You are here

The Indian belle

Sunday, June 4, 2017
Back in Times
East Indian Woman, painting by Rudolph Bissessarsingh.

Published May 27, 2012


This Wednesday, the nation celebrates the 167th anniversary of Indian Arrival. While it is a time for much grandiose exhibition and soliloquy, it would be well to look back on the largely neglected role of the Indian woman in the trials of arrival. During the era of immigration (1845-1917) women were far fewer than men.

Thus the Indian woman became a possession to be aggressively defended which sadly enough, resulted in frequent episodes of wife-murder wherein husbands who suspected their wives of infidelity punished the hapless spouses with the swipe of a sharpened cutlass.

The frail beauty of the Indian woman fascinated men (including photographers who considered them to be of rare exotic appeal) in general, exposing them to unwanted attention, especially from white planters and overseers. More than just a few became mistresses of the planters, often against their wills. One such enchanted master of the 1890s wrote:

“Strolling along the shady side of a wide and busy street, I overtook a young girl. I should have passed her had I not slackened my gait when I came within a few steps of her, and, walking softly, measuring my paces with hers, followed behind the unknown wayfarer respectfully and at a proper distance to study and admire her costume, which was so neatly fitted to her slight and charming figure, so tastefully disposed, draped in such dainty folds and graceful gatherings, that the wearer of it made a most attractive picture.

“Her little feet were bare; nevertheless, she trod firmly, stepping lightly, with graceful poise. In time, I made a mental catalogue of her appearance from which an ingenious artist could paint a full-length picture of her. “I noticed that her teeth were regular and white, mouth small and regular, lips full and pouting; head gracefully poised, face oval, Grecian in type; nose delicate, straight, finely chiselled; ears small, well shaped, and well put on; hair glossy, raven-black, straight and long, braided carefully with dexterous fingers, and tied at the ends with orange ribbons; hands small and covered with rings.”

The delicate Indian belle was sacrificed in Trinidad to a lifetime of toil in the canefields where burdens were heavy only to be followed by domestic tasks. Many were child-brides, wed in an ancient tradition to men who were often old enough to be their fathers.

Those who married men of wealth dispensed with the simple, chaste garb of white cotton which they had worn for generations for heavy silver bangles and gold coin haikal—these being the public status symbol. Educational opportunities were few until the coming of the Presbyterian Church’s Canadian Mission to the Indians.

There was no voice which spoke for the Indo-Trinidadian woman. Nevertheless, the indomitable spirit of womanhood persevered and these were the mothers who raised generations of children who suckled on the milk of self-denial to rise beyond the canefields and form a people which is now both economically secure and socially uplifted.

Angelo had noted the exotic beauty of the East Indian woman and even the splendour of her jewelry and her sari. Post-indentureship defined a new way of looking at ourselves outside of the shackles of the caste system. Unfortunately, in the last ten years or so we have seen an explosion of skin lightening creams and wannabe blondes. The beauty of our coloured women is something to be cherished and beauty must never be defined by the colour of our skin or the texture of our hair. Penny Commissiong, Giselle La Ronde-West and Wendy Fitzwilliam have carried this chant, ‘I am black and beautiful’ worldwide. Let us not stigmatise ourselves with beauty shows labelled ‘Miss Fair and Lovely’. Finally, are we still dealing with the spectre of sexual harassment of our young women in the landscape of 2017, 172 years after indentureship.

—Rudolph Bissessarsingh


User comments posted on this website are the sole views and opinions of the comment writer and are not representative of Guardian Media Limited or its staff.

Guardian Media Limited accepts no liability and will not be held accountable for user comments.

Guardian Media Limited reserves the right to remove, to edit or to censor any comments.

Any content which is considered unsuitable, unlawful or offensive, includes personal details, advertises or promotes products, services or websites or repeats previous comments will be removed.

Before posting, please refer to the Community Standards, Terms and conditions and Privacy Policy

User profiles registered through fake social media accounts may be deleted without notice.