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Painting yourself black will not tell you s*#@ about being Dalit

Shriya Mohan | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:50 IST

Once upon a time there lived a princess who ruled a Kingdom called Dalitopia. Curious about the plight of the downtrodden she decided to disguise herself as a shabby poor girl and live outside her palace. At first life was drab, nobody paid attention to her and she began forgetting what the point of it all was. 

Then to spice it up, she revealed to some passersby that she was in fact the princess in disguise. Word spread like wild fire. It even became a fashion trend to dress and look grimy and poverty struck. After a while, the princess got bored of all the Facebook likes and media publicity and just like that, went back to her princess comforts. Of course, nothing changed for Dalitopia’s poor, who continued living outside the Palace gates, as they always had, taking such experiments by the privileged with fists full of salt.

Read: Dalit worker alleges rape by IIMC clerk on campus

Even if you haven’t heard the name of PS Jaya, many of you would surely have seen photos of an actually fair skinned, curly-haired girl dousing her face and exposed limbs with Kohl each day, before roaming the streets of Kochi, pretending to be a Dalit. 

Jaya is an artist, and part of an artist association in the city called Kalakakshi. A month after the suicide of Hyderabad Central University Phd scholar Rohith Vemula, Jaya felt inspired to use her art to revolt against how society discriminates people on the basis of their “caste and colour”. What better way than use the principles of immersive journalism to become a Dalit and make your experience a talking point.

After all, such experiences have made viral headlines. Who can forget the two IIT boys who decided to live below the poverty line of 28 rupees a day, or the woman who sat in the metro with her legs spread out like a man to teach a thing or two on feminism, or the photographer who decided to give her picture to be photoshopped in several countries to understand notions of beauty, or a million other examples?

PS Jaya’s Dalit experiment seems wrong at several levels and is nothing but a misguided use of art

But Jaya’s Dalit experiment seems wrong at several levels.

First, Rohith Vemula never said anything about being discriminated against because he was dark. So to say that her experiment in some way is to fight for justice towards Rohith is a bit far-fetched. Sorry honey, but painting yourself black is not equal to saying “Je suis Rohith.”

Second, you would be naive to imagine that being Dalit is just about being dark. If Miss Jaya really was in it for the Dalit experience, why didn’t she try getting a job, getting a house on rent, get admission into an esteemed college, enter a temple, mingle in Carnatic music Sabhas, audition for an acting role, try filing a police complaint to seek justice, or try responding to matrimonial ads with a show of interest? To go through these experiences requires a toughness that’s more than skin deep.

Also read: Access denied to drinking water in school, Dalit boy drowns in well

Third and most importantly, why the hurry to reveal your upper caste, fair-skinned identity?

According to what she told The Hindu:

"…when I’m in public ‘wearing’ a dark complexion, people have their doubts. Some are anxious. Some are keen to know why I am doing it and engage me in discussions, especially on bus rides. Some look in wonderment, while some others simply laugh it off. There was this middle-aged woman who kept staring at me on the bus the other day and dryly remarking, as I was alighting, as to why someone should appear in the guise of Poothana!"

Perhaps you should try applying better make up? What are you trying to achieve by letting every person you encounter figure out that it’s just a play act. Doesn’t it defeat the very point of understanding what it means to be a Dalit? 

The experiment could have been a powerful tool to unravel higher truths about what it means to live with a historical injustice and wage a constant battle with inequality, inferiority and access, at every step of the way. But Jaya’s “art” will never, for instance, inform us about what it means to avail reservation and grapple with the complex emotions of an upper caste-driven guilt trip about being given a crutch and being made to feel second grade.

Painting yourself black doesn’t make you Dalit. To think that means undermining the real struggle Dalits face

Her stunt has garnered a lot of positive publicity thanks to national media. But if Jaya has done anything by painting herself black, it is to demean the everyday struggles and injustices of Dalits in this country.

The only place where Vemula used a word associated with colour in his suicide letter is when he wrote:

“Our feelings are second-handed. Our love is constructed. Our beliefs coloured. Our originality valid through artificial art”

Read more: Rohith is the 23rd Dalit student suicide in institutes like AIIMS and IITs

At a time when caste discriminations are morphing into subtle but widely prevalent biases throughout the country, Jaya’s rather coloured beliefs throws us art that is not just artificial, but sadly also misguided and futile.

(The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the organisation.)

First published: 10 April 2016, 8:16 IST
Shriya Mohan @ShriyaMohan

An editor and writer of development stories at Catch, Shriya has 8 years of experience as a development journalist, holds a Masters degree in Public Policy from the National University of Singapore and is a two-time winner of the National Foundation for India media fellowship award. When she isn't exploring the universe with her two-year-old daughter, she chronicles public anger and shelters relevant stories that don't hang sexily on news pegs.