A third-year student of aerospace engineering at RMIT, Swetha Raj is representing Australia at the Miss India Worldwide pageant to be held in Dubai on June 15. Displaying a level of maturity, Raj is a testimony to the fact that beauty and brains can go hand in hand.
As a daughter of an Air Force officer, Swetha Raj, born in Hyderabad, had to deal with constant changes in her postal address. Frequent transfers that her father’s job entailed meant not only seeing a lot of places but also tackling the challenges of adapting to newer surroundings, more often than not. Of those memories Bhutan stands out and she vividly recalls the beauty and experience of those childhood days. When she turned 16, her father took voluntary retirement and the whole family migrated to Australia. But for someone who had learnt assimilation into newer cultures very early in life, the transition to Australia was not hard. It also gave a new impetus to her dreams.
“The person I am today is because of my life here,” says Raj displaying a level of maturity as she switches off from her peer group. A third-year student of aerospace engineering at RMIT, she had finished her year 12th boards in Maths, Physics and Chemistry in India and joined university in Australia straight after arrival. But leaving India also made her realise two things – if she watched a lot of Bollywood movies then she watches them ten times more now and if she loved them then she loves them ten times more now. “My grocer knows what to pack for me when I go to the shop,” she laughs.
Raj candidly admits that her love for Bollywood, dressing up and dancing were sown at probably the age of four. “I used to look in the mirror and do all the walking, talking and posing from the time I was a child. I am not the best looking girl I know but I was fascinated by dresses and make up.” And through her later years the interest never wavered. Even if she was going out for just a coffee, she was always dressed well, inviting curious looks from her friends who would automatically ask ‘where are you going’ and ‘why are you dressed like that’. Being overdressed is always better than arriving ugly, she thinks.
So, while the burning desire to step into the world of glamour was always there at the back of her mind, she was too shy to admit this is what she wanted. However about a year back, she had her light bulb moment. She decided ‘now’ is the time to take action. With her exams just over, she needed a break from her studies and gave modelling a shot. A designer friend roped her in and she started photo-shoots with a photographer friend, started attending the African Fashion shows and a few others. Slowly she began testing the waters. “It was tough in the beginning. I didn’t know how to pose or what angle they were looking at or what angle works best. But after a couple of shows here and there, the grooming gradually came into place,” she says.
About that time, organisers of the Miss India Australia were inviting applications. Raj happened to see a post in her Facebook newsfeed and as luck would have it, she managed to download the forms, fill up and send them just in the nick of time. This April end, she was called for an interview and a day long auditioning vying for the coveted title with a number of contestants from all over Australia. A few weeks back she got a call. The news threw her into a tizzy of excitement. She was declared the winner and crowned Miss India Australia 2014. Swamped by congratulatory calls, interviews with the media including one with SBS just recently, she is all set to leave for Dubai to take part in the prestigious Miss India World pageant taking place between June 15-21.
Since 2003 when the first Miss India Australia pageant was organised, the man behind the show Raj Suri has modified his talent quest. The last time the pageant was held with pomp and show was in 2010 when Pallavi Sharda, now a known Bollywood star, won the crown. Now selection is intensive and internal. But Raj does not see this as a disadvantage when she takes part in the Miss India World contest in Dubai. “In fact, the workshops, auditions, interviews and photo shoots were lengthy and prepared me well,” she says, adding, “The organisers want to know us well and that is really great. I had to prepare three-minute talent show, we were judged on many factors – cat walk, confidence while speaking into the camera, interviews etc.”
Asked as to how she is preparing for the June 15 mega contest, Raj says she is working out everyday training in cardio and weights, eating well, preparing for talent round choreographing a Bollywood dance number and sorting her outfits. She says she is surprised and humbled by the number of support coming from all sides. “I am confident about how to present myself. I know I will be facing contestants who will be really good after all they are representing different countries.” But she also realises she has to dig deep. “Being good is not enough, it takes that special something to win. I think being honest is the best policy. It is also easier being honest. That’s what I am going to do, be myself and give my best.”
Coming from a family where the emphasis is more on education, Raj says her parents would have ideally wanted her to complete her degree, get a job and pursue her dreams. Of course they did not stop her from going ahead with her ambitions and are supportive, she says. Her philosophy in life is that one has to chase one’s dream with immediate effect. “Nothing will wait. I feel time is running out. If I wait to finish my course, get a job I will be too old by then. These days it is important to get on top during one’s prime years. When I understood that I gave this a go,” says the 22-year old whose fluency in Hindi might her edge over many others.
Besides being young, you also have to be ready in your head, says Raj. “I am nervous but that is good, it is showing that I am doing something out of my comfort zone. Most importantly, I am confident and that has gotten me through a lot of things”
For someone who is actually studying rocket science, what are her reactions to the perception that beauty pageants are not very high on the intelligent quotient? “When you are on stage, so many people are watching and the spotlight is on you. It can be unnerving,” she says in defence, adding, “One can think of many intelligent answers but sometimes it doesn’t happen. It doesn’t mean they are not intelligent contestants.”
Bollywood will be the ultimate goal, candidly admits Raj. Her love for Bollywood is deep-seated, something that is born out of a genuine interest in the craft. And if that happens “I will start living the dream”. She plans to learn some acting in the future. In her free time, she is forever surfing the net catching up on programs such as Koffee With Karan or a dance move. “I have favourite performances rather than favourite actors,” she adds. “Today the opportunity is huge. Bollywood has evolved so much, it is just not just the dancing round trees anymore, there are films being made for every kind of actor and audience. There is a lot of substance. You also can’t stereotype and say Bollywood is where the bad girls go.”
At 5 ft 9 inches, Raj stands tall. In Dubai she will be showcasing her talent and bringing forth her Indian and Australian identity to a global audience. While she is proud of her roots, she is thankful to Australia which has given her the confidence and the independence to do choose her calling. She rues that many of her friends especially in India are getting married. “It is ridiculous to be getting married at 18 or 19 or 20. It is OK if that is something you want to do but if it is arranged, you don’t know any other way. Marriage is a step you take after you have achieved something and you have to be ready. There is so much more to do in life than just settling down in an early age.”
With her feet firmly planted on the ground, Raj captures the exotic flavours of both India and Australia. If lady luck smiles on her again, Dubai might just be the stepping stone to her Bollywood dreams.
By Indira Laisram