Last week when organizers announced the revival of the Miss Diwali Pageant, they were hoping for at minimum a spark of public interest in what is undoubtedly one of the lower-profile contests on a shrinking circuit. What they got was a firestorm of controversy, centred on the tastefulness of venerating what one critic called the divine feminine (think: young, attractive and unmarried) against the backdrop of the sanctity of the worship of Lakshmi (think: Hindu goddess of prosperity) associated with the festival.
As a result, the pageant has been positioned uncomfortably between celebration, cheered on by a small but vocal group of supporters, and exploitation, with groups including the Guyana Hindu Dharmic Sabha, the Berbice Hindu Society and private citizens calling for it to be scrapped, or at least renamed. It is certainly the last place Guyana National Diwali Committee Chairman Pradeep Samtani expected it to end up. “I wasn’t aware of any controversy,” he said in an interview, adding that the decision to resuscitate the pageant was in response to public demand. Samtani, who agreed to chair the committee at no cost after he was approached to oversee the pageant, also reminded that he had successfully staged it some time in the 80s or 90s — he could not remember when — without attracting any of the criticism that it has recently generated. The other members of the committee planning the October 25 pageant are Marcelle Veeren-Shewjattan, Ravindra Prashad and Varsha Sharma.
Samtani did not betray any overt sensitivity to the criticisms, though he made it a point of repeating that he respects every religion and every race. “We don’t want to offend anybody,” he added. He was disappointed that none of the pageant’s critics approached the committee for a dialogue about their concerns. Apart from the statements and letters in the newspapers, no one has approached the committee. While it would require a committee decision, Samtani said he has no difficulty with renaming the pageant. At the same time, he challenged anyone to show how the pageant could desecrate the sanctity of Diwali, particularly since it is being staged in the festival’s spirit of celebration. “I wish someone could explain to me, how it is bad for Hinduism,” he said, explaining that the pageant is essentially about sari display rather than any depictions of the goddess. In this vein, he also stated that the pageant would not have talent segments or bikini displays and also noted that it is open to anyone, regardless of religious background.
Bristling at the suggestion that pageants by their very nature perpetuate the objectification and exploitation of women, Samtani pointed out that how the woman is viewed is ultimately an individual choice: “It is your mind. If you have evil thoughts you will project it, on the stage or on the road.” Similarly, he added that there are people who will look at the woman and respect her for who she is. He said that pageants continue to grow, pointing out that there are even beauty contests in the Muslim world. In addition to this, he said, women continue to break through traditional barriers and have become leaders in all fields including business and politics all across the world. In this context, he questioned whether the people who have been criticizing pageants are simply out to put limits on women.
The Guyana Hindu Dharmic Sabha has strongly opposed this most recent attempt to stage the pageant. It says the festival is of deep spiritual significance and for more than 30 years, it has been promoting the observance of the festival in its pristine form. It reminds that the Hindu community has continually condemned the hosting of Miss Diwali pageants and has, in the past, succeeded in getting them withdrawn. “This new attempt to reintroduce the pageant shows contempt for the feeling and conviction of the Hindu religion and community,” it says.
Meanwhile, social activist Vidyaratha Kissoon has been one of the more outspoken critics of the pageant. He admits that the pageant has been staged by prominent Hindu organizations and that the winners have gone on to other successful platforms, but he also points to sexism inherent in such pageantry. “We recognize that it is sexism which drives gender-based violence,” he says. “The pageants have not reduced sexism in our society, despite their claims to promote respect and equality of womanhood.” He adds that as the pageant has currently been promoted — a newspaper ad asks for a face portrait and full body length photographs — it perpetuates exclusion of those who are not considered ‘fit’ enough to participate in much the same way as other pageants. “…That exclusion is entirely opposite of the Diwali festival and Hindu principles which are open to all who recognize the search for truth evident in the prayer ‘Asato Ma sat Gamaya, Tamaso Ma Jyotir Gamaya (Lead us from unreal to real, lead us from darkness to light).”
Samtani said he was not involved in the advertisements for entrants but he said there must be some criteria to ensure that the best people participate. On the latter point, he said it was possible for the pageant to be used to groom contestants for international pageants. If he seemed in any way aloof about the concerns of his critics, it is because he is thinking about the pageant in larger terms, envisaging it as part of a Diwali calendar of events that might be marketable to tourists, including overseas-based Guyanese. He cited the growth of the annual motorcade as a positive development in this regard, and he said there could be a Diwali Nagar, a Rangoli contest and other events scheduled to market the local festivities. However, he has not yet looked past the contest and his purpose: “I am hosting a good, clean sari pageant.”