Two of the top international beauty pageants are Miss Universe and Miss World. Femina magazine owned by the Times of India Group had been sending the Miss India Winner, Miss Universe and the runner-up to the Miss World contest. Miss Universe pageant started since 1952, and Indrani Rahman, who was conferred the award of Miss India that year, became the first Indian to participate in the Miss Universe 1952 contest. This was the first edition of Miss Universe in 1952 and Indrani Rahman was the first ever Miss India to represent India at an international beauty pageant.
Indrani Rahman was also a classical dancer of Bharata Natyam, Kuchipudi, Kathakali and Odissi. After joining her mother Ragini Devi’s company, she popularized these dance forms in the West during her international tours. She was honored with the Padma Shri Award in 1969 and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in the performing arts and also the Taraknath Das Award. In 1976, she settled in New York and stayed there till her death in 1999.
Here is a brief account of her life and accomplishments.
- Name: Indrani Rahman
- Name at Birth: Indrani Bajpai
- Born On: 19 September 1930
- Birthplace: Madras, British India (now Chennai)
- Died On: 5 February 1999 (aged 68)
- Place Died: New York, USA
- Occupation: Indian Classical Dancer, Choreographer
- Parents: Father – Ramalal Balram Bajpai,
Mother – Ragini Devi (nee Esther Luella Sherman)
- Spouse: Habib Rahman, Chief Architect to the Government of India
- Children: 2; Son – artist Ram Rahman,
Daughter – Sukanya Rahman
- Awards: Femina Miss India (1952); Padma Shri (1969); Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (1981)
Childhood and Early Life
On 19 September 1930, Indrani Rahman was born in Madras, which is now called Chennai. At birth, she was named Indrani Bajpai. It would be interesting to know about the life of her parents. Her father Ramalal Balram Bajpai was born in 1860, just three years after the First Indian War of Independence. He lived up to the ripe old age of 84 and died in 1962. He was the President of the Indo-American League for some time. This was because of his wife Ragini Devi, who was also known as Esther Luella Sherman.
Ramlal Bajpai was North Indian by descent. He was a chemist by education. He went to America for higher education, where he met Esther Luella Sherman. She was an American by birth and was born in 1893 at Petoskey in the US state of Michigan. Bajpai married Esther and after marriage, she adopted Hinduism as her religion and changed her name to Ragini Devi. She died in 1982 after having lived for 90 years.
Her parents came to India sometime in the 1920s. Ramlal became the Assistant Editor of the famous magazine Young India. This magazine was founded by the well-known freedom fighter, Lala Lajpat Rai. When India gained Independence, Ramlal became the Consul General of India for the USA and he was posted at New York. He also became the President of the Indo-American League.
While in India, Ragini Devi had developed a keen interest in Indian Classical dances. In fact, she became so passionate that she devoted the rest of her life in reviving, nurturing and spreading Indian classical dances throughout the world.
This started with a chance meeting with Jetti Tayamma of Mysore, who was also known as the great rajadasi or the royal courtesan. From her, Ragini Devi learned Bharat Natyam. Afterward, she learned under the well-known courtesan of Chennai, Gauri Amma. By this time Ragini Devi had herself become a celebrated dancer and during the 1930s was one of the most feted dancers of Indian classical dance.
During this period, she also learned Kuchipudi and Kathakali – dance forms of Andhra Pradesh and Kerala respectively. She championed the cause of reviving these dance forms.
Indrani was born when the couples were in Chennai. She grew up in a family that was part Indian and part American. She was very much influenced by her American mother. She became uninhibited and independent, unlike ordinary Indian girls.
Her mother also encouraged her to participate in beauty pageants. When she was just a schoolgirl and only fifteen years old, she eloped with Habib Rahman, who was a world-renowned architect. She was underage, below 18, according to the Indian laws and could not get married legally. Rahman was twice her age and was thirty years old.
From a very early age of nine, Indrani started learning dance. She was taught by her mother. She accompanied her mother during her international tours to America and Europe. She started her dancing career by learning Bharata Natyam. She learned from Guru Chokkalingam Pillai, a renowned Bharat Natyam exponent, during the 1940s when she was just over ten years old.
Later she shifted to Vijayawada and started learning Kuchipudi. She was trained by the renowned Kuchipudi dancer Korada Narasimha Rao. Later she also performed with him at several venues abroad.
Later she went to Orissa. This was after India has gained independence in 1947. She wanted to learn Odissi, which was a lesser-known classical dance form which originated in Orissa. She learned Odissi for three years under Guru Sri Deba Prasad Das. She was the first professional dancer to learn Odissi. She is credited to have brought Kuchipudi to prominence in India and abroad. She later performed all over India and the world to popularize Odissi.
In the year 1952, Indrani was crowned ‘Miss India’. At that time very few participants in India were participating in such beauty events. At that time, she was married and was having a child. She became the first Miss India to participate in the Miss Universe Pageant. It was held on June 28, 1952, at Long Beach, California.
After this glorious achievement, she began performing her dances all over the world. She traveled with her mother and performed in her group.
In 1961, she became the first dancer to be sponsored by the Asia Society to a national tour. In the US, during Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru‘s official visit to Washington, D.C., she performed in the presence of US President John F. Kennedy and Nehru. Later she performed for several world dignitaries including Emperor Haile Selassie, Queen Elizabeth II, Mao Zedong, Nikita Khrushchev, and Fidel Castro.
In 1976, she accepted a faculty position at the Juilliard School at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, in New York in the dance division. She also taught in several American universities, which included Harvard University. Then she spent the rest of her life in tours and travels all through the United States.
Indrani Rahman, an indefatigable dancer, breathed her last on 5th February 1999 in Manhattan, New York. She was deeply mourned by many who were her fans, students and admirers.
In 1945, Indrani Rahman married Habib Rahman who was a renowned architect. The same year the couple was blessed with a son Ram Rahman who became an artist later. Later they had a daughter, Sukanya Rahman who married an American. Sukanya Rahman Wicks had also danced on stage with her mother and grandmother. She has two children – Wardreath Wicks and Habib Wicks.
Indrani Rahman had won several awards all over the world. Some of the most illustrious Indian awards that she was honored with are given below:
- Femina Miss India (1952)
- Padma Shri (1969)
- Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (1981)
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