Undergraduate Writing Series
The Nayikas of the Natyashastra: Reflections on Fatphobia and Colorism in India

The Nayikas of the Natyashastra: Reflections on Fatphobia and Colorism in India

Pratyusha Chakrabarti

Tujhe dekh ke goriye, Beyonce sharma jaayegi” – Your beauty, o fair skinned girl, puts even Beyonce to shame.

Such were the lyrics to a 2020 Bollywood song, as the Economic Times explained, before popular backlash brought about a re-writing of the lyrics. The director and actors initially attempted to justify their intentions, claiming the use of “fair skinned girl” or goriye was merely formulaic and not racist. This is hardly surprising given the long history of using goriye as a synonym for “beautiful” and “good” in Bollywood. Take, for example, a song from the 1965 film “Gumnaam” that depicts the hero, whose skin has been visibly darkened (perhaps to denote a lower economic class origin), dreaming of the fair (goriye) – and, by extension, virtuous – heroine. In his dream, he asks, “Kaale se dar gayi kya? Hum kaale hain toh kya hua, dilwale hain” – “Did my dark skin scare you? Although I am dark, I am good of heart.”

An Indian woman smiles into the camera.
Vidya Balan in 2023. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

Yet another longstanding issue inherent in Bollywood is undoubtedly that of fatphobia. For decades, fat women’s bodies were treated as the source of comic relief and one-liners, juxtaposed against slender female leads to highlight their alleged comparative loveliness and romantic worth.[1] Even off-screen, popular Bollywood actresses such as Vidya Balan and Sonakshi Sinha are subjected to fatphobia, despite their attempts to normalize a wider variety of body types. This use of light skin and a slender body to denote beauty and virtue is at least as old as Bollywood itself – and, as this essay will argue, in some ways much older.

This article intends to highlight the prevalence of such biases with regard to heroines in the Natyashastra – an ancient Sanskrit treatise that stipulates what constitutes “correct” and “good” theater. This is exacerbated by the rise of right-wing and nationalist politics in India, which equate being Indian to being Hindu, as The Guardian explains. Both school and college syllabi have undergone changes to reflect what is construed as “Indian,” such as an emphasis on the works of ancient Sanskrit scholars. This has also resulted in the removal of chapters on democracy from high school textbooks.[2] While Bollywood perhaps does not directly draw on the Natyashastra, the text continues to remain an aesthetic ideal in the world of performance.[3]

Introduction to the Natyashastra

The Natyashastra, attributed to the sage Bharata, is an encyclopedic text on dramaturgy and other performing arts. Like most texts of its period, both the date and the author of the text remain uncertain. However, as Natalia Lidova points out, most scholars argue that it reached its extant form between c. 200 BCE to 200 CE.[4] Although the text’s origins are not entirely certain, the fact that it comes from an elite, male section of society is evident from in-text references, as I argue elsewhere.[5] An analytical look at its content offers valuable insight into the standards of beauty and morality among the ancient Indian social elite. Hence, this article will attempt to ascertain what biases the Natyashastra betrays against the female body in its discussion of various types of heroines.

The text constantly creates character types identified by various physical and moral characteristics. It is important to note that, while this character typing extends to both male and female characters (the latter in greater detail), male characters and other genders sometimes alluded to in the text will not be discussed in depth in this essay, due to the possibility of mistranslation and hence, misgendering. Economic considerations, social status, and employment are certainly present in the text – for example, only women of high birth may be termed a “superior female character”[6] – but these issues are not the focus of this analysis. Instead, I will emphasize what the Natyashastra says about female actors, characters, and their bodies.

Female Character Types

While the text disqualifies women with “all kinds of diseases” from acting in the first place, those who get the opportunity must play characters slotted into certain types as determined by their bodies.[7] All upper-caste characters (i.e. Brahmins and Kshatriyas) are meant to be “reddish yellow” or fair in complexion, while lower-caste characters are to be “dark or deep blue.”[8] Those who are diseased or of inferior birth are also to be made brown or, as Manomohan Ghosh explains, not fair.[9] Female character types encompass a wide spectrum from mythical beings, such as divine or demon-like creatures, to various types of animals, including (but not limited to) tigers, monkeys, elephants, and fish.[10] Divinity is associated with a woman who possesses “delicate limbs” and, interestingly, “takes moderate food.” The woman of divine type also “emits very little sweat” – making evident the degree to which the female body is being controlled in its representation. On the other hand, the demonic character types such as the asura, rakshasa, or pishacha are associated with “large and broad limbs,” hairy bodies, and a penchant for liquor and meat.

A woman in classical Indian theater dress performs a dance move.
Sitara Thobani demonstrates a classical dance as described in the Natyashastra. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

Coming to the animal types, there are clear attempts to correlate perceived characteristics of the animal to various body parts of women. A “fleshy and bulky” woman with a “large chin and forehead” is rather unimaginatively classed as being of the elephant type. “Long, large and high breasts” qualify a woman to be deemed fish-like, while a “large back, belly and mouth, hairy and strong body” as well as “black teeth and ugly face, large thigh and thick hairs” is slotted into the “swine type.” Each of these types, both mythical and animal, has associated sexual behaviors and moral attributes. For example, women of the monkey type are said to be violent in their expression of sexuality, a woman of “ass type” is jealous of her co-wives, while buffalo type women are perceived as “hater[s] of men.” These associations between the non-human and women’s body parts are clear examples that women’s physical features are believed to represent their characters and even sexual qualities and the implicit “correctness” thereof.


The reason each character type has been stereotyped is not made explicit in the text, nor have the character types been hierarchized. However, keeping in mind that both the author(s) and the intended audience were elite men, their function in controlling women’s sexualities and bodies becomes evident. When seen in conjunction with social beliefs that continue today – revering the goddess, but fearing the demoness – the text establishes the pale, delicate-limbed woman as an object of devotion while condemning the dark, hairy bodied, large-limbed woman to be the source of disgust and fear. In depicting itself as the authoritative text on dramatics, the Natyashastra leaves little room for such stereotypes to be subverted, creating a vicious cycle of biased representation of women.

Bollywood, as mentioned before, does not declare direct allegiance to the Natyashastra.

Colorism in India can be traced back to diverse roots. One obvious source is undoubtedly the privileging of fairer skin as part of colonial subjugation and, more recently, through globalization. Crucially, scholars have also focused on the interrelations of colorism and caste biases in Indian society.[11] There are belief systems that construe darker skin as being symptomatic of historical racial inferiority. In tandem with colonial scholars, who grouped Indians into races in accordance with their own racist biases, such theories still proliferate, despite being disproved repeatedly by historians.[12]

Bollywood carries forward these legacies of discrimination through far more insidious ways. Films, unlike the Natyashastra, are not explicit injunctions. Instead, they are mute accomplices of societal biases such as colorism and fatphobia, depicting the fair, slender woman as the object of male desire and as the correct woman enough times to cement such a notion in popular perception. This is exacerbated by vicious ad campaigns for fairness products and slimming aids helmed by leading actors and actresses, taking the ideal of fairness and slenderness out of the big screen and into the lives of the audience.

Whether through matrimonial profiles where fair and slender brides are sought after[13] or the constant idealization of fair skin and lithe bodies at family gatherings and other social events, women are encouraged, if not expected, to use various skin-lightening agents and creams, to the extent that skin lightening procedures now constitute a medical concern. Bollywood actors and actresses contribute significantly to this issue by serving as brand ambassadors for beauty products and weight loss regimes.[14] Despite attempts to rebrand themselves – Fair and Lovely, one of the most iconic skin-lightening products, is now Glow and Lovely – such products continue to be marketed as a way to achieve the fair-skinned, slender ideal. An awareness of the deep roots of such biases is a prerequisite to seeing through their idealization and, ultimately, breaking their dominance – whether it is in the Natyashastra, in the current Bollywood hit, or on the shelves of your local store.


  1. Neha Kumari and Rajni Singh, “‘You Are Unique, the Way You Are’: Policing the ‘Fat Female Body’ in Fanney Khan,” KEMANUSIAAN the Asian Journal of Humanities 30, no. 1 (2023): 23, https://doi.org/10.21315/kajh2023.30.1.2.
  2. Several foundational concepts of modern science such as evolution and the periodic table have also been removed from the syllabus, citing the additional burden on students. Other topics removed include references to communal riots and challenges to democracy in post-independence India, as the NDTV highlights.
  3. The Natyashastra has occupied a prominent place in discourse on theatre both nationally and internationally, even if not explicitly adapted in Bollywood – the pioneering performance theorist, Richard Schechner, draws on the Natyashastra for his iconic ‘Rasaboxes’ technique. The National School of Drama, India’s premier theater institute, lists the Natyashastra as an integral part of their course.
  4. Like most texts of the shastra tradition, the Natyashastra is not seen as the work of a single author, but a compilation that grew over time, transmitted initially through entirely oral means. Through the years, verses have been added, forgotten or edited by innumerable unknown individuals, making the question of finding its author impossible.
  5. Scholars such as Patrick Olivelle identify a clear authorial intent in texts belonging to the shastra tradition despite the confusion regarding their exact author. Like other shastra texts, the Natyashastra also forms an injunctive tradition that gives itself an unquestionable authority. See: Patrick Olivelle. Manu’s Code of Law: A Critical Edition and Translation of the Mānava-Dharmaśāstra. Translated by Patrick Olivelle, edited by Suman Olivelle and Patrick Olivelle, Oxford University Press, 2005, pp. 5-6.
  6. Bharata, The Nāṭyaśāstra: A Treatise on Hindu Dramaturgy and Histrionics, trans. Manomohan Ghosh (The Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1951), 527.
  7. Bharata, The Nāṭyaśāstra: A Treatise on Hindu Dramaturgy and Histrionics, trans. Manomohan Ghosh (The Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1951), 549.
  8. The text uses “gaura” for fair and “shyama” for dark. These words still denote darkness and fairness of skin in many Indian languages such as Bengali. Bharata, The Nāṭyaśāstra: A Treatise on Hindu Dramaturgy and Histrionics, trans. Manomohan Ghosh (The Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1951), 426.
  9. Bharata, The Nāṭyaśāstra: A Treatise on Hindu Dramaturgy and Histrionics, trans. Manomohan Ghosh (The Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1951), 423.
  10. All character types and their descriptions are taken from: Bharata, The Nāṭyaśāstra: A Treatise on Hindu Dramaturgy and Histrionics, trans. Manomohan Ghosh (The Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1951), 454-459.
  11. Varsha Ayyar and Lalit Khandare, “Mapping Color and Caste Discrimination in Indian Society,” in The Melanin Millennium: Skin Color as 21st Century International Discourse, ed. Ronald E. Hall (Springer, 2013), 71–96.
  12. Romila Thapar, “The Theory of Aryan Race and India: History and Politics,” Social Scientist 24, no. 1/3 (1996): 3–29.
  13. In India, arranged marriages are the norm among most sections of society. Often, advertisements for brides and grooms are published in newspapers with a list of requirements that are being sought – these generally include markers such as caste, religion, height, complexion, profession etc.
  14. Bollywood actors are also known for starting trends that promote slim bodies, such as Kareena Kapoor’s famous ‘size zero figure’ for her film Tashan (2008) which continued to be the subject of media attention even in 2020. More recently, celebrities such as Sara Ali Khan have been promoting apps such as HealthifyMe, an application that primarily advertises itself as being an effective aid in weight loss albeit for health reasons. Neha Kumari and Rajni Singh, “‘You Are Unique, the Way You Are’: Policing the ‘Fat Female Body’ in Fanney Khan,” KEMANUSIAAN the Asian Journal of Humanities 30, no. 1 (2023): 23, https://doi.org/10.21315/kajh2023.30.1.2.

Featured image caption: An archetypical nayika, or heroine as described in the Natyashastra. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

Pratyusha is an undergraduate student of History at St. Stephen's College, India. Her interests are theatre, literature, music, history and the intersections thereof.