I had an experience today I am not so proud of.
I am reading Ramesh Menon’s Siva (for the second time), his rendition of the Siva Purana in English. It tells the mythology of Lord Siva as narrated in the ancient Siva Purana in simple English and reads like a historic novel. I love the book for its simplicity and the magic it weaves with Gods and their stories.
The epic starts with Sati, the dark skinned daughter of Daksha whom Shiva marries. It is a tragic love story, heart wrenching but beautiful as it vividly unfolds in Ramesh Menon’s pages; but that is for another day.
In the story, Sati is dark skinned. She shines like the night. She is as dark as Shiva is fair. She is so beautiful that Brahma is overcome with desire when he sees her dark foot peeking out from her robes as she is walking with Shiva. Shiva on the other hand, a yogi who had never taken a woman until then, the perfect ascetic, is smitten; so smitten that he rushes through the wedding ceremony without completing all the rituals, which apparently is one of the reasons why the couple ends up in tragedy.
I was reading those chapters and trouble hit me. You see, what makes books work for me is the imagery. I get to day dream and construct the scenery I am reading about; the people, the places, the food…For instance, until I learnt it was two bread slices with a filling in between, sandwich was an exotic food Nancy Drew ate. My vision of a sandwich was so spectacular that one wouldn’t expect to find it any place lesser than a Michelin star restaurant.
I am digressing.
As I said, I was reading those chapters and trying to imagine my Sati. She shines like the twilight. She is ravishingly beautiful. My mind struggles hard at this point; I can’t seem to construct a woman who is Indian, dark skinned and mesmerisingly beautiful. Alas! The imagery is limited to the references of the mind, it seems.
I search through the prettiest women I know. Deepika Padukone, Aishwarya Rai, Sridevi… all of them fair skinned. In fact, every woman celebrated on (Indian) visual media are fair skinned. The immediate black beauty who came to my mind was Michelle Obama with Naomi Campbell following as a close second. Either of them as Sati?! Not working.
Dark skin is not popularly associated with looking good in India and many Asian communities. I, dark skinned myself, of all people, know that very well. Through my life people haven’t shied away from feeling sorry for me and my dark skin. “Thank God, your kids have taken after your husband”, they would say, expecting me to be feel happy for that!
I was fortunate enough to grow out of feeling unattractive quite early in my life, but that is only a personal triumph. Fair skin remains the most sought after cosmetic feature, with a number of “fairness” creams (for women and men) having a huge market here.
What I realised today was that more than the obvious and blatant pull of fairness creams, the subtle messaging reinforced by visual cues, influences one’s mind to a larger extent. When all visual media – movies, advertisements, TV shows, all feature thin fair skinned women, that image inconspicuously gets ingrained as the norm. Dark skin remains in the background subtly being assigned to less important characters in the script. A dusky woman has no primary place here. It is a bit of a irony that this should happen in a country that celebrates dark skinned Goddesses like Kali.
Coming back to my dilemma, I did finally find my muse, in Nandita Das and the number of classmates, friends and relatives I am blessed with who look radiant and strikingly beautiful in their dark skin.
With initiatives like “Dark is Beautiful“, hopefully we should have media finding their dark versions of muses too.
PS: This post stirred a debate and the readers were quite forthcoming with dark skinned artists who can portray Sati. But then the question remained. Fair is lovely. Is Fair the only lovely? Why does our media whitewash women and not glorify their original colour?
As a good friend put it, the story does not end here. 🙂 This is one post that I hope will linger in minds.