Seema Hari learned that she didn’t have a problem to fix, only a lot of creativity to unleash
It starts at seven: the bullying over her skin color, when children on the playground cast derogatory slurs on her. Then it comes from authority figures – namely, teachers and relatives. And eventually, the bigger issue becomes apparent: Indian society purposefully and mistakenly sees darker skin as something to be fixed.
This (back)story belongs to Seema Hari, a dark-skinned Indian anti-colorism activist. But it’s not her backstory that’s really of interest here. Rather, what happens in the after. After a teacher sent her to the back of a dance rehearsal in school – not for being a bad dancer, but for being too dark to dance in the front row to Boney M’s “Brown Girl In The Ring.”
After friends and relatives would give her tubes of Fair and Lovely and Vicco Turmeric (none of which she ever used, knowing, she says, that even if they worked, they wouldn’t do much). After she’d almost given up as relatives told her parents she’d be a burden, unwanted, according to them, on account of her skin color. After she considered suicide as an out, stopping only to think of the double-edged sword it would be for her parents (once again being criticized by society) if she went through with it.
“I HOPE PEOPLE GO MAD [WORKING OUT] HOW TO DEFINE ME. THERE REALLY SHOULDN’T BE A LIMIT TO HOW WE GET DEFINED.”
“It took a long time to repair the wounds I had,” says Hari. But repair them she did. Today, she is a DJ, a singer, a filmmaker, a photographer, and a developer for Snapchat. Most prominently, with her dark skin, long black hair, enviable cheek bones, and disarming smile– a model.
There is a seemingly cosmic irony in the fact her name (as you might know from the title of this magazine), means “the limit” in Hindi. “I hope people go mad [trying] to define me,” she jokes. “There really shouldn’t be a limit to how we get defined.”
And she is near-impossible to define in a single world. Except, if one had to choose a word, they might go with “authentic.” With an Instagram following of 17,000 (and counting), she might even be called an influencer.
“I REMEMBER FOLLOWING NANDITA DAS AND DARK IS BEAUTIFUL BACK IN THE DAY. THAT REALLY HAD AN EFFECT ON ME.”
But it is through her Instagram profile that the various facets to her persona come
together. Between the photographs of her modeling, day-in the-life selfies, and fanart, are a kaleidoscope of posts about things she cares about: colorism, naturally, but also social justice and environmental issues. “The world is your oyster but not your ashtray,” she urges in a post about how cigarette butts take decades to degrade, following
one of her routine beach cleanups. “Justice for Jayaraj and Bennicks,” she posted after the deaths of father-son victims of police brutality in India.
“[I] speak about casteism, racism, sexism, transphobia, religious supremacy, fascism etc. because they all are systems that rely on othering humans,” she writes in a raw, heartfelt Instagram post dated July 8, 2020 that garnered 3,500 likes.
“All these things are just part of who I am,” says Hari. “I can’t really separate anything from anything. [I’m] passionate about technology, I’ve kind of studied social media as a platform [and] my activism is mostly about my life.”
The same is true about her modeling – the representation she rarely had as a child is, atleast on some level, about her life. When she emerged from a bout of depression in college, thanks to close friends who defended her against colorist slurs, her self-esteem grew. Hari finally “gave” herself permission to feed into her creative pursuits.
“I never called myself a creative person,” she says. “Never. I think that’s also related to how we’re not allowed to think that we are worthy of being creative and being in front of the camera because we don’t see anything like that. We don’t see people taking that risk. [The] little representation was super helpful. I remember following Nandita Das and Dark is Beautiful back in the day, that really had an effect on me, although there were so many years of damage.”
Since then, Hari’s creativity has outperformed itself. She went on to become an ambassador for Dark is Beautiful herself in 2019. Later that year, when she moderated a panel for We The Women, she wore a patch on her blue-and-white dress that read “Kali,” a word she’d proudly reclaimed as her own.
“FOR THE FIRST TIME, SOMEONE HAD CALLED ME KALI AND I FELT NOTHING BUT PROUD.”
It was in 2016 that she really gained influence while arguing for anti-colorism. That was when she wrote a viral Facebook post in which she recounted how she met an artist on a Mumbai train who gave her a sketch of Kali, the Hindu goddess, that looked eerily like her.
“For the first time, someone had called me Kali and I felt nothing but proud,” Hari says in the post. The artist went on to paint Hari’s face, modeling it after the sketch of Kali.
Subsequently, Hari was asked if she was interested in doing a photoshoot. It was the first of many. She’s walked at the LA Fashion Week countless times for several designers, and earned an associate producer credit on Sheer Qorma, starring Shabana Azmi. It was due to be released this year before COVID hit.
Hari’s been everywhere of late, following the recent surge in anti-colorism that has followed the Black Lives Matter movement and its discussions around race and color. She has been on Vox, talking about beauty companies pulling their fairness creams from shelves decades too late; campaigning for Dark is Beautiful, an initiative that fights colorism; modeling clothes for No Borders; and been on a virtual panel for the first South Asian Heritage Month in the United Kingdom.
All this while still working her day job (from her LA home) at Snapchat, and caring for two young rescue kittens, Idli and Dosa – a nod to her Malayali heritage.
Hari’s future plans are all about realizing her full potential, and exploring the depths of her creativity.
For now, she says, “I realized if I want to see some things in the world, I should probably create them myself. Because no one else is creating [them] – it’s probably my duty to do that.”