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Photos: America’s first ladies charming India—and vice versa

US Embassy New Delhi via Flickr
Jacqueline Kennedy admires an exquisite brocade at the handloom centre in Banaras on Mar. 16, 1962.
Published This article is more than 2 years old.

If it is US president Barack Obama’s second official visit to India, so it is for first lady Michelle Obama, too.

In 2010, it didn’t take too long for Michelle Obama to emerge as the shining star of the American soft power. The first lady had scheduled meetings—mostly without her husband, who had other important engagements with the then Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh. By the end of the American couple’s visit, she had floored Indian spectators with her dance moves on a Bollywood number, fashionable attire and intelligent words.

AP Photo/Mustafa Quraishi
US first lady Michelle Obama speaks to students during a visit to the National Handicrafts and Handloom Museum in New Delhi, on Nov. 8, 2010.
AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade
US first lady Michelle Obama dances with underprivileged children at the Mumbai University in Mumbai, on Nov. 6, 2010.

This time, she decided to take a backseat and give most of the first day’s events a miss. The first lady, however, was present alongside her spouse at India’s Republic Day parade, on Jan. 26, wearing a rather plain black overcoat, with a red scarf, to counter Delhi’s bleak weather.

Though Mrs. Obama is the first to grace India’s national celebrations, she is only the latest in a long time of US first ladies to tour India.

Quartz brings you some of images of America’s first ladies in India over the last five decades.

Jacqueline Kennedy, 1962

John F. Kennedy—successor to US president Dwight Eisenhower, who came to India in 1959—didn’t manage a visit to the subcontinent. That was, however, no deterrent for the then US first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, to come to India for nine days.

“If she commanded fewer crowds than previous, official tourists like President Eisenhower and Queen Elizabeth,” LIFE magazine wrote of the trip, “she [nevertheless] conducted herself magnificently.”

AP Photo
Following a traditional Indian custom of welcoming guests, prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru anoints the forehead of Jacqueline Kennedy with vermillion powder, at his New Delhi residence, Mar. 21, 1962. On the last day of her nine-day visit to India, the US first lady joins a celebration of the Indian spring festival of Holi before she leaves for Lahore in Pakistan.
AP Images
US first lady Jacqueline Kennedy is shown riding an elephant during a visit to India, on Mar. 1962.

The first lady’s verdict on the visit: “It’s been a dream.”

Pat Nixon, 1969

Richard Nixon, along with his wife Pat, made a one-day trip to the country, which remains the shortest trip to independent India by a US president. Although Nixon said that it was a “privilege and a pleasure for me to return for my third visit to India,” relations with the Indian leadership at that time were rather frosty. In private, the US president even described prime minister Indira Gandhi as “an old witch.”

Unsurprisingly, even the presence of US first lady Pat—a well travelled first lady who had championed volunteerism—didn’t quite ensure warmth between the two parties.

US Embassy New Delhi via Flickr
Prime minister Indira Gandhi and Mrs. Hidayatullah, wife of acting Indian president M. Hidayatullah, received US president and Mrs. Nixon on July 31, 1969
US Embassy New Delhi via Flickr
Mrs Nixon with Indian children during her visit to the country.

Rosalynn Carter, 1978

In 1978, after a gap of almost a decade, another US president Jimmy Carter visited India, along with first lady Rosalynn.

“She attended Cabinet meetings and major briefings, frequently represented the Chief Executive at ceremonial occasions,” according to her White House biography, “and served as the President’s personal emissary to Latin American countries.”

AP Photo/CHW
Four-year-old Prem, whose name means “Love” in Hindi, applies a spot of dry colored powder to the forehead of First Lady Rosalynn Carter at a boarding school in New Delhi on Monday, Jan. 2, 1978. The ceremony, called Tilak, is a sign of friendship and respect. Mrs. Carter visited the Navayug School while the President met with Indian leaders.
AP Photo
First lady Rosalynn Carter waves to villagers in Daulatpur Nasirabad, a town 17 miles from New Delhi, on Jan. 3, 1978 after she received a colorful shawl as a gift. President Jimmy Carter and Mrs. Carter toured the village before departing for Saudi Arabia.

Hillary Clinton, 1995 and 1997

Bill Clinton’s wife Hillary travelled to India for three days in 1995, without the US president, as part of her 12-day visit to the southeast Asia to speak on women’s rights and education.

“Her tour of Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka will make Mrs. Clinton the most prominent American to visit those nations since President Jimmy Carter 15 years ago,” said the Los Angeles Times.

More lyrically, the New York Times described the trip as one with the “giddiness of a sorority spring break with the sober feel of a graduate seminar on the responsibilities of sisterhood.”

AP Photo/Ajit Kumar
Hillary Rodham Clinton, right, and daughter Chelsea share a moment on a visit to Taj Mahal in Agra, on Mar. 30, 1995.

In 1997, she went back to the country to attend social worker Mother Teresa’s funeral in Calcutta (now Kolkata).

AP Photo/David Longstreath
US first lady Hillary Clinton meets children at Mother Teresa’s Sishu Vhavan Orphanage in Calcutta on Sept. 13, 1997 after attending the funeral services for Mother Teresa. The first lady said the charity that Mother Teresa was dedicated to would not end with her death.
AP Photo/Katsumi Kasahara
US first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, left, talks with Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s wife Aline Chretien, centre, and Sonia Gandhi, widow of former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, before the funeral mass for Mother Teresa in the Netaji Indoor Stadium in Calcutta, on Sept. 13, 1997.

Laura Bush, 2006

George W. Bush, the fifth US president to visit India, came in March 2006 with first lady Laura.

During her time in Delhi, Mrs. Bush attended the ceremonial reception at Rashtrapati Bhawan (that Mrs. Obama didn’t), made a trip to Noida’s Film City to attend a shoot of the Indian version of Sesame Street and also spent time at a center run by Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity.

US first lady Laura Bush applauds as disabled Indian children play a game in New Delhi, in 2006.
Reuters/B Mathur
US President George W. Bush (L) scatters rose petals as first lady Laura Bush watches at the Mahatma Gandhi memorial at Rajghat in New Delhi March 2, 2006. Bush was given a grand reception in India on Thursday as officials from both countries edged closer to a landmark nuclear deal and communist and Islamist groups vowed more mass protests.

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