Click on the link below to read my “Guest Voices” column in the “Washington Post” about the recent rape of a 23-year old medical school student in New Delhi:
Category Archives: Current Events
Click here to read “Battling Bribery” by Kavita Ramdya in the 12 March, 2010 issue of “News India Times”.
“Battling Bribery” by Kavita Ramdya (12 March, 2010 issue of “News India Times”)
On a recent trip to India, my husband and I met a man who is currently building the “Versailles of Udaipur”, a name I playfully bequeathed the hotel after viewing photographs of the construction. Architecturally speaking, the design is an admixture of styles: Greco-Roman pillars, Arabic geometric patterns, Byzantine mosaics, and Baroque murals are all integrated to create a feeling of luxury and courtliness for the crème de la crème of Indian and international society. In our discussions with the entrepreneur about the construction effort, which will take in total five years, the headache which plagued him was not the sourcing of raw materials, managing multiple teams, keeping to the timeline and budget, or dealing with creditors and bankers. No, his complaint was the same one echoed by village peddlers selling shoes, widowed women running fruit stands and store owners marketing the latest gadget: corruption.
So it was no surprise when “The Economist” magazine’s “Fighting corruption in India: A zero contribution” (January 28th, 2010) quickly emerged as a popular link in social-networking and news sites. The reporter describes how a physics professor from the University of Maryland distributed self-manufactured zero-rupee notes to government officials while visiting India, his home country, as a way of managing the “endless extortion demands”. The professor’s clever solution caught the attention of Vijay Anand, the president of NGO 5th Pillar, who then printed “25,000 zero-rupee notes”. Since 2007, the charity has distributed one million notes in an effort to “mobilize opposition to corruption”.
In the article, Mr. Anand suggests that the popularity of the zero-rupee notes is due to the fact that “ordinary people are more willing to protest, since the notes have an organization behind them and they do not feel on their own.” For me, the beauty of the zero-rupee note is its simple cleverness and its adherence to Gandhi’s notion of “non-violent protest”. What better way to point out a corrupt government official’s abuse of power than by peacefully meeting his demands with valueless currency?
During this same trip to India, I read Aravind Adiga’s “The White Tiger”, the much-lauded novel which explores modern-day corruption in Delhi through the eyes of Munna, a poor youth who is taken advantage of by his employer and employer’s family. Munna’s respect, devotion and commitment to Mr. Ashok, his employer, is rewarded with ridicule, low wages and, finally, abandonment. Despite his years of service, Munna’s livelihood is put at risk when his boss’s ex-girlfriend, Mrs. Uma, suggests that Mr. Ashok hire a new driver, one that is not “from the Darkness,” a term used to describe the country’s poorest who live in the most remote corners of India.
Ironically, while Munna spends the entire length of his service manipulated by his wealthy employer, Mr. Ashok and his family are only but one level up in the food chain of corruption that characterizes contemporary Indian politics. He, too, is a victim of The Great Socialist Party, a newly-formed political party that has dumbfounded the wealthy and elite in Delhi by emerging as a winner in recent elections. The people of “the Darkness” were successfully mobilized into voting for this new party, following promises of clean water, as plentiful from the tap as it is in the rivers. Yet the question remains whether The Great Socialist Party won the election honorably or will fulfil their promises to their constituents.
The reader is simultaneously faced with two sets of victims: Munna whose livelihood is now jeopardized by an ex-girlfriend’s flippant suggestion that Mr. Ashok employ a local chauffer and Mr. Ashok whose heart is in the right place but whose wavering commitment to engage in business transactions in a more transparent manner and spineless inability to stand up against his family’s corruption ultimately result in murder. In the race for survival, Munna’s origin from “the Darkness” inspires his will to survive and thrive whereas Mr. Ashok’s coddled upbringing leave him vulnerable to his driver’s scheming. The novel ultimately concludes with a “Horatio Alger” ending which partly explains its popularity among the American reading audience: Munna’s life is a struggle, but one in which his hard work, commitment to self education and sense of entrepreneurship ultimately allow him to emerge ahead of his wealthy employer… but not without bloodshed.
Whereas Anand’s solution for combating corruption in India is a fake currency that neither physically harms the payer nor the receiver, Adiga’s tale is one of violent rebellion. Yet there emerges a third way of combating corruption as proposed by Shaffi Mather, an entrepeneur not unlike Anand and Munna. In the 2009 “Technology Design Entertainment” conference in Mysore, Mather discusses how “in the modern day world where time is premium… the helpless common man simply gives in and pays the bribe just to get on with life” rather than report the bribe to the police who, too, are “steeped in corruption”. Rather than “fight” corruption by paying officials with fake currency or bloody rebellion, Mather proposes setting up a for-profit, fee-based service which addresses and fights “individual instances of bribe” using legitimate tools such as video and audio devices.
India’s place among the four BRIC (Brazil Russia India China) countries is under a spotlight, perhaps due to its position as the largest democracy in the world and its commitment to values and virtues touted and subscribed by venture capitalists, entrepreneurs and global banks: research, innovation, growth and the market economy. It is also a country where the widespread use of English, from the poor teenage boy who polishes tourists’ shoes to the cook at an upscale Jaipur restaurant, facilitates cross-cultural trade. Finally, the country’s soft power, its ability to export Indian culture by way of yoga, Bollywood, fashion and art, have familiarized the country’s otherwise exotic eastern origin to potential investors. India’s politicians and government officials must recognize combating corruption is a significant step towards ensuring the country’s place among the BRIC countries for years to come.
Kavita Ramdya is author of “Bollywood Weddings: Dating, Engagement and Marriage in Hindu America” www.bollywood-weddings.com
Click here to read Kavita Ramdya’s “A Veiled Truth” in the January/February 2010 issue of “The Indian American” magazine.
“A Veiled Truth” by Kavita Ramdya (January/February 2010 issue of “The Indian American”)
Women’s fashion is not only topical in the pages of “Vogue” but also in heady financial and news publications such as “The Financial Times” and “The Washington Post”. Ladies fashion is not limited to discussing the runway shows at fashion week or the holiday-season sales; instead, what women are wearing, or desire to wear, has emerged as a major theme in the global debate around Muslims versus Islamists. And the global debate is focused on headwear. The variety of national cultures and disparate governments which govern the communities in which Muslim women live has resulted in a disparate and non-uniform, excuse the pun, attitudes towards answering the age-old question, “what to wear?!” However, looking at the political regime under which these disparate communities function in connection with the most infamously-dressed woman, albeit a fictional one, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s heroine Hester Prynne in his novel “The Scarlet Letter” sheds light on the inconsistent attitudes Muslim women purport towards traditions like wearing a head scarf, veil or niqab.
For months I have made thinking about why Muslim women do or don’t want to cover their head an intellectual pursuit of mine. It began with reading Charlemagne, the European columnist in “The Economist” magazine, column “In knots over headscarves” where he describes how in 2004 Muslim headscarves “have been banned at state schools” [in France]. Belgium, on the other hand, has left it to school administrators to decide whether to allow headscarves or not; right now only three schools in Antwerp allow students to don the religious clothing including Ms. Karin Hereman’s Royal Atheneum. It was when many of her female students arrived at school wearing “all-concealing robes and gloves” that Ms. Heremans confronted these young girls who were often seen unveiled on the weekends and off school grounds. Rather than agree with Ms. Heremasn that their veil stigmatized them, her students turned the accusation around and said the administrator’s attitude towards their wearing the veil was stigmatizing.
The young women at Antwerp are not the only ones to assert their right to cover their heads and bodies; the feminist group “Boss of my own head” (or BOEH in the Dutch acronym), in a distinctly post-modern fashion, protested Ms. Hereman’s reversal that her students be allowed to wear headscarves, etc. Rather than protest in full hijab, however, the members of BOEH wore such random objects such as “sieves and toys on their heads”, implying that articles of religious clothing can be emptied of their non-secular significance and that random objects are open to interpretation by the community rather than having intrinsic meaning. Everything—religious significance, political overtures, traditional values—is ultimately in the eyes of the beholder when it comes to making sense of why women want the right to wear religious articles of clothing.
In a country where the government could not be more different from Belgium’s liberal democracy, journalist Lubna Hussein continues to wear pants as a way of criticizing Sudan’s Islamist ruling party’s decency laws. However, Sudan’s decency laws not only target Muslim women: on November 28th, the Associated Press reported a “16-year-old Christian girl from southern Sudan said… she was lashed 50 times for wearing a skirt deemed indecent by the authorities”. Whereas Belgium strives to promote liberalism and tolerance among its minority groups, Sudanese women are alienated by the Islamist government which resulted from Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s rise to power after a 1989 coup.
Again, regional differences emerge when it comes to why women do or don’t want to cover their heads. Whereas the local men in Hussein’s community threatened women who violated decency laws with throwing acid on them to disfigure these women’s faces and bodies, leading Egyptian cleric Shaikh Tantawai banned the wearing of the niqab or burqa (full-face veil) at Al-Azhar university. Governed by men who would rather the world focus on Egypt’s hospitable tourism industry and ancient history, the Muslim government is running an international publicity campaign to further distance itself from the growing problem of terrorism that has marred the reputations of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and even India. Ironically, although Egyptian women couldn’t live in a society more different from that of Belgium’s Antwerp, in both countries female-university students expressed their right to veil their heads when faced with the ultimatum of banning religious articles of clothing.
In following the international debates centered on women in such far-flung countries such as Belgium, Sudan and Egypt, I was improbably brought back to America. Most, if not all, American high-school students have read Hawthorne’s mid-19th-century novel about Hester Prynne whose adultery was punished by being forced to wear a letter “A” (for adulterer) on her bosom in the Puritan, pre-Independence Massachusetts community in which the novel’s events take place. No woman, Paris Hilton or Hollywood’s starlets on the red carpet at Oscar Night, has been the target of such analysis and debate as Hester when it comes to discussing women’s fashion. Doctoral students have been writing about the significance of Hester’s punishment in English Literature dissertations across the globe, college students discussed the local township’s court structure in light of the Queen’s royal legal system, and high-school students learn about early colonists’ Puritan values which they were able to freely express as subjects in the Queen’s Thirteen Colonies.
Hawthorne, in “The Market-Place” (Chapter II), describes Hester’s community not unlike mainstream, western media’s portrayal of Muslim society: harsh, judgemental and merciless. He writes, “… as befitted a people amongst whom religion and law were almost identical, and in whose character were so thoroughly interfused, that the mildest and the severest acts of public discipline were alike made venerable and awful”. Like the vigilante Sudanese Islamists who threaten to mar women’s features with acid as a way to punish their breach of “decency laws” by wearing trousers or short skirts, Hawthorne is critical of Hester’s community which doles punishments disproportionate to the “crime”.
Just like the Muslim veil is meant to deflect lust and ensure marital faithfulness, Hester’s peers describe her punishment as one which should remind the community’s women not to wield to feelings of lust. One “autumnal matron” argues that the judges should have “put the brand of a hot iron on Hester Prynne’s forehead”. Ultimately, in both the Islamist and the colonial-Puritan society, sex is wholly determined by the woman’s behavior. She is held fully responsible for any sexual transgressions whether it be adultery or temptation of a man who is not her husband.
Whereas the letter A spurs ridicule and teasing from the local boys and jeering from her neighbors, years of living a quiet life in the woods raising her daughter Pearl as a single mother enabled her community to forgive Hester’s “frailty” and instead began “to look upon the scarlet letter as the token, not of that one sin, for which she had borne so long and dreary a penance, but of her many good deeds since” (Chapter XIII). Similarly ostracized Puritans seek solace in Hester’s cabin, and many a woman neighbor advice from the woman they once castigated as an adulterer. The letter A, through Hester’s own agency and that of her community’s, evolved in meaning: Adulterer becomes Able.
Why the transformation? Why does Hester undergo such a transformation by wearing an A on her bosom and her community for being reminded of her transgression? Like the veil or hijab, the letter A is symbolic of “original sin”. According to the Abrahamic religions, inclusive of both Islam and Puritanism, we are all descendents of Adam and Eve whose carnal delight in one another spawned nations. However, this same act of sexual self-expression is their first act of defiance against their maker, God, who expressly forbids them not to partake in the apple which will reveal their nakedness to one another.
Whereas Hester who abandons the idea of running away from the colony A-less with her lover Reverend Dimmesdale and Muslim women who fight for their right to cover their heads, the Reverend and his Islamist contemporaries spend their lives running away from original sin: the will and human impulse for sexual self expression. While Hester proudly wears her humanity on her bosom and basks in the freedom of being “outed” for her original sin, the Reverend dies of guilt for having slept with Hester, denying Pearl a father and living as a hypocrite in his community. His Puritan commitment to his self-admonishment is symbolized in “the breast of the unhappy minister [where] a SCARLET LETTER-the very semblance of that worn by Hester Prynne-imprinted in the flesh” (Chapter XXIV).
Just like Hester uses her scarlet letter A brand as a way to liberate herself from the societal pressures of adhering to Puritan social mores and denying her original sin, Muslim women who choose to cover their heads participate in a similar exercise of altering the meaning and significance of wearing a veil or hijab. I suspect that Egyptian men flinch at covered-up women because it reminds them of their own moral transgressions and Sudanese Islamists enforce decency laws as a tool in controlling women’s ability to express themselves sexually. As for the post-modern Muslims in Belgium, I laud their intellectually-robust suggestion that the meaning of the veil is entirely in the eyes of the beholder and BOEH for suggesting that objects like scarves can be emptied of meaning just like random “sieves and toys” can just as easily be filled with significance.
Hester’s A was not without fashion. She exercises her God-given talent as a seamstress when she dons “in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread… the letter A. It was so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy… [and of all the] splendour in accordance with the taste of the age…” After all of my years of living in international cities like New York and Boston, it was not until I moved to London in 2006 that I now regularly shop among mothers in full hijab and share the double-decker bus which transports me to work with veiled lawyers. I’ll never forget walking into the high-end department store Selfridges (the London equivalent to New York’s Neiman Marcus) and being regaled by the seemingly infinite supply of high-end, designer-branded veils and head scarves. Groups of Muslim women exercising their family’s petrol-sourced wealth shopped like they owned the store, queen-like in their elaborate, chequered gold Louis Vuitton head scarves and Burberry-patterned veils. Even ironic and religious women need to look good.
Kavita Ramdya is the author of “Bollywood Weddings: Dating, Engagement and Marriage in Hindu America” now available on Amazon. www.bollywood-weddings.com
Click here to read Kavita Ramdya’s article “‘Soft power’ and storytelling in India, China” in the 29 January 2010 edition of “News India Times”.
“‘Soft power’ and storytelling in India, China” by Kavita Ramdya in “News India Times” (29 January 2010)
Shashi Tharoor, a Keralite writer and former member of the UN, has recently come under the gun by colleagues in Indian parliament for his frequent use of Twitter as a vehicle to candidly and regularly express his views on political matters. India, although the largest democracy in the world, does not mean its politicians are the most communicative. Instead, Mr. Tharoor’s attitude towards using social networking sites and openly conveying his thoughts on matters such as whether India should tighten its visa requirements in the name of preventing terrorism has incited a wave of disapproval among his colleagues who admonish his very public disagreement with senior members of Parliament.
Respecting one’s elders and superiors remains a relevant value in Indian society. What makes Mr. Tharoor’s dilemma more interesting is his use of Twitter, a one-way form of communication via the Internet, to broadcast his thoughts to his half-a-million followers. Clearly, Twitter serves as a significant vehicle for communicating his political ideas, but what of his and fellow intellectuals’ cultural concepts?
In the 2009 TED (Technology Entertainment Design) India Conference which took place in Mysore, Mr. Tharoor proposed that nations pursue a policy of “soft power” versus traditional methods of asserting control such as politics and trade. “Soft” power, originally coined by Harvard scholar Joseph Nye, is defined by the ability to spread culture – in India’s case, more specifically, it means exporting Bollywood movies, offering curries and dhosas in English towns, and performing the tabla in Europe’s greatest concert halls. Ultimately, Tharoor suggests that what will make a country more powerful is its ability to embed itself in people’s minds the world over via cultural exports.
Elucidating concepts from his book “The Elephant, The Tiger, And the Cell Phone: Reflections on India – the Emerging 21st-Century Power”, Mr. Tharoor goes on to argue that “the entire notion of world leadership seems to me archaic”. In a historical moment where the concept of BRIC ascendancy (Brazil Russia India China) is so widely accepted that it informs investment banks’ directions for growth and expansion in the global markets, Mr. Tharoor takes a risky stance by downplaying the role India is expected to have in the global markets. He argues that the country’s military strength (India has the 4th-largest army in the world), its population (India’s will exceed China’s by 2034), and economic growth (while other world economies have recently shrunk due to the global economic crisis, India’s grew 6.7% in 2008) will be overshadowed by India’s contribution to the world by India’s culture, its soft power.
Some obvious examples of soft power, or a country’s ability to attract others via culture, political values and foreign policies, include China’s Beijing Olympics and America’s Fulbright Scholarships. However, Tharoor suggests that MTV and McDonalds have done more for promoting American culture and values than anything the U.S. government may orchestrate: soft power spreads because of and in spite of governments’ actions.
Although official news outlets such as print media, radio and television have traditionally been the source for news about the world, social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter informs people globally about countries, including stories governments might not want to spread. This notion of “soft power” which has gained credibility the world over is critical in understanding the current face-off between Google and China. Whereas originally Google agreed to censor its China-based search engine, cyber attacks on Google mail accounts held by human rights activists have incited Google to cease censoring its sites while engaging in talks with the Chinese government with regards to the incidences of hacking.
Censorship is anti-democratic and, in the current world we live in, impractical in terms of limiting the spread of information and managing a country’s global public image. Information will always find a way out. That said, the current example of China and Google is useful in terms of discussing public image and publicity since, rightly so, “soft power” is emerging as a widely-accepted tool in wielding power globally.
In the case of China, if the country that “tells the better story prevails”, then it should come as no surprise why the Chinese government takes pains to control and consolidate outgoing narratives about its political workings, people and products. Of course, China’s struggle for control of its image is a losing battle; the prevailing western notions of open society and democratic values have been exported, sold and embraced globally and, via technologies offered in the current information era, will win over government propaganda.
Mr. Tharoor concludes his TED presentation about soft power by asserting that what makes India different, helpful in understanding the current conflict between Google and China, is the agreement “on ground rules of how you will disagree”, a sunny image for India where territorial conflict in Kashmir is still handled by the military and terrorism is still a concern one year after the November 26th Mumbai attacks by terrorists. And, despite the proliferation of Indian restaurants and yoga studios globally, screenings of Bollywood films in European capitals, and Ravi Shankar’s ability to sell-out shows when he performs at Carnegie Hall, media about India is still often focused on dire stories about honor killings and economic migrants.
However, Mr. Tharoor’s point that countries agree on how to disagree is a useful one: something for economists and capitalists to contemplate when pondering the potential BRIC countries have to offer in the global markets is the BRIC countries’ own commitment to establishing and maintaining an “open society”. Now we see the reality of western companies’ inability to compromise values in exchange for financial returns. In a world where soft power has emerged as a widely-accepted instrument for power, politicians and corporate titans alike need to contemplate what the BRIC countries’ stories tell us about them.
Kavita Ramdya is author of “Bollywood Weddings: Dating, Engagement and Marriage in Hindu America”. www.bollywood-weddings.com
“Taxi wallahs take on Terror” by Kavita Ramdya (“News India Times” 22 January 2010)
My husband and I recently visited Rajasthan a few weeks after the one-year anniversary of the November 26th terrorist attack in Mumbai. The country was on a terrorist red alert and a good friend of ours who has a management function at an international news agency warned us that they had shut down their local Mumbai office and asked their staff to lay low; the local police and government security agency were abuzz, fearful that terrorists would strike again. Thankfully, India proved safe during our visit. However, the widespread and tightened security, along with chat among locals about the terrorist threats, were an instructive education in comparing how the country has responded to and thinks about the November 26th attack in relation to post-9/11 America and even England after the July 7, 2005 London bombing.
Vandana Sood, a New Delhi-born and New York-based film director, has exported Mumbai’s story of modern-day terrorism abroad for the world to benefit. In her short videos entitled “The Taxi Takes on Terror”, Ms. Sood acts as a mediator between taxi-wallahs, or drivers, and their passengers who conjecture, discuss and debate the causes of the 26 November terrorist attack (www.thetaxitakes.com). Three months after the 26 November terrorist attacks, Ms. Sood filmed and facilitated conversations within the taxis. And why is the taxi the space in which Ms. Sood has decided to direct this dialogue? Because, according to her, it is the public space where “people of various socio-economic backgrounds and religions meet.” In a recent conversation with Ms. Sood, she explains further:
“Globally, taxi drivers and passengers have spontaneous and candid interactions in taxis. A taxi driver is a mobile new-age guru who navigates the streets and has a pulse on what is ticking in a city. Cabbies are also links of exchange and contact between people from various backgrounds, constantly conversing with people on the street and uniquely positioned to sense the atmosphere in a city or town. They understand the cities they traverse and are sensitive to political upheaval, given that it directly affects their livelihoods. Most of the drivers picked for The Taxi Takes on Terror were on the roads of Mumbai when the terrorists attacked in November 2008. Hence they witnessed the carnage and have a personal experience with terrorism. Also, in particular, within a taxi in India the passengers in the backseat usually belong to a higher class background than the taxi driver. So, interactions between cab drivers and passengers allow us to engage in a conversation that breaches formidable class and caste divides – conversations that might not occur without the intervention inside the taxi space. The environment of the taxi, a public, yet contained space also provided the perfect conditions amenable for filming.”
In “Welcome To The Taxi Takes On Terror”, which begins with an ironic 1960s-era paean to Mumbai, is the first installment of the four-video series. In the video, taxi-wallahs contrast the opportunity, wealth and innovation of Mumbai with its intrinsic poverty. One taxi-wallah describes how Mumbai’s streets are “paved with gold” yet there is “nowhere to sleep”, pointing out the discrepancy between the city’s opportunities for wealth and advancement with the homeless beggars who are also part of the city’s landscape. Ms. Sood films passengers and taxi-wallahs as they discuss what makes Mumbai great (shopping, industry, development) and conjecture why the terrorists targeted Bombay.
“Who is to Blame?” conveys Delhi’s inhabitants’ suspicion of Pakistan and its madrasas in organizing the 26 December Mumbai attack. In light of President Obama’s recent criticism of lapses in White House security, the taxi passengers also blame India’s security and local police in their inability to detect and prevent the attack.
“Women Taxi Drivers” is perhaps the most interesting of the four short films. I was surprised to learn that Mumbai has two women’s taxi services, companies which teach women how to drive taxis and self-defense skills such as karate in order to exclusively serve female passengers. Sexual harassment remains an issue in India and drinking and driving among young, male taxi-wallahs at night is a concern. Now that women are working longer hours and spending their expendable income on late-night movies and evenings out with friends, there is more of a demand for female drivers to take women passengers home.
Supriya Surve, a twenty-three-year old taxi-wallah, is wise beyond her years. When asked what she enjoys about driving a taxi, she responds with “I get to meet new people… you learn. You get to know what kind of people live in the city. You find out about people and their behavior” before answering her mobile phone with a resigned yet professional voice: business is good.
The final installment “Women and Islam” stars a female, Muslim taxi-wallah, Sameena. This video focuses on the issue of whether Muslim women should be allowed to wear a burkah. Sameena’s mother suggested her daughter learn how to drive a taxi because she would “earn depending on how hard she worked”. Sameena, like all the other thousands of taxi-wallahs in Mumbai, expresses an entrepreneurial spirit when she describes how by driving a taxi versus taking a more traditional women’s job she is “not anyone’s slave” and is, instead, her “own boss.” It is later revealed that Sameena is a young divorcee who was held a prisoner in her own home by her ex-husband. She describes herself as sitting around and doing embroidery when she was married, “like an illiterate”. It was only by divorcing her husband that she was able to work and earn her own income.
The first half of the video is of Muslim women passengers and Sameena discussing identities as Muslim women whereas the second half of the video takes a more insidious turn when Ms. Sood records taxi-wallahs and their male passengers discuss the Taliban and issues such as “honor killings”. Clearly, Ms. Sood’s videos are mediums for social critique. When asked about her ambitions for her films, she responds:
“I aim to work on socially conscious media focused around spirituality, inter cultural communication and Human Rights. Even though my focus is on non-fiction media making I am interested in fiction and have been working on a feature length screenplay centered around the garment of the ‘burkha’ and cross dressing. I have a background in the area of community media education and the concept of empowering people with the tools of communication motivates me. I aim to work on projects that mobilize the interconnectedness of the Internet and its web 2.0 tools to create greater awareness and explore new ways for people to learn from one another.”
Like so many expatriate artists today, Vandana Sood is intent on moving back and forth between her home country, India, and her adopted one, America. And like her socially-conscious colleagues, Ms. Sood is intent on creating social change through her artistry, film making – “Shabash!”
I recently met Lucia King at her film screening of “At Play” at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in West Kensington, a documentary of film director Roysten Abel’s adaptation “In Othello” of Shakespeare’s play “Othello” (talk about meta texts!). “At Play” got me thinking of the recently black-faced model Lara Stone and how skin color continues to determine people’s perceptions of beauty, class and education in India.
Click here to read Kavita Ramdya’s “Blackness in India“.
“News India Times” December11, 2009
“Blackness in India” by Kavita Ramdya
“Blackface” as a performance tool is not solely relegated to nineteenth-century minstrel shows or early-twentieth-century films such as D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” (1915). Most recently, the use of blackface re-surfaced when French Vogue published Steven Klein’s photos of a blacked up Lara Stone. Cynical yet true, blackface has a shock value that generates free marketing and publicity unmatched by YouTube promotional videos and Google advertisements. Blackface, in addition to remaining relevant in today’s fashion circles, is also topical on stage. In Roysten Abel’s production of “In Othello” (2004), an adaptation of the Shakespearean classic performed by Indian actors and actresses and interspersed with Hindi, the actor who performs the part of Othello blackens his skin in order to suggest that his color is what results in Desdemona’s murder and Othello’s own suicide.
In “Othello”, Shakespeare’s anti-hero is a foreign man who has won the heart of fair Desdemona. Despite his military success which places him in high esteem among the men under his command and poetic language with which he woos Desdemona, the insecurities of his status of an outsider, a Moor, get the best of him. Shakespeare, rather than write a seminal play about racism had in fact written a psychological study of the effects freedom and democracy have on an individual making the transition from the pre-civilized world where social hierarchy is determined by violence and war to modernity where education and language skills define success.
Lucia King, film-maker and painter, whose documentary of the making of Abel’s “In Othello”, entitled “At Play”, documents the use of blackface by the Kerala-born director who transformed the play into one about racism against northeast Indians. While working as a set designer during the filming of “In Othello”, Lucia decided to take her role as a “fly on the wall” amidst the actors, actresses and director one step further by filming while on set.
The introduction of “At Play” is a few minutes worth of video footage of the actors and actresses in full costume and make-up quietly poised and motionless as they model for the film’s publicity shots. It is initially striking to watch Indian actors wearing long, wavy moustaches and Indian actresses sober from the weight of heavy, velvet gowns.
Abel chose to focus on the anti-hero’s color rather than the psychological tensions that climax in the brutal murder of Desdemona. However, in the case of the film “In Othello”, Indians’ widespread prejudice against dark-colored brethren is the crucifix upon which Othello hangs himself. Every Indian woman I know has been subjected to comments about the fairness or darkness of her skin by family members raised in India where skin color among Indians plays a significant role in the politics of marriage. Whereas growing up in America, I was envied by friends for my “year-long tan”, I was also conscious of NRIs assessing my skin color.
Bloomberg reporter Saikat Chatterjee’s article “Fair-Skin Fashion Boosts Sales of Whitening Creams in India” describes how major global consumer product companies such as Unilever are marketing products such as the popular Fair & Lovely Fairness Cream, providing the growing middle and upper classes with an alternative to the old-fashioned “turmeric and sandalwood paste” remedy for dark skin. Hindustan Unilever is not the only company marketing skin whiteners to Indians. Blockbuster brands such as L’Oreal SA, Beiersdorf AG and Emami Ltd. Have have found success in selling “fairness creams”. Chatterjee reports how “sales of whiteners increased 17 percent to 20.5 billion rupees ($432 million) in the nine months to September from a year earlier, according to research by Haarlem, Netherlands-based Nielsen Co.”
Browsing my parents’ copies of “India Abroad”, the back pages which contained the Personal Ads inevitably advertised single women “with fair skin” and “well-educated” men. The significance of having fair skin, like “wheat”, for a woman is equally as important as completing a graduate education is for a man. Skin-bleaching creams remain popular among Indian women in the subcontinent. Of course, the easiest way to interpret the nation’s obsession with fairness is in relation to India’s social history with regards to the caste system.
Before banishing the caste system, the Untouchables (India’s lowest class), were relegated to the jobs that brought them outdoors, thereby exposing them to the sun whereas Brahmins, the priestly class, worked within the confines of the holy temple. Fairness is more a determinant of class than it is beauty. According to T.K. Oommen, professor emeritus of sociology at New Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University, “Indians traditionally associate fair skin with aristocracy and not having to work outdoors in a menial job.”
The irony is that in looking at Indian-Hindu temple art, Krishna is always depicted with blue-colored skin; in fact, “Krishna” means “the dark one”. Additionally, the Sanskrit meaning of “krish” is “to draw to oneself, to attract”. Krishna is dark skinned yet attractive, contradistinct from ideals about beauty in mainstream Indian society.
It makes sense that Abel produced a version of “Othello” where the main character’s regional origin and skin color result in his unravelling. The story of Othello’s self-hatred and violence is foreboding even seven hundred years after Shakespeare penned the original play. Let’s hope Indian consumers recognize Krishna’s beauty, transcend the antiquated caste system and refrain from purchasing skin-bleaching creams; unifying India despite its regional differences, varied dialects, disparate customs and religious sects may depend on it.
Kavita Ramdya is author of “Bollywood Weddings: Dating, Engagement and Marriage in Hindu America” www.bollywood-weddings.com