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Why This Kochi Artist Has Been Painting Herself Black After the Rohith Vemula Suicide

Artist P. S. Jaya has undertaken a 100-day social experiment, in which she paints herself black before stepping out of her house. She is documenting the reactions and comments that she gets from people on the streets, while also creating awareness about casteism.

When the suicide of Rohith Vemula shook the nation in January this year, one artist from Kochi began to think about how she could translate the injustice into art.

P. S. Jaya, an artist living in Tripunithura, Kochi, paints herself black every day when she steps out of her house. She walks the streets, takes buses, goes to teach art and painting at a private institute, meets friends and family, hangs out at restaurants – all the while coloured in a different coloured skin, calling herself a Dalit.

This recent art graduate is on a social experiment to find out how people react to dark skinned Dalits.


P. S. Jaya

“I want everyone to realise how the caste system works in India,” she says, “We know through history that it was widely present and people were divided into two sections, the touchables and untouchables.” There was hope that when India became a republic, it would usher in change. “We thought that we would be free not just from foreign rule but also discrimination of all kinds.” But that hasn’t happened yet, she adds with a sigh.

Lamenting the downhill situation in India, Jaya questions people’s attitude about casteism. It’s the 21st century, and the country is progressing, both scientifically and economically. Yet, why is it lagging behind on social reforms?

“Today, when a child is born into a Dalit family, living as a Dalit becomeis difficult. They have become the target for a lot of atrocities and senseless crimes, from murder to lynching to acid attacks,” she points out.

Her sympathies for the community run deep. When Kalakakshi, an art collective that she is part of, called out to artists to come up with an idea to protest against the Vemula suicide through a series of talks and performances, she had her plans ready.

On January 26, she first dabbed herself with black paint.

#WTFnews #healthcare" data-image-description="<div> <h1></h1> </div> <p><span class="byline"><span id="auim"></span><a href="" rel="author">Rema Nagarajan</a>, TNN | Apr 5, 2015, 12.07AM <a class="zem_slink" title="Indian Standard Time" href=",82.58&amp;spn=1.0,1.0&amp;q=25.15,82.58 (Indian%20Standard%20Time)&amp;t=h" target="_blank" rel="geolocation">IST</a></span></p> <div> <div id="sharebarx_new" class="clearFix pb_mt"></div> </div> <div> <div> <div><a id="mod-article-image-link" class="thickbox" target="_blank"></a><img id="articleimg1" title="Free drugs plan gets a quiet burial" src=",width-217,resizemode-4/Free-drugs-plan-gets-a-quiet-burial.jpg" alt="Free drugs plan gets a quiet burial" width="217" border="0" vspace="0" /></p> <div id="slidshdiv"></div> </div> <div>Joint secretary (policy) in the health ministry Manoj Jhalani confirmed that there will be no separate central scheme for free drugs and diagnostics anymore.</div> </div> </div> <div class="section1"> <div class="Normal">It was in 2012 that the Centre first promised to provide free drugs in public <a class="zem_slink" title="Health care provider" href="" target="_blank" rel="wikipedia">health facilities</a>. The first budgetary provision was made in 2013. Last year, the promise was crystallized to providing 348 essential drugs free. This was later whittled down to just 50 drugs. And now, the entire idea of a central scheme for free drug distribution has been given a quiet burial.</p> <p>Joint secretary (policy) in the health ministry Manoj Jhalani confirmed that<a class="inlineshare" href=""> there will be no separate central scheme for free drugs and diagnostics anymore</a>. “Free drug provision will be done by the states under the National Health Mission (<a class="zem_slink" title="Natural History Museum" href=",-0.176372&amp;spn=0.01,0.01&amp;q=51.495983,-0.176372 (Natural%20History%20Museum)&amp;t=h" target="_blank" rel="geolocation">NHM</a>). The Centre will financially incentivize states to start the free drug scheme. If a state initiates a free drug schemes and fulfils the condition of putting in place a quality assurance system, prescription audits and so on, it will be given 5% of its NHM allocation as incentive. A large number of states have agreed to this,” said Jhalani.</p> <p>In his budget speech last year, finance minister <a class="zem_slink" title="Arun Jaitley" href="" target="_blank" rel="homepage">Arun Jaitley</a> stated: “To move towards ‘<a class="zem_slink" title="Health For All" href="" target="_blank" rel="wikipedia">Health for All</a>‘, the two key initiatives i.e. the Free Drug Service and Free Diagnosis Service would be taken up on priority.” However, there was no provision in the budget. In his budget speech this year, the words medicine, drugs and diagnostics do not figure anywhere.</p> <div id="gads"></div> <p><img class="gwt-Image" src="" alt="" /></p> <p>In September last year the health ministry had brought out a document titled Free <a class="zem_slink" title="Essential medicines" href="" target="_blank" rel="wikipedia">Essential Drugs</a> Scheme- Base paper for Discussion. It said: “Government intervention for better access to essential medicines is urgently required as expenditure on drugs constitutes about 67% of out of pocket expenditure on health care and out of pocket expenditure is one of the leading causes of impoverishment.” The document also stated that free provision of essential drugs to all patients accessing public health facilities, while not costing so much to the government, brings huge savings to the patients, and is the easiest and quickest option to improve access to essential medicines and reducing <a class="zem_slink" title="Out-of-pocket expenses" href="" target="_blank" rel="wikipedia">out of pocket expenses</a>. <a class="zem_slink" title="Harsh Vardhan" href="" target="_blank" rel="wikipedia">Harsh Vardhan</a> had stated that the free medicines scheme would go a long way toward fulfilling the promise of reducing out-of-pocket expenditure on healthcare.</p> <p>Reacting to the central free drug scheme being scrapped Dr T Sundararaman, visiting professor at the Centre for Social Medicine and Community Health in <a class="zem_slink" title="Jawaharlal Nehru University" href="" target="_blank" rel="homepage">JNU</a> and former director of government’s National Health System Resource Centre said: “It is a complete withdrawal of the state in a major way from public health. There is a reason why the health sector industry has shown the highest growth in sensex. The state withdrawal is a predatory opportunity for the private sector.” Jan Swasthya Abhiyan’s co-convenor Dr Amit Sengupta said that it was unfortunate that what started off as central scheme was being pushed onto the states so that the centre could absolve itself of all responsibility. “Rajasthan has shown how free drug scheme increased the usage of public health facilities. Given such obvious benefits, why is the central government not committing to this level of spending? The only plausible explanation is that this is in conflict with the government’s idea of promoting the private sector.”</p> <p>In June last year the government had claimed that the free drugs programme was a part of the National Health Assurance Mission which would also include free diagnostics and free health services. The health ministry had sought Rs 500 crore budgetary support for the scheme. Under the programme, 348 drugs in the National List of Essential Medicines (NLEM) were to be provided free from 1.6 lakh sub-centres, 23,000 primary health centres, 5,000 community health centres and 640 district hospitals.</p> <p>In 2011, the Planning Commission had estimated that the free drugs scheme would cost the centre about Rs 28,675 crore over the period of the <a class="zem_slink" title="Five-year plans of the People's Republic of China" href="" target="_blank" rel="wikipedia">12th five year plan</a> (2012-17). The centre was supposed to bear 85% of the cost and the states were to contribute the remaining 15%.</div> <div class="Normal"></div> <div class="Normal"></div> </div> " data-medium-file="" data-large-file="" class="size-full wp-image-51040" src="" sizes="(max-width: 1200px) 100vw, 1200px" srcset=" 300x, 768x, 500x, 1200x" alt="artist" width="1200" height="628" />

The process of dabbing paint

Source: Facebook

Since then, she has been actively documenting her experiences through photography and videography.

“I do this to see how people react to dark-skinned people,” she explains. “It has been 65 days since I began. I meet both strangers and friends daily. I also teach painting and drawing to kids at a private institution. I’m glad I have been able to meet people, discuss the issue, and get their opinions. The interaction with children is also interesting.”

The reactions have been mixed, so far. The curious ones are usually the ones who applaud her efforts, understanding the need for such a protest.

Then there are those who make fun of her, and those who are concerned, wondering if she has a skin condition. “But some people are indifferent to the issue altogether,” she says, “They don’t accept that this situation of oppressing and discriminating lower caste people has to stop!”

Her plan so far is to conduct this project till May 5. In the remaining days till then, she has a lot on her drawing board. She says, “I am planning to release a book about this 100-day journey I’ve had. Along with that, I will be speaking to Dalit activists and collect their views, which I will showcase through this book.”

Besides that, she is also designing a calendar that will focus entirely on Dalits and their lives.


P. S. Jaya (centre) with Sheethal Shyam (LGBT activist) and Aswathi Rajappan (activist), at Kalakakshi

Source: Facebook

“A calendar is supposed to remind us of history,” she says, “My idea is to make a calendar that includes important milestones and dates related to Dalits, their protest movements and their festivals.” She plans to replace conventional calendar pictures – of picturesque sceneries, photoshopped models, deities – with pictures of herself as a Dalit.

Jaya graduated from RLV College in Kochi, and started a studio with her sister, P. S. Jalaja, who is also a popular artist, her aunt, and a friend. Along with her artist friends at Kalakakshi, she alternates between making art and teaching art. She was also part of a powerful performance on Women’s Day, where she painted herself black and wound LED lights around her body.

Jaya is also a part time classical dancer.

The social experiment has a second side to it: she wants to rubbish the notion of “fair and beautiful” in the country.


Source: Facebook

“The stress on fair, spotless skin for dancers is a major concern,” she says, “Even if there is a dancer who is slightly dark in colour, the norm is to put enough makeup to lighten up their face.”

It has been an age-old tradition in classical dance performances to attribute dark-coloured skin to negative character roles or the most downtrodden characters. “So you see the kind of space that I am bringing this darkened skin of mine to. I am trying to deconstruct the notion that only fair is beautiful,” she says with a confident smile.

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