In this series, we take a trip down memory lane, back to the Madras of the 1900s, as we unravel tales and secrets of the city through its most iconic personalities and episodes.
Miss Calcutta, Indrani, the eventual winner, was actually born in a French liner docked in Madras harbour. Her mother Esther, an American, was convinced that she had been an Indian in her previous birth. She married an Indian expat in USA and still not being satisfied, changed her name to Ragini and moved lock, stock and barrel (and six months pregnant) to Madras. Ragini enrolled as a student with the last devadasi of Madras, Gauri Amma, who was attached to the Mylapore temple.
Just as she could walk, Indrani began to dance, playing the role of Maricha in a dance drama based on an episode of the Ramayana. She started with Bharatanatyam, having learnt the Pandanallur style from Guru Chokkalingam Pillai in the 1940s, and had her arangetram in Museum Theatre, Egmore, with top artistes in the audience.
The nationalistic fervour in the post-Independence period added a sense of curiosity about the country’s past, and Indian fine arts were in the process of rediscovery. Indrani went to Vijayawada to learn Kuchipudi and later went to Odisha. Indrani would travel alone in a hand-pulled rickshaw, even into the seedy parts of Puri, in search of practitioners of a neglected dance form known as Odissi –and helped reconstructed it completely as we know today and revived it internationally.
The love for classical dance was only one side of her personality. She was brought up in a mixed race household to be uninhibited and independent by her mother, who encouraged her to be outgoing. That is how she took part in beauty pageants at a time when very few participants from across the country could be persuaded to contest, even when there was no bikini round. And curiously enough, bikini was key in the launch of the Miss Universe contest.
The Miss Universe pageant began in 1952 by Pacific Knitting Mills, a California-based swimsuit company. The company had been the sponsor of the Miss America pageant until 1951, when the winner refused to pose for publicity pictures wearing one of their swimsuits. So they decided to launch their own pageant in which there was no escaping the swimsuit round held at the Long Beach, California. After winning the Miss India title, Indrani would wear the swimsuit in her unique style which caught everyone’s attention: she paired the suit with a lovely gajra and bindi with her suit and looked absolutely glowing.
But before she went to Bombay to compete to be India’s prettiest woman, there was more history to write on her life pages. When she was only 15, underage according to Indian law, she eloped with Habib Rahman, an architect, who, at 30, was twice her age and had a son and a daughter with him. Habib was a brilliant architect who designed the first memorial for the Mahatma — the Gandhi Ghat on the Hooghly which opened on the first anniversary of Gandhi’s death. A rare combination of a husband-wife team to get Padmashris on their individual merit.
While Indrani won the Miss India title, the runner-up was Miss Madras Surya Kumari, already famous as an actress, model and singer. A niece of freedom fighter Tanguturi Prakasam, hers was the Telugu voice of freedom in South India. A singer was mandatory in freedom meetings which often ended in lathicharges or even firing. Brave Surya Kumari, while still a schoolgirl, accompanied by her uncle Prakasam to sing patriotic songs that became more popular. She became a film star at the age of 12 and appeared in some 25 Indian films in the 1940s and 1950s. She would later sing the State song of Andhra Pradesh.
In the later years, both these pretty women settled abroad. Indrani moved to New York to set up her own dance academy. She also conducted classes at the Harvard University and was a faculty member at the Juilliard School in New York.
Surya Kumari appeared as Queen Sudarshana in Rabindranath Tagore’s The King of the Dark Chamber (1961) and won the Off-Broadway Critics’ Award for Best Actress. Her photo appeared in Life magazine. She finally settled in London teaching yoga and dance.
The writer is a historian and author
(References from Dancing in the family by Sukanya Rahman)