Marriage in Punjab invariably means arranged marriage. Adage about marriage is: “couples in the world are a few, bonded are aplenty” (Jorian jag tay thorian, narrar bathere). A bond is what an arranged marriage is all about. Bonded are man and woman while families at the both ends take it as cementing of a relationship in the context of social politics of class and clan. Arranging a marriage means following the standard operating procedure which is the result of a practice spread over centuries, crucial to the shaping up of our family.
Traditionally service providers such as Nai (barber), Bhatt/Merasi (clan’s musician/keeper of family’s genealogy) and Brahmin are employed to find a suitable match. They would act as match-makers, taking care of sensitivities of clan, caste and class. After the initial acceptance of the proposal by the families concerned, stage is set for the women to play their ambiguously defined role, sorting out the details that though necessary have to be kept away from the public eye. And the details women are keenly interested in, would be about the boy and the girl. Since in the patriarchic structure the boy’s family has upper hand, its women having the air of a judge, would visit the girl’s family with a fanfare. They have a pre-concieved image of girl worthy to be a bride. Apart from the caste and class equation which is already a settled thing what matters most is the girl’s looks. Features, age and height are important but the core component of the looks is the colour of skin. “Fair complexion can hide many a defects” women would say. Colour can compensate for the deficiencies of form and figure. So your colour can make you acceptable or unacceptable which being a matter of genetics is obviously beyond your control.
Our notion of looks carries a deep rooted colour bias created by longstanding historical conditions as an outcome of racial conflicts operating at conscious and subconscious level. It is not just the colour that matters, shades in colour matter too. South-Asians allege white people of racism when discriminated against but behave exactly the same way in their relations with the black people or with the section of their own people with darker skin. In the process of arranging marriage the women, obviously back home, after having visited the girl, who has brownish skin, would say: she is alright but—is a bit dusk-complexioned. If the girl in question happens to have a dark skin she would be rejected on one pretext or the other.
Colour prejudice is a product of historical conditions involving wars between races. The first mention of colour we find in the Vedas which after the intrusion of Aryans in the Punjab celebrate the superiority of the white skinned who overpower the dark-skinned urbanized Harappa people.
Malti. J. Shendge in her seminal book ‘The Civilizes Demons’ writes: “In Rig-Veda the foes of the Aryans are said to be dark-skinned. As for example the 50,000 warriors of Ausra Pipru are described as ‘black brood’.” After the ascendancy of the Aryans in Punjab colour came to be accepted as a mark of social position; white skin signified the superiority of the victor and black skin that of inferiority of the vanquished. Subsequent socio-cultural process evolved a new notion of human beauty underpinned by aesthetics of colour.
Disagreeable it may be but the universal fact is that the culture of rulers ultimately becomes the ruling culture. Pervasiveness of colour obsessed cultural practice is unmistakably evident if we look at the deeply ingrained colour prejudice in the Punjabi psyche which manifests itself not only in our day today social life but also at the level of literary expression. Folk poetry glorifies ‘Gori’ (woman with white skin) ad nauseam and sets her up as ultimate embodiment of female beauty. “Fair woman emerges from the pool aflame.” Now let us have a brief look at the way our great classical poetry perceives female beauty in the context of politics of colour. “How a poet can describe Heer? Her face has moonlight lustre. Her killer curls are as if a night spread around the moon as red as a shooting star—“is how Waris Shah describes the leading heroine of our literature. Pilu writes about another great heroine, Sahiban: “She was of fair complexion with yard long tresses braided in plaits”. Another great poet, Hafiz Barkhur Dar says of Sahiban: “Her face is like sky at dawn with a moon”. Yet another heroine Sassi is described similarly by Hasham Shah: “Sassi born on an auspicious night was like a bright crescent; stones, pearls, gems and rubies of Badakhshan would lose their lustre in her presence.”
What literary expression affirms is the fact that the sense of fair colour being superior is so deep rooted that it has become an element of our collective subconscious affecting imperceptibly even the greatest creative minds that are otherwise quite iconoclastic.
Ubiquitous presence of skin whitening creams in South Asia exposes the malady as well as the desperate efforts to make the unnatural natural and the natural unnatural with a view to come up to the standard of female beauty evolved by the dominant tradition. It is not just girls with dark skin who are perceived to be un-attractive in the context of marriage, boys with the similar skin too face the same embarrassment though to a much lesser degree. Their gender makes up for their lack of so-called fair colour.
Despite the barely concealed but ever present aura of fair colour in our psycho-social space, the resistance against colour discrimination continues in life as well as in creative expression. In reaction to the denigration of black colour, an ordinary Punjabi would quote a saying “the black are dear to God and the white are bags full of shit”. Poet-saint Bulleh Shah, the eternal doubter, has in his poetry the haunting images of ‘charming eyes of dark-skinned women’. Another great poet Khwaja Ghulam Farid frequently expresses his anguish in his Kafis (lyrics) at being separated from ‘sanwal’, his dark-skinned love.
Obsession with fair skin in the context of marriage is inseparably linked with our family culture which is a social product of a long historical struggle for power between different ethnic groups with a thinly concealed hostility to one another. So the question of colour is ultimately a political question waiting to be settled by an outcome of struggle of social forces represented by the dark-skinned, fighting for power in a historical process. New power equation between the fair-skinned and the dark-skinned will form a human basis for evolving a bias less aesthetics that does not judge just the colour of a human being but his/her totality of being. And totality of being is surely bigger than the sum of its constituents. Man regardless of colour of his skin would always be what he actually is: man. Ironically one can be man but still not yet man in a sense of being much less than what he could be due to his inherited historical prejudices. That is why King Lear’s philosophical question is still relevant: “Is man no more than this”? — firstname.lastname@example.org