Miss India (sports physique) 2016
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The Times of India, Mar 20, 2016
Sharmila Ganesan Ram
Making of the other Miss India
In Roha, a Maharashtra town where undernourished men travel in threes on motorbikes, there is a gym exclusively for women. But the pair of remarkable upper arms that Neeta Shingur spotted at a beauty parlour on a fine March morning had come from somewhere else. "A very tall woman came in with lovely, long hair and..." trails off Shingur, pointing to her frail biceps and raising her brows. Shingur is referring to Shweta Rathore, a leggy 25-year-old engineer from Mumbai who has travelled over 100 kms, along with her equally muscular brother Saurabh and a suitcase containing spray tans, sports bras and sweet potatoes, to claim the title of Miss India (sports physique) once again. As a segment within the 9th National Body Building Championship 2016, this Miss India contest falls somewhere between pageant and spectator sport. Though it promises bronzed, two-piece-clad women in high heels, it does not come with the weight of tiaras or questions on world peace. Here, beauty figures only after agility, flexibility, muscle tone and strength. Three years ago, the Indian Body Building Federation (IBBF) introduced 'Women's Sports Physique' for lean women who didn't want to boast either the muscularity of bodybuilders or the feather-weight frivolity of models. The winner gets a trophy that looks like a jubilant version of the Filmfare lady and a sum of Rs 50,000. But for Rathore, it is the title that matters. If she wins, the engineer, who has over 1 lakh followers on Instagram, will inch closer to her dream of becoming a fitness celebrity. Right now, "Indians confuse thin with lean," says Rathore, who plans to groom physique athletes after the contest. "Indians are blessed with strong genes but lack knowledge about fitness and body transformation," adds Rathore. This is why passers-by in Dubai compliment her while Indians look at her "like I am an alien or something," says Rathore. Backstage on D-day, March 13, sporting a sparkly purple bra, sheer black skirt and a faux-diamond bracelet, Rathore is a sight to behold. Two women cops also sit inside the changing room to keep men at bay. But personal trainers, husbands, brothers and fathers stream in and out. They fish out sponges and rollers from gym bags and pat down washboard female midriffs with fake tan, dab armpits with foundation, fasten sparkly bras with safety pins and spray thighs with something that makes everyone cough. As Saurabh paints her abs mahogany, Rathore sizes up her opponents. Mumbai's Jahnavi Pandav, mother of a nine-year-old, is doing push-ups against a chair in a leopard-print bra and skirt while Delhi's Ginnie Jogia Chugh, a writer, is practising the four poses they are judged on. Internationally, women bodybuilders and fitness physique models are supposed to wear bikinis. "But keeping the society and culture in mind, we ask them to wear sports bras and shorts," says Chetan Pathare, secretary of IBBF, who wants to take the sport to small towns.
In fact, the changing room also boasts small-town teens like Pandel's spunky Soniya Mitra who says her costumes do not define her and Kharagpur's Shreyasee Das Chowdhury who was introduced to the sport by her father, Ranajeet, a yoga and gymnastics coach. Contestants also have to execute a choreographed 10-second routine. This is what made Sunita Vishwakarma, a 28-year-old from Chhattisgarh, opt for the bodybuilding category instead. "I didn't want to dance," she says. The segment, say officials, helps attract women spectators. "Earlier we would see only two to three women in the audience. These too were relatives of the male bodybuilders," says an IBBF official. Things have changed now. After four hours of watching beefy men with serial numbers dangling on their crotch, an announcement of the ladies' event makes a bunch of boys return to their seats. Their hormonal reactions seem to elicit the announcement that follows: "Rohekars respect our sisters as much as our brothers." The crowd is never undignified though, says an IBBF official.
It is rightly pointed out that women in general lack in fitness and instead confuse thin as lean. Hope the winners work as Ambassadors to create awareness among women to be FIT.
The preparation requires several sacrifices from the models. Two days before the event, Rathore excused herself to put on sunglasses mid-conversation. Skimping on water for over 24 hours was making her head swirl. "I need my body to look sharp," said Rathore, adding that water would round off her carefully-cultivated edges. Her veins won't pop, her muscle cuts won't look "sharp" and her "conditioning" — developed through a rigorous routine of cardio, weight training and strict diet — won't show. As someone who has won Miss Mumbai 2015 and Miss Maharashtra 2016, besides Miss World 2014 and Miss Asia 2015, in the fitness physique category, Rathore comes with a lot of experience. When it's showtime, 'Saare Jahan se Accha' plays in the background as the ten contestants line up on stage. For the choreographed routine, the other contestants step on the riser (elevated part of the stage), but Rathore walks right up to the front of the ramp. She waves with aplomb, poses, and when asked to relax, does it with a flourish. It pays off. After she is declared Miss India (sports physique) 2016, Rathore hits the backstage and empties two bottles of cold water.