A Brown Culture and Its Light Canvases: Does Art Reveal Color Bias?

My five year old daughter can be many things. Energetic, loud, playful, adamant and by turns devilish and angelic. But, curiosity dominates her worldview. And this curiosity leads her to question the world  around her. Her questions can come at the most inopportune moments—usually when we are in public with words uttered in a loud, clear voice.

Sometimes the answer is simple, but there are times when I struggle to find an answer. Proudly displaying her class picture, she observed that she was darker than some of her friends. Also that while her own hair was curly, theirs was straight. I knew the probing questions would come later. And they did. “Why? Why don’t I have straight hair? Why is she lighter than me? How come she has different colored eyes?” Why, why, why. It wasn’t enough for me to tell her about the diverse world we live in. She insisted that she wanted to be like them!

And then I was left with a “Why” of my own. Why were skin and eye color and hair quality so important to her? Was this normal? Did it just stem from a feeling of struggling to belong? Or was it the influence of a subtler prejudice unknowingly perpetuated?

It made me question the values I live by, my own internal conditioning. My biases.

Many Indian-American parents have been forced to confront these very questions as they raise children here. Blond hair and blue eyed becomes a sought-after ideal to be. While Moana has her place on the toy shelf, Elsa takes the pride of place. Is it a testament to excellent marketing? Or a deeper bias? I am saddened that despite all the technological advances we have made, the subject of color still remains a controversial topic. And this remains especially salient if you are of Indian descent.

I cannot speak for the experience of other races, but I am a product of my own experiences.

Growing up, I was like my five-year-old girl today: curious and playful. I was also aware of the prejudices around me. Gender came with its own limitations, as did color bias and caste distinctions. Born into an upper middle class family where adults excelled in many areas, I witnessed some of these prejudices first hand. Through my formative years, I struggled to gain answers. And, with age, I learned to adapt while accepting some of these as “truths,” because I found them deeply enmeshed in the social and cultural mores around me.

I grew up. I became less curious.

Until I was forced to provide an answer to my 5-year-old daughter.

West Meets East—The Raja Ravi Varma Story
Before I could formulate an answer that would satisfy a five-year old, I had to first confront some questions on my own. I am a visual artist and acutely aware of the impact of visuals on the human mind. I started by questioning the nature of the visual representations that I grew up with.

A recent sale by Sotheby’s made headlines in the art world— the sale of a painting titled Damayanthi by the Prince of Painters—Raja Ravi Varma. It netted over a million US dollars, after garnering a lot of interest the world over. Based on the protagonist from the Sanskrit epic poem Nala and Damayanthi, the painting is a wonderful example of a merger between the European academic artistic style and a distinctly Indian sensibility.

It depicts the heroine Damayanthi, seated on a balcony or portico, lamenting the absence of her love, Nala. She is being fanned by her attendant Keshini. Her forlorn expression, head resting on her hand while she gazes out into the far landscape, speaks of her dejection and pathos. The balcony floor around the two women is strewn with flowers and the treatment of the darkening skies in the background further adds to the mood of the scene.

Artistically, Damayanthi is an excellent example of composition, style and treatment. The richly appointed saris jump off the canvas. The jewelry adorning the women is faithfully rendered. The European styled marbled balcony has been depicted beautifully. In these and a multitude of other details, the painting speaks of skill and sensitivity that makes for a great work of art.

In the latter part of the 18th century, India attracted a number of European artists, who were eager for their share of the “Eastern” experience. They were frequent residents of the royal courts and enjoyed their patronage. In these courts, another kind of artistic exchange took place, with an adoption of a Western ethos by Indian artists, exemplified by the life of Raja Ravi Varma.

Raja Ravi Varma belonged to the ruling house of Travancore in Kerala. His early life in a traditional matrilineal household was rich in the learning of classical music, Sanskrit, kathakali and the stories drawn from the mythology and lore of ancient India. His fledgling attempts at art was encouraged by an uncle who was an artist in the traditional and decorative Tanjore style of painting.

Subsequent royal patronage and association with European artists at the palace in Trivandrum, contributed to Ravi Varma’s style. He acquired new materials and techniques that greatly revolutionized the representation of art in the Indian context. His work included large scale canvas paintings of both portraits and landscapes. It transformed the world of miniatures, murals and decorative manuscript paintings that were prevalent in India at the time.

Raja Ravi Varma’s work centered on the realistic portrayal of his subject matter. His paintings frequently won prizes and Certificates of Merit at prestigious fine art exhibitions in India. He garnered international acclaim by winning a medal at the Vienna Art Exhibition. In short, he was the most sought after artist amongst the British Raj elite and the royal courts in India. His paintings were included in the royal art collections of the Gaekwads and the Wodeyars, to name a few. His fame and status mirrored that of his European counterpart,  John Singer Sargent —the noted portraitist of the Edwardian period.

I remember a visit to the Jaganmohan Palace Art Gallery in Mysore. The gallery has a wonderful collection of Raja Ravi Varma’s art. Portraits of Maharaja Chamarajendra Wodeyar and many of his family members line its walls. While in awe at the scale and grandeur of his work, I was struck by a singular fact. Barring a handful, his portrayal of the human form—especially the women—were almost always light-skinned. His scenes from mythology depict Rama and Krishna in the traditional manner —blue tinged skin. But otherwise they are always shown “fair” of color. It was clearly a case of borrowing from the European palette and marrying it with the cultural fabric of India. And in doing so, it added another layer to the status of the class of people who could afford his work. It also created a strong archetype for the “ideal woman.”

Ravi Varma did not stop at producing works of art for royalty and the gentry. He was keen on sharing his work with the masses. With a far-reaching vision, he established a lithographic printing press with his brother Raja Varma in Bombay. They embarked on an avant garde business model of producing oleographs (lithographs) of Hindu gods and goddesses, and scenes from Hindu mythology. This decision transformed Ravi Varma into a pop culture icon of that period—a sort of Andy Warholish Indian if you will. His work was now available to households across social strata all over India. They remain in print to the present day.

My grandparents’ household shrine (pooja room) was amply populated by Ravi Varma prints. I am sure my generation grew up with them without sparing a thought as to their creator. They were part of the popular culture; a fact accepted as par for the course. As the saying goes, “Imitation is the highest form of flattery.” Like Raja Ravi Varma’s initial attempts at art, I started out trying to render the beautiful lithographs around me and there were a fair handful of them strewn around me when I was young.

These images are etched in the minds of millions of Indians. When Gods and Goddesses from the Hindu pantheon are depicted as being light-skinned, then, how can we truly measure the “color bias” that takes root within us?

Lakshmi, resplendent in her red sari, standing on her lotus amidst an idyllic forested lake. Saraswathi, clad in pristine white, seated on a rocky river bank, playing her veena, a peacock in the foreground gazing up at her. Vishnu astride a mighty Garuda, flanked by his consorts Sridevi and Bhudevi, flying above the clouds. Yashodha and baby Krishna, in a sweet scene with a calf. These are forever etched in my memory through my attempts at trying to sketch them.

Amar Chitra Katha—The Comic Book Carries Forward
Raja Ravi Varma’s body of work greatly influenced another aspect of popular culture in India; its comic book industry. When a respected educationalist visualized a series of comics based on purely Indian values, he had to look no further for inspiration to base his cover images on. Anant Pai’s ever popular Amar Chitra Katha series (ACK) was a household name during my childhood and continues to be part of children’s bookshelves all across the world.

As an Indian-American parent, I find myself constantly looking for sources to inculcate in my daughter the values and traditions I grew up with. And I find myself going back to Amar Chitra Katha almost as much, or possibly even more often than my collection of Asterix the Gaul or The Adventures of TinTin, which were also an important relic of my childhood.

The first ACK comic book, Krishna, was printed in 1969.  The second book printed in 1970 was the first to feature a female protagonist—Shakuntala.  Based on Kalidasa’s classical Sanskrit poem Abhigyana Shakuntalam, she remains a favorite heroine through the ages with her story being told in a multitude of versions, through various media—paintings, plays and film. Ravi Varma painted Shakuntala in a number of versions and his lithograph The Birth of Shakuntala won a coveted award.

Karline McLain, Professor of Religious Studies at Bucknell University in her book, India’s Immortal Comic Books —Gods, Kings and Other Heroes offers an unbiased, fresh perspective on the social, cultural and global impact of ACK and other Indian comic books. Her work has been awarded the Edward Cameron Dimock, Jr. Book Prize in the Indian Humanities by the American Institute of Indian Studies, and is considered by many to be the “go to” resource for teachers and students alike. Reading the book has provided me with an opportunity to critically examine my connection with ACK comics.

McLain goes into the ways of visual characterization of heroes, heroines and villains in ACK comics. She also dedicates a section to the portrayal of ACK’s female protagonists and the inspiration drawn from the archetype set by Raja Ravi Varma’s visual representation of the “ideal” woman.

In my reading of Professor McLain’s research on Ravi Varma’s work, I was intrigued to discover that while he enjoyed great success and fame as an artist, there were voices that spoke up against his artistic style. A group of artists and scholars formed the Bengal School of Art under the leadership of artist Abanindranath Tagore and denounced Ravi Varma’s “modernistic” methods. They maintained that his work lacked “Indianness” and felt that he reduced epic Indian icons and subjects to a common man’s level, treating them without the dignity they deserved. They clearly supported a more traditional Indian aesthetic. This group, closely linked to the nationalist movement in India, secured the dismissal of Ravi Varma from high art circles at the dawn of the 20th century. Despite this turn of events, his art endured. His lithographs succeeded in influencing India’s visual art and culture for the ages yet to come.

Amar Chitra Katha printed the stories of other female protagonists—Savitri, Padmini, Damayanti, Sita, Mirabai. They were all portrayed in a similar vein—distinctly feminine and light-skinned. Since its inception in 1967, the ACK series has sold over 100 million copies worldwide. Raja Ravi Varma’s influence extended into the popular world through Anant Pai’s comics where  the “ideal” idea of light-skinned femininity was further extended.

While my daughter is eager to ask her questions, I will ask a few of my own. How far back can we trace this bias of “fairness” that has nothing to do with honesty or justice? Was it always a part of our psyche? How firmly rooted is it in our cultural and social ethos of present day?  From Mumbai to Manhattan, the birth of a child is cause for celebration. While the health of the newborn and mother are enquired over, the discussion moves on very quickly to the vital statistics. Weight, height, gender, and name are discussed and exclaimed over. And then comes the comment about color. Albeit well intentioned, this particular qualifier is swiftly inserted into the list of adjectives used to describe the newborn. Amidst a torrent of gushing adjectives and glowing remarks there is a subtle pause…and the “but” makes its appearance, followed by an observation about the baby’s complexion. Often times the commentator is unaware of their own bias. But the verdict is given. If it escapes the list at this time, it will enter the fray even before the child can begin to speak its first word. And somewhere down the years it will worm its way into the child’s self image. Is this what we want for our children? Is this fair?

In an interesting turn of events, a Bollywood actor Abhay Deol recently started a debate by calling out products in the cosmetics industry that cater to color bias. His Facebook campaign shed light on ads featuring internationally famous brand names—both products and the stars who endorse them. Fair and Lovely and certain products of its ilk are endorsed by well known Bollywood actors and actresses. In Facebook posts titled “2-in-1 Fairness Cream” and “We Are Not a Racist Country,”  Deol used sarcasm and humor to shed light on how color bias has permeated the social and moral consciousness in India and the world over.

As a counterpoint to these posts he hailed fellow actress and filmmaker Nandita Das. Her “Dark is Beautiful” campaign was an important and refreshing change, he said. With the tag line “Stay Unfair, Stay Beautiful,” the campaign ad features her own face with dusky complexion, with no hint at help from Photoshop or otherwise. The message included in the ad actually calls for a social debate on  color bias and the ensuing pressure to look “fair.”

Abhay Deol’s bold stance and Nandita Das’s effort at going up against popular notions and ideas are applause worthy. While neither act might sway public opinion on a grand scale, they have stirred vigorous debate and will hopefully cause a shift in impressionable minds.

I know I will have to delve deeper yet to erase the remnant of such biases within me. Confronting them is one thing, erasing them is quite another task. For me, writing this piece has been cathartic. Maybe the very act of reading this article is the start of a debate in you. Your very own personal, internal debate. A debate that goes beyond the belief that beauty is relegated to the paleness of a skin tone. A debate that celebrates the power of life—in black, white and all the shades of brown—with the pride it deserves. One can but hope!

Pavani Kaushik is a visual artist who loves a great book almost as much as planning her next painting. She received a BFA from the Academy of Art University, San Francisco. She has held art shows in London, Bengaluru and locally. She is a mother to a rambunctious little girl. When she is not trying to find answers to “why,” “what” and “how,” she loves to dabble in all things creative, and keep life interesting for her family.

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