Upcoming Performance and Speculation on गोरी (gori)

Himalayan Fair Logo
The next exciting dance event is taking place this Saturday at the Himalayan Fair in Live Oak Park in Berkeley.  The Wednesdays (me, Andrea, Katia, Mallika, Shab, and Kamala) go on at 4pm.  We'll be joining Dholrhythms for some bhangra fun!

We're performing to snippets of two short songs from Surjit Bindrakhia, as well as a couple other numbers.  Vicki has been choreographing the dance to the words of the songs, and translating lyrics for us so we know what we're dancing to.  The other week in class we were working with lyrics that brought up a beautiful woman (गोरी "gori") in a red suit.  Vicki interjected at this point: "Gori meaning beautiful.  But it can also mean white.  But beautiful doesn't necessarily mean white.  You can talk about this on your blog."  And so I am.

When I was living in Jaipur for the summer, I remember being stunned by the matrimonial ads in the paper.  The ads always described the complexion of the bride to be in great detail.  I just checked out the classifieds in The Hindu and was happy to note that fewer "Bridegrooms Wanted" ads denoted the skin color of the brides-to-be, but there were a few like this one published yesterday:  "CHENNAI SETTLED UP Dhobi Hindi Speaking Parents Seek for Daughter, Chithirai, 27 BE, MBA, Medium Complexion, Professionally Employed Suitable Grooms Well Employed And Settled."  Shaadi.com seems to get around this by having interested parties post their pictures, from which you can judge the color of people's complexion yourself.

गोरी (gori) in the Oxford Hindi-English Dictionary is translated as "1. a fair-complexioned woman; a beautiful woman.  2. a Caucasian woman."  When I plug गोरी into Google translate it comes out as "fair."  What's with the equation beauty = fair or white?  Social conditioning?  Internalized racism?  Post-colonial legacy?  Bollywood stars have become notably lighter in complexion lately, to the point that some actors and actresses don't even look attractive to me anymore, they just have light skin.  Because it's always fun to bring in SRK, I'll do so here.  In the following movie poster, who doesn't look like everyone else?

It's always easy to point the finger at British colonialism (because there's so much wrong with it).  The British spent centuries justifying their empire, and engaged in fierce debates about the best way to apply scientific racism (the philosophy that some races are inherently superior, and therefore justified to rule over other inferior races).  They debated whether Adam and Eve were black with dark descendants, although some special descendants through "civilization" were miraculously whitened.  Another side held that humans were originally white, and hot climates "darkened" people.  Enter Max Muller, credited with creating the modern idea of the Aryan race (and touching off such horrible philosophical offshoots such as Hilter).  Muller posited the idea of an Aryan invasion, where a lighter skinned civilized race (related to Europeans racially and linguistically) entered India and civilized a darker race of people.  Eventually Muller's theory fell out of favor with other British thinkers unnerved to think they were related in any way to the people they'd colonized.  (Trautmann's Aryans and British India has a fantastic treatment of the history of British scientific racism.)

So was it the British, who for centuries in India justified their rule through a philosophy of racial superiority and institutionalized the idea that white was equivalent to political and social power and military might?  Or was it something else?  In tomorrow's post I'll examine Aryanism, the myth of the Aryan invasion in India, and turn to my favorite Indian historian, Romila Thapar.