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Human Or Divine, India's Fairness Fixation Knows No Bounds

The real and imagined faces of St Alphonsa.

01/08/2016 9:55 PM IST | Updated 01/08/2016 11:13 PM IST
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Alessandro Bianchi / Reuters
A tapestry depicting Sister Alphonsa of the Immaculate Conception is seen among the statues of St. Peter's Colonnade during the canonisation ceremony led by Pope Benedict XVI in St. Peter square at the Vatican October 12, 2008. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi (VATICAN)

A priest from Kerala has called the bluff on India's obsession with fairness — not only in humans, but also in saints and gods — in a remarkable Facebook post.

Jijo Kurien, who wrote this post in Malayalam, drew the example of St Alphonsa, the first Indian-born woman to be canonised, to make his point.

A feature in The News Minute translated his statement as follows:

"It is difficult to segregate myths from history. Man's history is created, not evolved. That is why it is difficult to now find a real picture of St Alphonsa who lived just 70 years ago among us.

As per ideas of sainthood, saints should be fair complexioned and beautiful. These are some of the notions nurtured by colonial, western thinking. Today is her death anniversary and this is my attempt to retain her history.

Look at her her real image and the one created."

Posting two contrasting photographs of the saint, Kurien drew attention to the morphing of her actual image in the later representations of her canonised incarnation. The reason behind this transformation, as Kurien pointed out, is India's fixation with fair complexion.

Whether it's men and woman in real life or in the movies, or even gods, saints and mythological characters, our notion of ideal beauty has always been heavily photoshopped. As a result, we would much rather remember a nun, who died in 1946, late enough to have left behind photographs of what she looked like, in an oddly unreal form than after her real likeness.

St Alphonsa, also fondly known as Alphonsamma among her devotees, was born in 1910 at Kudamalur near Kottayam. She longed to be a nun since her childhood and was admitted to the Franciscan Clara order in 1927. Plagued most of her life by diseases and suffering pain, she offered solace to those who sought her help. She was declared a Servant of God in 1953 and a saint in 2008.

As The News Minute points out, except for Goddess Kali, most other divine or mythological character is imagined as fair-skinned, in deference to Indian society's admiration for white complexion. This colonial hangover is steadily fed not only by the way society relates caste identity with skin colour but also by a thriving business of skin-whitening creams, lotion and other cosmetics.

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