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Indrani Rahman: First Beauty Queen and Icon of Modern India

Indrani Rahman: First Beauty Queen and Icon of Modern India

The picture below is the swimsuit round of a Miss Universe pageant. Look at the contestant in the bottom row, second from right. Flaunting a bindi, hair pulled back into a neat bun adorned with a gajra, and matching floral earrings is India’s entry to the pageant. The year is 1952 and the glamour girl is Indrani Rahman, India’s first Miss India.

The swimsuit round of a Miss Universe pageant, 1952

The inaugural Miss Universe pageant was held at Long Beach, California, in the US, and Rahman made waves for more than one reason. Daughter of renowned classical dancer, Ragini Devi (Esther Luella Sherman), the 21-year-old did not win the title but she made a lasting impression with her fusion look, utter poise and sheer elegance.

Rahman was no ingénue. Her quiet confidence came from years of being in the spotlight as an accomplished dancer, just like her mother, and an exponent of as many as four major Indian classical dance forms – Bharatanatayam, Kuchipudi, Kathakali and Odissi.

Raised by her mother to be a free spirit, Rahman took part in the beauty pageant on a whim. India did not approve. The country was coming of age, having earned her independence not five years earlier, and beauty pageants were a blot on Indian culture. Even worse, Rahman was a mother – in a swimsuit! 

But the world was changing, and only two months earlier, the young beauty had been crowned the country’s first Miss India despite protests and demonstrations denouncing the contest across the country.

Bollywood was enamoured of Rahman and, suddenly, she was the darling of the Hindi film industry. She was amused but didn’t fall for those celluloid charms. In her book Dancing in the Family: The Extraordinary Story of the First Family of Indian Classical Dance (2019), Rahman’s daughter Sukanya recalls, Newspapers were clamouring for interviews. Film offers were pouring in from Bombay, and as the telegrams and letters arrived, Mummy consigned them to the dustbin… My mother, while she was thrilled at winning the contest and all the fabulous prizes, was eager to distance herself from the Hindi film world. She feared the whole beauty queen business would tarnish her rising reputation as a serious classical dancer.”

Indrani Rehman (third from left) and the runner-up Miss Suryakumari (sixth from left) with Miss India 1952 participants | Wikimedia Commons

Who Was Indrani Rahman?

Indrani Rahman’s is an extraordinary story. She was the daughter of Ramalal Bajpai, an Indian engineer, and an American, Esther Sherman. The two met in the US, where Bajpai had gone to study, and got married in the 1920s. They returned to India a few years later, where Bajpai went on to become an Assistant Editor with Young India, a magazine founded by Indian nationalist leader Lala Lajpat Rai and, after Independence, Consul General of India in the US.

Sherman, on the other hand, embraced Hinduism and adopted the name ‘Ragini’. Such was her connection with Indian culture that she believed she was Indian in a previous birth and had been reincarnated to pursue Indian classical dance! 

Ragini was a leading figure in the revival of classical Indian dance. She even learnt Bharatanatyam under Mylapore Gouri Amma in Madras, and became the first American woman to study Kathakali at the renowned Kerala Kalamandalam. She took Indian classical dance to the US and Europe in the 1930s, a time when the West was consumed by curiosity about the East.

Her devotion to dance was matched only by her daughter’s passion for it – a gypsy fortune teller in the US had told Ragini that her daughter’s career would eclipse hers – a prophecy that came true.

Indrani was born on 19th September 1930 and she was immersed in dance since she was a toddler, often waiting in the wings or in the audience while her mother performed on stage.

Once, while her mother delivered a Kathakali performance at Santiniketan, a four-year-old Indrani had to be shushed and coaxed into silence by Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore!

Indrani started formal dance training at age nine and became an exponent of Bharatanatayam, Kuchipudi, Kathakali and Odissi. In the 1950s, she became the first professional dancer to perform Odissi on stage and took this neglected dance form to the corners of India.

Miss India Indrani Rehman, SK Patil, and two of the sponsors of the contest | Wikimedia Commons

Indrani raised quite a storm when, at age 15, she eloped and married noted architect Habib Rahman, who designed the famous Gandhi Ghat in Patna. He was twice her age. The couple had two children, Sukanya Rahman, an artist and an Indian classical dancer; and Ram Rahman, a photographer, art curator and activist.

But neither did marriage nor motherhood compromise Rahman’s career. Like her mother, Rahman too was at the heart of the rebirth of Indian classical dance and popularised its many avatars in India and overseas. This was a time when the nationalist fervour in India was at its peak and the West was still intensely curious about the East, especially a young country in the throes of independence. 

Rahman became a cultural ambassador for India and performed for world leaders such as American President John F Kennedy and Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru during Nehru’s visit to Washington DC in 1961. Later, she also performed for Emperor Haile Selassie, Queen Elizabeth II, Mao Zedong, Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro.

In the 1970s, Rahman moved to New York, where she taught dance at the world-famous Juilliard School. She also taught dance in various American universities, including Harvard, and toured extensively, indulging her passion for the performing art.

Rahman lived in New York until her death at age 68 in 1999. She will be remembered as more than a beauty queen. She was an icon of modern India. 

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