Dharmatma Saran, Chairman and Founder of Miss India Worldwide and Mrs. India Worldwide received the Bharat Gaurav (Pride of India) Lifetime Achievement Award at a function held at the United Nations headquarters in New York on June 9. The award was given to Saran for promoting India culture, traditions and performing arts through pageantry and also bringing international Indian community on one platform through pageantry.
A visionary, Dharmatma Saran, started the first cultural Indian pageant over 35 years back. The pageant since has been acclaimed as the “most glamorous Indian event in the world.” Starting with 12 countries now the pageant has affiliates in over 40 countries. Mr. Saran said, “I am honored to receive the Bharat Gaurav Award at UN Hall in New York. I humbly dedicate it to my associates all over world who are working hard to promote Indian culture.”
Established by the Sanskriti Yuva Sanstha a Jaipur based NGO with a wide international presence, the award felicitates individuals “who have achieved a land mark in their profession and made India proud.” The other honorees included, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar of Art of Living, Dr. Lokesh Muni – Spiritual Guru of Jains, Filmmaker Madhur Bhandarkar and H.R. Shah – Chairman of TV Asia.
Dharmatma Saran and his friends organized a cultural and fashion show, with a view to showcase the Indan culture and tradition to the Western world on the sprawling lawns of Central Park as early as in 1974. Eventually, these shows transformed into competitions, and the first Miss India New York and the first Miss India USA were held in the basement of the Air India Office in 1980.
Dharmatma Saran is the founder and chairman of the India Festival Committee (IFC), an organization conducting Indian pageants and fashion shows in USA and worldwide.Saran established India Festival Committee in 1974. He has been organizing the Miss India USA, Miss India New York and Miss India Worldwide pageants annually since 1980.
“The pageants were a hit from the very beginning<” says Saran, an architect of the Miss India pageantry in the US. Soon, the venue shifted from the basement of Air India to the glamorous ballrooms of the Marriott Grand Marquis and the New York Hilton. With more popularity and appreciation from the community, the show has come to be much sought after today. The concept grew too.
As the world grew closer, Saran had the vsion to expand the concept even further from the US-based to make it an international pageantry. In 1991, Saran organized the first Miss India Worldwide, held at the Marriott Marquis in New York City. Nineteen years later, the Miss India Worldwide pageant has been held in such exotic destinations as Singapore, South Africa, and Mumbai, India as well. “With affiliates arpind the world, Miss India Worldwide is the only international Indian pageant,” Saran says proudly.
The Indian American beauty pageants offer a platform for every desi dreamer to dream big. Ever since the first pageant was started, these home-grown productions have gained glitz and glamour over the years, and morphed into serious launching pads for relative newcomers to catch the eye of the entertainment industry both here in the U.S. and in Bollywood. Case in point is Richa Sharma, the first Miss India New York-1980, who was noticed by Bollywood actor-director Dev Anand. She starred in his blockbuster-hit movie, “Hum Naujawan,” and eventually became a career actress in Bollywood (she later married Sunjay Dutt).
Since then, Indian American beauty pageants have mushroomed, but at the same time have become more structured and organized. Today, practically every state in America has a “Miss India” pageant. The winners of these local shows go on to compete at the national and world levels. “The opportunities for the winners are endless,” points out Dharmatma Saran, the godfather of Indian American beauty competitions.
After Richa Sharma, there has been a steady migration of Indian American beauties to the film industry. For example, Ruby Bhatia, Kamal Sidhu and more recently Aarti Chabria have taken the Indian television and movie world by storm. “Most of these girls are very well educated,” points out Saran. Apra Bhandari, who won the Miss India New York title in 1998, has a degree in communications from Cornell University. “I once had a heart surgeon from Johns Hopkins University competing in my pageant,” adds Saran.
But Bollywood is only a part of the story. Most of the participants at these pageants are young women who join the shows often on a whim with no glamorous ambitions in mind. “Only 25 to 30 percent of the girls who compete in beauty pageants dream of entering Bollywood. For others it’s a whole variety of reasons and they go on to become lawyers, doctors, engineers or even join the entertainment industry,” he adds.
Saran’s pageants are a break from the typical mold of beauty pageants. Most importantly, Saran remains true to the original values and ideals that inspired the pageant. That is, he seeks to promote and celebrate Indian culture and values among NRIs. To that end, all his pageants and franchises the world over have a talent segment, during which, contestants perform a rich variety of pieces, from dancing to the latest Bollywood tunes to Bharat Natyam to singing. “The contestants exhibit the full spectrum of Indian and international culture to which they belong,” Saran says.
In addition, the emphasis upon cultural values and ideals is also evidenced by the fact that none of Saran’s pageants have a swimsuit segment. Instead, in addition to the talent segment, contestants participate in an Indian dress and Evening Gown segment, and the top five contestants also show their ability to think and speak on the spot through a Question and Answer segment.
Saran’s pageants also try to give back to the community through a variety of non-profit efforts. Pageant winners and participants are encouraged to volunteer and participate for non-profit causes. The pageant has worked with charitable organizations, including those dedicated to improving the lives of handicapped children in the community, and also those dedicated to helping victims of natural causes, including the 2005 Tsunami that affected India and Southeast Asia and earthquakes that have ravaged the community. Most recently, the pageant raised funds for the devastating floods in Bihar in 2008.
Dharmatma Saran first arrived to the United States in 1971. Although he had a Law degree and a Master’s degree in International Relations from Patna University in India, Dharmatma was captivated with the American entrepreneur’s spirit and so he pursued an MBA in Long Island University in New York City.
What prompted him to star6t the pageantry? This is how he explains: “Along with a small yet growing Indian population in the New York area, I wanted to connect and recreate a sense of Indian community within the United States. We sought a forum where Indian music, dance, fashion and culture could be celebrated.” That’s what gave birth to the now more than a quarter century old pageantry in the US.
Saran’s vision and execution has been honored in a number of ways. In 1996, he received the Bharat Shiromani award from the NRI Institute, New Delhi, India, which honored his lifetime commitment to the promotion of Indian culture abroad. Saran also received the lifetime achievement awards from the Indian community from international groups, including in Fiji, Australia and South Africa among others.
In addition, Saran has judged pageants around the world, including Miss Asia and Femina Miss India. In 1992, he was the first NRI invited by the Times of India group to judge Femina Miss India that year. “It is a great pleasure to imbibe Indian culture and values among Indian youth around the world,” says Dharmatma Saran, “At the same time, bring the international Indian community on one platform through pageantry.”
Saran credits his family’s great support that has enabled him to achieve what he has been able to. Saran and his wife Neelam have been married for 30 years, and “Neelam has been an active member of the pageants from the very beginning<” Saran says. They have two daughters and live in Howard Beach, New York. Daughter Neema recently graduated from The George Washington University Law School and will be a corporate lawyer at a large law firm in New York City, and daughter Ankeeta recently completed her Bachelor’s degree from Stonybrook University, NY.