I am not an apologist for the Indians’ penchant for fair skin. I merely want to say that different nations/ethnic groups have different criteria for beauty/handsomeness, mostly illogical. Why is a taller man considered more handsome than a shorter one or a 36-24-36 an exquisite figure for a woman?
Another thing to clarify: in India, unlike in Latin America or among African Americans, skin color is not indicative of racial parentage. Such prejudices hardly exist in India in the workplace, where your work is valued much more than your ‘beauty’. The preference for fair brides is a throwback from an earlier era, when girls were married off in their early teens and arranged marriages were the overwhelming norm. The girls were too young to be distinguished by their education and their physique and features had not stabilized yet – skin color was a more definitive characteristic. This prejudice will slowly disappear as women become more educated and more assertive and have a lot more to show than their skin color. But prejudices die hard.
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From Surabhi’s Notepad – A column that brings us personal essays and stories, frivolous and serious, inspired by real-life events and encounters of navigating the world as a young, Indian woman living outside India.
Beyonce does not need an introduction. She is arguably one of the most influential artists in the history of pop music. An inspiration to millions of women, especially women of color, an ally of the LGBTQ community, and a powerhouse of an artist— Beyonce is an international icon.
Brown skin girl, ya skin just like pearls
The best thing in all the world
These are the lyrics from her song “Brown Skin Girl” released last year in July. The lyrics bolster Beyoncé’s crusade for cultural pride and female empowerment; the song went on to become the most-streamed female song of the year. In the video, black and brown-skinned women are portrayed beautifully in celebration of their skin color and diversity. For me, the highlight is the part where the video features a dark-skinned South Asian woman in all her glory.
Back at home (India), a group of educated, young creatives decided that a song titled “Tujhe Dekh K Goriya, Beyonce Sharma Jaegi” (Beyonce will be ashamed when she sees you oh fair lady) is what the world needs. Barely a month or so after the whole #FairAndLovely debacle in India and #BLM campaigns worldwide, women found themselves back to square one with this inappropriate song.
A Sad State of Affairs
Composed by India’s leading music composer duo Vishal-Shekhar, sung by Nakash Aziz and Neeti Mohan, featuring lyrics by Kumaar and Raj Shekhar, this song was released last month with a promotional video on YouTube. Soon after the launch, the video, starring young actors Ananya Pandey and Ishaan Khattar, amassed over a million downvotes and widespread criticism due to its racist undertones, and for unnecessarily dragging singer-actor Beyoncé’s name.
The film director Maqbool and lyricist Kumaar apologized and said that they never intended to offend Beyonce’s fans and that the “lyric in question was never intended racially”. If this is true then the state of affairs is scarier because if in 2020 learned practitioners of art do not even realize that they are being racist or sexist or colorist, then we probably haven’t progressed as much as a society as we’d like to think.
In an interview to an Indian national daily, the film director Maqbool said, “The term ‘Moriya’ has been so often and traditionally used in Indian songs to address a girl, that it didn’t occur to any of us to interpret it in a literal manner.”
Secondly, the very idea of using Beyoncé’s name in the song and reducing the Grammy-winning icon to just her skin color reflects poorly on the mindset of the creators. In a culture where the colonial hangover is still quite relevant and cinema is more than just a form of entertainment but a social agent of influence, it is high time that filmmakers, actors, and songwriters start taking some responsibility.
From Plato to Aristotle and Kant: Exploring Art and Its Impact
The debate of art as means versus art as an end has been ongoing for centuries and this song brings us back to it. While Plato was completely against artists and poets and wanted to banish them from his Republic because he believed that art was corrupting, Aristotle, on the other hand, saw art as therapeutic and cathartic. Later, Kant came up with the ends and the means theory where he stated that treating anything as a means to an end is problematic.
I personally believe that the extent of the impact of art and its influence depends on society. In India, art is never welcomed as just an end in itself. Bollywood is big and people (literally) worship actors. Cinema has the power to influence young minds and when it comes to sensitive challenging issues like domestic violence, crime against women, colorism, sexism, and casteism, can India as a society afford to have such “item songs” blaring on loudspeakers? India accounts for 37 percent of global female suicides. Last year, in October, a 21-year old woman killed herself over dark complexion taunts in Rajasthan. In 2014, a 29-year old girl’s husband drove her to suicide by taunting her over her dark complexion— this was in close proximity to the national capital (Gurgaon). In 2018, a 14-year old girl in Hyderabad burned herself alive and succumbed to death after she was bullied in school for her dark complexion.
Even today, most, if not all, matrimonial ads say that the groom is looking for a fair bride. We all saw the Netflix show Indian Matchmaking— an embarrassing but sadly, mostly, true tale of the realities of arranged marriages in India.
However, we need to remember that this is not just an issue in India. It is everywhere— it is a universal challenge. As a 30-year old Indian living in Singapore, I get comments like “for an Indian, you have great skin” or “how come you are not that dark” and sometimes a direct “are you Malay or Indian”. I see whitening and skin lightening treatments and cosmetics everywhere I look in a mall. In Korea, I’ve heard people gift cosmetic surgeries to their daughters as soon as they turn 16. In the US, a recent study has revealed that racism is linked to cognitive decline in African American women.
Young girls are fed with a singular idea of beauty and suffer major self-worth issues growing up. Colorism is affecting the mental as well as the physical well-being of women all over the world. It is high time that we realize the gravity of these issues and stop obsessing over fair skin on a global level.
Surabhi Pandey is a former Delhi Doordarshan presenter, is a journalist based in Singapore. She is the author of ‘Nascent Wings’ and ‘Saturated Agitation’ and has contributed to more than 15 anthologies in English and Hindi in India and Singapore. Website | Blog | Instagram
Growing up as a South Asian girl, society, media and even family had always ingrained in me that light was beautiful. Days in the sun would always be followed by the dreaded moment of evaluating how much I had tanned and then a series of home remedies, skin lightening products like fair and lovely, and even milk baths. As I’ve grown up, I’ve learned that this experience, one shared by many South Asians, has a name: Colorism.
This summer, as our country reeled from the Black Lives Matter movement, I started to think about anti-blackness or colorism in my own community. Inspired and motivated by national activists, I sought to take action in a way that felt authentic to myself. Drawing on my experiences as President of the Palo Alto Youth Council and Co-founder of a Real Talk, where I facilitate conversations between people with different political perspectives, I knew I wanted to start an intergenerational discussion about the role of the South Asian community in the Black Lives Matter movement. So, I reached out to the Bay Area Indian Community Center to take over their weekly Thursday morning virtual yoga class for seniors to lead a seminar on Black Lives Matter.
Coming into the seminar, I worried about what the response would be to my presentation. Talking about skin color with South Asians has always seemed taboo to me. I knew that starting this conversation would be uncomfortable, especially with individuals much older than me, but also a critical step in the culture shift around beauty and race that needs to happen in our community.
I started off the seminar with a presentation on Black Lives Matter, explaining the parts of the movement, especially on social media, that many seniors lacked information on. I next moved into a lesson about the connection between the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and Indian independence movements, highlighting the influence of Mahatma Gandhi on Martin Luther King Junior. Finally, after presenting some statistics about the booming business of skin-lightening products, the dowry system, and colorism, I opened the floor up to discussion, and to say the least, I was blown away.
My initial fears of silence and anger quickly dissipated as seniors started to share their own experiences. They spoke passionately about housing discrimination they had faced in America, personal insecurities about their skin color, and the beauty standards associated with marriage. I also received pushback – some uncles and aunties highlighted my own lack of knowledge growing up in America and argued that this was just how the system worked. However, overall, the conversation ended on a hopeful note, as seniors reflected on the power of the younger generation to start shifting old beauty standards to reflect our community’s core values of good character, equality, and justice.
As communities across the country fight for racial justice, I believe we, the South Asian community, not only have an opportunity, but rather a responsibility to look within at how we perpetuate racism. This means educating ourselves, showing up as allies to support other people of color, but also having uncomfortable, even taboo, conversations about race. My call to action for you as a reader is to start and lead these conversations with your parents, grandparents, siblings, and friends. That is how we will begin to shift our culture.
Divya Ganesan is a senior at Castilleja High Schoolin Palo Alto, CA. She is passionate about connecting different cultures, ages, and political perspectives through leadership, collaboration, and technology.
“They want a girl who is slim, tall, educated, and from a good family,” says matchmaker Sima Taparia, as she flips between pages of marriage biodatas. Beside Taparia, her husband laughs. “They want everything.”
Directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Smriti Mundhra, Netflix series Indian Matchmaking offers an unsanitized glance into the nitty-gritty of South Asian arranged marriages. The show follows the day-to-activities of Sima Taparia, who navigates the labyrinthian love lives of Indian and immigrant millennials. From horoscope hurdles to culture contrasts, Taparia’s job is to find a middle ground between parents and partners, spouses, and societal norms. Because of Taparia, the end-all of a successful marriage is compromised.
Although praised by audiences for its comedic timing, Indian Matchmaking has been subject to widespread criticism for its portrayal of casteism, colorism, elitism, and sexism. And the critics aren’t wrong. If I had a dollar for every time Taparia or a client equated physical attractiveness with being “tall and fair”, I could probably afford Taparia’s fees. (There’s a reason why almost everyone on Indian Matchmaking is rich, and it’s not by accident.)
The show reveals deep-seated prejudices that form the bedrock of the arranged matchmaking system. Parents often request Taparia to look for a ‘good family background’ — a euphemism for a specific caste, class, and ethnic background. Colorism is a regular facet of the show. Ankita, a surprisingly likable client, is immediately labeled as ugly by Taparia for her darker skin. She prefers the likes of Pradhyuman and Rushali Rai, who are praised for their lighter complexions.
Women above the age of 30 (case in point: Aparna) are treated like slowly rotting vegetables, who must be carted off before they cross the expiry date. And once they agree to the marriage, these women’s preferences and opinions are quickly dismissed by Taparia. Indian Matchmaking’s vision of marital compromise often targets its women, who are expected to be flexible and beautiful and witty regardless of the groom.
“The bride has to change and compromise for the family,” says Preeti, mother of 23-year old Akshay. “Not the boy. Those are the values we were raised with.”
Aside from the casual misogyny, divorcees and single parents are wholly ignored in the matchmaking process, perhaps because they’re evidence that relationships — “heavenly” as they are — don’t always work. “If anybody comes to me with a child, I mostly don’t take that case, because it is a very tough job for me to match them,” says Taparia, while discussing single mother Rupam.
It’s flippant. It’s shallow. It’s the kind of discrimination that bites you where it hurts, even when packaged as a joke.
I can understand why so many Indian Americans my age despise Indian Matchmaking. As I watched the show for the first time, I found myself deeply uncomfortable. Although presented as ‘just another reality show’, the series provided a painful lens on the worst of South Asian culture — traits that have endured generations of development and diaspora.
The criticism is real, but it’s misdirected. With Mundhra’s keen sense of direction and focus, it’s obvious why the show is popular with a global audience. To offer an accurate glimpse into South Asian society, Mundhra has a duty to present its flaws — regardless of how ugly and misguided they may be.
“Yes, it’s misogynistic, it’s objectifying people.. but this is what India is,” says stand-up comedian Atul Khatri. In his review of the show, Khatri concedes, “You know what India is..you cannot ignore it, you cannot brush it under the carpet.”
Taparia can do her best to sugarcoat the flaws of her clients — that’s her job as a matchmaker. But what Indian Matchmaking refuses to do is sugarcoat Taparia and the system that has made her what she is.
A better glimpse into arranged marriages is A Suitable Girl, which came out in 2018, and might be a better watch!
Kanchan Naik is a rising senior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. Aside from being the Youth Editor at India Currents, she is also the Director of Media Outreach for youth nonprofit Break the Outbreak, the editor-in-chief of her school newspaper The Roar and the 2019-2020 Teen Poet Laureate for the City of Pleasanton. This year, Kanchan was selected as a semifinalist for the National Student Poets Program.