Indian Artists Battling The Menstruation Stigma Through Their Powerful Work

Indian Artists Battling The Menstruation Stigma Through Their Powerful Work

The sure sign of female puberty has always been the crimson trickle, one that stains conversations with silence and shame. The bloody menstruation taboo has loomed like a dark cloud over Indian women and young girls for far too long. Despite the growing dialogue on the topic, with a number of initiatives and projects tackling this subject, in many societies talking about periods still makes people turn a shade of red that matches the bloodbath between women’s legs once a month. We’d apologise for the vivid imagery a, but it’s time we stopped apologising for basic female bodily functions that no amount of wordplay can change.

The need for education and awareness in India is dire when it comes to menstrual health and hygiene, and the added ‘luxury tax’ that the GST has brought upon menstruation products is only further limiting the access to proper products to ALL women of the country. Combine that with a lack of education, proper infrastructure and all-around information about their own body’s development, and the onset of menstruation is a traumatic experience for countless young girls and women. The truth is that no amount of preparation and television ads can really equip you to deal with menstruation – you’re definitely not as pleased or upbeat about bleeding from your nether regions and you’re definitely not bleeding blue liquid.

We believe that art as a tool, in all its forms, has the power to transform viewers perceptions, broaden mindsets on such tabooed topics and refashion socio-cultural ideals. Today we look at the works of Indian artists that battle the stigma of menstruation through their works and call it out for what it is – unnecessary, and simply absurd. Let’s all come out and say it together— friends, mothers, grandmothers, sisters and aunts; they all bleed. All women get their period, and it’s time everybody in India accepted it.

I. Raj Kamal

Delhi-based illustrator Raj Kamal is known for taking cultural icons and giving them an unexpected twist. In a previous series, he took American superheroes and turned them into characters representing India’s sub-communities, and in another he created playful artworks using condoms to promote safe sex. For World Menstrual Hygiene Day in 2017, Kamal came up with another unique method to address the stigma that surrounds the subject.

As far as brown paper bags go they’re usually used for either sanitary napkins or condoms – hidden from pesky onlookers with judgemental looks. Kamal used real tampons and sanitary napkins that he purchased himself from stores – “Unlike women, for some reason, I was not given the product wrapped in a newspaper or a black plastic bag. But I was not spared an awkward glare by the shopkeeper,” he told a leading publication. With scarlet ink to represent period blood, he uses tampons in his artwork in place of everyday normal objects and scenarios. One painted sanitary napkin even poses the question whether a 12% taxation on menstrual products is justified (it isn’t).

Courtesy of Raj Kamal

II. Sakshi Yadav

Notions of impurity are deeply entrenched in menstrual myths and taboos across the country. Girls are told not to enter the kitchen, stay in designated rooms and not touch food utensils, all because they’re ‘unclean’ when they have their period. There are certain rural areas that still have specially assigned ‘menstruation huts’ that are located outside of the house where girls are expected to stay by themselves.

Which just goes to show how unaware we are as a society when it comes to menstrual health, hygiene and the female body. If anything, periods should be viewed as a sign of fertility, the power to create a life that God himself has given women – how can it be impure then? This is the thought that Yadav puts forth in ‘Raw’.

Courtesy of Sakshi Yadav

III. Sarah Naqvi

Naqvi’s provocative art tackles everything from body positivity to self-acceptance. Her powerful work isn’t what Indian society views as ‘acceptable,’ since the female body, in all its nude wonder, stretch marks, menstrual blood, nipples et al is not one people want to see in its biological form. Be it a tampon covered with delicate little red flowers and beads, a ‘crimson wave’ flowing from a vagina, or a ‘flab-ulous’ female nude, each of her pieces tears through the cloak of silence that has been drawn over society regarding the female body, its bodily processes and sexuality, for far too long.

Her sentiments and artistic voice seep through ‘Bleed Out’ as well. #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? Naqvi was among the group of artists that criticised the tax on menstrual products through art.

Courtesy of Sarah Naqvi

IV. The Adventures of Everywoman by Rohan Sabharwal & Sharmada Shastry

What started off as a conversation between three people soon turned into a hilarious, tongue-in-cheek and meme-tastic comic series called The Adventures of Everywoman. A collaborated project by Rohan Sabharwal, Co-Founder and Chief Design Officer at CraYon Impact and award-winning filmmaker, and Sharmada Shastry, a menstrual health educator and writer, the series address the borderline-absurd myths and practices that exist in India.

“Men are going to Mars, and we are still wondering if women can go to temples,” reads one of their posters. It alludes to the very problematic relationship between menstruation and religious practices.

courtesy of Rohan Sabharwal & Sharmada Shastry

V. 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. A major proponent of feminism, body positivity and empowerment, Lyla’s ideology speaks through her artworks that range from illustrations to blue pottery and crochet. Completely self-taught, Lyla’s work drew in a debate regarding the use of her menstrual blood as a dye for painting and fertiliser for plants, including Tulsi, considered sacred in Hinduism. The act of infusing menstrual blood with the soil that enriches the plant is not just for its nutrients, which she explains in an interview.

The very act itself can be seen as the artist’s protest regarding the silence surrounding periods and menstrual blood in society. She works to reclaim the female body from the patriarchal gaze and control as a woman’s own and her feed expresses just that.

Courtesy of Lylah FreeChild

VI. Kaviya @Wallflowergirlsays

We’ve already professed our love for 28-year-old Kaviya’s Instagram project in a previous feature – a gift that truly keeps giving. Going by the handle @Wallflowergirlsays, her #100daysofdirtylaundry series uncovers all the uncomfortable and cringe-worthy, dirty laundry that she’s had piling up, encouraging us to do the same as well. Using wit and humour, she forces us to get real about our specially curated social media ‘selves’ that we present for the world to see.

For Day 40, her piece ‘Whispers & murmurs’ she talks about the hushed nature in which even women themselves address the topic amongst each other, referring to an incident she experienced in office as a female colleague approached her and asked for a sanitary pad in an almost inaudible voice.

“I wanted to colour the stain under the legs blue, just like an innocuous ink blot, just like the ones in those sanitary pad ads. Red does look weird I agree, even when I look down every time, 4 days a month. Wish I didn’t have to bleed blue only for the Indian cricket team,” she posts on Instagram, adding, “Why the secrecy about 1/4th of your life?”

Courtesy of Kaviya @wallflowergirlsays

VII. Mansi Bhaskar

“I grew up in a typical middle-class family, where words like ‘periods and ‘sanitary napkins’ are never used with comfort,” wrote artist Mansi Bhaskar. This is a situation that we’re all familiar with and can relate to in one way or another. Periods myths and superstitions still exist in some of the least expected places, and in this way, double standards and biases continue to crop up.

For a country that was the land of the Kama Sutra and hosts the beautiful temple carvings and sculptures, such as those at Khajuraho, we often fall victim to our own close-mindedness when it comes a number of other subjects, including sex, sexuality and menstruation. Mansi uses her artistic talents to address these very biases and ironies, illustrating traditional Indian sculptures to do the same.
In a piece for Youth Ki Awaaz, Bhaskar recalls when one of her schoolmates had a red stain on her skirt and got mocked for it by other students. “What is so embarrassing about it? That are just periods!” she lamented.

Courtesy of Mansi Bhaskar

VIII. Aditi Gupta | Menstrupedia

There is no complete conversation about people breaking menstruation taboos in India without the mention of Menstrupedia. What Aditi Gupta started as a classroom project soon turned into a full-fledged online guide with information regarding all things menstruation-related. Menstrupedia has developed into an enjoyable, interactive and user-friendly website, with colourful comic strips created based on real-life experiences and scenarios tackled by young girls and women the world over, especially in the Indian context.

Their Period Positive Poster Collective comprised of period-positive artworks that embody the organisation’s ethos and the work they’re doing. One that really caught our eye in this collection of works just happened to be done by Gupta, one of the Co-founders, herself.

Courtesy of Aditi Gupta | Menstrupedia

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