs. Tamil Nadu contests insist on having a 'cooking' round, hot pants accompanied with a dupatta is the extent of body exposure to be found in Miss Bihar. Even though most of these pageants are structured on the lines of Miss India – with rounds to assess talent, wittiness, physical fitness and a sense of design – most of them have foregone the swimsuit round, which they say is unacceptable to both participants and audience. Khan says that they even tried to hold a men's pageant but it failed to get the same kind of response, both in terms of participation as well as sponsors. "The focus, at least in India, remains on dressing up young girls, while the US has moved on to children and men as well," he says.
Ironically, even though the beauty contest has been criticised for 'objectifying' women and promoting a fixed notion of beauty, the organisers of our local pageants look upon it as a tool for women empowerment. For photographer and artist Lobsang Wangyal, who started the Miss Tibet pageant in 2001 and instituted Miss Himalaya last year (which in itself seems to be some sort of an anomaly), it was a tool to encourage "art and creative works produced by women". "Some people do argue that way, but it is their way of seeing things. It is always about choice. These things make women feel beautiful, important and valuable, knowing that they are beautiful both inside and outside," observes Wangyal.
Poornima Kumar of Virgo Events, which has been organising the Miss and Mrs. Tamil Nadu pageants since 2000, says the pageant is just another competition to assess creativity and communication skills. "What is beauty? I think anybody can groom themselves with a little make-up and look beautiful. Only in Miss India, the girls are judged purely on physical attributes. Ours is a personality contest where winners are crowned based on their fitness, creativity, cooking and home management skills," she explains, adding that most of their participants are already accomplished women career-wise. "Only those who have the confidence to present themselves put themselves through things like this," she says.
Winners of Miss Uttarakhand 2012
20 year-old Sanjana Singh, crowned Miss Bihar 2012, says that even though she is pursuing a degree in BBA from Patna, her heart lies in modelling. When asked why she decided to participate in the pageant, she gives a rehearsed answer: "I feel so fortunate to have parents who supported me in this process. I am in search of good acting jobs, and Miss Bihar was the perfect platform to showcase my talents." She adds that her prime goal for the next year is to do some social work because that is one of the clauses of winning the title.
Then there are people like Preethi, Mrs. Tamil Nadu 2012, who do participate because it gives their confidence the kind of boost not much else can. "I think I might be the only woman who can claim to have won 36 titles," she laughs, referring to the inter-college, city and state level contests that she has participated in over the last 7-8 years of her life. A practicing lawyer today, she says she has been collecting these crowns only on the power of her debating skills. "I knew what it is that judges want to hear in the question round, and this just seemed like an easy way to make money on the side."
Usually, the winners get signed up on year-long modelling contracts, find work on TV soaps, but generally stay confined to their regional industries. There are, of course, exceptions – Madhuri Bhattacharya, a well-known face in the Karnataka film industry, with occasional forays in Bollywood too, was Miss Bangalore in one of the early years of the pageant. Asha Negi, the star of the popular TV series 'Pavitra Rishta' was crowned Miss Uttarakhand in 2009. Also, apart from the occasional foray into contests at the national level – such as Sarah Conner, Miss Bangalore 1997, who competed in Miss World the next year – they seem to be either unsuccessful in or wary of the mainstream ones.
Preethi says that she will not even think of applying to Mrs. India, primarily because it involves a lot of "investment". "I just can't go for these big contests simply because I don't have the money to buy a Satya Paul or some such designer's gowns," she says. Poornima Kumar adds that it is simply their rather unreasonable requirements that keep people away from these "so-called" national-level contests. "Their height cut-off, for instance, is just outlandish! When the national average height is 5'2'', how can they have a minimum requirement of 5'5''?" she grimaces.
Winners of Mrs.Tamil Nadu 2012
Their inaccessibility seems to have triggered a counter-movement of some sort. "Some of us state organisers have decided to hold a national-level contest, because the state-level winners should get a wider platform too. Tentatively called India Khubsoorat, it will be held in October or November this year for the first time," reveals Sinha.
Whether this initiative will manage to give competition to the big-banner, mainstream ones is yet to be seen. What is amply clear is the fact that the beauty pageant endures, even flourishes, as a trampoline for women to soar, garner fame and glory. "And why shouldn't they participate in beauty pageants? If one can be appreciated for beauty, why wouldn't they use it get rich and famous?" asks Samata Biswas, a doctoral student who is researching the contemporary body and beauty cultures of Bengal. Pointing out that the idea of diversity is by now well co-opted into the pageants' framework, she says that it would be reductive to single this out as an instance of commodification.
"When Amitabh Bachchan brought Miss World to India in 1996, there was opposition from either the extreme right-wing, who saw this as a sort of cultural pollution, or the extreme left-wing, which stress on the angle of 'objectification'. But even feminist movements, who have been at war against this idea through history, aren't really accessible to everyone. Of course they are marginalising tropes, but for those who are part of the beauty discourse, which honestly is most of us, it can be quite liberating too," she explains.
As Lester Andrist, editor of the Sociological Cinema, analyses, "Beauty pageants persist because they remain a good fit in the current media environment. We are already consuming media with motifs that narrowly value and sexually objectify women, and despite some vocal criticism, beauty pageants blend seamlessly with this environment." In other words, much as it may be problematic for a certain, apparently elite section of society, the beauty pageant will continue to be the assembly line where glamour and its manifestations are manufactured, however unreal they are.