P.S. Jalaja's work has been chosen for the Prague Biennale which begins on May 19

Seeing one policeman is intimidating enough. What if you were to confront hundreds of cops from all over the world, in their respective uniforms? You are not likely to say, ah….global village. I found it very interesting, to see an army of policemen and policewomen (maybe around 1000) from around 40 countries, on a 10 x 5 ft work of P.S. Jalaja. Stuck on a whole side of a room in her rented house in Tripunithura, it was waiting to be packed and sent to the Prague Biennale, beginning May 19. The section from India is curated by Kanchi Mehta.

Not a first

Jalaja is excited that she is to be featured along with 16 others from the country. “T.V. Santhosh, Riyaz Komu, Vivek Vilasini, are all there,” she says. This untitled painting in water colour is the latest in a series titled, Crowds. This is not the first international exposure for this 28-year-old from Keezhillam, who did her degree and PG in art in RLV College, Tripunithura. Last year, she participated in the art fairs at Gwangju (South Korea) under the Emerging Asian Artists section and three of her paintings were sold. Jalaja has showed in Gallery BMB in Mumbai, won the Kerala Lalithakala Akademi award, honourable mention and even as a student has got recognition from the Akademi. Currently she is attached to the BMB Gallery, which manages the commercial aspect of her career.

Though drawing and painting was always a special love, she did her B.Com before her academic training in art. “My father was a carpenter but he wanted to give us the best education possible for us, three sisters and one brother. I stayed at a hostel while studying art. Travelling gave me the much needed impetus to paint and camps conducted by the Akademi were helpful in honing my theoretical knowledge,” she spoke a little about her life. Looking at her latest work, to be exhibited at Prague, I was struck by the details, of the uniforms, the expressions, the colours, and the clever way in which every centimetre of space is used. At the centre of the global policemen are six people, including a woman, who seem hemmed in by them. “Authority suffocating the common man is a recurring theme in many of my works,” says Jalaja, who took one and a half months to finish it. “I did a lot of research, surfing the Net and looking for policemen of different countries,” she says, showing a scrapbook of printouts she had taken.

No bed of roses

What one cannot miss is the reality based ugliness and the comic element peeping through punctuating the figures across the canvas. Softness, beauty and daintiness have no place in her work. Perhaps it's because life has not been a bed of roses for Jalaja. Finding a space to pursue art itself has been a struggle. In her early days, she narrates how she painted three nudes in two hours, using a borrowed room, and fearing that someone would come and catch her doing it. A middle-aged woman who came to be the model, wanted her head covered, for her husband and grown up son were ignorant about her profession. A vessel turned upside down did the trick. It was the woman's idea. Her friend agreed to be the male model and he too had his head covered with a bucket. These nude studies have a raw naturality and style that one misses in her recent works. But in these works, there is a certain collective power that emerges from the crowd, converging into the centre.

In the crowd series, there are happy and sad mobs, concerned crowds and in one, two sections of them. “I study such crowds, at funerals, other gatherings like a wedding, at accident sites and also at shows. My love of history has also contributed to my interest in people from different countries, how they look and dress etc,” she says, explaining the different kinds of people in the other works in the series.

Group of friends

The problem of a proper space to work in bothers all young artists. A studio is a dream for which they are ill equipped when they start out life fresh from art school. Jalaja talks about how a group of students who passed out from RLV addressed this problem of space: “Fifteen of us grouped together, calling ourselves RAY (Radiant Artists Yield) and rented rooms to work in. We help one another and have also exhibited together. If we go our ways individually, we will never get the inspiration to work or learn what is new in the field. This way, interacting with other artists in the city and exchanging notes, all of us can come up,” says Jalaja. The telltale signs of gender-specific motifs have given way to a larger body of images. But even in her early works, Jalaja's style could never have been tracked to her gender, except if you look really hard. The power of her lines in the nudes has a majesty that is commendable.

She wears no jewellery, make up and is generally, a woman in a hurry, with no time for niceties or much thought for societal hang-ups. “It's not to create an identity. I used to wear jewellery two years ago and I may wear sometime in the future,” she says disarmingly.

But serious she is about art and her resolve to live by art alone.