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India's skin-deep beauty obsession

Nandita Das’s ‘Dark is Beautiful’ campaign attempts to attack the widely held belief that fair skin is essential for success in every sphere of life. Amit Chaudhuri writes.

india Updated: Sep 23, 2013 10:49 IST

In an article which appeared in HT in 2005, I wrote that the impulse to celebrate fair-skinned woman while rejecting the dark one is not unrelated to the impulse towards female foeticide. Eight years later, little seems to have changed as Nandita Das’s ‘Dark is Beautiful’ campaign attempts to attack the widely held belief that fair skin is essential for success in every sphere of life.

The present value of the stock in fair complexions seems, in India, to be at an all-time high. I say this not figuratively, but as a bald economic truth: that a fair skin, especially in Indian women, is a shrewder and wiser investment now than it has been in living memory — or so we’re being asked to believe. Our companies, our multinationals, are well aware of this, partly because they’re busy creating that awareness.

The Calcutta edition of last Sunday’s Brunch, this paper’s Sunday magazine, announces, on its cover, a feature on the ‘Weight Loss industry’ and its exaggerated claims to success. Opening the magazine, you’re confronted with a two-page advertisement: L’OREAL is spelt across the two pages, and Aishwarya Rai, smiling the faintest Mona Lisa smile, occupies one page. The other page speaks, in a chilling mixture of biology-class jargon and measured reassurance, about a cream that constitutes a ‘breakthrough in whitening’ by reducing ‘melanin production’ and ‘gently exfoliating dark, dead cells’, so that the skin darkening process is policed — ‘regulated’ is the word the copywriter uses — to produce a ‘perfectly fair, transparent and even complexion.’ The heading — ‘For a smooth, fair skin’ — seems to have come to the copywriter in a simple revelation.

I haven’t seen a comparable advertisement in Britain or America. I don’t think L’Oreal would, in those countries, have the temerity to advertise a product called White Perfect. Here, as we know, in the ‘overlit’ (I borrow the adjective from JG Ballard), deeply unequal universe of contemporary middle-class India, there is a range of such products. Of these, Fair and Lovely is the most canonical; the most trusted and highly regarded of whitening creams. And it is presumably to the present-day pre-nuptial what Boroline antiseptic cream was once to childhood and old age: a means to completeness. The space it occupies in our lives is not new or recently created; it probably appeared in the late 1970s, at the fag-end of the Nehruvian era, when certain residual forms of decorum associated with that age made people hesitate, or just feel stupid, about admitting to judging beauty according to skin colour, or to possessing more than one car, or to being excessively dependant on horoscopes, or to having piles of cash in a drawer. It was a combination of feminist outrage and that patrician, slightly hypocritical, but in some ways necessary sense of humanist propriety that dimmed Fair and Lovely’s prospects in the last two and a half decades.

But, in the time of economic reform — a time punctuated by mosque demolitions, nuclear explosions, the IT and outsourcing boom, Security Council aspirations — Fair and Lovely has returned with messianic fanfare. It promises young Indian women at life’s crossroads — brides-to-be; matrimonial alliance rejects; single women looking for jobs — the healing and transforming touch; a new confidence. Brides-to-be graduate to successful marriages; matrimonial-rejects graduate to becoming brides-to-be; unemployed women graduate to employment, and the admiration of K Srikkanth. A glow surrounds these women. Fair and Lovely has helped them make the journey through darkness to the Paradiso of their inner and outer beauty. The TV commercial shows us the evolutionary progression clearly; from the dark, sad face in the distance, face upon shadow-like face emerges, shedding, by degree, its darkness, till we arrive at the ideal face, like the light at the end of Plato’s cave — fair-skinned and radiant.

The other day, by accident, I lighted upon Fair and Lovely’s less upmarket competitors. Switching channels, I found myself in an unfamiliar zone; a channel called Zee Music, where I watched, tantalised, as a three- or four-minute commercial selling a fairness cream delivered its long message — less an ad, really, than the sort of docu-commercial that both American television and Zee TV seem to abound in. The product was Roopamrit, by all accounts a poor but aggressive cousin of Fair and Lovely. Roopamrit cannot afford Aishwarya Rai; so they’ve come up with the glittering and forthcoming Bhagyashree, familiar to us from the astonishing Parag Sari ads. She tells us at length that she owes her fame, wealth, and the respect she commands in the world to her fair skin, and the latter to Roopamrit. Life’s prospects are bleak, she assures us, without a fair complexion.

The ad seems to go on for hours. Someone called Chetna Shetty from the Mystique Skin Clinic gives us lifestyle tips to acquire fairness: a positive attitude; 10 glasses of water daily; and good sleep. Surprisingly, a member of the male sex is introduced, a middle-aged man, no model, more likely a neighbour of the man who made the commercial. We see him smiling in the photograph; the same photo, over-exposed, in which the man is looking blanched and bloodless, is presented as evidence of Roopamrit’s powers. It’s difficult to succeed, the man says, if you’re not fair. No confession of sexual deviancy on Jerry Springer sounded quite as lurid.

When I spoke, earlier, of the ‘Nehruvian age’, I was partly referring to a humanism that long precedes Nehru in this country. But I was also thinking of the actual decades after Independence — of patrician values, the semi-command economy, the ‘licence Raj’, but also, for the middle class (smaller then than it is now), a time of austerity and some moral dignity. With the end of that age, thankfully, we’ve more or less bid goodbye to that patrician voice that claims to speak for us and govern our lives; but all kinds of odd things, too, have begun to come out of the closet — maharajahs and maharanis who have no kingdoms; lineages — feudal, political, and social; and the old self-loathing that desire for a fair skin in a dark-skinned country represents. It’s an idea of self-advancement through routes that Nehruvian India would have at least made a show of considering murky and morally compromised. Those routes and desires now have an unprecedented respectability in our country, though the impulses that lie beneath them are disturbing: the impulse to celebrate the fair-skinned woman, to reject the dark one, is a distant but indubitable relation of the impulse to female foeticide. We’re in the process of whitewashing our darkest fantasies.

Amit Chaudhuri is the author of Calcutta: Two years in the City
The views expressed by the author are personal