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Opinion | Whom do you blame for our fair-skin prejudice?

Not the Mughals or the British, the idea of colour as a feature which distinguishes people from one another is older than the epics

Draupadi from the Mahabharata is dark and her dark skin is always mentioned along with her beauty. (Artwork: Alamy)
Draupadi from the Mahabharata is dark and her dark skin is always mentioned along with her beauty. (Artwork: Alamy)

In the erotically-charged lyrics of Kalidasa’s Meghaduta, the description of the yaksha’s wife includes the phrase tanvi shyama (dark of complexion). She also has lips the colour of bimba fruit, a trope that occurs frequently in classical Sanskrit poetry. One that can be perplexing, however, is “deep of navel". But it only serves as a reminder that beauty tropes are a function of a period in history, and also who is forging and propagating them. Meghaduta was composed in the fifth century. At a time when men and women roamed with their navels in full view, “deep of navel" seems like a reasonable aesthetic requirement.

The women famed for their beauty and virtue in Indian mythology too have often deviated from the notion that fair is lovely. “Valmiki’s Ramayana describes Sita as ‘golden skinned’. Draupadi is dark, she is often called Krishnaa in Mahabharata…her dark skin is always mentioned along with her beauty," points out Sanskrit scholar Arshia Sattar in an email exchange.

The ongoing conversation about the Indian obsession with fair skin and the recent ban on fairness products advertising begs the question, when did we, as a culture, start equating fair skin with beauty? Our poetry and mythology certainly weren’t as single-toned.

In the university of Google, you will find schools of thought that put the blame on Mughal invaders and the way they viewed the natives. And the Portuguese, French, Dutch and British. In his book Religion, Science, And Empire: Classifying Hinduism And Islam In British India, Peter S. Gottschalk, professor of religion at Wesleyan University, quotes a certain C.B. Leupolt, who explains “the etymology of Hindostan as a name derived from two Persian words, Hind, ‘black’, and stan, ‘place’, and means literally the place of the blacks, or Hindoos". This puts all the blame for our faulty self-image on the fair-skinned foreigners who viewed us a certain way. But in an interview, Gottschalk clarifies that he disagrees with Leupolt about a great many things, but particularly this etymology of “India" and “Hindu". He shares that all of the reputable scholarship he has read agrees with the Oxford English Dictionary, which establishes the Persian hind as a cognate with the Sanskrit sindhu river.

I ask Gottschalk for his views about the sources that trace the term “Hindu" to Mughals and “blackness" and he says he wouldn’t be surprised if this was yet another endeavour to pin India’s social inequalities (or at least those not caused by Britain) on Mughals and Muslims since it is evidently clear that the use of the term al-Hind in the region—and beyond—predates the Mughals (it is worth noting that the Arabic “al-Hind" also derives from Persian terminology).

If not the outsider, whom do we blame for our fair-skin prejudice? Sattar points to an uncomfortable truth, obvious but overlooked, and impossible to deny when articulated as linguistic argument. “The word varna, which describes the four-fold division of Hindu society, means ‘colour’, or sometimes, ‘outward appearance’. So the idea of colour as a feature which distinguishes people from one another is much older than classical Sanskrit poetry, older even than the epics," she says. “Once we have that in place, the idea of insider/outsider depending on skin colour is an easy next step. As is the idea that some colours are better than others."

But let’s be clear that fairness cream brands in India didn’t start out with a woke mission to “smash Brahmanical Patriarchy". Fair & Lovely getting rebranded and Johnson & Johnson dropping its fairness line altogether in India and the Middle East isn’t as much a move to correct historic wrongs as it is a reaction to a draft proposal by the Union ministry of health and family welfare that seeks to penalize advertisements promoting fairness creams, estimated to be a market worth nearly 5,000 crore. Sure, it is a welcome move. But as some market watchers, like marketing strategy consultant Rama Bijapurkar, rightly pointed out in Lounge last week, we have to acknowledge that the evil here is the communication and the mindset—the idea that love, riches and professional success will only come to the fair-skinned. The market didn’t invent deep-rooted prejudice against the dark-skinned, it only saw an opportunity.

As Axon Alex, managing partner at the digital communications agency Jack in the Box Worldwide, wrote recently, what fairness creams sell is fair privilege. What we need to banish is a prevailing mindset that equates fair skin to not just beauty, and which part of the country you are from, but class, and most importantly, caste. Only banishing that badly-packaged bottle of cream, which probably didn’t do much anyway, is a white-wash.

Read the Lounge cover story where women share their stories of growing up in fairness-obsessed India.

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