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Colourism – The Post-Invasion Hangover India Needs To Get Over

Image courtesy- kaanchichopra.wordpress.com

On the face of it, Modern Day India is fairly open-minded about its wide spectrum of skin colours. Campaigns like ‘Dark is Beautiful’, which challenge the fair-skinned ideal of beauty, find many takers. Spoofs of Fairness Cream advertisements instantly go viral. Politicians who speak insensitively, find their feet in their mouths when they are torn apart on social media platforms. It is easy to perceive India’s obsession with fair skin as a thing of the past, or as an old habit taking its time to die hard. Yet, behind the thick layers of foundation several shades too light and in the chemical bleach mixture atop the beautician’s table, lurks an age-old prejudice – a prejudice with its claws so deeply entrenched in society that uprooting it seems nearly impossible.

The truth is contrary to what one would be led to believe. The problem is steadily getting worse. The fairness cream industry is growing, with a steady annual market growth of fifteen to twenty percent. The industry which started out with facial fairness creams for women has reached the ridiculous extent of releasing creams that specifically whiten armpits – and even genitals! To save men the humiliation of having to use creams designed for women, the industry has gone out of its way to design fairness creams specifically for ‘tough male skin’. This may seem funny at first but the joke is on us. Unsuspecting consumers lap up every product they put out, in pursuit of glowing whiteness. From whitening creams and soaps, to face-washes and deodorants, they have successfully added the ‘whitening’ tag to every imaginable beauty product. The advertisements are misleading to say the least. Do you have relationship issues? Allow vaginal bleaching to work its magic. Did your partner leave you because of your dark complexion? Use this cream to pander to his prejudice. What they don’t mention is that a large majority of products may contain dangerous chemicals which can harm you irreversibly. Hydroquinone, a melanin blocking agent, may cause ochronosis – a topical discolouration of skin – and in some cases, even cancer. Traces of active mercury in these creams can lead to mercury poisoning, which is especially dangerous for pregnant women. Apart from these cosmetic products, people even subject themselves to chemical peels and bleaching in order to attain the elusive pale complexion. Controlled destruction of certain skin cells using cryosurgery is another alternative.

Why, though, would an educated individual even begin to consider such options?

Image courtesy- ‘Dark is Beautiful’ campaign

The fact that those among us are willing to risk permanent harm and invest heavily in absurd products is clearly indicates that there is a difference in the way people with different skin colours are treated in our society. “My teacher says I’m ugly because I’m dark”, says ten year old Samir, in a documentary by a UK media network. With downcast eyes, he speaks of how fairer boys refuse to include him in their conversations or games. He is a devoted user of ‘Fair and Lovely’, a common fairness cream, but he hasn’t seen a noticeable change. One look at the matrimonial columns of any newspaper would explain why brides-to-be go in for dangerous treatments to lighten their skin. Young girls are often not allowed to play in the sun, for fear of ruining their marriage prospects. It would seem as though fair skin is a prerequisite for being worthy of love. The attribution of qualities like intelligence, wealth, purity and goodness often leads to absurd free passes in various circumstances for the light skinned ones among us. While some of these are harmless, others come at the cost of what was rightfully a darker person’s.

The Role of Mainstream Media

An advertisement of a men’s ethnic wear company featuring Caucasian models in Indian clothes

 

While the mainstream media often takes a lot of heat for simply portraying the society in its true light, it wouldn’t be a stretch to claim it is a huge part of the problem in this case.  From songs like ‘Hum kale hai to kya hua dilwale hai’, to ones like ‘Chittiyan kalaiyan’, Bollywood continues to be highly colourist. ‘Chittiyan Kalaiyan’ is a song about a woman’s white wrists. As an immediate consequence of her having white wrists, she deserves a free shopping spree with a movie to follow. Educated women or women of wealthy households are almost always portrayed as fair skinned. Those belonging to the lower economic strata are darker. South Indian actresses of the likes of Aishwarya Rai, Vidya Balan, Asin Thottumkal and Shruti Hasan whom Bollywood accepted are also mostly light skinned. The bias extends so far as to having Caucasian girls dancing alongside the hero, often when their presence has no significant meaning. In advertising, several clothing brands hire white models even to display traditional Indian clothes. From food to education, industries that have nothing to do with beauty and personal care also use fairer actors for advertisements. In a predominantly brown country, it is hard to spot a brown woman on screen.

But has India always had a natural preference for fair skin?

A painting depicting Draupadi’s Vastraharan. Note the dark blue skin colour.

Pre-Invasion India told an entirely different story. As seen from popular literary works, there was a noted preference for darker skin. Kalidasa’s Draupadi was very dark. Yet she was perceived as breathtakingly beautiful. While modern day comics portray her as fair to fit into the contemporary ideal of beauty, the truth is evident from her name Krishnaa – which literally translates to black. The elite courtesans in Kama Sutra were of ‘Shyama Varna’ which means a deep brown colour. Black was seen as a colour of richness, agility, and strength. Poets wrote odes to ‘Shyamli’, i.e., the dark one. There are even cases of a pale complexion being displayed as a sign of evil, as seen in alternate versions of the Ramayana which described the demoness Shoorpanakha as very fair.

Invasion turned the perception of beauty on its head

Central Asian invaders had a creamy white complexion.  Muslim Invaders, from the Arabic-Persian belt, who set foot in India in about 712 A.D. were light-eyed and very fair. The rulers, who were superior to the common public, were consistently of a lighter shade. The British cemented the idea firmly, by being very vocal about how darker skin was inferior. The darker your skin, the less civilized you were. The closer you were to them in complexion, the better chance you had of getting good jobs and positions in the society they’d set up. Another explanation for this prejudice that Euro-Centric historians often cite is caste. Several Indian historians refute the claim though. This is because the variation of skin colour within each caste was too diverse. The colour varied more with respect to the region of occupation.

Image courtesy- ‘Dark is Beautiful’ campaign

 

Over the years, we have been subconsciously programmed to believe that fair skin and only fair skin is beautiful. A 450 million USD industry thrives on this very programming. Every time this issue is brought up, there are arguments which attempt to trivialize it by claiming that skin colour is a personal preference – just like hair colour or the choice to wear makeup. This argument is a cleverly construed ruse to hide the fact that it is the result of centuries of insecurity. The only way to attain any progress is to start at an individual level. Next time, don’t say, “Par thodi kaali hai, yaar.”

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