No one can quite place when the May Queen Ball started really, but most of its loyal audience trace their association with the event to its revival in 1993. For at least three decades, the pageant has been encouraging young Parsi girls to present themselves to the wider community, and showcase their grace, strength, beauty and intelligence
21-year-old Pearl Bulsara paced backstage in a gold-sequinned fish-cut gown. It was minutes before the last round of the May Queen Ball 2023. Bulsara and the rest of the final eight were bent in various states of stage fright.
A girl in a maroon silk gown and candy pink hair reclined on a plastic chair, eyes shut, breathing mindfully. Another sat hunched over like a boxer, listening to someone giving a pep talk in their ear. Bulsara, an aspiring clinical psychologist, picked at her cuticles as her eyes flicked over at the back of the stage, waiting to be summoned.
Of course they were anxious. “The May Queen Ball is an extremely important event in the community,” said Bulsara with a nervous giggle. The annual beauty pageant for girls is as much of a Parsi institution as Rustom Baug, the Parsi residential colony that has been its stage for as long as it has been around.
No one can quite place when the May Queen Ball started really, but most of its loyal audience trace their association with the event to its revival in 1993. For at least three decades, the pageant has been encouraging young Parsi girls to present themselves to the wider community, and showcase their grace, strength, beauty and intelligence.
With a giant outdoor makeshift stage and a choreographed event, the May Queen Ball is really more of a debutante ball than a prom. As in a cotillion, pageantry and manners are important, so the 15 selected girls undergo 10 days of training before the event. “We did sessions on beauty, styling, women’s rights, social responsibility, and in between we’d work out and practise the walk,” said Bulsara.
By 7 pm, the venue had filled up with Parsis from all over the country. The atmosphere was more of a wedding party–where everyone knew everyone–than a contest. “Look around, there are probably 1000+ parsis here, and how often do this many parsis congregate in one place,” said Viraf D Mehta, fellow trustee of the Bombay Parsi Panchayat, which sponsors the event.
Between many warm “kem chhaos” and “good evenings” to all the people stopping by to say hello, Mehta explained that the May Queen Ball is very much an event for and by the Parsi community. “More than 45% of Parsis live outside Parsi colonies. Plus there’s a lot of inter-marriage,” in what he calls a “dying community. “That is not the primary purpose of the event, it’s about showcasing young talent, not just having pretty girls walking by,” said Mehta.
Finally, commencing after sundown on Sunday evening, the girls were introduced. They were mostly college students or fresh graduates: chefs, coders, thrift store business owners, budding copywriters, lawyers, authors, doctors. They came in all shapes and sizes, with hair of varying length and colour.
They catwalked, twirled, flirted with the camera and the judges. In round 2–which came after a choreographed number that doubled as a collection reveal for a Parsi-owned sustainable diamond label–the girls answered questions. The questions, written on chits and picked at random from a bowl carried by (presumably) an eligible bachelor who drew the most catcalls from the audience, sat on a spectrum.
(From left) First runner-up Parinaz Cooper, winner Bianka Wadia and second runner-up Ariaa Munshi. Pic credit: Shantanu Das (Shantanu Das)
“What can you do in your individual capacity to reduce your carbon footprint?” Luckily, the respondent felt she had begun her journey of climate sustainability, because she had started a thrift store. “What are the qualities you would look for in a partner?” Respect, said the respondent; to everyone, but obviously for me, most of all. “If you could change one law in your country, what would it be and why?” The answer– “eradicate Section 377” – drew the loudest cheer.
The judges, including celebrity hairstylist Savio John Pereira, RJ and podcaster Hrishi K, former channel V VJ Bianca Louzado and stylist Saachi Vijaywargia, ranked them on sheets that were rushed to a different table by a former May Queen Ball winner, where an accountancy firm calculated the participants ranking.
Who won? There were three, but it hardly matters. “I really did this because I’ve not been the most confident person growing up,” Bulsara said, admitting that she didn’t think her chances of taking the “crown” home, so to speak, weren’t that high. “I’ve seen my brother and my parents be such hard workers and achieve great things. I just thought, I need to do this for myself.”