S. Mitra Kalita wrote about the Miss India D.C. Pageant in August 2003 for The Washington Post.
Even an hour after the tiara finally found a secure place among hair-sprayed curls, the entourage’s squealing persisted. Backstage, the trio helped the just-crowned Miss India D.C., Pallavi Sharma, throw off her flailing silks and squeeze into tight (very tight) white pants so the night to remember could continue into the morning.
“We were the loudest people, weren’t we?” asked Anjulie Shahi, who won the title in 1998 and coached 19-year-old Sharma for the win. Sharma’s sister, Yaminee, and friend Shilpa Shah hadn’t been so lucky in their bids for the crown a few years ago, so they trained Pallavi based on their mistakes.
“Well, we didn’t win, so she had to,” said Yaminee, turning to her lipstick now.
“It was like redemption, and redemption’s so sweet,” said Shah. “It’s better than revenge.”
As Shah and Yaminee know well and nine others learned this past weekend, only one person gets to be crowned Miss India D.C. Still, year after year, about a dozen young Indian Americans from the Washington area try their hardest. They dance Bollywood style, read Hindi poetry, learn to strut with a sari wrapped around their legs. There’s no swimsuit competition, and most say their parents wouldn’t allow them to participate if there were.
Like so many pageants, organizers say this one’s not really about beauty. Judges — mostly pageant sponsors such as fashion designers and ethnic newspapers — score the women based on their presentation of an Indian outfit, an evening gown and a talent. The top five contestants then field a question, receiving points for “confidence and intelligence.”
But the buzz among contestants is that the judges like young women who exude Indian-ness. So for weeks before Saturday night’s pageant, the hopefuls held rehearsals and practiced on their own to craft a package that was more East than West.
The cultural straddle is one they are familiar with. Though each can recount ways she has adapted to American culture — from shaking an Indian accent to trying out for cheerleading — the number of Indians and Indian Americans living in the region doesn’t quite mandate assimilation as once might have seemed necessary.
Between 1990 and 2000, the Asian Indian population in the Washington-Baltimore area doubled to about 88,000, mirroring a national trend, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Indian restaurants and groceries now dot suburban landscapes. Theaters screen the latest hits from Bollywood, India’s prolific movie industry. D.C. clubs boast nights geared toward South Asian singles.
And gone are the days of being the only Indian girl in school. Still, many of the contestants remember them all too well.
Last year’s winner, Ramya Avadhanam, said summer trips back home to India made her pick up an unmistakably “FOB-ey accent” — as in “fresh off the boat.” And then there was the braid.
Rather than try to tame her thick black hair, Avadhanam’s mother forced her to tie it into a braid that extended to her waist. “I went through a phase of thinking ‘I am not pretty.’ People always made fun of me,” said Avadhanam, 18, of Chantilly. “Singing and dancing became my outlet.”
In its ninth continuous year, the pageant has grown from a function held in school auditoriums into a glitzier affair at the Lincoln Theatre on U Street NW. The winner receives gifts, such as jewelry and clothing, and the chance to participate (along with two runners-up) in the Miss India U.S.A. pageant, and could ultimately win the Miss India Worldwide pageant — this year’s is in San Francisco in September.Women from India are not allowed to compete in that pageant, which is intended for the Indian diaspora, said Dharmata Sen, founder and chairman of the New York-based Miss India Worldwide.
Besides, he said, the Miss India from India likely wouldn’t qualify for the rigor of his pageants. In India’s pageants, “they are only modeling,” he said. “It does not meet our guidelines. They don’t have any talent segment.”
All 10 Miss India D.C. contestants infused their talent display with Indian culture, from translating Maya Angelou’s poetry into Hindi to blending hip-hop with Indian dance music. The pageant pulls many of its contestants, ages 17 to 25, from the South Asian sororities at the University of Maryland and other Indian student groups on area campuses. Pageant organizer Neena Bhaskar, a first runner-up herself from the pageant’s more sporadic days in the late 1980s, is famous for persuading women to try out (she met one of Saturday’s contestants at a makeup counter). Bhaskar says she encourages them to hang on to their culture in whatever ways they can.
“Most of them were born in the United States,” said Bhaskar, 35. “As the generations go further and further, they are getting away from their heritage.”
At a recent rehearsal, contestants spent hours perfecting walks and turns; their high heels clicked against the floors of the basement hallways of a classroom building on Maryland’s College Park campus. On a desk inside a classroom rested the book “Am I a Hindu?” On another, a stack of papers labeled “Links.SQL.Version 2.1.1 Manual.”
Days before she would go on to win, Pallavi Sharma peppered her friends Sonia and Tania Mukherji, sisters from Rockville, with questions about how a winner should behave. Tania won the Miss India D.C. pageant in 2001; Sonia was first runner-up in 2000.
“Should I say ‘Namaste’ and ‘good evening’ or just ‘Namaste’?” asked Sharma. (“Namaste” is a Sanskrit salutation.)
“Just say ‘Namaste,’ ” said Sonia.
“Should I say Rockville or Germantown? It’s all the freaking same area.”
And then there were the questions about where to place her right hand during the walk.
On Saturday night, when Sharma strode to the microphone, clasped her hands together, said “Namaste” to the crowd and announced she was from Germantown, you could hardly hear her above the screams of her family, friends, classmates from the University of Maryland Baltimore County and co-workers from Ford Credit. Sharma had requested 45 tickets so they could all come.
With three friends and her mother in the audience, Rina Shah’s cheering section was a little smaller. The Morgantown, W.Va., native, was returning for a second attempt at the crown. “I think I was a little too Western last year,” said Shah, 20, who wants to be both a doctor and a lawyer. “I kept my hair in spiral curls. I did a hip-hop dance. My evening gown was risque.”
Saturday night, Shah danced to remixed versions of a song from a Bollywood movie. She placed in the top five.
In India, succeeding in the pageantry business can mean a straight ticket to Bollywood, a play on the obvious named for its Bombay headquarters. Movies are colorful, lengthy (three hours or more) song-and-dance numbers. In 1994, India made headlines when two beauty queens, Aishwarya Rai and Sushmita Sen, won the Miss World and Miss Universe titles, respectively. Both went on to careers in Bollywood, with Rai the star of the upcoming “Bride and Prejudice,” an adaptation of the Jane Austen novel.
Despite the success of those women in the global pageants, Indians still have mixed feelings about swimsuit competitions. In 1996, when India played host to the Miss World contest in the southern city of Bangalore, contestants had to model their swimwear in the Seychelles after violent protests from Hindu extremists. The rest of the competition was held in Bangalore.
“Clothing like the swimsuit has always been identified with the Western woman,” said Radhika Parameswaran, a professor at Indiana University who has studied pageants in India. “In Hindu nationalism, the Western woman is seen as the ill of the West. She is promiscuous. She is not chaste. . . . When a diaspora gets created, there’s even more pressure to maintain tradition.”
For an Indian woman to make it to Miss America still seems an impossibility, some contestants say.
A few years ago, Akta Patel, 17, last year’s first-runner-up for Miss India D.C., competed unsuccessfully to be Miss Teen Maryland. “It was all white girls and I was, like, the only Indian,” she said.
In two weeks, Patel will compete for the title of Miss India U.S.A. in Edison, N.J. Miss India D.C. sends its top three contestants to the national pageant a year after they are crowned locally, and Pallavi Sharma said she intends to go next year.
After her win — and an attempt at a winner’s walk as her tiara teetered — Sharma was gingerly congratulated backstage by fellow contestants. Each wore the look of rejection, but unlike years past, there were few, if any, tears.
“You come out a lot stronger,” said Sunitha Joseph, 20, a senior at George Mason University who was named first runner-up. Like Sharma, she, too, will have a chance to compete next year at the Miss India U.S.A. pageant.
Last year’s winner, Ramya Avadhanam, has decided not to attend the Aug. 24 contest in New Jersey. She starts freshman orientation at Virginia Tech the next day and has decided her studies should take priority over pageantry.