Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

April 29, 2011

Beauty in deep shades of brown

Filed under: Colorism,Culture — Razib Khan @ 3:43 pm

In the comments below there was a reference to the fact that most Bollywood actresses have a certain look. In particular, the look of someone like Katrina Kaif. The “dark skinned” actresses such as Bipasha Basu aren’t even dark skinned by Indian standards (a major caveat here is that make-up can change skin tone, so Basu might be much swarthier without make-up than with). The Persian or Mediterranean appearance of many Indian actresses is always noted by outsiders. In contrast, someone like British Indian actress Parminder Nagra (who is of Jatt background from what I have heard for what it’s worth) looks indubitably Indian.

After a commenter pointed out that the paucity of Dalits in Bollywood I was curious and resorted to Google. I found basically nothing of note. Why? Are people who are dark skinned or lack sharp features naturally ugly? Some South Asians do believe so (they express the opinion in comments). And that’s fine, people are entitled to their opinions. But I would offer something interesting that I’ve stumbled onto years ago: very poor people are ugly. That sounds harsh, but I came to this conclusion by skimming through Daughter of the Ganges, a memoir by a woman who was adopted by a Spanish family from India. In the memoir she tracked down her birth family in a rural village in Maharashtra. There were some plates. The comparison between between the author and her sister, who were not far apart in age, was shocking. To not put too fine a point on it, the author has a good face for being a female memoirist with cross-cultural appeal (granted, her face and her features are of the normal range for the modal South Asian). Her sister, from what I recall, looked far older than her years and would frankly be classed as repulsive if you saw her walking down the street. Why? The same genes expressed in different environments.

March 30, 2011


Filed under: Colorism,Culture — Razib Khan @ 11:06 am

Indian film stars vs regular Indians:

A couple of points about the article. I disagree that the obsession with fair skin is related to British colonialism to any great degree. Preference for “lightness” does not equate to preference for “whiteness”. It’s far older than British rule and has its basis in the caste system. The conquerors of India have historically come from the north (Indo-Europeans, Muslim Moghuls), and the darker tones of the Southern Indians have acquired a negative association, enshrined by caste. It is probably overlain with an element of the same colour prejudice that occurs in East Asia, which is related to social class and occupation (dark skin = tan from working out in the sun = being a commoner).

Realistically, the likes of Sharma, Gracias and Rajandran are not really dark, when one considers the diversity of phenotypes across India. They are probably in the middle of the skin tone range. The ideal look for Indian celebrities is at the pale end of the spectrum. Male actors can to some extent get away with a degree of swarthiness that females can’t. Still, in a country with significant prejudices against its Muslim minority and hatred towards its Muslim neighbour Pakistan, some of the biggest male stars of Bollywood are Muslims (Aamir Khan, Salman Khan, Shah Rukh Khan), and I wonder how much that is related to their “Aryan”-ness.

Tipu Sultan, a "black" Muslim

It is correct that the preference for light skin predates the British era. Blaming something on colonialism is such a lazy trope. From the Muslim period there’s enough textual evidence to indicate that the Iranian and Turanian ruling caste had contempt for the natives on racial as well as religious grounds. From what I have read there was even some hostility directed at the South Indian Muslim warlord Tipu Sultan because of his clear origins among Hindu converts. The painting to the left makes no effort mask his rich brown pallor.

Whether this attitude toward light skin predates Muslim period is more contested. There is a strong strain of older scholarship which suggests that ancient Hindu texts and traditions do suggest contempt toward the dark-skinned peoples of the subcontinent. Revisionists, often of Indian nationalist bent, have reinterpreted the conflict between the light and the dark in metaphorical terms. For me the recent genetic data indicating partitioning between high and low castes in any given region implies that the view that differences in color were pure metaphor is probably not correct, and there was some genuine racial element even in the antique period. I suspect that the underlying reason is the one given above, that so many military elites in South Asian history have had a northwestern origin. Assam might be an interesting contrast, because the Ahom are Sino-Tibetan, though even in this case the elites would have been lighter skinned.


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