On March 8, Mumbai will host an unusual pageant: a beauty contest, but one where all the participants live with 100% visual disability.
The preparations for Princess India 2016-17, as the contest is called, started six months ago, with selection rounds across India. In November, 44 women made it into the penultimate round in Mumbai, where, for two days, they went through talent, ramp walk and other rounds designed to show their achievements. From those rounds, 15 were selected for the final round on March 8, again in Mumbai.
One of the finalists, Kritika Purohit, 24, is a physiotherapist from Nala Sopara in Palghar district of Maharashtra. Ms. Purohit says though she is a little nervous, she is very excited to be part of such a contest. “I feel that more than outer beauty, inner beauty is more important, and this is what the contest is all about. To participate in the contest is really amazing. My parents are more excited than I am!” Her mother is a homemaker and her father has taken early retirement to fully concentrate on their daughter’s dream. Mr. Purohit says, “She is talented and independent. She feels, why can’t people like her live like other people? She wants to prove herself that she can also be the like normal people. They want support not sympathy from society and we all should understand this.”
The Grand Finale will be in two parts. In the first, participants will showcase their talents and talk about their ambitions. In the second, they will walk the ramp, accompanied by women achievers from a variety of fields. On the ramp, each achiever will speak about the contestant she is accompanying, then the contestant will answer two questions from the jury.
The event will be choreographed by Badshah Khan, and the contestants will wear outfits designed by Sanjay and Sujata, with make-up by Gurpreet Ghura. All these professionals are donating their services free.
A school teacher and a Ph.D candidate from Punjab, Jyoti Malik has been in beauty contests before, winning one in college, competing with sighted students. The 25-year-old finalist says that she is feeling different as the contest comes closer. “We can’t see, so we get the reaction and appreciation of people through their clapping: the louder they clap the more appreciation we get. We can’t make eye contact with the audience but we can understand everything around us.”
The contest is an initiative by the NGO Blind’s Dream – founded by Samir Mansuri, an Ayurvedic medicine practitioner in Andheri, Mumbai, who is himself visually challenged – and supported by the National Association for the Blind. Dr. Mansuri says the purpose behind the NGO is to fulfil the dreams of others without sight. “So what if they can’t see?” he asks. “We can still dream, because we see with our ears, our nose and our hands. Everyone is out to give the visually impaired roti, kapda and makaan [food, clothing and shelter], but my aim is to give wings to their dreams. People should stop treating us as becharas [deserving of pity]. I think people without sight are as big achievers as people with sight.”
Simran Chawla, 21, from Delhi, typifies Dr. Mansuri’s vision. Studying for a Bachelor’s degree in science and an Honours in computer science, Ms. Chawla says the pageant is a dream come true, having once got an opportunity with a music channel. "I couldn't apply due to the height criterion. They wanted girls with a minimum height of 5 ft 6 inches," Ms. Chawla said.
“I am really feeling on Cloud Nine! This is the most amazing thing that has happened with me. I can’t see, but when people come and see, and when they clap, it’s the appreciation that we get that makes us feel more confident about our journey.”
She says that her mother is her mirror: not only does she describe the world for her, she also describes each and every feature of her body and face and tells her how she looks. “My family supports me in everything I want to do. My mother is the one who is always standing beside me. I don’t feel that I am not normal because of her.”
The NGO has also trained visually challenged people in cashless transactions and digital banking.