Skin colour is a touchy subject in the Indian sub-continent. .The fairer the better is the ideology that is frequently promoted. But how did this obsession with lighter skin come about? And what effect does it have on people? The two Artistic Directors of British Asian theatre company Caste Away Arts share their views.
The phone rang; it was my cousin bearing some good news “X has had a baby girl. She’s so white!”
Oh great so I deduced from here that it didn’t matter if the baby had eyes, arms or a heart but so long as she was fair skinned then everything is perfect? This dawned on me and it was this phone call that compelled me to enter this ugly debate of ‘fair skin obsession’ within the South Asian Community. Why are we so obsessed with being fair and why do we look down at those who have darker skin? I began recording observations of Asian people making references to fair skin preference and where they would mistreat those with darker complexions. The more I heard the angrier I got. I am hoping that one day I can research and challenge this notion as a part of a PhD because it really makes my skin crawl! I guess my reasons are deep rooted from my childhood experiences. I am the oldest of four and when my brother and sister were born a year apart there was a huge polarisation in their skin shade. My brother had a dark completion whereas my sister could have been mistaken for a Caucasian. I noticed the way our community would look down at my brother and favoured my sister. My brother was mocked for something that was out of his control! To me he always looked so cute but it broke my heart to see him cry and even scrub his face clean as if having darker skin was dirty. He was bullied and excluded by our community though were all from the same race.
Even to this day this skin discrimination exits and is breeding fast. I often hear people make derogatory and prejudiced remarks to those who are darker, for example ‘yuk he’s so dark and ugly’. ‘She’s nice and educated but too dark’, ‘isn’t he a bit dark’? Where is this scale measured? There is this negative connotation attached to darker skin which insinuates that being darker is ugly and fairer skin people are superior and therefore beautiful. These views are extremely primitive and I believe they are a result of a fear of being dark or being associated with ‘black’. In mainstream views ‘black’ is often associated with evil and in the media black people are often type cast into negative roles. White is associated with being pure and innocent and these views do construct our social world and the views we carry. During the Edwardian period, people from the aristocracy painted their faces white which indicated superiority and class. These traditions have unfortunately spilled over into our community but have historical context. The caste system provides a huge insight into fair skin obsession and the fear of being dark. ‘The Untouchables’ are a community who reside outside the Indian caste division and are eminent for their dark exotic complexions. The sub divisors of caste have an Aryan bloodline therefore inheriting more fairer skins in some cases. I guess steering away from dark skin is washing away the negative stigma attached to the untouchable status. Then to top this debate the Asian media orchestrate and reinforce these toxic views by portraying fairer skin models as beautiful. Young people court these images and develop complexities about their own skin. It’s unfair on these young people who believe that they are ugly because their skin is darker than the models in Asian Woman magazine. In fact these women do not even look remotely Asian and are not a fair representation of the Asian community, who come in all shades.
Changing people’s views is out of my control but I do believe that darker skin should be celebrated rather than criticised. I personally love darker skin shades and as a race we need to lighten up our minds and not our skin. No one should be made to feel inferior because of their skin. I thought we had moved on from views like this but clearly not. As a community we receive enough racism and do not need to create our own by splitting hairs with fair skin, caste etc. I would love to see a ban on skin lightening products as they justify this notion of fair skin as beautiful! Beauty is skin deep and if people have a problem with our skin then we should challenge them and not yield into this expectation created to divide the race. There are some people that have a nerve to criticise darker skin. I have heard ‘You’re so black and ugly’. I want like to see the day when one of these people can speak ill of dark skins in front out our African and Caribbean counterparts and show their true colours! Probably not, as it would be deemed as racist. So what is this?
Rena Dipti Annobil
The other night I was watching my daily dose of a popular Indian soap on Star Plus TV channel. A woman is beaten and ridiculed by her husband for being too dark. Even though it was a work of fiction, it was uncomfortable viewing, so I change over to an Indian music channel, and heard the lyrics “peeloon in gore gore haanthon se hum dum” (let me drink from these white hands). Give me a break!
The Indian sub-continent seems to me to be obsessed with skin colour, in particular fair skin. Since I’ve been a child, I’ve been bombarded with comments and opinions about skin colour. These included warnings about staying out in the sun too long as I would get so dark that no one would want to marry me, constantly being told my lighter skinned sister was prettier than me because she was so fair, and of course the countless songs and storylines from Indian films which give the impression that light skin is right skin.
Looking at the history of India, it’s clear that those who have always held power in the country – be it Aryan invasion in around 1500 BC, invaders from Persia, Alexander the Great, and of course the British Raj! – have always had fair skin, so it was inevitable that it was always something that was desired. Also there is the theory that the rarer something is, the more in demand it is. This explains a high proportion of the mid-brown Indian population wanting to acquire fair skin and green eyes.
But in this day and age, where India is well on the world map with its booming economy (ok, so it’s not quite China, but getting there!), its cuisine, and its film industry, do Indians still really need to aspire to look like Europeans. Isn’t it time to embrace the Indian look?
And surely one of the ways to change Indian people’s views is through a medium that is viewed by almost every Indian on the planet – Bollywood films. These multi million pound productions are the main form of entertainment media in India, the film stars are worshipped, and the soundtracks are played everywhere you go. So what does it say when one of the biggest stars in Bollywood, Shah Rukh Khan, endorses a men’s skin lightening cream called Fair and Handsome?! That was back in 2007 and caused a bit of uproar at the time but obviously made money for the company and the actor because since then other Bollywood starts have followed suit – muscle man John Abraham and the baby-faced Shahid Kapoor. And these are just the men, female celebrities have been endorsing women’s skin lightening products for a long time. The most recent are: Katrina Kaif, who is naturally fair and sells Olay’s Natural White, Deepika Padukone sells Neutrogena’s Fine Fairness range, Sonam Kapoor sells L’Oreal’s White Perfect while Preity Zinta, once a top star, endorsed Fem’s Herbal Bleach.
The fact is that people want to look like their favourite Bollywood star, someone who they think is beautiful and successful, and is shown to get all the girls/or boys in the movies. The majority of the leading ladies and men are fair skinned, of course there are a few exceptions like the stunning and successful Bipasha Basu who is not even what I would call dark skinned, just normal!, and actors like Ajay Devgan who is known more for his action sequences than his looks. But this is something that needs to change. We need more Bipashas in Bollywood but as much as I want directors and producers to take responsibility and make a change, I can understand that they don’t want to dent their bank balances. Beautiful people sell films and in a nation obsessed with fair skin it all seems like a vicious circle. One step that movie makers can take though is to stop churning out soundtracks extolling the virtues of fair skin and to stop focusing on it in their storylines, unless of course it’s a true to life story, and there are few of those in Bollywood. These are subtle changes that can and need to be made, one small step at a time. Maybe in time things will change and when my children grow up they won’t be bombarded with fair skinned green eyed Indian film and soap stars, they will see more people that look like them, brown and beautiful.
Author: Rena Dipti Annobil
Rena Dipti Annobil is one of Caste Away Arts’ Co-Founders and Artistic Directors. She co-wrote, co-directed The Fifth Cup with Reena Jaisiah, and also took on an acting role in the play. Rena graduated from Aston University in 2001 with BSc (Hons) in Managerial and Administrative Studies. Whilst at university Rena trained in Indian Classical and Contemporary Dance, focusing on the ancient dance form Bharata Natyam, and performed at various theatres around the Midlands as part of the Coventry based Mrittika Arts Dance Company.
Rena has worked in broadcasting for six years; her experience includes producing live radio programmes and features at the BBC, producing and presenting her own TV show, and narrating BBC Radio 7′s Sony Award winning interactive story, The Chain Gang, in 2007.
Passionate about poetry, music, dance and drama, Rena has carried out several performance workshops for children and teenagers over the last few years. These days Rena juggles motherhood with her career at the BBC, carrying out workshops, and writing ground breaking new material for Caste Away Arts.
Author: Reena Jaisiah
Born with a fertile imagination, Reena began animating her ideas very young. Having Dyslexia has its precincts but this purported disability is Reena’s gift that feeds her creative hunger to turn ideas into actions! Through a university placement in the arts, Reena cultured an array of technical skills and discovered her ability to engage young people. Reena is one of very few who confronts her own experiences of caste discrimination. Her relentlessness to fight this stigma compelled her to undertake pioneering research as part of an MA at the University of Birmingham. Rather than publish reports, Reena reverted to her creative talents when she met Rena Dipti Annobil and the proactive duo built a dynamic ethos which birthed Caste Away Arts. Their endeavors were recognised in the Pride of Coventry and Warwickshire Community Projects awards in 2008 after the national tour success of The Fifth Cup play which Reena co-wrote and directed.
Reena has worked in innumerable schools, residential homes and training centres for young and adult learners. She spent two wonderful terms in Shakespeare’s home town teaching Drama at a secondary school. She also travelled to Sri Lanka and visited Tsunami and war affected orphans and continues to work with disadvantaged communities by dedicating her time to youth at the Tamil Welfare Association with her unique creative enrichment programme called Release UK. With Caste Away Arts, Reena has fronted countless Arts workshops. Including a commission by Sandwell Leisure Trust. Reena has worked with Coventry Mind Vibes youth group, Kairos, LEAD’S India and the Godiva Festival.
In Other Words commissioned Reena to write a play called Platforms & Trainers which sheds light on Autism and to challenges its stigma. In 2009 the Royal Society of Arts recognised Reena’s efforts and nominated her for a fellowship for her “contribution to the Arts in recognition of co-founding of Caste Away Arts and her endeavors through this to encourage positive social relations and eliminate racial discrimination, and following your participation in Prison Link and her work to support individuals with autism.’’
In her scarce recreational time Reena is a passionate poet and because she has horrible hand writing her poems have been described as scribbles that become alchemic; it’s no surprise her poem Alchemy from Scribbles was selected for publication for an anthology and she was runner up for Coventry laureate 2004. Reena has performed on Radio and TV. Her writing contributions include a report about Prison for the BBC and poetry features bespoken for online arts magazines. Reena is a perceptive painter and photographer. Currently working on various projects, writing a book and some ground breaking material for Caste Away Arts.
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