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“Blackness in India” (notions of beauty in India)

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“.

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“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

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Review of Hanif Kureishi’s “The Black Album” at the National Theatre by Kavita Ramdya

Click here to read my review of the stage adaptation fo Hanif Kureishi’s novel “The Black Album”.

In the summer of ’08, for my “Contemporary British Literature” class, I taught Hanif Kureishi’s “The Buddha of Suburbia”, a coming-of-age novel about a young Indian-English Hindu Brit obsessed with celebrity culture and incensed by his father’s re-invention as a yogi master in their suburban English community. So you can imagine my interest when I heard that the National Theatre, in conjunction with Tara Arts, adapted Hanif Kureishi’s “The Black Album” to the stage. Unfortunately, the play did not live up to my expectations. The characters were shallow and the scenes a blur. However, there is value in staging such a production as “The Black Album” as a way to spur conversation about the rise of Muslim fundamentalism in London, the identity crisis and ostracization young Muslims experience in the modern world, and the question around whether religious faith is incompatible with contemporary, secular forms of art such as Prince’s “The Black Album”.

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“News India Times” October 9, 2009

“Hanif Kureishi’s ‘The Black Album’” by Kavita Ramdya

I‘m still amazed at how mainstream South-Asian theatre is in London in comparison to New York where the South-Asian community is smaller in proportion. I recently visited London’s National Theatre (NT) to see the stage adaptation of Hanif Kureishi’s novel “The Black Album” (1996) whose title refers to the 1989 Prince album with which the main character, Shahid Hasan, is obsessed. Co-produced by Tara Arts, a long-established South Asian theatre organization in England which “champions creative diversity through the production, promotion and development of world class, cross-cultural theatre,” the play’s themes are still relevant today despite the book’s original publication more than ten years ago. Shahid, a first-year university student, is a music-loving Pakistani Muslim raised in Kent, England.

He moves to London to attend university; there, he has an affair with DeeDee Osgood, his professor of “Post-Colonial Literature,” and falls in with the “wrong crowd”: a group of radical Muslim students who tout that all “whites are racist” and wield violence in Allah’s name. Kureishi attempts to dramatize the events of 1989: the fall of the Berlin Wall, the impending doom of Communist Russia, the fatwa against Salman Rushdie for his book “The Satanic Verses” (1988) and the popularity of rock music by heretics such as Prince whose ambiguous sexuality and mixed race symbolize the secularism that threatens to distract young Muslims away from Allah.

Alas, the play’s context and the players producing it promise much but deliver very little. Word must have spread because although I expected a big showing of support by South Asians, my husband and I were two of only a dozen South Asians in the audience. In the play’s first scene, Shahid is called a “Paki” by the resident drug dealer and meets the leader of the local radical Islam group, a young man from Lahore who expresses homo-erotic feelings towards Shahid. The play turns into a mess of sexual tensions, racial epithets, allusions to historical events, and philosophical discussions of political discourse, a twister of confusion which threatens to envelope Shahid from his love for music and family who pray for him in Kent.

Occasionally, the play is punctuated by a semi-articulate discussion of themes around race and politics, but, for the most part, the play closely resembles the meandering, late night, overly passionate discussions we all had in our dorm rooms while first-year university students. Although this level of discussion is appropriate and even expected for eighteen-year olds, who wants to see it re-enacted on stage? If anything, watching the play reminds us of our own foolishness that we could somehow solve the world’s problems between the hours of ten in the evening and three in the morning in the safe confine of our college dorm room.

Lines such as “Racism turns us away from ourselves” and “music poisons us from Allah… cure us from that white shit” hit the audience with precision and force, like tennis balls shooting from an ac-powered machine. Practically staggering out of the theatre, I felt bruised and beaten from the constant delivery of such heavy-handed dialogue. And it didn’t help that the show’s choreography resembled that of an MTV video: the scenes changed constantly, almost ADD-like.

Another major drawback in the stage adaptation of “The Black Album” is its lack of humour. Having enjoyed reading and teaching “The Buddha of Suburbia” (1990), I expected a good douse of humour to accompany the play’s rather serious themes. However, there are only two instances of humor, the first of which happens in response to Shahid practicing yoga. One of his new radical Islamist friends implores Shahid to stop his practice because that “Hindu shit will fuck your mind” and turn him “into George Harrison.”

As a long-time yoga practioner, I could appreciate how people unfamiliar to yoga might feel threatened by the ancient Hindu practice.

The second instance is one which points fun at all radical religious groups. Shahid’s mother cooks and packs him pakoras which his radical Muslim friends happily devour.

However, one special pakora is saved because it is inscribed with a shape that looks like “alif,” the first letter in the Arabic alphabet and the first character in the Quran.

Anyone who has seen the alif will observe that it is little more than a vertical line so when Shahid’s radical Muslim friends decide it is a sign from Allah, the crowd bursts into laughter at the sheer ludicrousness of the situation.

As we see from following the news, observing G-d’s image in one’s food and other inanimate objects is not uncommon among fervent believers.

As a writer, Hanif Kureishi is never shy about to spur conversation around controversial topics. For this reason I applaud his, Tara Arts and the National Theatre’s stage adaptation of “The Black Album.” But, had the delivery been more suited to a thinking, contemplative and mature audience, this reviewer would have sung the play’s praises rather than written the equivalent of a theatre review death sentence.

Kureishi in New York:

Hanif Kureishi is an English playwright, yet his most popular novel , “The Buddha of Suburbia”, contains a few scenes in which the hero Karim visits his bestfriend Charlie in New York.

Karim’s introduction to life in Manhattan is the crazy speed with which New York City cab drivers chariot their passengers across the city and the experience of feeling jetlag: “when we got out of the cab, I did want to lie down on the pavement and go to sleep” which pretty much sums up my feelings the first night upon arriving in New York from London.

Karim and Charlie find themselves in the Village people watching and enjoying milkshakes “thick with Italian ice-cream” which spurs readers familiar with Manhattan geography wonder whether Kureishi could possibly be referring to the Four Corners Cafes (possibly even Café Figaro where I   had my 19thbirthday party celebration while a student at NYU?)

Finally, Charlie and Karim frequent the Russian Tea Room in Midtown West, a restaurant noted for its variety of flavoured vodkas. Reading about fictional Londoners in New York offers the opportunity to connect with these otherwise foreign characters whose adventures on my home  turf affirm for me once again, “There’s no place like home.”

Kavita Ramdya is author of “Bollywood Weddings: Dating, Engagement and Marriage in Hindu America” http://www.bollywood-weddings.com/Home.html

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