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June 11, 1997


Manjula Padmanabhan

Where there are many routes to one definition, many choices should be offered

A lady looking wonderingly at an array of colours For years, when I bought poster paints, I noticed that the one marked "Flesh" was clearly pink, and not brown, in colour. But I thought nothing of it. Though the company manufacturing the paint was Indian, I assumed that since the notion of marketing a fixed palette of pigments was western, the choice of colours and the names given to them would naturally be western too.

Then, one day, I noticed a set of Japanese photo retouching inks for sale. There was one bottle marked "Flesh". And it was a peachy golden colour, clearly not pink. Do such things really matter? I find it hard to decide. If an Indian manufacturer were to create a flesh-coloured tube or bottle of paint, which colour of Indian flesh would it, or should it, correspond to? A majority of models advertising consumer products today are the same colour of pink as the pigment marked 'flesh' in a western palette.

Indian animated cartoons routinely signal the moral status of their characters by the colour of their skin. Invariably, it is the sepia-tinted characters who will refuse family planning and allow their teeth to rot, while their saintly neighbours, pallid to a fault, trot about with two neatly sparkling children and blinding white smiles.

It's true that fashion models occasionally appear to be a darker shade of pale, but they are either exceptions to the rule or they are men. Even the men are, at best, a dusky ochre or gleaming bronze, never the frank Vandyke brown that most Indians appear to be when one sees a photograph of teeming millions taking the sun during a riot or on the steps of a temple.

At one time, when the roadside painters of the city formerly known as Madras wanted to represent a god or a heavenly couple, their skins would be a lurid shade of blue. Nowadays, the same celestial couples, preaching family planning or abstaining from alcohol, are a glutinous pink. Does it mean that the gods themselves have become Caucasian? Or merely that paint manufacturers have a surplus of a particular shade of pink?

When I first began to sell illustrations to newspapers and magazines, my work was routinely stigmatised for its un-Indianness. I was always being told that my early years outside India had influenced the way in which I represented reality. I struggled to re-orient my vision and perhaps, for that reason, was always conscious when some other artist or illustrator got away with graphic details borrowed from the west.

I can remember one artist, working in the "native" mode, whose representation of Indian farmyard animals was unmistakably of western inspiration. There were long pink pigs with great floppy ears and black and white cows with straight backs and short horns. No buffaloes, no hump-backed cattle, no sassy goats, no free-range hens. Yet that artist spoke only Marathi, an authentic son-of-the-soil. His vision was accepted without argument as authentically Indian. When I pointed out to the editor showing me this work that I found the cows oddly alien to our streets, she shrugged and said, "Oh, but you can see cows like this in Pune!"

Of course you can. Just like you can see a number of Indians, including last year's Miss World, with blue-grey eyes. Yet if one were to create a picture which was meant to be representative of Indians, would it be appropriate to colour that person's eyes blue?

I don't believe it is necessary to find a quick answer to such questions. It seems to me that the images which finally become representative are constantly changing, being ground out from between two ceaselessly rotating mill-stones: the existing standards of a mass of people on the one hand and those who consciously seek to influence, educate or otherwise alter public taste on the other.

I don't think it would be possible for any media mogul, however omnipotent, to decide in one stroke to redefine the national appetite for fair skin, for instance. Yet over the years, there has been a change, howsoever minute, in the acceptance of the duskier end of the skin-spectrum. It may have begun with the decidedly wheatish range of airlines hostesses forced upon a flying clientele who resisted quite vociferously in the beginning, but are strangely silent since. Or it may have been a back-reflection from the gradual "melanisation" of beauty standards in the west.

I favour the idea that, where there are many routes to one definition, many choices should be offered. Rather than one tube of Indian fleshpaint, there could perhaps be an entire shade card. Someone could have a lovely time thinking up suitable names: Nilgiri Night at one end of the spectrum and Kashmiri Dawn at the other, with Bombay Beige fighting for the middle against Madras Mellow.

And as for these hopelessly outdated city names, tainted with the tar of colonial oppression... by the time I get around to using their substitutes, I and most of you reading this, will have been denounced for the English-speaking anachronisms that we are.

Montage: Rajesh Karkera

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Manjula Padmanabhan