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Indian women are famed for their beauty and intellect. Globally, Indian women have commanded respect, awe and applause. In beauty pageants even, Indian girls and women have made their nation proud. While we may know the new lot, how can anybody forget Indrani Rahman, the first woman to represent India on a global scale!

Aishwarya Rai photo

Before Aishwarya or Sushmita could compete, trailblazers like Indrani Rahman took part in beauty pageants

Beauty pageants are a Western phenomenon. They became the rage during the 80s and the 90s as beautiful women from across the world began competing. The chance to stand out as the most pretty, intelligent, savvy and smart woman among many others was too good to be true. A beauty pageant required its participants to be fit, striking, well spoken and graceful. It involved hours of practice, networking, hard work and modelling. You also needed to be in great physical shape to compete. It was USA which ensured this form of competition spread on a world wide level. Miss USA, Miss Universe, Miss Earth and Miss World were some of the pageants that were started by companies and organizations. Countries from all corners of the world wanted to send their best, eager and excited female participants. India is a conservative nation. It believes in preserving the purity and beauty of its women. Acting, modelling and beauty pageants were considered loose or of western ideals. The society frowned upon such competitions and didn’t encourage women to take part in it. Indrani Rahman was a rebel who wanted to make her own rules.

Looking at her, you wouldn’t think she was unconventional. Born in 1930 to an Indian father and an American father, Indrani Rahman was born Indrani Bajpai. She was raised in Chennai in a mixed race household in British India. Her parents possessed progressive values, liberal thinking and a positive attitude towards education of girls. Her mother, Ragini Devi was a popular classical Indian dancer and supporter of arts. Growing up under her influence, Indrani started dancing at a young age. A trained Bharata Natyam, Kuchi Pudi, Kathakali, Odisi dancer, she traveled the world as a performer. Indrani accompanied her mother on these tours and learnt hard work and dedication from an early age.

Bharatnatyam photo

Indrani Rahman was an accomplished classical dancer, choreographer and speaker.

In 1952, when India was freshly independent, they held the Miss India contest. Indrani was supported by her mother and her husband to enter the contest. Yes, at a tender age of 15, Indrani had married Habib Rahman, a renowned architect. She was already a mother when she entered for Miss India and won it! Her unconventional style and traditional beauty proved to be a great hit. This was just the beginning. Indrani then went to become the first Indian woman to represent India at the Miss Universe pageant! She managed to turn heads in the swimsuit round when she mixed a typical Indian gajra (flowers) in her hair with a striking swimsuit! Her personal style was elegant with a touch of whimsy and she was eloquent. Her experience as a performer and her travel helped her to not get intimidated or overwhelmed. Among the models, actresses and celebrities, she stood out because of her culture and intelligence. She didn’t win the contest but she won hearts everywhere she went.

Indrani was not just a ‘beauty queen’ or a ‘beauty pageant winner.’ She was a successful classical dancer, choreographer and activist. She became a part of the Juilliard School faculty in 1976 and shared her knowledge of dance, art and culture to students. Indrani also spoke at several American colleges and universities including Harvard, the crown jewel. And at a mere age of 39, Indrani received the Padma Shri for her contribution to Indian classical dance, arts and culture. What a woman and what a rich, layered life she led!

Juilliard  photo

Indrani Rahman was a part of the faculty at Juilliard School, the world’s top ranking arts school.


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