Freshers’ Week has become an integral event in the university calendar for new undergraduates, as well as second and third years longing to preserve their youthful and carefree ways. It gives students the opportunity to make new friends, establish themselves and, more often than not, lose both their memory and dignity to a drunken blur of nights which, for better or worse, seems to be what Freshers’ now represents.
I recently had the opportunity to experience another culture’s take on our infamous Freshers’ Week. During the UKIERI Study India Programme, students from around the UK joined together with their peers at Delhi University, for the Freshers’ Party at Maitreyi Women’s College. Refreshingly, scattered bottles of beer, hangovers, and walks of shame remained absent from their unique Freshers experience.
Instead, the students welcomed the new cohort with a celebration of talent and beauty. The girls took part in three rounds – a fashion show, speeches, and a question and answer session – to compete for the prestigious title of Miss Maitreyi 2013. Although beauty pageants tend to be considered rather superficial in the West, it was a very different story at Delhi University. The girls’ pride in being selected to represent their college was clear, and it became apparent throughout the day that the girls’ talents and opinions were genuinely valued.
Maitreyi College had postponed the event specifically so that the Study India participants were able to attend, in a display of the warmth and hospitality which pervades Indian society. Both staff and students alike demonstrated a heartwarming eagerness to welcome us to their university, share their culture with us, and learn about our own in return. It’s fair to say that any British institution postponing their main Freshers’ Week event by over a week to include a group of 200 foreign visitors is unthinkable, and would be met with great protest from the Freshers themselves.
Alongside the Miss Maitreyi competition, the college was running a Freshers’ Fair. It largely resembled Southampton’s Bunfight, with a variety of societies competing to recruit the new students, with the addition of a photobooth, where students could ‘click’ with their new friends. The societies available mainly revolved around the arts – drama, dance, music and photography – as well as sports, fashion, and community work and volunteering. I was incredulous that Indian students found the time to play such active roles within their societies: when I asked a student undertaking a Masters degree in International Business & Commerce at the Sri Ram College of Commerce what she liked to do in her spare time, she replied that she had none – that her days were full to the brim with assignments, projects, presentations and group work, along with lectures and self-study in the library, and that it was not uncommon for her and her peers to operate on just two hours of sleep (and not because they had spent their night ‘post-lashing’ after being kicked out of SoBar at 2am).
At first, the whole concept of the Miss Maitreyi competition made me slightly uncomfortable. Considering Delhi University is one of the more prestigious state universities in India, it seemed surprising that the new academic year was opened with an event which judged what are clearly very able and determined young women on how well they danced, or how attractive they were perceived to be. The longer I spent with them, however, the more evident it became that the emphasis was not on the physical beauty of the person. Unlike the “brainless beauties” that so many subjectively associate with our pageants, these women aimed for world peace and bringing an end to hunger and poverty. They have experienced a culture different to the one Westerners project upon India: theirs is one that emphasizes the importance of your beautiful self in a non-judgemental environment.
The Maitreyi ladies were incredibly enthusiastic about the event, and appeared to thoroughly enjoy getting up to sing or dance in front of a large audience, without the aid of inebriating substances. At the most basic level, the event was wholesome good fun for everyone involved, and it was wonderful to see the Indian students taking so much value from the opportunity to interact with foreign visitors.
Although the whole concept of a beauty pageant as a university’s main Freshers’ Week event seemed bizarre and somewhat amusing at times, upon reflection it did in fact bring to the fore many aspects of Indian life and culture which we would all do well to take lessons from.