Time we came out of dark ages

Oct 26, 2011, 18:31 IST | Sumanto Chattopadhyay

This is (my translation of) Rabindranath Tagore's paean to a dark-skinned beauty

Dark Bud is what I call her
Let others call her what they will

This is (my translation of) Rabindranath Tagore's paean to a dark-skinned beauty. When he wrote it all those years ago, he felt the need to point out that others may not agree with his estimation. The bias against dark skin was a well-entrenched reality then. Not much has changed since.

I once created a poster in which the visual was a snapshot of the 'brides wanted' section of a matrimonial column. Almost all the entries demanded fair brides. I circled the word 'fair' wherever it appeared. Below, I wrote 'Unfair', followed by the line 'Isn't it time we come out of the dark ages?'

Apparently not.  Au contraire, the obsession seems to be growing, given the number of ads one sees these days for fairness products. So, should we be blaming Advertising for this bias? Every now and then there is a public debate on this issue and people say 'let's ban the ads' -- they are the ones responsible for this Evil!
Really? That would be giving ads too much credit methinks. Tagore's poem is over a century old. The bias clearly existed in society at that time.

There was not too much of fairness advertising going on in the year 1900, I'm sure. Anyway, this fairness bug existed way before that. I've heard some people blame it on the British. (Don't we love to blame everything on them!) But it predates the Angrezes as well -- that too by eons.

Look back to the Aryan invasion. The fair-skinned Aryans conquered the darker non-Aryans living in these parts. The Aryans set up the caste system in which they occupied the upper echelons. Their (Sanskrit) word for caste was varna which actually means colour. I think it would be fair to say that the Gorapan Godzilla began its monstrous march around that time.

Cut to October, 2011: There is an egregious joke going around on Facebook which seems particularly popular with Indians. It consists of a photograph of five white girls and a black girl. The photograph has been exposed in such a way that you can barely see the black girl against the dark background. The caption says, 'If you saw only 5 girls, your a racist'. Funny, ha ha. Of course, the joke itself is racist. (And the person who created it doesn't know the difference between "your" and "you're". But I digress.)

It's a pity that every ad for a cream, lotion, face wash or powder promises you fairness. But I think it's a greater pity that millions of Indian women --  and men -- want to buy these products only because they promise you fairness. Advertising is merely a mirror of society. Before we condemn it, we should take a good hard collective look in the looking glass ourselves. Consider the Hindi term gaon ki gori. Translate it into English and you will realise how absurd it is -- 'the white woman of the village'. Yes, she is the ideal of feminine pulchritude. In fact, gori means both 'fair' and 'lovely' -- our language doesn't even differentiate between the two concepts.

Or take our film industry. In their quest for fair girls, the South Indian movie industry imports North Indian actresses. And the Hindi film industry goes beyond our borders to cast the likes of Katrina Kaif and Nargis Fakhri, whose complexions are partly inherited from one white parent. Yes. In India, it appears, white is right.

Ours is possibly the only country in which it is a huge compliment for a native to be told 'you look like a foreigner'(read European). I can't imagine that Italians, Brazilians or Jordanians would be overjoyed to be taken for foreigners in their own respective lands!

As long as there is a hankering for fairness, whitening products will sell. And in order to sell them, there will be advertising. Advertising is merely a messenger that gives you information about the stuff you want to buy. Let's not kill the messenger. Let's, instead, follow Tagore and learn to appreciate the Dark Bud. Let's let her natural beauty unselfconsciously blossom.

Sumanto Chattopadhyay is the Executive Creative Director, South Asia, Ogilvy & Mather Advertising, Mumbai

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