An Artist’s 100-Day Blackened Body Protest Fights Caste Prejudice

Kerala artist paints herself black with grease to fight the ‘is dark, must be Dalit’ mindset.

3 min read
Jaya’s protest began on 27 January and is on till 5 May. (Photo Courtesy: <i>The News Minute</i>)

Outside the Durbar Hall Grounds in Kochi, artist PS Jaya draws curious looks from passersby. A group of amused drivers at a nearby autorickshaw stand silently gawking at her as she boards a three-wheeler to the Ernakulam railway station.

“I have been getting used to these stares since 27 January, when I started stepping out of my house with my whole body painted black,” she smiles.

Tarring someone’s face is a form of public humiliation in India. Enraged by 26-year-old Dalit activist and PhD scholar Rohit Vemula’s suicide at the Hyderabad Central University, Jaya – a non-Dalit – decided to take on a prejudice of another kind, but one which often conflates with casteist prejudice. She seeks to literally experience the same throes of humiliation that our society harbours against dark skin.

He (Vemula) was my age.The prevalent mindset is that anyone endowed with dark or ‘black’ skin hails from the lower strata of society.
Jaya is protesting against the ‘is dark, must be a Dalit’ mindset. (Photo Courtesy: <i>The News Minute</i>)
Jaya is protesting against the ‘is dark, must be a Dalit’ mindset. (Photo Courtesy: The News Minute)

Though India has sauntered into the new millennium with confidence, she is disturbed that Indians are still stuck in a casteist mold and continue to view dark-skinned people with suspicion.

Why can’t the focus be on the individual who exists underneath the skin colour, caste, religion, race or gender?
PS Jaya

Wanting to make use of art to highlight such caste and colour prejudices, Jaya came up with this unique form of protest which seeks to draw people’s attention to the deep-seated biases inherent in their subconscious attitude to others.

She plans to launch a calendar showcasing her 100-day protest along with an exhibition focusing on the same. A dance recital too is in the offing.

In classical dance, the performer dons paint to look fair. I would like to perform onstage donning grease…hopefully, I’m able to break away from the cliche that beauty lies in fairness.

Jaya had even adorned her darkened body with LED lights on 8 March – celebrated as Women’s Day all over the world – and performed in various public spaces to drive home the point that women need to shine on their own.

Will her protest alter society’s biased attitude?

Perhaps not. But that should not deter people from questioning such wrongs, she believes.

At a dance school in the up-market Panampilly Nagar, where Jaya works as a part-time teacher, her ‘dark skin’ evoked mixed responses from her young students.

Some of her students mistook her for someone else while others told her that she was more beautiful to look at earlier. Associating beauty with fair skin starts right from childhood in India, she asserts.

Though apprehensive about going out on the first day of her live performance, she wanted to use her body as the medium to highlight an age-old prejudice in literal bold black strokes.

People discuss Dalit issues only when someone gets killed. This should change. All such ‘minority’ issues like those of the transgenders too should be up for continuous debate.

Youngest of four children, Jaya derives her sense of individuality from her father – a carpenter – whom she lost eight years ago. A post-graduate in Fine Arts from RLV College in Kochi, she works with Kalakakshi – a collective of artists and writers. A recipient of the 2013 Lalit Kala Academy award for painting, it was her sister – also an artist –  who initiated her into the art world.

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