Skin colour is closely identified with caste and is laden with symbolism. Pursue any of the ‘grooms and brides wanted’ ads in newspapers or on the web that families use to arrange suitable alliances and you will see that most potential grooms and their families are looking for ’fair’ brides; some are progressive enough to invite responses from women belonging to a different caste. These ads, hundreds of which appear in India’s daily newspapers, reflect attempts to solicit individuals with the appropriate religion, caste, regional ancestry, professional and educational qualifications, and, frequently, skin colour. Even in the growing numbers of ads that announce ‘caste no bar’, the adjective ‘fair’ regularly precedes professional qualifications.
Bollywood (India’s Hollywood) glorifies conventions on beauty by always casting a fair-skinned actress in the role of heroine, surrounded by darker extras. Women want to use whiteners because it is ‘aspirational’, like losing weight.
Even the gods supposedly lament their dark complexion – Krishna sings plaintively, ‘Radhakyoongori, main kyoonkala?’ (Why is Radha so fair when I’m dark?) – a skin deficient in melanin (the pigment that determines the skin’s brown colour) is an ancient predilection. More than 3500 years ago, Charaka, the famous sage, wrote about herbs that could help make the skin fair.