Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday, May 02, 2011


Once upon a time Bollywood heroes were noble and pensive. Then they became delightful dancing heroes. Then they became angry young men. Then came the stud muffins, strong men who loved to flaunt their sexuality and gym-toned bodies. And now, slowly, one is witnessing the rise of the Muscle Marie: muscled macho heroes who sell fairness creams to young men, so that they do not get tanned in the sun. Takes metrosexuality to another level.

Indians have always been colorists: we love white skin. The most venerated beauty was called a-surya-sparshya, the one who has never been touched by the sun. It referred to women who were privileged enough never to work outdoors in the sun. Such women were highly prized and much in demand.

Today, we have broken free from such sexist attitudes. Women are stepping out to work in the sun and men are flaunting their fairness creams. Nothing wrong with that, except that color has always been a contentious issue in India. The child with dark skin always suffers, denied love and attention by family, society and now, media.

The British popularized the Aryan Invasion Theory that claims white-skinned chariot-riding hymn-chanting tribes rode into India and pushed back or enslaved dark-skinned natives, who moved south or were reduced to ‘lower’ castes. Their theory in some measure was based on the observation that Indians preferred light-skinned children over dark-skinned children. The former got more resources than the latter. In fact, members of the upper castes and classes were generally fairer, because of genetics, ensured by securing fair brides, and also because of the privilege of not having to work in the sun.

The British also observed that Hindus have a god whose names Shyam and Krishna means black, but who is always painted and described as blue. When asked, defensive and metaphysical explanations were always offered. They also observed that the frightening blood thristy goddess was called Kali, the dark-one, while the gentle form of the goddess was called Gauri, the fair-one. The happy gurgling river-goddess Ganga was described as fair while the unhappy mournful river-goddess Yamuna was described as dark. Shiva has two forms, the fierce Kala-Bhairava, who is offered alchohol and hemp and the gentle Gora-Bhairava, who is offered milk and sweets.

I wonder if advertisements celebrating fairness creams are prescribing color prejudices or simply profiting by reaffirming a deep seated cultural color prejudice? Is it ok to take advantage of cultural bias? Surely it is, in a capitalist economy? We are a country that has a long tradition of ‘snow and powder’ cosmetics.

Is it ok for Bollywood stars, worshipped by the masses, to endorse such color prejudice? Are they simply being professional, doing it for the money? Must they then be taken seriously next time they stand up for a social cause – against corruption or terrorism? Maybe they are also doing that for money? And why should they not do it for money? If they won’t someone else will. And why is the government which bans alcohol advertisements and cigarette advertisements, and taxes them heavily, not consider banning these ads or taxing them heavily? Is it because they believe color is too shallow an issue and so not injurious to health? Just speak to psychiatrists and find out.