Imagining white gods: colorism in Hindu art

It’s no secret that light skin is favored over dark skin throughout the Indian subcontinent, an attitude that is found in many other societies and is generally referred to as colorism or shadeism:

“Everyday media culture in India … consistently marginalizes dark-skinned Indians, especially dark-skinned women. Matrimonial classified advertisements in Indian newspapers specify routinely that prospective grooms prefer women with ‘‘fair’’ or ‘‘wheatish’’ complexions. A majority of the Indian female actors in Bollywood are light-skinned women, and the few dark-skinned women actors who have overcome the restrictive norms of skin color wear thick make-up to conceal their dark facial skin.

Interweaving colorism into a seamless package of physical attributes, the faces of Indian models in advertisements are almost universally light-skinned with smooth complexions, shining black hair, and slim bodies. The most lucrative products in the Indian cosmetics sector since 1998, a decade after India’s initial incorporation into the global economy, are chemical and herbal products that promise to reduce darkness and preserve light skin by preventing further tanning.”

Colorism in India doesn’t just exist in the realm of cosmetics and modeling; it finds a stronghold in religion as well, which makes understanding it even more complicated. One of my earliest posts on this blog talked about how the popular Western depiction of Jesus Christ as a white man has actually had some pretty serious consequences. In this post, I’m going to touch on some questions that are much closer to home:

  • Can colorism in the Indian subcontinent be attributed to British colonialism alone, or are there much older causes?
  • How has colorism influenced popular depictions of Hindu deities?
  • What are the social implications of depicting Hindu deities with extremely fair skin?
  • Are colorist attitudes beginning to change among Hindus, and among all South Asians in general?

Origins of colorism in South Asia

I think it makes a lot of sense to imagine a connection between British colonialism in India and colorism in South Asia today. However, all the explanations for colorism that I’ve come across make it very clear that colonialism did not introduce notions of colorism into South Asia; rather, it significantly strengthened pre-existing attitudes. So, where did these pre-colonial attitudes come from?

Devdutt Pattanaik, a popular writer on Hindu mythology, asks the same question: “Wherefrom comes this love for gori-chitti [light-skinned] complexion, this desire for fair brides in matrimonial [advertisements]? People say it is the hangover of our Aryan past -– that the nomadic tribes who came from the [northwest] held the dark-skinned settled communities of the subcontinent in disdain. Aryan gods like Indra were white.

But this white supremacist flavor does not hold firm in the face of other evidence. Some say Shiva was a Dravidian god, a god of the settled communities –- but he is described as Karpura-Goranga, he who is as fair as camphor. Some say that Vishnu and Ram are gods of the Aryan imperialists –- but both are described as dark. This theory of Aryan invasion, with roots in 19th-century racial theory, seems too simplistic and rather pedestrian to modern scholars despite its great popularity…”

If the origins of colorism can’t be adequately explained by the Aryan invasion theory, where else should we look? Radhika Parameswaran, a professor at Indiana University’s Media School, attributes colorism to perceptions about caste status:

“The castes that are not connected to manual labor outdoors tend to have higher status and prestige according to social norms. Lighter skin color is viewed as a status symbol for the middle and upper castes, who did not have to do manual labor.

From a historical and anthropological point of view, the relationship between caste and skin color is murky. There is no established causal relationship or even correlation between skin color and caste. But here’s what I will tell you, there is a strong perception that skin color and caste are linked and as long as that perception lasts, it will matter a great deal. So, I would say there is a widespread and entrenched perception that lighter skin color equals higher caste.” (emphasis mine)

Colorism in Hindu art

Whatever the origins of colorism, the facts remain that light skin is significantly preferred and valued over dark skin in South Asia. How does religion (specifically, Hinduism) play a role in reinforcing this attitude? One needs to look no further than our gods and goddesses themselves.

Just as a disclaimer, I just want to emphasize that I am not claiming that all Hindu art throughout history has portrayed deities with light skin, because that simply isn’t true. There are a variety of exceptions: for example, in South India, temple idols are often carved out of pitch-black granite. Also, some gods, like Vishnu, are described as having blue skin, and some South Indian goddesses like Matangi and Meenakshi are depicted with green skin. Where do Vishnu and Matangi then fit on the dark skin-light skin spectrum?

Rather, in my discussion of “Hindu art”, I want to focus on the most popular artistic style through which Hindu deities are perceived: calendar art. This style of art emerged in colonial India in the late eighteenth century with the introduction of Western conventions, namely single-point perspective. This art style was pioneered by “the first modern Indian painter” Raja Ravi Varma, and became hugely popular as the lithographic press spread throughout India. Calendar art has now become the de facto method of portraying Hindu deities in today’s India and the diaspora.

In calendar art, Hindu deities are generally depicted with very, very light skin. Just take a look at these portrayals of Lakshmi, Saraswati, and Satyanarayana (a form of Vishnu popular in south India). Notice how even Satyanarayana’s devotees and attendants are all portrayed with extremely fair skin!

[One more disclaimer: Whenever I talk about “fair skin”, I am doing so with the knowledge that plenty of people in South Asia are indeed born with fair-skinned complexions. However, I do believe that light-skinned individuals are a small minority in the subcontinent, both in north and south India. Hindu iconography should make space so that the vast majority of Hindus, who have darker skin, can see themselves reflected in their art too. I also believe that even those light-skinned individuals are nowhere near as pale as the people and deities depicted in some of these paintings.]

Clearly, there is something going on here. But before we investigate this phenomenon further, we have to ask: what about deities who are literally supposed to have dark skin? How are they portrayed in calendar art? To answer this question, let’s look at Krishna.

The curious case of Krishna

Krishna is a curious god indeed. Although Krishna, as an incarnation of Vishnu, is often portrayed with blue skin, the Sanskrit word krishna literally means “black”, and in devotional literature there are countless references to Krishna having extremely dark skin. However, if you’ve ever come across an image of Krishna, chances are that it probably looked like the following images, both of which give him extremely pale skin, with the faintest blue tint.

How did this happen? Devdutt Pattanaik tries to explain:

“Somehow, an unnaturally blue Krishna was preferred over a naturally dark Krishna. ‘Because blue is the color of the sky, of ether, of divinity,’ we were told. No one dared point out that “Krishna” and “Shyam” were both proper nouns and common nouns which referred to gods as well as the color black.”

“We forgot to refer to traditional Patta chitra [paintings] in Orissa, where Krishna and Vishnu are always shown using black paint while Balarama and Shiva are always shown using white. When making Krishna blue, we forgot all folk songs, even Hindi film songs, where there is constant reference to Krishna’s dark complexion. So in Raj Kapoor’s [1978 Bollywood film] ‘Satyam Shivam Sundaram’, is the song, ‘Yashomati mayya se bole Nanda-lala, Radha kyon gori, main kyon kala? (Nanda’s son, Krishna, asks his mother, Yashoda, ‘why is Radha fair and why am I dark?’). In the song, the mother offers many explanations to pacify the son, the angst ridden son who clearly would have been the target consumer for Fair & Lovely.”

This is not to suggest that portrayals of Krishna with his proper dark skin have disappeared. Here are a few:

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Although these dark-skinned examples do exist, they are few and far between compared to light-skinned portrayals of Krishna. I would argue that the light-skinned conception of Krishna, popularized through calendar art, has become hegemonic, marginalizing the other portrayals of the god. In fact, when the epic Mahabharata was turned into a television show in 2013, Krishna was played by an extremely light-skinned man, and nobody batted an eye. In a culture that places fair skin on such a high pedestal, perhaps it was only a matter of time before God himself became whitewashed.

mythology-tv-serial-mahabharat-2
Okay…

It begins with… comics

“We were introduced to the politics of color very early on in our lives, in the most surprising of places: in children’s comic books.”

— Devdutt Pattanaik

Many young Hindus, especially middle-class children living in Indian cities, are exposed to colorist attitudes and whitewashed portrayals of their gods from a very young age, through the medium of comic books; specifically, the Amar Chitra Katha series. The Amar Chitra Katha comics were independent India’s first comic book series, and aimed to educate Indian children on (Hindu) mythology, culture, and history. There are over 400 comics in the series so far, and they have been translated into 38 languages (including French, Spanish, Dutch, and Japanese). Even today, they are quite popular both in India and in the diaspora; my first introductions to Indian history and Hindu mythology came through reading stacks and stacks of Amar Chitra Kathas.

However, like Devdutt Pattanaik said, these comics also perpetuate colorism among Indian children, among many other “-isms”. An article titled “Immortal Comics, Epidermal Politics” by Radhika Parameswaran (whom we heard from before) and Kavitha Cardoza, a DC-based reporter, illuminates some of the issues in these comic books:

“Although the publishers of Amar Chitra Katha have professed their noble intentions of educating children, a few studies have shown that these comics’ representations of religion and gender are neither inclusive nor egalitarian (Hawley, 1995; Pritchett, 1995; Rao, 1996) … Contributing to this strain of critical scholarship, we are concerned in this article primarily with Amar Chitra Katha comics’ ideological constructions of gender, class, and caste hierarchies, particularly the ways in which light and dark skin color become symbolic vehicles to articulate a series of oppositional concepts—virtue/vice, valor/cowardice, nobility/bestiality, beauty/ugliness, and success/failure.”

“Hierarchical representations of light and dark skin color, we argue, are not marginal to the wholesome stories of love, valor, and nobility that these comics narrate. In fact, Amar Chitra Katha’s standardized practice of using shades of pink and brown to represent specific categories of characters and figures across its vast archive ensures that Indian children are exposed consistently to the disturbing subtext of ‘‘colorism’’ that pervades these comics’ pictorial domain.”

“Our analysis shows that Amar Chitra Katha’s stories of gods, goddesses, kings, demons, and historical events associate light-skinned masculinity with divinity, strength, virtue, compassion, and upper caste status. Comic book illustrations code dark-skinned masculinity through the semiotics of violence, brutality, stupidity, bestiality, and low caste status. Fashioning a similar set of symbolic oppositions, these pictorial stories link light-skinned femininity to beauty, wholesome family life, and happiness, whereas dark-skinned femininity manifests through embodiments of grotesque physical appearance, anger, promiscuity, and deviance.”

“Amar Chitra Katha’s representations of gender and colorism circulate within a larger social context of everyday media culture in India that consistently marginalizes dark-skinned Indians, especially dark-skinned women … The currency of colorism in Amar Chitra Katha comics thus carries a highly inflated value in the commercial and symbolic economies of the marriage, film, advertising, and cosmetics industries in India.”

“In the animated social world of Amar Chitra Katha, dark-skinned men and women, without any exceptions, are assigned lower positions in the socioeconomic hierarchy of caste and class … Dark-skinned women represent only 15% of the entire sample of all women (with 85% of women being pink- or light-skinned), whereas dark-skinned men represent 35% of the entire sample of male characters … When dark-skinned women are featured in mythological comics, the illustrations represent them as even more repulsive than dark-skinned men. Unlike the light-skinned women aristocrats and heavenly dancers, dark-skinned women are shown as domestic servants, low status companions, ignorant and illiterate rural women, and evil/demonic hyper-masculine figures.”

“Echoing the ways in which early twentieth century children’s comic books and Disney films in the West have sustained racism, our analysis shows that Amar Chitra Katha comics participate actively in the cultural production of colorism—skin-color based hierarchy—in India.”

“Visual and linguistic representations in these comics conjoin light or fair skin color to representations of divinity, beauty, virtue, agency, fulfillment, and achievement. Narrative illustrations of masculinity and femininity in these comics code dark skin through the disturbing semiotic codes of primordial violence, deviance, stupidity, and bestiality.”

“Endorsing the publisher’s claims, Amar Chitra Katha comics may teach Indian children lessons about morality, religion, and history; however, these colorful stories of gods, demons, kings, queens, and animals also distill the symbolic meanings of skin color’s relationship with hierarchies of caste, gender, and class for young readers.”

An experiment in representation

With all this in mind, I wanted to try a small experiment. Like Parameswaran and Cardoza said, gods and heroes are usually portrayed in comics with pink skin (with a few exceptions, such as the god Shiva), while demons and evil characters are portrayed with dark grey or brown skin. In addition, goddesses and “good” upper-caste/class women are always portrayed with pink skin, while lower-caste/class female characters are portrayed with dark skin.

I wanted to see what these comics would look like if all the characters were portrayed with a more realistic skin color, regardless of whether they were good or bad, god or demon, upper-caste or lower-caste. Here are my results. On the left side are the original panels from various Amar Chitra Katha comics; on the right are my attempts to make things a little more accurate (using Microsoft Paint):

s1-001
Sati praying to Shiva
markandeyacompare-001
Shiva protects his devotee Markandeya from Yama, the god of death
shivasaticompare
Shiva and his consort Sati
parvaticompare-001
The goddess Parvati incarnated as a fisherwoman
gandharicompare1
A scene from the Mahabharata epic, in which the queen Gandhari curses Krishna
meeracompare
From a comic about the 15th-century bhakti saint Meerabai

Amar Chitra Katha’s colorist characters are present even in biographical comics! This is just sad and absurd to me; what is an Indian kid supposed to think after reading biographical comics that portray all Indians with pink skin? Take a look at these panels from a comic about the life of Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902):

vivekanandacompare-001
From a comic about the life of Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902)

Some glimmers of hope

I don’t want to claim that colorist attitudes are changing in South Asian communities, because they are so deeply entrenched (in my opinion). However, recent movements on social media, namely the “Dark is Beautiful” campaign and the #UnfairAndLovely hashtag, have certainly provided our communities with something to start with.

When it comes to fighting colorism in the portrayal Hindu deities, though, I think one of the most exciting artists right now is Sanjay Patel, the Pixar animator now famous for his wonderful short film, “Sanjay’s Super Team“. Sanjay Patel’s art is remarkable not just for its intricacy and sheer charm, but also because he chooses to portray deities (especially goddesses) with realistic, darker skin. Just take a look at Patel’s portrayals of Saraswati and Lakshmi compared to the “calendar art” versions:

The point of this long-winded blog post is that representation matters. Something like changing the skin color of comic book characters may sound silly, but I think it is a step in the right direction. As Hindu children become more exposed to their religion as they grow older, they notice that their gods and goddesses don’t look exactly like them. When they read about their religion’s rich mythology and history through comics like Amar Chitra Katha, they are further introduced to a visual hierarchy that associates light skin with virtue, upper-caste modesty, and divinity, and dark skin with sin, low-caste status, and evil. Simply put, this isn’t healthy, and it only strengthens colorism in South Asian societies in general.

Artists like Sanjay Patel and hashtags like #UnfairAndLovely give me hope that things will change. In the meantime, I think the most effective way for us Hindus and South Asians in general to change colorist attitudes is through socially conscious personal behavior. We need to consciously monitor and interrogate what we think, say, and hear about skin color. Why do we think the way we do? Why was I told so much as a kid to “stay out of the sun”? How were were conditioned to think a certain way about skin color and its connotations? In what ways can we change our community’s perceptions about skin color; our family’s? After all, as cliche as it sounds, change does begin with the individual.


Sources:

  • Insaf, Habiba. “Indian Calendar Art: The Popular Picture Story.OpenIndia. OpenDemocracy, 10 Apr. 2012. Web. 20 Sept. 2016.
  • Parameswaran, Radhika, and Kavitha Cardoza. “Immortal Comics, Epidermal Politics.” Journal of Children and Media 3.1 (2009): 19-34. Routledge. Web. 30 Aug. 2016.
  • Parameswaran, Radhika. “Radhika Parameswaran on ‘colorism’ in India.” Interview by Kimaya De Silva and Alexandra Cheng. Asia Experts Forum. Claremont McKenna College, 19 Nov. 2015. Web. 8 Sept. 2016.
  • Pattanaik, Devdutt. “Black Gods and White Gods.Devdutt. Devdutt, 27 July 2009. Web. 6 Sept. 2016.

Image sources: Fair and Lovely female ad, Fair and Handsome male adBalaji idolMeenakshi, typical Lakshmi, typical Saraswati, typical Satyanarayana, typical standing Krishna, typical sitting Krishna, Black Krishna idol, Black Krishna fresco, Krishna Pattachitra painting, ShrinathjiKrishna in Mahabharata TV show, ACK Rama coverBrave Rajputs ACKPoets and Thinkers ACK, Basaveshwara ACKAkbar ACKMeera panel,  Vivekananda panel, Sanjay Patel’s LakshmiSanjay Patel Saraswati

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6 thoughts on “Imagining white gods: colorism in Hindu art”

  1. Well, artists in many cases tend to exaggerate. We have been a mixed race society all along. I agree, most Indians have a preference to fair skin but attributing that behavior to calendar art may not be completely true. As we have seen both in Amar Chitra Katha and other calendar art, Shiva and Krishna are mostly blue ( Proving my exaggeration point)

    Like

  2. This post is really well-written!
    Following up on the previous comments, calendar art might not be as influencing a factor as portrayed. Lord Shiva is also depicted as being blue instead of fair-skinned and I have read elsewhere that blue was the most appealing color in the cave paintings rather than white or black.
    Keep up the good work!

    Liked by 1 person

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