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The Crowning Of India’s First Miss India – Indrani Rahman

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The evening of the beauty contest, Ayah had dressed me up in a lovely South Indian silk ghagra and blouse that had been tailored for me in Bangalore. While I was completely engrossed, gawking at the dazzling line-up of forty beautiful young ladies parading around in gorgeous silk brocade and wispy chiffon saris, Maya Guha, the daughter of the chief engineer, was selected first runner-up, and my mother was crowned Miss Calcutta.

In an instant she was mobbed by photographers with cameras flashing, and by reporters all talking at once and scribbling notes. I was a little frightened by the whole business and, standing there by myself, wished my father had come along as well. But it was chiefly a ladies’ charity affair that my mother still did not take seriously, and she had not pressed him into coming.

Mummy finally emerged through the crowd, laughing and clutching on to a crown that looked like something Ole King Cole might have worn. To celebrate her victory, she announced she was taking me to Firpo’s, Calcutta’s classiest restaurant, and I could order anything I wanted. We were given a table by the window, Chowringhee was spread below us, I had a double hot fudge sundae and generous sips of my mother’s sherry, oblivious of all the curious stares.

Indrani Rahman

Ayah and Johnny had retired for the night by the time we returned home. Daddy had fallen asleep in a chair and was snoring loudly as the radio blasted Rabindra Sangeet. Mummy still had on her crown, and the satin Miss Calcutta sash pinned to her sari. She turned off the radio, nudged him awake and demanded to be congratulated. Daddy jumped back to life with a start. He brought out a bottle of Remy Martin that he had been saving for a special occasion, and while they celebrated, I went off to bed in all my finery. The next morning, Daddy, dressed in the crown and Miss Calcutta sash, brought Mummy her morning coffee in bed.

Much to Ayah’s annoyance, I was allowed to stay home from school without having to hide under the bed or fabricate the usual bellyaches or headaches. Johnny loved the added excitement in the household, though Ayah thought this beauty contest business was a lot of nonsense, it would invite the evil eye: “Mummy ko nazar lagega.”

The next day my father broke out in hives and collapsed, barely able to breathe. Mummy became hysterical. She phoned Dulha Bhai at his clinic and asked him to come right away; Babu had come down with an “attack of bumps,” she explained. Within minutes, almost all the inhabitants of Panch Number, including my elderly grandparents, landed up in our flat, wailing and crying. They understood my father had been killed in a “bomb attack.” Dr Ghani diagnosed the bumps as a severe attack of urticaria, an allergic reaction to something he might have eaten earlier, and prescribed some antihistamines. But Dadi claimed it was an omen. The good fortune of the beauty contest needed to be balanced by the bad.

With one flash of a camera, our lives had changed. Before we had a chance to absorb any of it, Mummy was whisked off by plane to Bombay. Calcutta’s daily papers were filled with stories and pictures of the contest. Announcement of the Miss India beauty contest had led to protests and demonstrations throughout the country. Conservative politicians proclaimed Indian women should not be made to parade their assets. They imagined innocent Indian women being trapped by sinister foreigners into secret sessions of debauchery. Communists and Leftists denounced evil Yankee Capitalists for, as one senior politician complained, “trading on the flower of Indian womanhood”.

In spite of all the negative publicity—or, more likely, because of it—ten thousand people turned up at Brabourne Stadium in Bombay. As promised, there were no bathing suits. All contestants were modestly attired in saris. Contrary to the sponsors’ fears and expectations, even spectators in the cheaper stalls behaved well and joked amiably with the girls.

According to newspaper and magazine articles, the ceremony at the stadium opened with an impressive parade of massed bands of the Army, the Navy and Bombay Police marching in formation. The parade was followed by displays of physical culture by boys from the Bombay Barbell Club and girls trained by Dr Sarkari’s Health Home.

As judges voted by secret ballot, contestants were paraded around the stadium in gaily decorated Cadillac convertibles, interspersed with floats of various commercial sponsors. The Pan American Airways float depicted a floral insignia of their trade emblem: wings floating through clouds, surrounded by nymphs clad in the airline colours. Universal Pictures’ float recreated scenes from their movie The Prince Who Was a Thief, that starred Tony Curtis and Piper Laurie. The Associated Watch Co.’s float was headed by a gigantic swan dominating a court scene with dancers performing to their own portable music.

My twenty-one-year-old mother was taken completely by surprise when S.K. Patil, then-Mayor of Bombay, amid loud cheers and shouts, announced her name and called her up to the dais to be crowned India’s first “Miss India”. Bollywood queen Nargis, and her leading man, matinee heart-throb Raj Kapoor, joined the newly-elected beauty queen and the mayor in a specially reserved Cadillac which paraded them around the stadium and the city.

Miss India returned to Calcutta with a gem-studded gold crown, a gold trophy, a gold watch, an Olivetti typewriter, a Murphy radio, an endless supply of very sweetly scented Afghan Snow face cream and assorted lipsticks and rouges (which I eventually inherited), and the grand prize—two tickets around the world on Pan American Airways.

Newspapers were clamouring for interviews. Film offers were pouring in from Bombay, and as the telegrams and letters arrived Mummy consigned them to the dust bin. Stars like Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor were bewildered anyone would want to turn down an opportunity for the staggering fame and fortune a Bombay film career guaranteed. 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. Ragini, on the other hand, was convinced the publicity would only add to my mother’s fame as a dancer.

Note: This is an excerpt from Dancing in the Family: The Extraordinary Story of the First Family of Indian Classical Dance by Sukanya Rahman, published by Speaking Tiger Books.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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