The sun shines bright here throughout the year - except in the snow-capped Himalayan region - and two of the most revered Hindu deities, Krishna and Shiva, are the colour of a beautiful night sky, not to mention the religion's supreme goddess Kali (meaning black).

If black still connotes blemish rather than beauty in India, the reasons, say experts, are historical and political.

Social indicators

“Colour prejudice is an offshoot of the bigger evil of casteism in India,” says Udit Raj, leader of the Indian Justice Party, which represents Dalits or the oppressed tribes and castes in the traditional political system.

Indian Justice Party president
Udit Raj

“The hold of the caste system in India is deep, dark skin is the skin of the lowest castes, traditionally the subjugated people and, therefore, disagreeable,” he says.

The country's foreign rulers, whether Mughal or British, were also light-skinned. This, says the Dalit leader, has contributed to shaping social attitudes in India.

“Fair skin became a symbol of power and wealth and those who equate beauty with it are subconsciously hankering after a higher status; those who are shunning black are, perhaps, rejecting the slavery that it connotes whether in India or in the US.”

Religious influence

Ideally, the Hindu religion should have gifted the average Indian a great love for black, and not only because the most loved Hindu gods are this colour, says Baba Goswami, 78-year-old Hindu leader of a Krishna cult, the West Bengal-based Gaurang Ashram.

“While white is the colour of light and purity, black, like the night, connotes a dissolution of all form.” says Baba Goswami, who, however, agrees that such “profound interpretations” are beyond the average person’s understanding, which is why, “despite the deep hold of religion on the Indian mind there is colour prejudice in society.”  

An Indian actor plays the role of
the demon king Ravana

Udit Raj, who, like many Dalits, converted to Buddhism, believes that Hindu religion has reinforced rather than removed racial prejudice in the country, mostly “through the evil of casteism.” 

Besides, “only a few of the 33 million gods are dark, the rest are all fair,” he points out.

The story of Ramayana, the most popular Indian epic, he underlines, is “all about the victory of fair-skinned and noble Ram over the black and evil Ravana.”

What religious and political leaders find most alarming about this subtle racism in India is that already disadvantaged groups like women, tribal and lower caste people are caught in its vortex.

Fair and foul

Matrimonial advertisements, top revenue earners of many Indian newspapers, are nothing if not a study in colour prejudice of the Indian middle class: 90 out of 100 matrimonial ads list a woman’s “fair,” “very fair” and “really fair” skin as a prerequisite to her acceptance as a “beautiful” woman.

“I am very dark, almost black, but my wife is as fair as an English woman and I must say that ... I found her fair skin very attractive”

Udit Raj
Indian Justice party leader

The colour prejudice is so infectious that, Dalits, officially categorised as Scheduled Castes and Tribes, who are among the most dark-skinned people in the country, are also seeking fair brides. Even their political leader pleads guilty to it.

“I am very dark, almost black, but my wife is as fair as an English woman and I must say that although ours was a love marriage in which her intrinsic qualities mattered more than looks, I found her fair skin very attractive,” says Udit Raj.

In his view, while preference for fair skin may be natural, the prejudice against dark skin in India is cultivated.

Folklore about feminine beauty largely celebrates black tresses and kohl eyes, but the skin had better be fair for a woman to qualify as truly beautiful.

Skin-lightening agents, whether herbal or chemical, are the lowest common denominator in 95% of the indigenous beauty products like soaps and creams.

Marketing campaigns

Advertisement campaign by
a private company in New Delhi

The fairness cream industry rakes in about $150 million in sales annually, according to a Mumbai-based marketing research group, ORG-MARG.

Taking a leaf out of this beauty book, a cosmetic company, Hindustan Lever Limited (HLL), the Indian subsidiary of the London-based Unilever, launched a television ad campaign last year in which a dark-skinned, plain Jane, unable to bear the financial responsibility of her family, is undergoing deep mental trauma until she finds a “fairness cream.”

The cream transforms her into a gorgeous, light-skinned woman and her looks become her passport to a successful career as a mini skirt-clad flight attendant.

The ad campaign went unnoticed for its deeply sexist and racist tone until a feminist group decided to do something about it.

That the leftist All India Democratic Women’s Alliance (AIDWA) had to petition the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) before HLL withdrew the campaign earlier this year tells its own story about the hard shell that protects such attitudes in India.

The NHRC is an autonomous body whose chairperson and members include eminent judges and bureaucrats appointed by the President of India and it was the first such complaint before it.
 
Thanks to the commission, the feminists’ battle against the cosmetic company ended in victory but the war on colour prejudice, it seems, has not even begun.

Obstacles

Even famous people complain about colour barriers.

“I was thin, a woman and dark—three features that are not acceptable to the people of Kerala”

Arundhati Roy
author and social activist

“I was thin, a woman AND dark —three features that are not acceptable to the people of Kerala,”  celebrated author-activist Arundhati Roy said in a media interview shortly after she won Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize for her book, ‘God of Small Things.’

Underscoring the irony in Roy’s observation is the fact that Kerala is a matriarchal society where an overwhelming majority of the population are dark-skinned.

While some in India may disagree with this assessment, the fact remains that criticism by those on the receiving end of what is considered to be colour prejudice indicate the existence of problematic social attitudes.

Bollywood's dark secret

Bollywood actress Sheen: Skin
colour may impact movie roles

Fashion models like Nina Emmanuel, Nayanka Chatterjee and Sheetal Malhar all know that their brown-black skin is a disadvantage.

They are far less in demand in India than the fair-skinned models, and have to scout the Western fashion capitals to make money and name.

“At least the fashion industry has reached a stage of evolution where colour is an issue and those at a disadvantage because of it openly talk about it,” says film critic Shubhra Gupta.

“In Bollywood, where fair and beautiful go hand in hand, you are either fair or you won’t even dream of getting the leading lady’s role,” she says.

“A dark-skinned actress, on the other hand, even to get a vamp’s role has to have a voluptuous form that she is ready to bare,” says Gupta about the racist accent of Bollywood, a nickname for the world’s largest film industry - of commercial Hindi cinema.

Gupta attributes the success of Bollywood dark-skinned actress Bipahsa Basu to her bold and unconventional roles where emphasis is on exposure rather than colour of the skin.

Racial themes also find an echo in mainstream Hindi cinema although the dialect today is less pronounced and more light-hearted than it was in the past.

“Dark skin is either the butt of jokes or when inter-linked with casteist-sexist themes it is a matter of tragedy, but it is never a normal feature and certainly not beautiful,” emphasises Gupta.

Social and political activists would vouch that the same is true in real life, only far worse for the victims.