The Miss Universe contest this year will no doubt bring a new bout of anxiety in the Indian press. When Bill Gates declared India to be a technological superpower, few Indians protested. When prime minister Vajpayee pitched India as a nuclear giant, most Indians cheered. But when India emerged on the world scene recently as the new beauty superpower, the Indian populace displayed symptoms of cultural schizophrenia. It was no coincidence, some Indians claimed, that in the last few years, when India had won a string of international beauty contests, the country was also struck by unprecedented floods and the worst earthquake in a hundred years. It was all due to the wrath of Indra, the God of the elements, they observed. Indra was angry, they said, because earthly women were parading as Urvashi and Rambha, the beautiful maidens from Indra’s court, who, according to Hindu scriptures, were the only ones to be worshipped as ideals of beauty, and then too, never to be possessed by mortal men! Perhaps to appease Indra, the State of Uttar Pradesh, from where the latest Miss World hails, banned beauty contests altogether.
This reaction is understandable. Our Kohinoor diamond might be in the British Museum, and our Peacock throne might be long gone, but our biggest national treasure, our beautiful women, remained relatively untouched through centuries of Muslim and British rule. India turned inward in response to colonial presence—so much so that it swathed its women in yards of fabric and tons of jewelry, so that any foreign male was bound to feel intimidated in approaching them. As a result, Anglo Indians remained a very small minority in India.
The crowning of Priyanka Chopra as Miss World and Lara Dutta as Miss Universe last year therefore brought on a spate of denunciations; uniting conservative Hindu fundamentalists with radical feminist groups. It was as if the entire nation were re-living the colonial experience vicariously through the beauty queens.
Some commentators wondered if the crowning of three Miss World and three Miss Universe titles upon Indian women in recent years constituted a conspiracy on the part of the Mutli-National Corporations to exploit the yet-untapped billion-dollar Indian cosmetics market. Others raised alarm regarding the possible importation of Western diseases like bulimia and anorexia along with the beauty contests.
After independence, we resisted exporting our brains and importing coca cola. We kept foreign oil companies at bay and relied on swadeshi or self-reliance. But slowly, globalization crept up on us. Now we export our software, our classical musicians, and our yogis, to the West. Recently, we spread out a welcoming mat for America Online and let our palates be corrupted by McDonalds. But the idea of exporting our beauties symbolizes the ultimate sell-out to most Indians. So the pundits debated whether Indian women should let themselves be measured by Madison Avenue yardsticks, while others pondered the age-old question of whether the North Indian, fairer look, or the South Indian, darker, features represented our true national identity.
A friend of mine in college used to complain that the color bar in India was worse than that in America. Even today, you can thumb through any number of matrimonial ads in Indian publications, and discover that every Indian man is looking for a “fair and slim girl.” Which begs the question, are Indian women to be chided for adopting Western notions of beauty, or are Indian men responsible for promoting them?
The recent beauty queen uproar prompted Indian women to once again ask why they should be the only ones responsible for protecting Indian culture. After all, Mahatma Gandhi not withstanding, most Indian men these days wear polyester pants rather than dhotis, while Indian women continue to wear saris made from traditional fabrics, largely to appease their fathers, brothers, and husbands. Even today, it is hard to find women in bikinis anywhere in India, except at the Sun and Sand Hotel in Bombay, where only foreign women dare sit around its elongated pool, sunbathing.
Ironically, the same week that columnists were busy chiding Indian females for participating in such culturally imperialistic rituals as the Miss World and the Miss Universe beauty pageant, they were also lavishing praise upon Indian sportsmen for scoring centuries against the Aussies in cricket test matches. Now what could be more blatantly symbolic of colonialism than cricket, a sport of the idle British aristocrat?
The truth is that after centuries of foreign rule, cultural schizophrenia is a state of being for most Indians. And it is this very cultural schizophrenia that has produced some of the best movements in technology, music, art, and spirituality.
The superb products of this schizophrenia can be found, not in our beauty queens, but in two of our recent literary marvels. I am talking of Booker Prize-Winner Arundhati Roy and Pulitzer honoree Jhumpa Lahiri; two women, who, apart from their exquisite talents, also happen to be two of the most beautiful women on this planet. And most Indians can find nothing exploitative or corrupting about the natural beauty these women possess.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED.