India’s ‘fairness frenzy’: who started the fire?


The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that every country and culture has its own set of social ‘diseases’. India is ‘infected’ in several ways, and as a dark-skinned 16-year-old girl living here, I would have to say that one of these ailments is definitely our obsession with fair skin.

It’s really quite difficult to go even a day without seeing or hearing something that promotes this idea.

Social media, magazines, and billboards scream that ‘fair is lovely’, encouraging us to cake our faces with creams that seldom do anything to change our brown skin tones. Our aunts and uncles warn us that the sun will make us ‘dusky’.

Just last week, after I told a family friend that her daughter is pretty, she responded with a "Yeah, but she’s dark." The idea that beauty is restricted to those with a ‘wheatish complexion or better’ is widely believed and strongly entrenched in India. But all of this is fairly well known. What we talk about much less, however, is where this mindset stems from and why, in a country where we seem to be breaking free from so many other societal pressures and norms, this one seems to be unshakeable.

Power and passion

Since religion is so deep-rooted in Indian culture, that is where I began my ‘investigation’. My family, on the whole, is not very religious, but ever since I can remember, my grandma has read or told me stories from Hindu mythology.

Growing up, my favourite goddess was always ‘Kali’. She is one form of the mother goddess and is portrayed as a very fierce and dominant figure. Her earrings are two dead heads, she uses a string of 50 skulls as a necklace, and is often shown in scriptures with her foot on her husband’s chest. So, she is definitely not to be messed with. The Mahanirvana Tantra even states: "Just as all colours disappear in black, all names and forms disappear in her,” showing us that her dark skin almost adds to her power and strength.

And of course, one of the more popular dark-skinned gods is Krishna. His name means both ‘all attractive’ as well as ‘dark’ or ‘dark blue’. He is glorified in Hindu mythology, depicted as equally playful and wise. In addition to this, he is often called ‘Śyāma’ (beautiful dark boy) and ‘Sundaram’ (very beautiful). So, it is clear that for both of these gods, dark skin is not a liability, and if it is mentioned at all, it is only to highlight their beauty, power, and grace.

However, while there’s no negative portrayal of dark-skinned gods in Hindu mythology, there is a distinct contrast between them and their light-skinned peers -- not only in physical appearance but also in personality. This contrast comes through between Shiva (described in the Karpura-Goranga as ‘he who is as fair as camphor’) and Krishna. The name ‘Shiva’ translates to ‘pure’, and despite the fact that he is the god of destruction, he is a simple and, at times, serene ascetic, completely different from the energetic and mischievous Krishna.

This contrast is carried on with the goddesses Gauri and Kali. In one prominent story, Kali, in an attempt to seduce Shiva, dips herself in the Yamuna. She emerges as the radiant, glowing and fair goddess Gauri (the golden one). These two goddesses couldn’t be more different. Gauri is called Lalita (the graceful one), but Kali is Bhairavi (the fearsome one). Kali is also referred to as Chandi (the wild one), while Gauri is Mangala (the auspicious one).

From this, we can see that while Hindu mythology doesn’t indicate that one type of complexion is better than the other, it does use colour to define personality. The ‘white’ gods are perceived as more civilised and controlled, while the darker skinned ones are fearless, passionate, and full of life.

In India today, ‘fair’ doesn’t just denote ‘lovely’. It often also means intelligent, moral, and kind, and I feel that this mythology may be our basis for judging and stereotyping individuals according to skin colour.

Similarly, the caste system plays a significant role in the lives of many Indians. Its earliest seeds were planted in the Rig Veda, which described the four castes as ‘varnas’, members of each having their own qualities, capabilities, and levels of intelligence. However, in addition to this, ‘varna’ also means ‘complexion’ or ‘colour’, which suggests that there was a colourist basis to the stratification.

The Shudra caste was often called the ‘black varna’, and members of the caste were labelled ‘avarnas’ (a derogatory term for their dark skin). The Rig Veda even declares ‘Dasam varnam adharam,’ which translates to ‘black skin is impious’ (Rg.V. II.12.4). This means that, as early as 1,500 BCE, ‘darkness’ had the connotation of inferiority. Now, over 3,000 years later, as the confidence many have in the Rig Veda and the caste system it promotes has not wavered, this mentality has sadly persisted.

The colonial mindset

The idea of beliefs being passed down through generations is connected not only to the caste system but also to India’s colonial legacy. From 1858 to 1947, the British ruled India. That means that, for close to a century, the leaders of the country were fair-skinned, and this has unsurprisingly contributed to our ‘fairness obsession’. Fair skin, in the colonial era, meant power and success, and dark skin meant exactly the opposite. This notion became very deeply ingrained in our country and culture as a whole.

"South Indian women of the Coromandel Coast were of small stature, have good figures, and some have such pleasing and delicate features that were it not for their complexions, they might be termed beautiful." 

The above opinion was expressed by British soldier Charles Gold, and it shows us that not only were women of this time period judged entirely by their appearance but also that skin colour was the most important aspect of this. Now, you might be angered, shocked, and disgusted by this, but if you pause for a moment and think about it, this mindset is not too different from what we see around us today.

Don’t go outside; you’ll get tanned’

‘Drink milk, not tea; it’ll make you fairer’

‘Drink saffron milk to be blessed with a fair child!’

The parallels between the outrageous quote from the past and these equally outrageous, but sadly common, phrases of today show us how beliefs from the colonial era have stood the test of time.

The British also contributed to the colourist mindset in this country through their translation and interpretation of Hindu texts. When they first came to India, they saw how deep-rooted Hinduism was in the culture here, and saw it as a means to gain the support of the Indian people.

Max Muller, a German philologist, was hired to translate the Rig Veda in a pro-British way. They used his translation to craft an ‘Aryan Invasion Theory’. The theory held that in 1,500 BC, the ‘Aryans’ (people of European origin) invaded, bringing with them their own language (Sanskrit), the caste system, and an overall ‘civilising’ influence. The British claimed that they were the inheritors of this ‘grand Aryan tradition’, and that their invasion was, therefore, justified.

However, there is no archaeological evidence to support this theory. It is only backed linguistically by Muller’s interpretation of the Rig Veda. In the Rig Veda, the word ‘Aryan’ is used to describe the people who lived in India at the time. In this context, it most likely means ‘clear’ or ‘light’ consciousness. But Muller translated the word to mean ‘light-skinned’, and thus, was able to claim that Europeans invaded and ‘civilised’ the country. This interpretation has, in many ways, added to India’s ‘fairness frenzy’. Many people feel that if our entire culture stemmed from a group of fair-skinned people, then lighter skin must be superior.

Despite how deep-rooted this mentality is in our country, it’s not all downhill. Various movements have been created, the most popular being the ‘Unfair and Lovely’ campaign, which encourages men and women to embrace their natural skin colour and understand that there is more to a person than their physical appearance.

So, as you can see, many people are already working to put an end to this bias, and while attempting to do so, I think it’s important that we refrain from viewing this as an isolated problem.

'Colourism' in India is intertwined with a plethora of other issues, ranging from discrimination in the workplace to depression, bullying, and low levels of self-esteem in young people.

If we ever want a shot at ‘curing’ our country, this problem cannot be brushed under the carpet any longer. We need to deal with it and talk about it more in our daily lives.

So, the next time your aunt says:

Speak up and say: ‘Kaali’ or not, I know I’m lovely!

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)


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