“Don’t enter the kitchen”, “Wash your hair and scrub yourself clean”, “You can’t touch the pickle” — a few of the many absurd actions young girls and women are subjected to in India till date. Why? Because they are menstruating, of course. The biological process of menstruation, which is scientifically considered to be is a symbol of a healthy female reproductive system, is somehow, even in 2020, considered not just ‘filthy’ but also something to be eternally ashamed of.
Even after relentless efforts and endless conversations, society vacillates between shaming and hiding menstruation. Having had enough of this behaviour, visual artist and curator Vasudhaa Narayanan took to art to convey all things incorrect with the way the world perceives menstruation and how our culture has the ability to define the female identity.
Vasudhaa describes her project as an investigation of the taboos of menstruation as a woman who was raised in a Brahmin household. Cumulating ideas of ‘otherness’ experienced by women, suppression under the patriarchal society and feelings of isolation, she captured through various installations, the pain and frustration that surrounds menstruation.
“I always ask myself who the work is for, and while working on this particular project I realised it is for me. I was confronting the internalised shame and trauma my menstruation experience brought with it,” says Vasudhaa as she explains her motivation behind the powerful project. Menstruation consists of digital photography, sculpture and performance, too. In Menstrual Bindi, Vasudhaa is seen adorned with the traditional bindi, but of menstrual blood.
Her sculpture 61 Tampons & Kollam, is an installation of menstrual blood-soaked tampons, something that is considered dirty and unwelcome, juxtaposed with a Kollam on the floor which is supposedly pure and welcoming.
Am I Clean Enough For You? is a two-channel performance piece where Vasudhaa tests the extent to which a woman must cleanse herself to reach a point where she will be ‘acceptably’ clean.
“In making the work, I became the work,” believes Vasudhaa. All her projects, individually and collectively, exemplify confidence and the importance of the cause. The project is far more than a nude woman trying to prove a point — it encapsulates the years of physical pain and mental pressure almost all women go through. “I was holding myself, as well as my family accountable for perpetuating a cycle of shame and guilt,” she adds. The nature of our patriarchal society has allowed men to oppress such matters, but Vasudhaa believes that women are also gatekeepers of this cycle, as along several generations, they keep passing down what they have been taught.
Rarely are young girls taught to take pride in their menstrual cycles. We hide, we whisper, we are embarrassed, we shy away — we are oppressed. The reason artwork as powerful as Vasudhaa’s Menstruation makes people (read: men) uncomfortable is because history has nourished them to avoid and suppress it, and dictated women to keep it that way. “Women adjust themselves for their families — that adjustment is oppressive,” says Vasudhaa.
Over the years, the cycle was tweaked by newer generations. While our grandmothers may have experienced a harsher environment around menstruation, younger generations, in whatever small way, is trying to improve the circumstance. “The cycle has to stop at some generation,” she adds.
Vasudhaa says that her work is a very personal narrative — her own unfortunate experiences with her menstruation led to what Menstruation is today. What is remarkable about it, however, is that even though there is probably nothing more personal to her, it is something that resonates with all those who menstruate. Her method to reflect upon her trauma doubles as a reflection of a society that willingly puts already aching women through shame and lack of consolation. “It is so painful to go through and yet, you can’t touch anybody, you can’t be touched, you can’t be cared for? That is just strange,” opines Vasudhaa.
It is indeed strange, the fact that a woman must go out of her way to convince men and other women that she must be allowed in the kitchen — that she is not impure. Artists like Vasudhaa take upon themselves the responsibility to create wonderful pieces of art that may not always be looked at with wonderment.
If our bodily functions are somehow trivialised and politicised at the same time, is our existence in this patriarchal society not far from being taken as granted? Menstruation, in going beyond mere indication to generations’ worth of oppression, pain, guilt, and shame, seeks to stand forth and demand a way forward.
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