Losing To Gain
With beauty becoming the new sunrise industry, the entrepreneurial Punjabis are shedding their conventional lassi look to cash in on a new obsession, says Nirupama Dutt, as she contemplates life after Gul Panag
For years, the magic mirror refused with step-motherly determination to reflect the face of the Punjabi lass as the most beautiful. Even while the Punjabi woman reveled in the conceit of being `the fairest of them all’, her sultry counterparts from the east and the south continued to pass the ultimate glamour test and walk way with beauty contest titles. The belles from the north didn’t seem to have what it takes to walk the catwalk and win the crown.
But no longer. It was the gorichitti Gul Kirat panag who walked past contestants from other states, proud as a pea-hen in the blue and green frills of an outrageous evening gown highlighting fair `n’ shapely things, to be judged Miss India-Universe 1999.
Gul is not the first, though. The past few years have seen the rise of the Punjabi beauty. The reasons for this are not hard to find. Beauty has become big business, more so with a thriving international market for sultry sirens from exotic India. With things being so, how can the entrepreneurial Punjabi not be in the fray? Business is in the Punjabi blood and enterprise comes easily to them. So does mobility, more so in the international arena. A apocryphal tale that did the rounds when Neil Armstrong set his foot on the moon, was that no sooner had the astronaut landed, he bumped into a sardarji who ran a dhaba there. Taken aback, Armstrong asked the Lunar entrepreneur: ``When did you come here?’’ Pat came the sardarji’s reply: ``Right after partition.’’
Given such a reputation, the cat-walk, no doubt, is a cakewalk for the average lassi lass. Many of the Punjabi glamour gals – including Gul and Manpreet Brar, Miss Universe First Runner-Up, 1995 – are from defence families, but fashion and beauty have had a great following among civilians for more than half a decade. After a long spell of terrorism, Punjab’s return to normality in the early ‘90s ushered in many changes. The consumer culture reared its head after lying dormant for years. Live-in-Style exhibitions moved from town to town, designers stores opened by the dozen, mega music concerts attracted thousands, and every city –from Ludhiana to Amritsar – boasted of beauty contests and fashion shows.
So much so that fashion and beauty contests appear to be the only mass movement in the state these days. Beauty contests are organized by groups as improbable as the friendly-neighbourhood property Dealers Association or the various market committees. The Chandigarh Press Club is a regular venue for ramp shows, a beauty parlour can be found in the dusty tracks of Chheratta, a basti on the outskirts of Amritsar, and a slimming centre at Manimajra a town close to Chandigarh.
It is serious business, so serious that even humorist jaspal Bhatti does not make light of it. ``Beauty was always there, but it was hidden, mouths the popular idiot-box comic. ``Earlier, we would say that anyone who would look at our women would be blinded. But now, with fashion shows and beauty contests becoming a part of life, we let our beauties be ogled at. The change is in the attitude.’’ Agrees pawan Malhotra of the World Punjabi TV Channel: ``The shedding of inhibitions has brought our girls to the forefront. Beautiful they always were.’’
In spite of the Khalas beauties having made a mark, the mention of the Punjabi beauty queen still causes titters. All because the archetypal Punjabi beauty does not quite fit in with the feminine mystique of a Persis Khambatta or an Aishwarya Rai. The adjectives that accompany praise for the Punjabi beauty are handsome, well-made, strapping and defiant. Remember the famous Assa Singh Mastana song of yesteryear, Balle ni Punjab diye sher bachiye (Bravo, the lioness lass of Punjab)?
Feminine, elegant, delicate and graceful are adjectives that have eluded them, mainly because the daughters of the soil are part of an agrarian ethos. Along with agriculture, the border state of Punjab has nurtured a martial culture over centuries. It would be unfair to expect the fair sex to remain unaffected by the vigours of the Jai Jawan Jai Kisan ethos. No wonder then that the achievers of Punjab bring to mid the cane-wielding Kiran Bedi or an Abida Parveen beauting the male qawwals at singing Sufi poetry, and not pretty little things sashaying down the ramp.
Pretty they always were, but there was nothing little about these young things. Jagjit Singh described the Punjabi belle with the popular song, one of the few of his limited repertoire in Punjabi: Dhai din na jawani naal chaldi, kurti mulmul di. A free translation of this lie would be that the blossoming youth of the lovely lass won’t let the muslin blouse last more than two days and a half. A classic case of bursting at the seams. This bounteous image finds echo in the persona of the Punjabi film heroine, who seems to have a bust size at least five points more than her IQ.
But now the well-fed Miss comes chiseled just right. Ask Manpreet Brar and she says that genetically, nothing has changed for the Punjabi kudhi. ``It’s wrong to assume anything, just because you are seeing more and more Punjabi girls who are thin these days,’’ she says. ``But this too, is limited to big cities like Mumbai and Delhi. Girls from smaller towns in Punjab are still the same – tall and voluptuous. That’s because they aren’t bothered about their looks.’’
Brar, who herself has shed some pounds over the last couple of years, thanks to an hour of free-hand exercises daily at a South Delhi gym, says if you are to survive in the glamour world, you’ve got to be with the times. ``It’s as simple as that if short hair is in, don’t expect to make an impression with a well-kept mane,’’ she says. ``What sells today is a tall and slim look. If you are buxom, forget fashion and check elsewhere.’’
Punjabi puttar, and Delhi-based fashion designer, Ashish Soi agrees, though he quivers at the idea of famine looks. ``Thin is in, but it doesn’t mean anorexic,’’ says Soni, like a true-blue son of the soil, adding that North Indian girls are generally tall, fair and well-built, and famous for their good looks. ``But what we need today is someone who’s tall, thin and well-toned… someone who’s comfortable with her body,’’ he says.
And now with the utterly butterly sohnis I the fray, with the right vital statistics to boot, the Punjabi beauty has finally arrived. But Rohit Chawla, who has shot more beauties with his roving lens than any man alive in India, does not approve of the wholesome perfect woman. ``Normal is not beautiful,’’ he says. ``You need some quirk in your personality to make it big these days. A crooked smile, maybe!
Chawla says that except for Anupama Verma, who’s really thin, and Pooja batra ---``she’s so tall, but still doesn’t look horsy’’—he’s quite allergic to Punjabi girls. ``Who wants a gora-chitta face? A dusky and sultry Bengali girl is what Idian beauty is all about,’’ he says. It’s a view, ironically, even Gul seems to share. At her maiden press conference in New Delhi, the new Miss India waxed philosophical o the subject. She defined beauty as ``a reflection of the inner self,’’ and cited Dimple Kapadia and Arundhari Roy – both non-Pujabis—as examples.
Chawla believes that today, more than beauty, it is the packaging that counts. ``Look at Gul. I have never met her, but what I could make out from TV, she’s doe her homework pretty well. Where does beauty come into the picture?’’ he asks. Chawla makes sense when you hear the routine set for Gul by her maasi and mentor, Komal G B Singh, popular television anchor and Republic Day voice. Singh felt Gul had ``perfect physical attributes’’ but zero exposure to showbiz, so she packed everything into her niece’s preparatory routine – from discussing Pokharan to practicing reiki, from perfecting her gait to working on her smile that appeared ``vacuous’’ at times. ``I called up everybody I knew to ask for help for Gul, so much so that `Komal has a novice niece…’ became a standing joke in town.’’ the found aunt recalls.
Of course, there are other who will say there can be o one as pretty as a Punjaban. Art historian Pran Nevile goes back to the 18th and 19th centuries to show how the European travelers considered Punjabi women to be the most beautiful among their peers in the sub-continent.
``A woman appreciated for great beauty was Kani Jind Kaur, popularly called Jindan, who was the youngest wife of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Her portraiture in the wall paitings is breathtaking,’’ says Nevile. Delve a little deeper into history and there’s Anarkali for you, who with her famed looks led Prince Saleem to stage a revolt against his father, the mighty Akbar! Lahore still has a monument to this beauty who was bricked alive ad there’s a whole bazaar named after her.
With times chagig and beauty not being regarded as the proverbial curse, the Punjabis are only too ready to change their concepts of modesty and vital stats to capture the market as best as they can. Making the most of opportunities is a way of life for the progressive Punjabi, whose life must come accompanied with power, position and pelf.
If the macho Punjabi farmers can turn from wheat to farming gherkins and strawberries, the determined women of the land can certainly set a few things right with the body and mind. Says Ruchi Malhotra, Miss India Asia-Pacific 1995: ``Thin is in, and the rule doesn’t change for anyone, whether you are a Punjabi or a Maharashtrian.’’ Fashion designer Ritu Beri, quite a looker herself, agrees that the concept of a Punjabi beauty has changed over the years. 11In the past,’’ says Beri, ``she wan good-looking in the traditional way with perfect features --- big eyes, straight nose and a well-shaped mouth. She could be speechless for all one cared. But today, it’s more than what meets the eye. She has to have some personality, be interesting, and have oodles of self-confidence.’’
Well, all that can be achieved. And quite easily too. Gul’s maasi, Komal G B Singh, succeeded so well that in a swift follow-up, she has decided to teach television, political and showbiz wannabes the fine art of being stage-savvy. Don’t think other enterprising Punjabis back home are not emulating this example on a larger scale. With raw material available aplenty from Bhatinda to Tarn Taran, from Sangrur to Hoshiarpur, polishing, packaging and patting into shape should yield a bountiful harvest. Beauty could very well be the industry Punjab is looking for. So dance and rejoice to the refrain of that popular song: Passe hat ja zalima ve, main Punjaban jatti aayi (make way O Cruel One, I, the Punjabi lass, have come).