24 September 2013

The cosmetics of love and wisdom

A random channel-switch on Saturday morning as I drove to work took me to a station running a documentary on Joe Abeywickrama, regarded as one of the greatest actors of his time if not the greatest.  It was Joe’s second death anniversary, I learned.  The narrative cut to old interviews with Joe as well as dialogues from the films he has acted in.  What remained with me was the first line I heard. Here’s a rough translation.

‘Actors are expected to be handsome, athletic able to move feet to music and twist themselves around trees in dance sequences. Joe Abeywickrama, clearly un-endowed, nevertheless made these criteria meaningless; he made his mark, he left an indelible legacy.’  

Joe was not handsome.  He was no athlete. And yet, he drew from everyone he had ever encountered, all the voices he had heard, every nuance of expression on all the faces had seen.  He was not handsome. He was beautiful, nevertheless, and that’s why two years ago, watching students of the Sinhala Literary Association of Ladies’ College enact bits and pieces of Joe’s life by way of tribute, tears came to my eyes. 

This, however, is not about Joe. It is about ‘beauty’.  It is as inspired as much by what I heard on Saturday morning as by an interesting interview of Nandita Das in ‘Civil Society Online’, where the actress responds to questions following her signing the ‘Black is beautiful – beauty beyond color’ petition. 

A poster with Nandita’s face on it has since gone viral on social media and attracted widespread attention to the campaign started by the Chennai-based network Women of Worth (WoW) to fight “the toxic belief that a woman’s worth is measured by the fairness of her skin”.

Nandita is described as ‘dark and dusky’, fairer actresses are not tagged ‘fair’. It is as though fair equals beautiful to the point that less-than-fair has to be un-toned with alluring descriptive. 

Just the other day, a woman of Indian heritage being adjudged Miss America spawned a slew of racist tweets from across the USA.  Tunku Varadarajan posted a wry comment on the issue in ‘The Daily Beast’ pointing out that in India Miss America, Nina Davuluri, would be considered ‘too dark to succeed’. 

Nandita, in the interview, tells us that the obsessions with fair skin is not unrelated to concerted campaigns by the cosmetic industry to market ‘whitening’ products. 

‘The cosmetics business thrives because the aspirations exist. The two feed off each other. All the beauty magazines are designed to make you feel ugly and want to change your features and skin color. During my field work in Orissa’s Kandhamal district, when it was called Phulbani, I went to areas where there was no electricity and people did not even have food to eat, and I saw women using fairness creams that were well past their expiry date. These had obviously been dumped here. So this obsession with fairness cuts across class. The cosmetics companies only capitalize on it.’ 

It pays for women and men to think they are ugly or inadequate.  Money is spent to implant such notions in the minds of people, especially women.  But let’s think about beautiful and ugly.  We learn and internalize notions of beauty.  And so, when we see someone (or ourselves in the mirror), we think ‘beautiful’ or ‘ugly’ or something between the two, consciously or unconsciously.  Now think of the people we admired most, the people who touched our lives and who inspire us most.  Check if they are beautiful as per popular notions.  The truth is that faces disappear the more we get to know their owners. We stop seeing skin tone and complexion; hearts and minds surface and hide all such markers of beauty (or ugliness) as have been defined for us, sooner or later. 

There were two women who I considered ‘the most beautiful’ in my life, growing up; my mother and grandmother.  My mother passed away at the age of 72, my grandmother at the age of 91. They grew older as I grew up, but they remained beautiful.  I remember most how they looked in the last days they spent on this earth.  One word. Beautiful.  My wife looks nothing like she did when I first met her, 21 years ago.  She is no less beautiful. My daughters are 12 and 10 and the are beautiful.  None of these 5 females used or use make-up. 

John Keats wrote, ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’.  Maybe.  I would add, ‘love is beauty-maker’, ‘knowing is beauty-giver’.  Love and wisdom are the best cosmetics, because not only do they color us differently but enable us to draw out the full color-range of all that our gaze caress, human being included. 

We cannot expect profit-seeking cosmetic peddlers not to bombard us with beauty-definition and ‘ugliness’-removers. We can protect our eyes, though. We can choose not to have our hearts polluted by advertisement and the politics of beauty-defining.   We can love.  And there’s nothing more beautiful than that.  I don’t know about Nandita, but on screen there’s no one who touched me, spoke to me and educated me about the human condition than Joe Abeywickrama.  Joe made scriptwriter look beautiful and that and not his face is what is most endearing and beautiful about the man. 

[You can communicate with Malinda Seneviratne via msenevira@gmail.com]


Anonymous said...

Who else but one with the most beautiful heart could have written this?