How many of you use the ‘amaro’ filter on Instagram only to look fairer? How many of you have been told you are tanned, when actually it’s your skin colour? How many of you have been denied the front row on stage in your annual school play only because a fair friend made the cut? How many of you have been told you won’t find a good-looking partner because you weren’t ‘fair enough’? How many of you been cursed for giving birth to a dusky-skinned baby? How many of you and how many times? The fact that you are already counting, is the answer.
With cosmetic companies humming the tune of lightening, brightening and whitening and even creams to whiten vaginas, it is clear that we continue to live in a culture where we must be fair to be beautiful. The issue is more pronounced in India even after completing 70 years of independence.
One’s inherited darkness becomes a characteristic, a trait- something one is identified with. As Delhi based art-critic Rosalyn D’Mello mentions in her essay ‘Black’, ‘ I’ve learned as a black-skinned feminist: like how the conjunctive ‘but’ can be used as a compensatory word to stinging effect [“You’re beautiful, but dark” or “You’re dark, but you have great features”]. The otherwise simple act of accepting a compliment, as she points out, continues to be fraught with anxiety.
Amir Khusro, a 13-century poet, wrote about “Gori Gori bayyan hari hari churiyaan” (fair arms wearing green bangles) in the poem Chhap Tilak Sab Chheeni, indicating that it was beautiful to be ‘gori’. Then, there is the argument of the Aryan race, where certain sections of the population are believed to be fair-skinned due to their Aryan and middle-east racial lineage.
The obsession, continues, either way. Yet, there are women taking on misconceptions about skin colour and flaunting their melanin of social media websites with the hashtag #unfairandlovely. There are also actresses speaking out for dark-skinned women like Nandita Das, whose ‘Dark is Beautiful’ campaign attempts to combat the media under-representation of the dark-skinned.
As we step into the 70th year of Independence we speak to a few who take pride in their skin colour, and their varied experiences.
‘Dark-skinned have standstill beauty’
“It is important to value one’s inner beauty because that reflects on our outward appearance,” says renowned kathak dancer and founder of Pracheen Kala Kendra, Chandigarh, Shobha Kauser. She quickly adds, “While fairness might attract immediately, one might notice defects on fair complexion too...kissi ki naak thedhi toh kissi ki ankhein. A dark-skinned face has its own standstill beauty. It is the glow that counts.” Originally from Agra, the septuagenarian moved to Chandigarh after her marriage at a tender age of 16.
“Skin colour was never a cause of concern to me then, however, when I notice my students (young girls) today worry about the same, I try and counsel them,” says the doe-eyed lady. Belonging to a family of noted dance experts, Kauser learned to value art of expressions over makeup from a young age. “A lot of classical dancers use stage make-up for looking fairer. A true artist maintains the audience’s attention through the expressions not superficial makeup,’” she says adding that she encourages her girls to keep their make-up ‘natural’, even if it means looking dark on stage.
- Shobha Koser, 70, Kathak dancer, Chandigarh
‘Geographical boundary no bar for bias’
For Kolkata-born Bedatri D Choudhary, who grew up with a lot of women who had the same skin-tone as hers, she doesn’t consider her tryst with being dusky as difficult. But, even then she was asked not to be in the sun for too long. “It is internalised within us no matter which part we live in, but when it really hit me was when I moved to Delhi for college,” she tells HT.
From being made to look three shades fairer in a passport size photograph by a Delhi photographer, to being asked to ‘bleach’ her face, to never being considered for the lead role in a play, are among the few prejudices this 27-year-old has had to face.
A former literature student, she refers to how the idea dates back to the Other, for dominant ideologies to thrive, “I think discrimination is the biggest taboo and our racist theory we have grown up to associate darkness with the lowly and the unclean and therefore, the undesirable.” Choudhary laments at how ‘We are discovering Mars, but at the end of the day, still paying money demanding a “fair” bride. She also says that there is a need for schools to rework the way they teach. “If a three-year-old wants to be a princess, they should jolly well be one irrespective of their gender, skin-tone and so on,” shares the film student from New York University.
‘My skin tone gave me the courage to fight’
All of 45, Nirmala Devi’s marriage was a ‘compromise’ due to her dark skin. “My parents never discriminated between my siblings and me, but society did and being the darkest of them all, I was forced into getting married to a “sharaabi”(drunkard) because I was made to feel I wouldn’t get anyone better,” says Devi while serving tea to a police constable in Chandigarh’s Sector 36 market. Some 28 years into her marriage, she’s the earning member of a family of seven including her grandchildren. Nirmala has been selling tea and home-cooked for the past 19 years. “I think I have somewhere down made up for what was a compromise, by at least ensuring that I can protect my loved ones,” says Devi who doesn’t distinguish between her sons and daughter-in-laws, fair or dark, as she explains.
‘In India, only fair skin is good skin’
Sonia Mariam Thomas’s mother, like most Indian moms, ran behind her daughter with various quick-fix homemade fairness solutions. “A girl in school once took my wrist next to hers and said ‘look at the difference’,” she says adding how she has avoided such comments as an adult only because she has ‘never been uncomfortable with her skin colour’. A confident Thomas never felt victimised by the taboo as she questioned it more often than not. “I overheard boys favouring a fairer girl over a darker one,” she says. She can’t help but laugh when people react to her fair south Indian friends ‘Oh, I didn’t think you’d be a south Indian’ just because they are fair. “The truth remains that we still photoshop our magazine covers to make women look brighter and we still have anti-tan creams and face washes advertising heavily,” says the journalist, who used ‘Fair and Lovely’ for a video for Buzzfeed India titled ‘We tried Fair and Lovely for three weeks so that you don’t’ which explains it all. “Somehow, in India, good skin and fair skin mean the same thing and that is the problem,” says the 22-year-old who feels the best reaction to someone saying we’re too dark is as simple as ‘So what?’. “Our mythology has some beautiful dark-skinned actors and our real lives are surrounded by people like Deepika Padukone, Priyanka Chopra- so why care anymore? Let’s grow up,” adds Thomas.
First-person account: What my mother told me
By Nirupama Dutt
My mother thought I was the most beautiful creature on earth. She bedecked me in fancy clothes, lined my eyes with kohl and planted a beauty spot on my chin to ward off the evil eye.
But at seven I recall shutting my eyes and praying that when I open them after a minute, I should be fair like Snow White. The miracle never happened.I remained dark as they come.
Now I wonder when did this realisation come that the world around me did not think me to be as lovely as did my mother? Somehow I had missed out on being a beauty. In youth I would be described as charming or attractive but never beautiful.
Was it the influence of fairy tales that cried out “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” Or was it the reaction of the very Punjabi world around me and my lighter skinned mother and siblings. My grandmother would exclaim right in my face, “Ah! I dreamt that Kunti had a girl so late in life and that too black and the dream came true”. Actually, for her it was more of a nightmare coming true.
The first joy came when a novel by popular Hindi writer Shivani being serialised in weekly telling the story of a very beautiful dark woman named Krishnakali, from a Tagore poem. The poem said: “I call her my Krishna flower, though they call her dark in the village, Ah, you call her dark! let that be/ her black gazelle eyes I have seen.” Next I was irked by a fine Rafi song that said ‘Kahin ek masoom nazuk si ladki/ Bahut khoobsoorat magar sanwali si’. I had problems that why ‘magar’ (although)? And now I call out to all the Krishnakalis of the world to celebrate their colour as never before. You are just as beautiful as you feel.
‘Skin-lightening treatment hazardous’
An increasing number of people are also taking the medical route to get a fair complexion. Dr Vikas Sharma, a skin specialist in Panchkula, says out of a total of 160 patients daily, 30 ask for skin lightening treatment. “People are willing to go to any extent, take any number of medicines. However they don’t realise that all this has side effects,” he says, adding that some patients with adverse impact of previous treatment come to get more lightening without understanding the implications.
“Women in the 16-40 age group are most common, but today a large number of men also come for lightening treatment,” says the doctor who at times tries to counsel people to not go in for treatments that could even be prove to be ‘fatal’.
“The intravenous injection is a recent discovery to lighten skin tone which has Glutaehione which can be extremely hazardous,” adds the doctor.
- Dr Vikas Sharma, Panchkula-based skin specialist