I started associating skin colour with danger in school, when a parent asked me and my friends to stay away from “dark-coloured” strangers. Because I grew up in Andhra Pradesh, this meant an almost comical fear of even the most harmless people — the milkman, the postman and numerous school staff.
In those years, getting photographed was a painful process because the studio owner would insist on dabbing fistfuls of powder on my 13-year-old face to make it “beautiful”. Once, when my mother protested, she was assured — with photographs of beautiful Telugu heroines such as Tamannah and Kajal — that fair skin was not only beauty but also a highway to success. Years later, I realised he wasn’t joking.
Discussing racism is an annual cycle that is activated when news of lynching or violence breaks — when a Tanzanian woman is thrashed in Bengaluru or groups of Nigerian students are kicked and punched in Greater Noida.
But India’s racist heart beats fastest in the periods of relative calm between these headlines, in the everyday biases that fuel our popular culture, the loathing of dark skin and the linking of blackness with evil. Ask any Congolese or Nigerian or Somali residing in Delhi and they will recount horror stories of being pushed out of housing, denied commercial space, or deprived of basic social consideration.
African residents are seen as drug peddlers or sex workers. They are often discussed as if they were subhuman, as exemplified in the swirling rumours of them having eaten a local boy that sparked the Greater Noida violence.
The causes of this prejudice aren’t obscure. Our movies and television tell us that dark skin is not only ugly but also a sign of dereliction — the same mindset that lets us use “kaala” as an all-weather insult.
Take Bollywood, where the roles of protagonists are reserved for fair-skinned artistes. Dark-skinned actors are either reduced to making jokes about their grotesque bodies, or they play detestable villains who are eventually vanquished. Their female counterparts are either vamps who are punished and pushed aside, or play side characters who function as the ‘friend’ or the ‘servant’ to the rose-tinted heroine.
One of Bollywood’s most iconic songs — hum kale hai toh kya hua, hum dilwale hain — is a testament to this. Mehmood says he loves Helen because of her fair skin and golden tresses, attempting to convince her that despite his complexion, he wants to be the lover of a fair-skinned woman — the lyrics betraying the cinematic impossibility of such a union.
Roughly a decade later, India’s biggest blockbuster Sholay sealed the role of the dark-skinned villain with Kaaliya, his name a derivative of kaala. The trend then was repeated with Gainda Singh (Tiranga) and Gokul (Dushman) and Khokha Singh (Trimurti). Actors were even given a coat of make-up to make them suit the dark complexion expected of a villain (Anupam Kher in Karma).
Actresses with dark skin found it difficult to land leading roles — even the talented Smita Patil spoke out about this — and those who did, such as Kajol, transformed their complexions over the decades. Despite actors such as Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Nandita Das speaking against it, fair is success has remained a redoubtable mantra.
This notion of beauty spilled over from Bollywood into other industries. In the south, for example, heroes could be dark such as Rajinikanth or Sivaji Ganesan but actresses had to be fair such as Jayalalithaa. Even modern films often get actresses from the north, such as Hansika Motwani or Kajal Aggarwal, to suit the requirement for a fair complexion.
The belief that dark skin is a proxy for ugliness was sustained by our television serials, in which all iconic roles — from Shanti to Tulsi to Jassi — landed with fair-skinned artistes. Our Rs 3,000-crore fairness cream industry told us that we could get jobs, entice lovers and defeat patriarchy if only we were fair skinned. Our favourite movie actors told us that to appear fresh and modern and attractive, we had to dab these creams on our faces twice a day. We were made to be ashamed of our own bodies.
Our movies are often shot abroad but there are no black people visible even at the margins, even in multi-ethnic cities such as New York. Our Incredible India campaign spent billions to appeal to white people but didn’t spend a word to dissuade people from calling Africans “habshi”. We play Rihanna and Beyonce on our iTunes but recoil at the slightest hint of a black body on our local street.
None of this is either surprising or old. The supremacy of fair skin is deeply embedded in our aesthetics and perpetuated by our biggest cultural influences. The paintings of Raja Ravi Verma, often called the father of Indian art, portray goddesses as fair skinned and upper-caste folk as possessing milky white skin. The other influential British company school of painting depicted peasantry and poor people as always decidedly dark, decrepit and insignificant.
This then trickled down into our homes in the most ubiquitous form of culture — calendar art — that almost universally depicted gods, goddesses and holy men with pearly white skin. These hung in our bedrooms and prayer halls, suggesting that the colour dark was one of evil, of Ravana, of demons and monsters.
Go back to your one-point source of mythology from your teenage years, Amar Chitra Katha, to see the same binary trope of black=evil/white=pure repeated. The impact of this has been such that in my home state of Bengal, Durga is now unimaginable as non-white. As a consequence, it has also become difficult for dark-skinned artists in the classical performance arts, which are based on myths and gods, to bag any leading roles — fitting perfectly into the caste project of sanitizing these forms.
This is also a thinly veiled, albeit erroneous, proxy for caste. The idea of purity — the cornerstone of caste — is assigned the colour white and upper-caste men and women are depicted as fair skinned. Have a 10-minute conversation with your local uncle to see how the colour of skin is still wrongly pegged to one’s caste status.
In the aftermath of Greater Noida’s violence, India rushed to deny any race link to the episode. But for many of us, the bias is obvious in everyday life, when we switch on the television, when we walk into a cinema, or look at a painting. This is why we aren’t outraged when the nadir of Priyanka Chopra’s character in Fashion is a night with a black man. Until this mindset changes, there is little hope of dispelling racism.
Dhrubo Jyoti is a staff writer and editor with HT and focuses on questions of culture, caste, gender and society.
This is the fifth part of Let’s Talk About Racism, a new HT campaign that addresses deep-rooted prejudices and discrimination in India. If you have faced racism, tweet using #LetsTalkAboutRacism or write to firstname.lastname@example.org. HT’s earlier series, Let’sTalk About Rape and Let’s Talk About Trolls, have focused attention on crucial issues.