The crowning of a 24-year-old Indian American, Nina Davuluri, as Miss America 2014 a fortnight ago, may be a moment of glory for nearly two million Indians who have made the US their home. But for many Americans, the cause célèbre was worthy of condemnation because a non-white had been chosen as symbol of American beauty. Those who had followed the US social media at that time might have been shocked to see the amount of hatred, racial slurs and abuse pouring out of their posts against an Indian-origin girl, that too a Telugu girl. The tweets that surfaced in the cyber space make us wonder, at least some, whether beauty is skin deep and why do people get confused and mix up beauty and complexion.
The colour bias is as ancient as human civilisation. Hindu scriptures have references to fair and dark-skinned people and in later periods complexion had percolated into the caste system. Even today, a look at the matrimonial columns reveals how colour-biased we are. While there is no blatant discrimination against less fair-complexioned people, tinges of disappointment and disapproval are discernable at social gatherings. It is an irony, despite the fact that when the nature, plant and animal kingdoms are all colourful why humans have preferences and developed different perceptions, real or imaginary, about fellow beings’ complexion.
Some answers could be found in an article written by the renowned socialist leader Rammanohar Lohia in 1960. Dr Lohia was known more for his staunch political and economic views than his take on societal issues. But he wrote a number of in-depth articles on almost all subjects of common interest. Though he remained a bachelor until his death on October 12, 1967 in Delhi at an early age of 57, his contribution to various facets of life was immense. It’s interesting to know what he had said on “Beauty, Skin and Colour.” The following is an abridged and edited version of his article.
The colour of the skin is no criterion of beauty or any other type of superiority. And yet the fair of colour and the beautiful are words of similar meaning not alone in the white lands of Europe but more so in the sultrier climes of Asia or the Americas. On merit, this distortion of aesthetics is inexplicable. The dark of colour have not always been treated with neglect, at least not in India. To Sanskrit literature, the dark one, Shyama, is the beautiful one. She need not actually have been dark of colour, but if she was young and beautiful, and the young and the beautiful often tend to be synonymous, she was called Shyama.
Ancient India had probably succeeded in separating beauty from colour of complexion and was ready to discover the beautiful wherever it was located. It had presumably, at least during certain periods, been able to rid itself of prejudices in favour of the dark or of the fair in appraisals of beauty. Succeeding generations have squandered this great maturity of aesthetic judgment.
From such rites of beauty contests as are revealed to the world, it would appear that the measurements of chest, waist and hip are among the deciding qualities. No dark beauty, however, has so far been elected. A Japanese Miss Universe succeeded in gate-crashing after what must have been nearly half a century of beauty contests. Japanese women must, of course, have been beautiful even before one of them was crowned as the queen of the world, and it is not as though they are more beautiful today than before. The change is not in them but in the eyes of the beauty judges of California.
The turn for the dark skins of Africa and Asia may yet to come. The eyes of the beholder have so patently deceived not only over weeks or decades but also over tens of centuries, for they see what the mind has taught them to. The fair-skinned people of Europe have dominated the world for over three centuries. For the most beauty and skin colour part, they conquered and ruled, but, in any event, they have possessed power and prosperity, which the coloured peoples have not.
If the Negroes of Africa had ruled the world in the manner of the whites of Europe, standards of woman’s beauty would undoubtedly have been different. Poets and essayists would have spoken of the soft satin of the Negro skin and its ennobling feel and sight; their aesthetic construction of the beautiful lip or elegant nose would have tended to be on the side of fullness. Politics influence aesthetics; power also looks beautiful, particularly unequalled power.
The worldwide conjunction of fair skin with overwhelming power has received great reinforcement from a specific Indian situation. Those fair of skin or at least less dark have generally belonged to the higher caste. The Hindustani word for caste is ‘Varna’, which probably means colour. The ‘Rigveda’ has named white as the Aryan colour. Against the background of bright colours of nature and sky in India, the fully white but unstarched raiment probably makes the beholding eye happy and accentuates the beauty of the wearer. But that has nothing to do with the colour of the skin. Nevertheless, the conjunction of worldwide domination with the speciality of India’s caste has given to fair skin its formidable prestige and made it a thing of beauty in itself almost without other accompaniments.
Is the colour of the skin then no part of beauty? When the element of novelty tickles the beholder, all fair skin looks like soothing marble and, I guess, by the same token, all dark skin, ochre or wheat-like, looks like the immaculate trunk of the plantain tree. After the novelty has passed, the blotches of the white will show themselves same as the monotone of the dark.
The colour of the skin is certainly no criterion of beauty. If any quality of the skin goes into beauty, that certainly is its texture, a soft, unbroken and even texture, that is sometimes seen perhaps at its best in China or among the ochre or wheat-like women of Africa, India and similar lands. I have perhaps tilted the balance somewhat in the other direction, and that often happens when an earlier tilt is being corrected. A soft, unbroken and even texture may be found, though more rarely, among the fairer skin, which may cause madness to rage in the blood just as much as its darker skin.
While it makes no sense to prefer between the dark and the fair, some subjective impressions may be noted. All women are beautiful. Some are more so than the other. Among the more beautiful ones of fair skin are such as ooze frankness and innocence and pleasing beauty like the clear rippling brook or better still the transparent depths of rivers in the hills and the light of the moon. Among the more beautiful ones of dark skin are such as evoke the mystery of life and creation, the quickening that gives to fish its eyes, to the she-elephant its languorous step, to twilight its pregnant repose and all such things where deep calls unto deep.
Soaps and creams and lotions and the latest is injections, as might change the skin to lighter hue, are very much in demand by the coloured youth, both male and female. In land where a minority of whites and a mass of coloured people live together, as in South Africa, and where the white dominates, the accepted tyranny of colour can be seen in its most accentuated forms. All the world suffers this tyranny of skin’s colour, a tyranny made worse because the tyrants do not practice it as much as the slaves, who inflict upon themselves.
Most tyrannies are built upon error and so is this largest and widest tyranny, that of colour. How coloured humanity has come to willing and eager acceptance of standards of beauty laid down by those of fair skin is probably a greater marvel than any. The key to the marvel is the same as in the case of the tyranny of the rich over the poor, the high caste over the low caste, the foreign-tongued over the native-tongued, the select over the mass.
Between dark and fair as between rich and poor lie myriad gradations. The dark can be the black of coal or the yellow of pearl with many intermediate (colours/complexions of) wheat, brown, ochre and chocolate, so that the fair who dominate aesthetic judgments are able to win substantial followers in the dark-skinned camp. The distance between dark and fair, as between rich and poor, is covered by innumerable intermediate points, so that the restoration of a valid aesthetic judgment has become as difficult as that of a proper economic or moral standard.
When would the beautiful women of dark skin assert their supremacy or at least their rights of equality or, perhaps, the revolution in this, as in other matters, will be paved by the tyrants themselves. An aesthetic revolution in the evaluation of beauty and its relation to the colour of the skin will blow the air of freedom and inner peace over all the world almost as much as any political or economic revolutions.