One of the fallouts of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign in the US—essentially a campaign led by a global organisation of the same name established in 2013 in America, UK and Canada, whose mission is to “eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes”—has been the spotlight on skin colour and corporates involved in the fairness business in countries like India. The movement—one of civil rights and police brutality, especially among the marginalised groups—is essentially one of fairness. It has however led to urban, upper-class, educated Indians getting into a tizzy over the issue of ‘fairness’.
Fairness of skin as a construct is of relatively recent origin in India. Ancient Indian literature, including Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda, Kalidasa’s works, Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra and the Ramayana celebrate ‘shyam varna’ (dark complexion). In fact, in one of the versions of Ramayana, Surpanakha—Ravana’s sister, whose nose is chopped off by Lakshmana—is depicted as fair-complexioned, thus associating fairness with deceit and guile. Valmiki’s Ramayana itself (translation available in the ‘Ancient Indian Literature, Volume Two’) refers to Rama as ‘swarthy as the blue lotus’, and Ravana as ‘one who looked like a mound of black collyrium’. Similarly, ancient literature portrays Krishna—meaning ‘black’ in Sanskrit—as one with dark skin tone.
The notion of ‘fair is beautiful’ may be associated with what is thought to be the invasion of the Indian subcontinent by the fair-skinned Aryans, establishing their hegemony and supremacy over the dark-skinned native Dravidians. The later Central Asian invaders used the term ‘Hindu’ in a pejorative sense, as defining the colour of the people of the sub-continent. Thus, The Monthly Review or Literary Journal for April 1799, Pennant’s View of Hindustan states: “The word Hindu-stan is a Persic compound, signifying the country of the black people, as we say Negroe-land.” Over a period of time, there was a complex intermingling of colour with caste as well, with lighter-skin colour coming to be associated with ‘upper castes’ and vice versa.
Such colourism may be seen in the classification even among the so-called ‘upper caste’ Iyengar community of Tamil origin, with a distinction between the Vadakalai or “Iyengars of the Northern Descension”, and Thenkalai, or “Iyengars of the Southern Descension”. The former are supposed to owe their descent to Indo-Aryan missionaries, while the latter are considered ‘being not so Aryan’ and of a Dravidian admixture, with some believed to have descended from converts to Sri Vaishnavism from non-Brahmin ethnic groups. An oft-cited description of the difference among the two is in terms of skin colour, with the former supposed to be fair-skinned as opposed to the latter.
Colonisation and the British rule reinforced such association of fair with supremacy. British discrimination of “Black Indians” manifested itself in the form of barring entry to British clubs, with boards proclaiming “Indians and dogs not allowed”. The prejudice for colour was also evident in the British preference for Northerners, since ‘the taller and fairer a native, the better a man he was likely to be’.
The current issue of ‘colourism’ in Indian media has to be seen through a wider lens. There can be no justification of products and services which glorify skin tone of a certain type, attributing ‘success’ to such skin tone. However, such products are only a manifestation of the ‘fallacy of physical beauty’ mindset (borrowing from Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan) that already exists in society. Such mindset reflects in the use of turmeric (with its skin-lightening properties) as part of the pre-wedding rituals of most Indian communities; it also manifests in the preference for fair heroines from the North, even in Southern movies. That such a heroine croons her preference for ‘black as the preferred colour’ to the hero who is anything but fair-complexioned (with the reverse being unimaginable)—thus celebrating the ‘black’ hero while rejecting a ‘black’ heroine—represents colourism of the worst sort, making a mockery of our conception of fairness.
The notion of ‘fairness’ has to be wider in its reach, encompassing discrimination, prejudices and biases that we as Indians are adept at. Ancient literature provides us some indication of such deep-rooted biases. The ‘malevolent, wrathful hunchback’ Manthara is portrayed as the person responsible for turning the ‘beautiful, lotus-eyed’ Kaikeyi into a wicked, scheming woman who pushes for Rama’s exile. Again, the portrayal of Surpanakha as an ‘ugly, misshapen, pot-bellied woman with beady eyes and copper hair, an old hag’ shapes much of the discourse on the perception of goodness as being one of (superficial) beauty. Clearly beauty in India is not just skin deep.
Rejecting fairness through rejecting fairness creams is only a superficial solution to the much deeper malaise that runs within the Indian psyche. The narrative of beauty has to change, and not just in the minds of some emancipated souls. This would require far more than changing the names of fairness creams, or even rejecting them. For, with people covering up their faces with masks post-Covid, the new ‘opportunity’ areas for corporates may shift to body-toning rather than skin-toning creams, signalling the death of fairness creams. Clearly, the emphasis has to shift from a colourism-centric ‘fairness’ to ‘fairness’.
(The author is Professor of Economics & Chairperson of Family Managed Business at Bhavans SPJIMR, Mumbai. Views are personal. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)