Why this Indian woman is using 'blackface' as solidarity

Jaya PS Image copyright Davis VJ
Image caption Ms Jaya's 125-day protest is due to end on 26 May

A young woman in southern India is painting her body black to protest against what she calls the growing intolerance in the country against the low-caste Dalit community, writes Ashraf Padanna in Kerala.

One could run into 26-year-old Jaya PS anywhere in the southern port city of Cochin - be it in a supermarket, public transport or at an art exhibition.

Ms Jaya, who holds a masters degree in art, paints her body with collyrium, a type of dark eye shadow, whenever she steps out of her home studio.

"I decided to paint my body black while appearing in public after Rohith Vemula died," she told the BBC.


Rohith Vemula, a PhD student at the University of Hyderabad, killed himself on 17 January after alleged caste discrimination on the campus.

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"The news stung me and I thought of this way to express my solidarity with the Vemulas of India."

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption There were countrywide protests against Mr Vemula's death
Image caption Ms Jaya says Rohith Vemula's suicide had a strong impact on her
Image caption Her sister helps Jaya with her body-paint every day

Ms Jaya says Rohit Vemula was exactly her age, which led to question why "he was being denied the privileges I have been enjoying"?

The answer, she says, is because "black represents the lowest strata of our caste system".

"Caste is closely related to colour and whatever is black is not welcome in the Indian society. I experienced its severity when I started painting myself black," she says.

'Female demon'

"While I was travelling on a bus, an elderly woman passenger once started shouting at me, she called me Putana [a female demon from the Hindu epic Mahabharata]."

Even in Kerala, which is India's most literate state, she says colour matters a lot and not many like to marry a dark-skinned girl.

Ms Jaya has now vowed to be "black" for 125 days and on the last day of her protest - on 26 May - she plans to hold a "big event" in the city with a gathering of Dalit writers, artists and activists.

Image caption Ms Jaya has now vowed to live as 'black' for 125 days
Image caption On International Women's Day on 8 March, Ms Jaya stood on a busy street with LED lights on her body to highlight the plight of Indian women on the streets at night

At the event, she will give a classical dance performance and release a book on her experience of "living as a black girl" in a "society that worships white".

Her elder sister Jalaja PS, who is also an artist, helps her paint her body every day, a process that takes two hours to finish.

Ms Jaya's protest is especially novel, since in India - as in many South Asian and African countries - fair skin is coveted and darker-complexioned men and women bleach their skin. Skin-lightening creams in the country see sales worth millions of dollars.

'Unique protest'

Ms Jaya says she wants to explore new ways of sending across messages in better and more powerful ways, even if that means breaking conventions.

"When I'm in motion, people think it's my skin colour. But when I get near them, they ask questions and I explain the politics behind this. Some respond positively, others ridicule me."

Many artists and the local media have supported the protest.

"This is one of the most unique ways of protest that an artist can think of through his/her art," says painter Bose Krishnamachari, president of the Kochi Biennale Foundation, which runs India's biggest art show.

Image caption Ms Jaya with her sister Jalaja PS who helps her to paint her body

"It is time artists took a proactive role in sensitising the society that is so prejudiced about issues of gender, caste, colour and creed. She's used her life itself as the medium of performance art here."

The Times of India newspaper called Ms Jaya's protest a "novel social experiment" in a country where "dark skin has always been considered ugly".

And the Deccan Chronicle said the protest had helped start a conversation on the subject.

"Jaya doesn't have any qualms walking around in public. Many eyes follow her; some even start a conversation with her. Interestingly enough, that is exactly what she wants," the newspaper said.

"Some think she is unhinged while others pity her for a particular medical condition. Either way, the curious minds get to her and the interactions that follow make her day."

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