Dark Shadows


film and theater director Peter Brooks directed a play on The Mahabharata in
1985 (later filmed for TV) that generated widespread criticisms from Indian
audiences. Brooks had assembled his actors from several continents, from
Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Far East. The five Pandavas in the play looked
very diverse, including a Black actor in the role of Bhima. Indian audiences
were rattled to see Bhima and Bhishma as dark skinned Africans. Defenders of
the play argued, as did some Indians with a better awareness of themselves,
that Indians do indeed come in a variety of colors, skin tones and body shapes.
Those outside India know little of this diversity and most Indians are like
frogs that never venture outside their pond, but imagine the world anyway.

Indians live in a starkly
conflict-ridden world of race, color and perception. Their mythologies and
narratives of identity tell them that they are descendants of blue-skinned
gods, while their older traditions praise the “luminous” qualities of dark
skin. Their contemporary world, however, burdened with the weight of recent
history, claims the superiority of lighter skin. No doubt, gender plays a
larger role in this skin color bias, as darkness in women is particularly
undesirable from the perspective of social codes. We may still covet the “dark,
tall and handsome” man, but “pretty, fair ladies” are all the rage for our
liaisons, permanent or otherwise. The culture that emerges out of this
color-divide is complex, intriguing and often contradictory. Nevertheless, that
ought to be a fertile ground for reading it.


Consider that most celebratory of all rituals of
Indian life, marriage. When one does not fall in love, an arranged marriage is
the preferred option. And when “deals” are made in such marital arrangements,
the color of the skin becomes vital in negotiations. The price tag for dowry,
for example, is often determined by the color of the woman’s skin. We ought to
realize that Indians must be the only people to have figured out a complex
system of economic exchange that quantifies the tone of the skin. If the color
of the skin of the bride-to-be falls in the darker tone range, or in most
cases, is anything less than “acceptable” level of fair, her parents have to shell
out more money and goodies to seal the deal. This fine gradation of skin tones
that raises and lowers the price of a woman in the “marriage marketplace” is
demeaning of course, but it is an ingenuous system of evaluating the value of
fair vs. darker skin.

The concept of the beauty of women is graded
with very clear demarcations. The models in advertisements predominantly have
fairer skins, with the Northern Indian concept of beauty overwhelming the “deep
South.” This is much the complaint that African Americans have about magazines
like Ebony and U.S. advertising culture. The models that pass for the
“desirable” conceptions of beauty in commercial culture have not accommodated
the wide range of appearances among Blacks. The shape of their bodies, skin tones
and hair all dictate that the look-alikes of White Western women are the
commanding standard of what is considered beautiful. Take a look at Miss
World/Universe/India contests over the years and Northern, fairer women enjoy a
commanding lead.

On marital web sites such as and the categories for “skin tones” bow to the conventions of
dominant skin tones that have held sway in lifelong decisions on marriage.
Darker women are immersed in a culture that does not acknowledge them and in
real life the obstacles against them are intimidating.

The culture of the North is a fairer culture.
This is for a whole set of complex reasons, including that fact that most who
arrived in India from the North, the Mughals, the Aryans, etc. were fairer
looking. The photographic culture, which later developed into cinema and spread
with Bollywood, has been dominated by the North. Most films we see and
narratives we watch are about Northern culture. It is their rituals, their
symbolism, their language, their kinship and clan systems that are pronounced
in wildly popular Bollywood films. Most prominent actors who have achieved
stardom have come from the North and represent the Northern culture, enforced
through the professed superiority of their skin tones.

This is not to say that the culture of the South
or the “deep South” is absent from Bollywood. But this is about hegemonic
relations; the North dominates and passes for the mainstream. This is much like
how Western culture and its concept of beauty dominate over “colored” people’s
cultures around the World. The rest of the world, when it does come into play,
plays the part of the exotic; what is unfamiliar in this case, becomes
acceptable only as strange, out-of-this-world and exotic.

Anthropology recognizes
this widespread problem as “colorism.” There is no running away from it; except
to transgress it in our own spheres, to deny the dominance of the codes where
we can. It is a pernicious disease, only accentuated to deeper dimensions of
cruelty on human dignity. Power thrives on the divides that skin tones offer.
Commercial culture offers diversified products to appeal across the
skin-divides. We haven’t quite figured out how to combat its power, but it is a
shame to succumb to it.


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