Saturday, July 31, 2004

Colours of prejudice

The Indian fascination for fair skin remains undimmed. Light-skinned women are seen as beautiful, pure and innocent and the dark are assumed to be sinister, sexy seductresses. Former Femina editor Vimla Patil looks at our colour fixation.

Does a woman’s destiny depend upon the colour of her skin? A quick survey of all the commercials on television and ads in newspapers would make us believe that it does. A dark-complexioned girl is engaged to be married to a dark man much older than her. She uses a fairness cream, and lo and behold, she gets a handsome, young husband. As if that is not enough of an indicator, a dark-complexioned girl even becomes a successful, serious cricket commentator (a career dominated hitherto by men) when she uses a fairness cream. Furthermore, a girl who has a small-time job and cannot afford the innumerable cups of coffee her retired father drinks, changes her lifestyle instantly after she uses a fairness cream and gets the well-paid job of an airhostess. Whatmore, she suddenly becomes a beta, the provider of the elderly parents, from a "dark, unfortunate burden" of her father.

These are telling commercials — a scary commentary on the status of the modern Indian woman and the mindset of pan-Indian societies. Such fairness products reportedly have a huge market not only in India, but also in neighbouring Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Therefore, there is good reason to dig down to the roots of the premise that a fair woman has a better destiny than a dark woman and that the colour of skin determines the character of a woman.

Social thinkers give several reasons for this prejudiced mindset. Some say that this fixation is a carryover from our colonial days. Phrases like gori chitti have their roots in the British rule of India, when Indians were ‘coloured’ people with a distinctly lower status. The fairer you were, the closer you were to the ruling class and, therefore, fairness was a desirable asset. Secondly, say social observers, fairness distinguishes various castes in India. Mostly, fair men and women are found in the higher castes. In bygone ages, when the caste system originated, Aryans, the ruling class, were usually fair. Dravidians, who were ‘second class’ citizens in Aryan kingdoms, were dark. Power lay in the hands of the Aryans and patriarchal men believed that dark Dravidian women were easy prey to their lust. Olden paintings and murals portrayed people belonging to the service class as dark, whereas landowners, warriors and royalties as well as priests were shown to be fair. Thirdly, it is possible that with or without the British or Mughal influence, Indians have always preferred fair women as brides because fairness is equal to beauty in the Indian context.

Whatever the justification of this mindset, it has little support in Indian history or mythology. Some of the most celebrated beauties of Indian mythology have been described as dark and lustrous. Lustre, rather than colour, was considered the symbol of feminine power, purity and beauty. Parvati, the goddess of power, is described as ‘yellowish coppery’ in colour rather than fair. Draupadi, one of the most beautiful women of Indian mythology, was born of fire and is described as copper-toned and burnished-gold in complexion. Sita, heroine of the Ramayana, is earth-born and coloured like the golden soil of India. In our history, too, except for beauties like Rani Padmini of Chittor or Mughal queens like Mumtaz Mahal, most other famous women — Rani Laxmi Bai of Jhansi, Jijamata, the mother of Shivaji, and his wives Sai Bai and Soyra Bai — were tan-coloured women who shone because of their power rather than the colour of their skin. The southern regions of India too produced dark beauties and powerful women for whom special textiles and jewellery were designed.

It is possible that the obsession for fair-complexioned women took root in India during the Mughal period. The poetry and miniature paintings of this period — such as the portrayals of Radha in Kishengarh paintings and in Jayadeva’s Gitagovinda — required women to be frail and fair in order to be considered beautiful. Later, the coming of European colonial powers endorsed this obsession with their racial prejudices. Throughout the western or West-ruled world, Whites demanded to be treated as a superior race with talent, beauty and grace as their prerogatives, whereas Blacks were considered fit only to be slaves or castaways, whose saving grace was their feline, dark charm. Whatever its origin, the obsession with fairness has continued like an unseen, insidious underground current throughout our history.

In the present age, it has acquired gigantic proportions with a number of fair candidates winning international beauty crowns. Some of the beauty queens are Aishwarya Rai, Yukta Mookhey, Priyanka Chopra and Celina Jaitley. Top stars like Preity Zinta, Kareena and Karisma Kapoor and Esha Deol prove the point further. Most popular models too are fair and light-eyed, Aditi Gowitrikar being a prime example. The darker women on the ramp, e.g. Nina Manuel, are described more as sensual rather than beautiful. Men in the entertainment industry follow the same pattern too. They lighten their hair or wear coloured lenses to look fairer. Examples are film stars Aamir Khan, Anil Kapoor, John Abraham, Dino Morea, Saif Ali Khan and Shahid Kapur and innumerable television actors like Ronit Roy.

One could say this mindset is harmless as long as it does not define or limit the life of a woman. But when an Aishwarya Rai or a Preity Zinta is presented in film after film as a symbol of innocence, purity, beauty and — most important — as the epitome of all cherished Indian values, and a Bipasha Basu or a Mallika Sherawat is portrayed as a flirt with an insatiable lust for sex then Indian society must put on the red light of warning. Is white always right and bright? Is black always shady and suspicious? We have to find answers to these questions before we use these yardsticks to define unsuspecting women.