Black British dancers allege racism at Indian cricket match

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 May, 2008, 12:00am

Two black British dancers who flew to India to perform as cheerleaders at a cricket tournament have triggered a debate on Indian attitudes towards skin colour after being allegedly told to stay off the pitch because of their dark skin.

Ellesha Newton, 22, and Sherinne Anderson, 25, both from London, came to perform at a hugely popular and shortened form of cricket - the Indian Premier League - that has just been launched in India.

Confined to just 20 overs per team, it is a fast and furious game lasting three hours. The action on the pitch is jazzed up by dancers, singers and mascots on the sidelines. Yet more glamour comes from the fact that the franchises for two of the teams are owned by Bollywood stars.

American-style cheerleaders in tight shorts and low-cut tops waving pompoms have been flown in from the US and Europe to whip up the excitement in the packed stadiums.

At a match last month at Mohali in Punjab, Newton and Anderson were about to walk across the pitch to the stage with their fellow dancers from Britain when the staff of Wizcraft Entertainment International, the event management company hired by the Mohali team, allegedly told them to stay back.

'We were surprised and asked them why,' Newton said. 'We were told it was because of the colour of our skin. He used the 'n' word.'

The British-based manager of the dance troupe that flew them to India, Jorge Aldana, 35, said he was horrified by the incident.

'I arrived soon after it happened,' he said. 'The girls were sobbing and shaken. They felt humiliated. I've sent about 100 e-mails and text messages to Wizcraft asking for an apology but I've had no reply.'

Mr Aldana, along with the two women, is still in Mumbai waiting to be paid.

He said the racism surprised him. He referred to an incident in Britain last year when Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty had suffered racist taunts from white housemates during the popular reality show Celebrity Big Brother.

'Everyone in the UK stood up for her and all she was called was 'poppadum', not 'Paki' or anything. It was comparatively gentle. Here, these girls were called a horrible thing, which is shocking.'

Wizcraft's director, Sabba Joseph, denied any racism. 'We have worked with leading Indian and international performers across the world. At no point has the company endorsed or supported discrimination against individuals on the basis of gender or nationality.'

The incident has thrown up once again the Indian cultural preference for light rather than dark skin. Sociologists tend to explain this as originating in the caste system - the higher castes tended to be lighter than the lower castes - and compounded by British colonial rule.

Matrimonial websites always refer to the 'fair' skin of the bride as a desirable attribute. Film stars and models are invariably light. Pregnant women consume abundant quantities of almonds and dairy products in the hope of producing a fair baby.

'This preference can be seen in the huge market for skin lightening creams,' social commentator Jug Suraiya said. 'Fair skin is equated with beauty and it's not confined to women. Indian men too are regarded as more handsome if they have light skin.'