Shifty shades of skin

Sunday, 9 March 2014 - 7:40am IST | Agency: dna

What exactly is the colour of 'skin'? Ask a bunch of schoolchildren anywhere in India and the answer will most certainly be a shade of light peach or beige. And how often have we, as adults, gone looking for 'skin coloured' stockings when we actually want beige. The irony of a nation of brown people believing that 'skin colour' is actually a pale shade many times lighter than their own tone is unmissable — and a young law student has decided to question this in every court he can.

Chirayu Jain, a sophomore at the National Law School, Bangalore, who is suing crayon maker Hindustan Pencils for over Rs9 lakh, was struck by the absurdity of it all in 2012. Sitting at the Bangalore airport, he decided to participate in a promotional event that urged people to "revisit their childhood" and gave out free crayons and paper. "I noticed I used a colour labelled 'skin' on all body parts. This was a colour that neither matched my skin colour nor of the majority of people with whom I interact," he says.

"It may seem like a minor detail but perhaps has a huge role in perpetuating the prejudice against dark-skinned people in a country obsessed with fairness creams," says the 20-year-old. The 'skin' crayon instils in us the idea of the perfect skin colour, something that we hanker after for the rest of our lives.

After all, how many Indian children pick up a brown crayon when asked to fill in colour for faces, arms or legs? Something tells them it is not the appropriate "skin colour".

Chirayu, along with a friend, went on a little expedition to stationery shops to find almost all crayon packets label various shades of peach as 'flesh' or 'skin'. The real enemy, he realised, weren't just fairness creams or glossed-up Bollywood actresses but biases that are pedalled as norms.

Chirayu decided to call Hindustan Pencils, hoping it would show some sensitivity towards the issue as it is an Indian company. However, an executive told him that the 'skin' colour in the Colorama crayon box had been in use for a long time and could not be discontinued. The law student, of course, did not want the colour out of the crayon box. He just wanted that particular crayon to be labelled differently.

In June 2013, he filed a legal complaint against the company in the district consumer forum in Bangalore, which also manufactures the popular Natraj and Apsara pencils, for unfair trade practices under the Consumer Protection Act. The verdict in October 2013 went in favour of Hindustan Pencils but Chirayu has not given up. He appealed the judgment in the state consumer commission of Karnataka and sued the company for Rs9,06,510 — Rs9 lakh to go to the consumer welfare board, Rs6,500 towards legal costs and Rs10 for the packet of crayons which declares on its cover that it "includes special skin crayon."

The battle is not going to be easy, says Chirayu, who has also formed an online forum called Brown and Proud. "A lot of people may feel I am doing this for attention and don't see how we, as children, unknowingly imbibe so many biases. And how these small things lead to larger prejudices that plague society," he says.

Growing up, Chirayu admits to going through a phase of using fairness creams and says he was never really comfortable with his own skin colour. But banning fairness products would be like banning alcohol to cure alcoholism, he says. "Through Brown and Proud we want to work towards a society where people are proud to be what they are, irrespective of their skin colour."

He doesn't even want brown to be labelled as skin. There should be no standards for what skin colour should be. Interestingly, a teenager in Sweden has also filed a complaint against a local paint company for naming a beige paint hue skin colour in November 2013.

Brown and Proud has about eight members and over 3,000 followers. Chirayu says he would go to the Supreme Court to get the skin label removed if need be. "Isn't it strange that even Draupadi, who was originally a dark-skinned heroine, is portrayed by fair actresses in TV serials?" he asks.

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