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The first Enchantress – Indrani Rahman

It is said that apart from the art of dance if the dancer is gifted with astonishing physical beauty then it is like ‘Sone PeSuhaga’ or in simple words it can’t get better than that. Today through the power of my pen I would like to bring alive one superbly talented and gorgeous dancer who was our family friend and who my grandmother called the goddess Mohini (the enchantress). As she had the beauty that was not just enchanting and captivating but also had the unbeatable talent of four various Indian classical dances. Let us all stand up and bow down to the most amazing and highly gifted Indrani Rahman.

If it was not for the confidence of Indrani Rahman, we would not have had Sushmita Sen and Lara Dutta receiving laurels at the Miss Universe pageant in the later years.

I remember my grandmothertelling me that when Miss Universe held its maiden pageant on June 28, 1952, Indrani at the age 22became the first Indian woman to represent our countryin the international beauty contest, after being crowned as the first Miss India the same year. If you thought she could get away with the swimsuit round, well no. But hold your horses, because Indrani did manage to attract eyeballs among the 30 contestants. Courtesy her adorable bindi (dot of the forehead) and gajra (a string of flowers)!That’s called fashion with a twist.

Indrani Rahman’s family background was very interesting as she had both the Indian and American blood. Father of Indrani, Mr. RamalalBalramBajpai was a chemist and a close associate of my great grandfather Dr M.B Soparkar, who was the personal Doctor to Mahatma Gandhi, Morarji Desai and Vallabhbhai Patel. My great grandfather would often prescribe medicines which Indrani’s father would deliver. A relationship that was close—professionally as well as personally. Later, her father went to the USA for higher education, there he met and married Esther Luella Sherman, an American by birth.Indrani’s mother Esther embraced Hinduism after her wedding and took the name Ragini Devi.The couple moved to India in the 1920s.

Indrani was born in Chennai, back then known as Madras, to this couple and grew up in a mixed-race household. She was brought up to be uninhibited and independent by her American mother, who encouraged her to participate in beauty pageants. When she was only 15-years-old, and still underage according to Indian law, she eloped with Habib Rahman, 30 a world renowned architect, andhad a son and a daughter.Going by their pictures which I recollect my grandmother showing me they both were quite a happening couple back then!

That’s not all about the personality and beauty of Indrani, she was already a renowned classical dancer when she took part in the pageant. She was a gifted dancer well-versed in Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, Kathakali and Odissi this all could happen as her training began at the age of 9 in her mother’s company. Indrani was awarded the Padma Shri in 1969. She was also a recipient of the SangeetNatakAkademi Award and the Taraknath Das Award. She later settled in New York in 1976 along with her mother, she continued to popularise the Indian classical dances all over the world.

Professionally, she first started with Bharatanatyam, having learnt the Pandanallur style of Bharatanatyam from Guru Chokkalingam Pillai in the 1940s. Later she went to Vijaywada andlearned Kuchipudi from KoradaNarsimha Rao with whom she later toured many parts of the world.In 1947, Indrani attracted the attention of India’s leading dance and art critic Dr. Charles Fabri, who later encouraged her to learn the little-known classical dance form of Odissi, making her the first professional dancer to learn Odissi. After learning Odissi for three years, from Guru Sri Deba Prasad Das, she went on to popularise it, through performance in various parts of India and the world.

In 1961, she was the first dancer present on a national tour by the Asia Society, and also performed for US President John F. Kennedy and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, during Nehru’s official visit to Washington, D.C. Indrani also performed for Emperor Haile Selassie, Queen Elizabeth II, Mao Zedong, Nikita Khrushchev, and Fidel Castro.

She became a faculty member of the dance division at the Juilliard School at New York’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in 1976. She even taught in various American universities, including Harvard, and She spent her later life in the United States, touring extensively, until her death in Manhattan in 1999.

You must be wondering why am I talking about her today, well, I was going through some old photo albums of black and white pictures of my grandmother and happened to stumble up a picture of this legendary dancer and beauty queen with my family. So this article is a tribute to the legend and a way to say ‘Thank you Indraniji for opening doors for dancers and beauty queens into the world that looks very simpletoday’ looking up at stars.


Sandip Soparkar

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