NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A major Indian jewellery chain has withdrawn an advert featuring Bollywood actress Aishwarya Rai Bachchan with a dark-skinned boy holding a parasol over her after it was slammed by activists and on social media for being racist and promoting child slavery.
Kalyan Jewellers, which employs about 4,000 people across India, said the advertisement featured in a national newspaper on April 17 was intended to present "royalty, timeless beauty and elegance".
The ad shows Rai Bachchan, 41, a former Miss World and goodwill ambassador for the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, in regal Indian attire and adorned with jewellery, reclining under a parasol held by a boy of darker skin.
"If we have inadvertently hurt the sentiments of any individual or organisation, we deeply regret the same. We have started the process of withdrawing this creative from our campaign," said a statement by the jewellery retailer on its Facebook page late on Wednesday.
In an open letter to Rai Bachchan published on Indian website Scroll, a group of social activists said the image reflected 17th and 18th century European paintings of noblewomen with their child servants and was "insidiously racist".
"In the advertisement you appear to be representing aristocracy from a bygone era – bejewelled, poised and relaxing while an obviously underage slave-child, very dark and emaciated, struggles to hold an oversize umbrella over your head," said the letter.
"While advertisers routinely use fantasy images to sell products, they must surely desist from using images that condone, legitimise, normalise, or build desirable fantasy around slavery or servitude of any kind, including child slavery or child servitude."
The activists - including Shantha Sinha, former chair of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, Harsh Mander, director of Centre for Equity Studies, and Nisha Agrawal, CEO of Oxfam India - called for Rai Bachchan, brand ambassador for Kalyan Jewellers, to disassociate herself from the advert and ensure its withdrawal.
Rai Bachchan's publicist Archana Sadanand issued a statement indicating the actress was not involved in the final image.
"The final layout of the ad is entirely the prerogative of the creative team for a brand," said the statement. "However shall forward your article as a viewpoint that can be taken into consideration by the creative team of professional working on the brand visual communication."
"Kalyan Jewellers" was one of India's top trends on Twitter on Thursday with users slamming the advert as "sick" and "insensitive".
"Black kid holdin umbrella to d great Aishwarya Rai. Kalyan Jewellers has lost this one completely by promoting slavery!" tweeted one user.
Thousands of Indian children, mostly from poor rural areas, are taken to cities every year by trafficking gangs who sell them into bonded labour or hire them out to unscrupulous employers, promising to send their parents their wages.
There are no official figures on the number of child workers in India. The 2014 Global Slavery Index says the country is home to more than 14 million victims of human trafficking.
Reporting by Nita Bhalla, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith