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International Women’s Day: 3 artists on addressing women and sexuality through illustrations

Women's Day feature: Using the Internet as their oyster, Pranjali Dubey, Aru Bose and Lyla FreeChild are three women, among many others, who are trying to encourage conversations on issues that are important to women — menstruation, consent, sexuality.

Written by Soumya Mathew | New Delhi |
Updated: March 10, 2018 1:28:39 pm
International women's day, happy women's day, women heroes, Pranjali Dubey, Aru Bose, Lyla FreeChild, women's day stories, indian express, indian express news Women’s Day special: Pranjali Dubey, Lyla FreeChild and Aru Bose are trying to encourage conversations around the subjects of menstruation, sexuality and consent.

When it comes to describing women, especially in India, the terms have ranged from reverential to that of sublime adulation. They have been called divine, as those with unparalleled beauty, but even today, it creates ripples of fury, lest somebody describe them as sexual beings. Sexuality, desires and fantasies are terms, when discussed pertaining to women, that are largely discussed in hushed tones, since time immemorial. With Instagram as their oyster, however, Pranjali Dubey, Aru Bose and Lyla FreeChild are three women, among many others, who are trying to encourage conversations on and around issues that are of importance to women, but many of us are quick to pull under the rug — menstruation, sexuality, consent, harassment, et al.

Embracing the ‘taboos’ to start a conversation

Kalmuhi is a colloquial abuse-of-sorts in Hindi, which refers to a woman who has brought dishonour to her family name. It also happens to be 21-year-old Dubey’s moniker on Instagram. Her page, she told indianexpress.com, is a platform that she had created for the norm-breaking women to discuss the issues that they face every day. Dubey uses the platform to make monochromatic animations that are “quirky and angry”, while addressing a neglected issue, often as a result of the prevalent narratives around gender. Through her doodles, that come laden with benevolent doses of sarcasm and humour, she aims to make a socio-political commentary on consent, the stigma around menstrual blood to normalising body hair on women, among others. Dubey says she aspires to rattle the rock bed of oppression of women and “systematically nurtured taboos”.

Bose believes that the more discussions people have on and around women and sexuality and other conventionally taboo topics, the more dents and cracks one can make in the patriarchal system. Her Instagram bio reads, “I make vaginas.” “Even classical forms of paintings would depict nudity but the vagina would be covered with a sheet or a hand as the woman’s way of protecting her ‘honour’. Replace a vagina with a penis, and there you have one of the most renowned sculptures in the world, Michelangelo’s David,” she says. Exclusively through her project called the In Full Bloom series, she uses mixed art to make vaginas – “Ink or chalk to make prints on paper or even 3D models that will let one feel and touch it.” Bose is of the opinion that while mainstream culture allows discussions about menstrual health and childbirth because of the ease with which these can be related to a woman, one who is in control of her sexuality, her body, dreams and desires is still a promiscuous figure with a sexually deviant behaviour.

“Inspired by and conceived in the spring of 2017, in Delhi”, the In Full Bloom series looks at the positive aspect of a woman’s sexuality – the pleasure aspect of it – says Bose, emphasising that it in no way is aiming to shift the focus away from how many women deal with sexual harassment, domestic violence, etc. The idea behind her illustrations is to engage more women to speak openly about their desires and help them feel sexually liberated and confident.

FreeChild, like a lot of women, was disgusted by her menstrual blood and hated her cycles because of the painful cramps she would experience every time. However, ever since she came across a menstrual cup and the way it functions, the 28-year-old felt a “divine connection” with her menstrual blood and proceeded to make art using it. “I realised this fluid is what serves as a cushion for the foetus and that’s incredible,” she says. Through her illustrations, she tries to engage people in an “open and safe expression of gender, sexuality and menstruation”. FreeChild uses Blue Pottery – the traditional craft of Jaipur with a Turko-Persian origin, through ink, menstrual blood, on walls, etc. – in order to set the ball rolling. She’s the only known artist in India to use period blood in her art.

Art as an answer to patriarchal narratives of gender

Dubey doesn’t mince words when she asserts one thing – she is furious and is rebelling. A graduate in Media Studies from the Symbiosis Centre for Media and Communication, she calls her doodles “creative ventilations of her frustration”. Her work, that she has been sharing on Instagram since June 2017, is a result of the oppression she has faced. “I was called too radical for asking questions about my own body,” Dubey says, adding that it also derived from the stories of other women waging intrinsically similar battles against patriarchal norms. She, then, also channelises these women’s experiences into doodles aiming to trigger further discussions on social media platforms on which people across generations are active.

International women's day, womens day, iwd 2018, happy women's day, women heroes, Pranjali Dubey, Aru Bose, Lyla FreeChild, women's day stories, indian express, indian express news Women’s Day feature: Pranjali Dubey uses the platform to make monochromatic animations that are “quirky and angry” while addressing a neglected issue, often as a result of the prevalent narratives around gender.

Bose, who shifted to the Capital in 2012 and was working with Nirantar (a centre for gender and education), recalls how the horrifying December gangrape case formed the crux of many conversations pertaining to women in public spaces. “Especially then, it became increasingly difficult to discuss providing free spaces for women, their bodily integrity, because then the argument would be that giving women freedom results in such gruesome criminal acts,” she says. Ever since 2015 on the photo-sharing platform, this is why she chose to form an alternative narrative by steering away from people’s pre-conceived idea that a vagina is a recipient of abuse and rape, and decided to keep desire and confidence at the heart of her illustrations.

International women's day, happy women's day, women heroes, Pranjali Dubey, Aru Bose, Lyla FreeChild, women's day stories, indian express, indian express news Women’s Day feature: Aru Bose gave an alternative narrative by steering away from people’s pre-conceived idea that a vagina is a recipient of abuse and rape.

FreeChild, in addition to making art using menstrual blood, also claims to be a nudist and a body art performer. She says her journey too, has roots in the “pains and wounds she was dealt with, by patriarchy”. Having come out of an abusive relationship, FreeChild believes “we are what we consume”, explaining that parts of her work too, has been derived from her life’s trajectory, tainted by patriarchy. While she emphasises that she is not rebelling, the Jaipur based self-taught artist, who took to sharing her work on Instagram concretely in 2016, is aiming for a space where people can exist in equivalence. She denounced her actual name and chose to name herself and her future daughter after the female protagonist from the movie August Rush and goes by FreeChild as her surname because of her steadfast hope in an equivalent and caste-less society.

The good and bad of steering discussions on ‘taboos’

While Dubey’s doodles were called “too bold, gross and private” by the online junta, her initially apprehensive family is now fully supportive of her cause. She recalls how a 14-year-old girl texted her saying she made a visit to the temple while menstruating after seeing one of her doodles, and no, “the sky did not fall on her.” Meanwhile, unlike how many Indian parents would move mountains to see their kids “settle down” with a job that “provides stability”, Bose’s folks have been rather embracing of her endeavours too.

FreeChild says her parents, who are inactive on social media, don’t have the best idea of what her work comprises of. She has, from time to time, received moral science lessons on Instagram by people who’d call out her pictures with her underarm hair visible as “private things”.

International women's day, happy women's day, women heroes, Pranjali Dubey, Aru Bose, Lyla FreeChild, women's day stories, indian express, indian express news Women’s Day feature: Lyla FreeChild’s work focuses on projecting an equivalent, classless, caste-less society.

Road ahead?

All the three women are going beyond their Instagram handles with their work in the area. While Ahmedabad-based Dubey is urging more women to own up to the ‘Kalmuhi’ tag by not conforming to norms, Bose has created Khirkee Art Project in partnership with KHOJ in Delhi to provide a free learning space for Afghani refugee girls. FreeChild is creating accessories based on the ‘feminist art’ she makes, so people can now wear their hearts on their sleeves, around their necks, nose studs or earrings. She works with Fanusta, a company that helps artists introduce a wider, global audience to their works.

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