When Rohith Vemula committed suicide in January, he lit the fuse to a mass movement, which denounced casteism prevalent in our society. Kerala saw many marches and meetings, in which society’s discrimination against people belonging to the lower strata was criticised. Standing out from the crowd is P S Jaya, an artist in Kochi. She is on a 125-day crusade from January 26 against society’s discriminative attitude towards Dalits and its preference for everything fair.
Jaya’s day begins with a makeover every morning. She paints her face and every inch of exposed skin black, and ventures out. “Society has this weird thing of associating everything that is considered evil with the colour black,” says the 26-year-old.
She believes that stereotyping and categorising people based on the colour of their skin should be stopped. “My dissent is part of a performance project that I have undertaken to highlight how society shuts out Dalits,” she says. “Black doesn’t mean evil. Black doesn’t mean untouchable. Black doesn’t mean an ill omen and black doesn’t mean Dalit.”
Jaya calls herself a living art installation. “Once while travelling in a bus, an old woman called me crazy. She asked me whether I had lost my mind to go about in the city looking like a monster,” laughs Jaya.
Her mother and brother thought she had a skin disease and were afraid for her. It was only after she explained the project to them that they supported her.
Many people have asked her why she does this. “I explain the issues to them. I have been ridiculed and have been looked upon with disdain,” she says. “But I have also come across people who connected with me and shared their bad experiences. I got to experience the negativity that people have for those who do menial jobs. People don’t want to associate with them even in an educated society like Kerala.”
Jaya calls her work “artivism”, social activism through the medium of art. “Art is a medium that has a good reach among people,” she says. “Social causes can be taken up and highlighted through art.”
She is documenting her experiences and will release a video. Jaya plans to hold shows to highlight the problem. She fears that unless people change their attitude, this rot will eat into society and destroy it.
Jaya, who is also a Bharatanatyam dancer, says: “Society is so obsessed with fair skin that even our art forms reflect it. In any art form, especially the traditional ones, the hero is fair, while the villain is black, for example, the asuras and rakshas of lore. The penchant for fair skin is evident in the classical dance forms. Can you imagine a dark dancer? Every dancer have their faces painted white. A load of make-up is applied, under which the artists loses their actual identity.”
She wants to change the traditional Bharatanatyam stereotype by giving performances in her dark avatar. She will also bring out a calendar with photographs of her, which will highlight the dates that commemorate Dalit movements. “Rohit’s last words, ‘an unappreciated child from the past’, still haunt me,” she says.