“Art is the weapon / against life as a symptom / defend yourself ” – My Chemical Romance
The referenced band may seem a bit misplaced but the sentiment holds true when we consider the real power that art and culture have over our lives. Art has always been used as a method to hold up a mirror to society, whether it is for introspection, protest or celebration. Artists have the very special ability to visually communicate thoughts, experiences and emotions we can’t put words to. More than that, what they manage to do is create a global community with, for lack of a better word, recognition. What art does is make you introspect and purge hidden realities which connect people from different spheres of life through shared empathy and kinship.
Shedding light on tabooed subjects, exploring the beauty of follies of our natural surroundings and just being human – these are just some of the incredible things that impactful artworks can trigger. Change can be made, or at least initiated, physically and more importantly, mentally when a platform for dialogue is created.
We’ve all come across a work of art that we’ve felt transformed by; being moved emotionally, make us question circumstances or just simply bawl our eyes out. We believe that art in all its forms – visual, performance, music, fashion and more – as a tool has triggered change and often made us turn our thoughts into actions. If nothing more, another person’s creative visualisations make us look at ourselves a little better, a little closer, a little differently; broadening our minds when it comes to how we perceived ourselves and others around us.
From an exploration of same-sex love and feminism to GST and caste politics – here are some incredible artworks by Indian artists that have truly left their marks.
[The following list is in no order of preference.]
I. Embrace Everything About Yourself by Lyla FreeChild
Lyla FreeChild is the name she gave herself, a reclamation of her own identity as an artist as well as that which is also to be her would-be daughter’s name. Her works explore her connection with nature, using her body as her muse and artistic tool. Completely self-taught, self- love and feminism are clear strains through all her creations as she encourages people to celebrate their bodies in their natural form.
Her work at Prayag, the first ‘Grand Digital India Mela’ hosted in New Delhi consisted of an installation using only menstrual cups to create a larger one. She wants to draw attention to the immense amount of waste that we create from using disposable sanitary pads and other menstrual products and their impact on the planet.
“Lyla aims to invite and inspire women to switch to sustainable menstrual options, using ART as her tool. Her work is not for the exclusive consumption of women only, but to encourage all genders to engage in these conversations through which women will be able to find better support- she hopes,” notes the artist’s statement. It’s not every day we see a menstrual cup displayed out in the open for public viewing like this, forget at this scale and size. Not only does it put this very taboo topic smack in the middle of the viewer’s surroundings, forcing attention, but unapologetically creates a recognition of this reality and the effect it has on the environment.
II. Sam Madhu Goddess Series
New York-based artist Samyukta Madhu’s series featuring goddess Kali created quite a social media storm. Negative criticism came in for her depiction of the goddess, adorning an Adidas tracksuit in one image and a biker jacket in another as disrespectful and insensitive. But through her work, Sam calls out to all the women to focus on and, well, worship instead their inner goddesses and unleash their ferocity and power onto this world. “I’m focusing my new series on goddess Kali, who is a symbol of female power, destruction, sexuality and independence,” Madhu told BuzzFeed in an interview.
‘We never needed anyone’s approval’ reads one image caption and ‘My inner goddess will fuck you up’ another. She flips the prevailing standards of beauty, body image, morality and societal expectations on their head using neon colours and vivid imagery. This isn’t in any extravagant or magnanimous manner either, but through realistic portrayals of what life is like for modern women and young girls.
Sam’s bold and quirky creations are possibly as far from politically correct as it gets, especially in Indian society. Her work is an exploration of Indian taboos including sex, masturbation and gender roles with doses of pop culture in a vibrant palette. Her mantra is simple: don’t try to define her or she will burn you with her bidi.
III. ‘This Republic Day, I Want To Write My Own Rules’ poem and illustration by Priyanka Paul
Questioning social mores and shattering boundaries are things we as Indian women constantly have to face, yet not everybody chooses to, or is even capable of, expressing those questions through illustrations. Very few people have smashed stereotypes like Priyanka does.
On Republic day, the illustrator and poet addressed one of India’s most shameful realities. The prevalence of acid attacks and the ease with which acid is available for sale. “Out of all reported cases of acid attacks, a huge number have been perpetrated by assailants influenced by an oppressive, patriarchal notion of love. Men and women, with bruised egos shouldn’t have the option to use acid for this brutal assault,” she writes.
A brutal assault is truly what such an attack is and her emotions ring through each line of her poem, ‘This Republic Day, I want to write my own rules’, as she invokes all citizens of the country to stand together for survivors of acid attacks that are often ostracised following an attack they had little-to-no control over.
IV. ‘Oh Nari so Sanskari’ zine by Annushka Hardikar
The underrepresentation of female characters in Hindu epics like the Mahabharata is being constantly targeted, and Annushka Hardikar, a graduate in Visual Communication from the Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore, decided to discuss this issue in an incredibly creative way—through a zine, which she created as her final year project.
Hardikar believes that, although Indian women have become more vocal about the challenges they face, society still remains largely orthodox. “Most women I spoke to find themselves conforming to the norm when it came to a career, family life and societal expectations even today,” she tells Homegrown. She goes so far to say that there were times at which she felt as though some of the stories from the epic are significantly more progressive than reality. “The zine is actually an inquiry into the similarities and differences in the scenarios that surrounded the women in the story, and those that exist for Indian women today. I was rather alarmed when my research revealed many more similarities than I had expected, and that is what I have tried to shed light on.”
Hardikar trusts she made the right decision to choose art to make her statement; “I do believe art is one such medium that has always been able to break barriers and speak about topics that are controversial, or mobilise people towards a certain cause...Yes, we have a long way to go, creatives still get a lot of flak for expressing an opinion on a sensitive subject but then again you’re always going to offend someone. It’s actually fun when that happens, to be honest!”
V. Love as Love by Veer Misra
There is little room to openly explore your gender identity and sexuality in a heteronormative society with strict gender roles and expectations. There are no winners in a patriarchal society as everyone that’s even a bit left of centre are told to quickly get back in line, be it for respect, out of fear and judgement or for the ‘family’s honour’.
We’re also a country that criminalises same-sex relationships under the archaic Section 377 and while the fight for its repeal is underway it hasn’t stopped people from expressing themselves, their love and identity as well as encouraging others to do the same. Living closeted lives is a reality for many Indians and many find solace and even inspiration to be their true selves through the representation and experiences of others.
Veer beautifully explores gender and sexuality in its evolving and experimental form through his series, stating that more than anything else, it’s an “expression of love, as love.” Such visualisations not only create a dialogue, but it shows those people, afraid of their own desires, that there is absolutely nothing wrong with it and they are not alone.
You can view more from the series and his work on Behance.
VI. ‘A Travancore Tale’ by Orijit Sen
Graphic designer, artist and all-around socio-cultural critic, Orijit Sen’s works have often been cited for their social and political themes. Most recent has been his retelling of one of India’s unsung heroine’s story through a graphic story. He created ‘A Travancore Tale’ in remembrance of the 19th century Ezhava woman, Nangeli, on what he calls Rohith Vemula’s ‘Shahadat Day’.
Low-caste Avarna women of 19th century Travancore, colloquially understood as Dalit, were not allowed to cover their breasts in public unless they paid a special tax, termed mulakkaram. Nangeli, a beautiful woman living in Cherthala belonging to the Ezhava community, wouldn’t have it anymore. She denied the village officer responsible to collect taxes, the money sought from her. Fiercely independent, she was determined to cover herself and venture outside. Once the news of her defiance spread, the tax officer came to her home to collect the tax. Nangeli followed rituals and prepared the plantain leaf on which the tax was supposed to be paid. Instead of the money, she came out of her home drenched in her own blood, having cut off her own breasts, which she summarily presented to the officer, much to his horror. Nangeli lost her life in a matter of minutes and was cremated by that evening. The next day, Sreemolam Thirunal, the then King of Travancore, took back the tax after having issued a royal proclamation. Women from lower backgrounds were now allowed to cover their breasts.
Nangeli’s story is highly debated by academics and historians for its lack of evidence. But the artist expresses his sentiment aptly, stating, “For me, the veracity of the facts is less important than the singular fact that the story exists, and continues to be told. It narrates the protest, anguish and anger of those who are excluded from the reach of collective conscience because they have no text, and therefore no ‘history’. This comics story is dedicated to Rohith Vemula (1989-2016), who, like Nangeli, chose death over a life of indignity.”
VII. Bleed Out by Sarah Naqvi
#LahuKaLagaan was tweeted to the Finance Minister Arun Jaitley in an attempt to remove the tag of ‘luxury product’ attributed to sanitary napkins and tampons, therefore, exempting these basic necessities from the Goods and Services Tax (GST). SheSays, an NGO working to end gender-based discrimination and advancing of women’s rights, spearheaded this campaign and raised a very pertinent question - if beedis are tax-free, why not sanitary products?
While we roll our eyes at the thought of menstruation being considered a ‘luxury’ for women in any way, the fact remains that in India, access to menstrual products is a luxury many of us take for granted. The sad truth is that out of an approximated 497 million Indian women, only 12 percent use sanitary napkins/tampons. And it’s women in rural India that suffer the most.
Indians across the board raised their voices against the ridiculous taxation (which still exists). Menstruation is not a luxury, and access to such products shouldn’t be either. If anything, they should be subsidised to encourage its usage. Sarah Naqvi is not one to hold her tongue and she is among the group of artists that criticised the tax on menstrual products. Her provocative art tackles everything from body positivity to self acceptance. As she aptly tells us in a previous interview, “All women are Goddesses, let’s start treating them the way they deserve.”
VIII. SplatterSpeak by Living Stories
What Living Stories did was more than just create a work of art. People often seem to forget that having a mental illness is not a choice someone makes, nor is it always a result of their circumstances. Nobody chooses to have Clinical Depression, Anorexia Nervosa or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and yet, it is made to seem that people might have a certain control over these matters.
More and more people, projects and groups are stepping up to openly talk about the importance of good mental health in an effort to bring some kind of normalcy to the subject in discussions. One such initiative was Living Stories, a project founded by Sanchana Krishnan that aims to break the silencing of topics of mental illness and create awareness through knowledge dissemination about mental health through storytelling and art. Their latest project took a creative path towards establishing a platform for discussion. #SplatterSpeak was a body art campaign that encouraged storytelling and sharing of experiences between people. The project was a celebration of World Mental Health Week 2017 across three cities.
Artists and participants came together and the latter was encouraged to share their mental health stories and journeys which was then interpreted and turned into body art. Krishnan told Homegrown that through #SplatterSpeak they want to empower people, to accept themselves, their journeys and struggles, and to ‘come out’ about their mental illness; the message is of showcasing strength in moments of vulnerability and to shed light on the reality of such kinds of silent suffering.
IX. #100daysofdirtylaundry by Wallflowergirlsays
Unfortunately we weren’t able to contact the artist for more information regarding her identity and Instagram project, but her art pretty much speaks for itself.
Through a 100-day Instagram series, this artist openly airs her ‘dirty laundry’ for viewers in a bid to “cover everything unholy, uncomfortable, cringe-worthy - be it complicated love, indefinable sexuality, masturbation, periods, over-gloried travel, manic materialism, alcohol binges, smelly farts, burps, ugly scars, anything & everything I am guilty about, ashamed to share in public.”
She addresses uncomfortable and unwanted aspects, ticks and traits of life and there is definitely at least one that we can all relate to. A step-by-step guide on ‘How (not) to bottle up grief’, ‘first world problems in a third world country’ or women and farting – the artist covers a range of emotions and experiences, critical commentary to light-hearted fun and is definitely a series we all need to see.
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