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India Sees Ugly Side of Pageant

TIMES STAFF WRITER

India’s “garden city” may never have been an ideal spot for the Miss World pageant, what with its water shortages, power failures and the air quality of a bus terminal. But not even the most dour of pessimists expected mayhem of this sort, with the contest being assailed as a merchandising device for the decadent cultural imperialists of the West.

Fanatical protesters have threatened to immolate themselves in the streets--and one did so Thursday. Commandos smeared cow dung in public places. Militant farmers promised to burn down the cricket stadium, the very arena where the queen is to be crowned as 2.5 billion people watch on global TV.

Dozens of groups have come out against the Nov. 23 extravaganza. Beauty contests make for strange bedfellows, and this one has brought together modern feminists and turn-back-the-clock Hindu nationalists, left-wing students and right-wing politicians. Already, the swimsuit competition has been chased out of the country to the more hospitable Seychelles islands.

“Today it’s Miss World; tomorrow it’s electrolysis, liposuction, artificial eyes and face-lifting,” said Pramila Nesargi, a right-wing state legislator.

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M.D. Nanjundaswamy, the socialist leader of the farmers group, said: “The degeneracy of the West needs to be corrected, not exported.”

Defenders of the pageant--and they enjoy the sympathy of most Indians--find it hard to believe that an event so trivial has provoked such a tumult. What about India’s poverty? What about illiteracy? What about official corruption?

But to many, the Miss World contest is symbolic of something far more substantial, for what was once a stream of Western influences has recently become a gusher. Embraced by some, deplored by others, change is penetrating India’s soul. East is East and West is West, but now the twain have met.

Two great thresholds have been crossed in the ‘90s, one in the marketplace and the other on the TV.

Five years ago, this nation shrugged off the last vestiges of Nehru-era socialism and enacted reforms that welcomed the global economy. Executives of multinationals rushed to India like the British sahibs.

How could they resist? The potential of this market would speed the heartbeat of any merchant. One in every six people on Earth lives in India, and while 730 million of them have little in their pockets, an estimated middle class of 200 million has rupees to spare for consumer goods.

Television ads tell them what to buy. In 1992, Star TV, owned by unblushing impresario Rupert Murdoch, began to offer its many channels of attractions. Programs include the antic showmanship of pro wrestling, the gyrating flesh of music videos and the moral teachings of the soap opera “Santa Barbara.”

As in the United States, some of this has proven irresistible. “Star TV has been like Coca-Cola; it’s in every village,” said H.S. Balram, the Bangalore editor of the Times of India. “When Coca-Cola came to India, it managed to reach places that did not even have water. Star TV has that kind of power.

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“What shocked India was the explicit sex. Indians don’t openly discuss sex. We do everything, but in our homes. Initially, we felt we couldn’t watch Star TV with the whole family. But as time passed, we’ve gotten into it.”

Yet even the accepting are occasionally uneasy about where all this may lead. Short skirts, dating, premarital sex, spouse-swapping. Some things are hard to reconcile in a society where most brides still bring a dowry into an arranged marriage. How much can India change while preserving its traditions?

Mahatma Gandhi, who prized his society’s cultural heritage while borrowing much of his philosophy from the West, once confidently answered such a question: “I want the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be swept off my feet by any.”

One can presume Gandhi would not have attended the recent Michael Jackson concert in Bombay, with 35,000 in a swoon as their idol grabbed his crotch.

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A Dumping Ground

Among current sentiments is the suspicion that India has become a dumping ground for the West’s rejects, and the Miss World pageant surely fits the bill. In 1990, after 39 years in London, declining interest forced the contest into a nomadic existence. It has since wandered to Atlanta and Sun City--South Africa’s answer to Las Vegas--before making its current stop in Bangalore, a south India metropolis of 6 million people with a booming computer industry.

Along the way during this globe trot, Miss World founders Eric and Julia Morley discovered that what had become passe in the prosperous West was now en vogue in much of the Third World, where beauty competition is not so burdened by political correctness.

Here in India, the pageant’s main financial backer is Amitabh Bachchan, the actor known as the Big B.

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Famous for playing the role of the angry young man, he was once the leading heartthrob in this nation’s massive film industry. Now 54, he has gone the way of many angry young men before him, starting his own corporation, the entertainment conglomerate Amitabh Bachchan Corp. Ltd.

What the Big B has in mind for Bangalore is its biggest gala ever, with 2,000 technicians, 500 dancers, 88 contestants and 16 elephants. As the judges sleuth for personality, poise and perfect measurements, about 20,000 patrons will watch from the outdoor seats of Chinnaswami Stadium. Ticket prices are $55, $400 and $715, steep fare in a nation where the average annual income is $335.

Miss World promoters do not want their pageant confused with the rival Miss Universe affair, which was held last May in Las Vegas. The major distinction, they insist, is that Miss World’s motto is “beauty with a purpose,” the purpose being charity. About 10% of the profit--an estimated $1 million--will go to the Spastics Society of Karnataka (Bangalore’s home state).

Bachchan believed that this charitable gesture would be enough to subdue any likely opposition--and this may well have been so. But when the sniping began, Karnataka’s chief minister, J.H. Patel, inadvertently poured gas on the fire, defending the contest with the words: “If women want to show themselves in the nude, let them [and] let those who want to see, see.”

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The statement predictably provoked the ire of feminists, some of whom have checked their principles long enough to join fundamentalists at the protest rallies that have spread across the country in anticipation of the event.

For two months, the controversy has been a staple on India’s front pages, delighting several gadflies and small-time politicians whose threats and invective are usually not taken so seriously. “The fury of the mob cannot be controlled,” said the newly important conservative legislator Nesargi in her dramatic way.

But could it really happen--blood on the ramp where Miss World takes her triumphant walk? Or is righteous indignation, like beauty, only skin deep?

Security Precautions

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To be confident of a peaceful beauty contest, Bangalore’s police think an army of 12,500 officers and constables will be required, many of them in battle gear. For added protection, some preliminary events will be held on the outskirts of the city. One new venue is a high-security air force base.

The necessity for these precautions is unclear. Until now, anti-pageant raids have been farces. An office was ransacked by men unaware that Miss World headquarters had moved weeks before. Cow dung was smeared in a Godrej appliance store, but it is another company, Godrej Soaps, that is a contest sponsor. A small bomb lobbed at stadium generators missed by 15 yards and exploded harmlessly.

“They say Miss World is obscene and vulgar, but there is no nudity,” pageant spokesman Ashwami Singla said. “Is helping the spastics vulgar? Is rewarding women for hard work vulgar? These women are achievers. They’ll go on to be doctors, lawyers, fashion models. Is this vulgar? How dare they!”

In a small room where she once practiced law, Nesargi explained why she dares: “In a beauty pageant, a woman’s movements cater to the baser instincts of a man. It is a flesh trade--and against Indian culture.”

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Nesargi is a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which has had political success of late as a guardian of Hindu traditions. “Please don’t call me a feminist; I am a humanist,” she said.

By her understanding of Hinduism, a woman’s beauty must be natural, not affected. For example, the three spectacular diamond rings on her fingers are natural--"taken from Mother Earth"--while cosmetics are not. “The West wants all women to look alike, and the only way to do this is with makeup.”

Nanjundaswamy, although an ally in this cause, despises Nesargi and her BJP allies because “their version of Hinduism is narrow and bigoted.” A retired law professor, he has started an organization of small farmers, a group rightly afraid that a “green wave” of big agricultural interests may force them from their land.

Nanjundaswamy’s opposition is more ideological than Nesargi’s.

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“Miss World is another imposition by global capitalists,” he said, sitting barefoot in his office and smoking cigarettes in tireless sequence. “The West wants an international monoculture so everyone will buy its products. Miss World is here to sell a certain Western look that all women are supposed to treasure. But we have nothing to learn from the West. The West must learn from us.”

Madhu Bhushan, a feminist, agrees with some of the professor’s politics, but she also thinks he has gone “a little berserk.” Her group is Liberation. “Our goal is not to keep the West out of India; that’s impossible,” she said. “But we have to find some way to counter all of this merchandising.

“Appearances shouldn’t be an end in itself, and that’s what Miss World represents: How should I flutter my eyelids? How can I color my cheeks? How can I outshine the women standing beside me?”

Miss World is not India’s first beauty contest. On the contrary, such pageants have been a fad here since 1994. That year, Indian contestants won both the Miss World and Miss Universe titles, a rare double of female radiance that this nation celebrated with what might be called patriotic vanity.

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Contests soon became commonplace. Now there are monsoon queens, summer queens, married queens, junior queens. Indian women, many say, are discovering their sexuality; some also are discovering bulimia and anorexia.

Miss World-comes-to-India, then, is the crest of a trend. Perhaps the current hubbub will lead to some sort of line in the face cream. It does have people thinking. Maybe they will discover some acceptable middle ground.

Indeed, that is just what officials in the city of Kochi are trying to do with their local pageant. This year, to satisfy both the new India and the old, no Miss Swimsuit will be named, only a Miss Photogenic, a Miss Beautiful Skin, a Miss Beautiful Catwalk, a Miss Beautiful Hair and a Miss Beautiful Eyes.


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