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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

India Basks in Beauties, But Is It Skin-Deep?

NEW DELHI -- Long after the overthrow of the British Raj and the dethroning of Indian princes and maharajahs, the economically liberated, Western-looking India of the '90s has embraced a new breed of royalty: the beauty queen.


In the international glamor sweepstakes, India this year bagged the two biggest crowns in beauty pageantdom -- Miss Universe and Miss World. Now the nation's pundits are torn between boasting that the titles are shining examples of India's emerging visibility in the global marketplace and angst that grooming beauty queens is doing nothing to improve the plight of the vast majority of India's women who are poor and oppressed.


It is a controversy that is particularly acute in a country undergoing massive social transformations,and mirrors India's struggle to embrace Western ideas and marketing while trying to preserve its own identity and traditions.


In an era when satellite and cable television are bombarding even the remotest villages with images of Western clothes, sleek models and lifestyles beyond the comprehension of the average Indian, Miss Universe, Sushmita Sen, and Miss World, Aishwarya Rai, have emerged as overnight idols to tens of thousands of young Indian women.


Both Rai and Sen represent the new elite of India's upper middle class -- the social stratum that is benefiting most from the opening of the Indian marketplace to outside investors and companies. And while the India they symbolize is an India that is accessible to only a small percentage of the population of 900 million people, it is the India that business leaders and others want to promote as they court international business.


"The image that India seeks to project of itself through its women has undergone a radical transformation, reflecting the political and economic change the country has seen from Nehruvian socialism to the global supermarket," the Sunday Times of India said recently.


But, it questioned, "How much of this change is cosmetic, masking the deprived status of the great majority of Indian women?"


When Sen, 19, made her triumphant return to Delhi as Miss Universe in September, she rolled down the main street of the city in a chariot pulled by four white horses, waving and blowing kisses to throngs of admirers.


The same week, six Indian women made history by becoming the first of their sex to qualify as pilots in the Indian Air Force. One Delhi columnist lamented, "Their projection in the media was negligible compared to what Miss Sen got."


While major newspapers carried front-page photographs last month of Rai as the newly crowned Miss World, the same papers also buried a story about a 22-year-old pregnant village woman who was stripped, tortured and burned to death by her fellow villagers because a soothsayer said he had learned from a vision that she was a jewel thief.


"The reason this kind of story rarely makes more than a few paragraphs in our newspapers is because it is fairly routine," wrote Tavleen Singh, a columnist. By Molly Moore


The Washington Post


NEW DELHI -- Long after the overthrow of the British Raj and the dethroning of Indian princes and maharajahs, the economically liberated, Western-looking India of the '90s has embraced a new breed of royalty: the beauty queen.


In the international glamor sweepstakes, India this year bagged the two biggest crowns in beauty pageantdom -- Miss Universe and Miss World. Now the nation's pundits are torn between boasting that the titles are shining examples of India's emerging visibility in the global marketplace and angst that grooming beauty queens is doing nothing to improve the plight of the vast majority of India's women who are poor and oppressed.


It is a controversy that is particularly acute in a country undergoing massive social transformations,and mirrors India's struggle to embrace Western ideas and marketing while trying to preserve its own identity and traditions.


In an era when satellite and cable television are bombarding even the remotest villages with images of Western clothes, sleek models and lifestyles beyond the comprehension of the average Indian, Miss Universe, Sushmita Sen, and Miss World, Aishwarya Rai, have emerged as overnight idols to tens of thousands of young Indian women.


Both Rai and Sen represent the new elite of India's upper middle class -- the social stratum that is benefiting most from the opening of the Indian marketplace to outside investors and companies. And while the India they symbolize is an India that is accessible to only a small percentage of the population of 900 million people, it is the India that business leaders and others want to promote as they court international business.


"The image that India seeks to project of itself through its women has undergone a radical transformation, reflecting the political and economic change the country has seen from Nehruvian socialism to the global supermarket," the Sunday Times of India said recently.


But, it questioned, "How much of this change is cosmetic, masking the deprived status of the great majority of Indian women?"


When Sen, 19, made her triumphant return to Delhi as Miss Universe in September, she rolled down the main street of the city in a chariot pulled by four white horses, waving and blowing kisses to throngs of admirers.


The same week, six Indian women made history by becoming the first of their sex to qualify as pilots in the Indian Air Force. One Delhi columnist lamented, "Their projection in the media was negligible compared to what Miss Sen got."


While major newspapers carried front-page photographs last month of Rai as the newly crowned Miss World, the same papers also buried a story about a 22-year-old pregnant village woman who was stripped, tortured and burned to death by her fellow villagers because a soothsayer said he had learned from a vision that she was a jewel thief.


"The reason this kind of story rarely makes more than a few paragraphs in our newspapers is because it is fairly routine," wrote Tavleen Singh, a columnist.