Mumbai-based artist and illustrator Indu Harikumar made headlines earlier this year with her new crowd-sourced project #Identitty, which she says was born after an innocuous online chat with an Instagram user. As part of the ongoing project, the artist turns photographs of women’s breasts into illustrations and shares them on Instagram along with the stories behind them.
“The idea for the project stemmed from a conversation, when a stranger sent a direct message on my Instagram about her big bust. The woman spoke about what it meant to be top-heavy, and how men were fixated with her breasts. I, on the other hand, had grown up battling a lot of insensitive comments about being skinny. I was asked what I am going to give my husband because I am so flat-chested,” says Harikumar while talking about her first fully digital project.
Their varied experiences led to similar feelings, says Harikumar, as she wondered if there were more people who had stories about their breasts. “So, I thought why not turn this into a project.”
That led to Identitty, where she invites individuals to send pictures of their busts — along with their story. There are, however, a few guidelines to the process — “The story needs to be personal rather than generic. They can choose the way they want to send picture of their breast; in a bra, lace, fabric, mehendi, sheer, flowers, cup them, a Mandakini or even naked,” she says.
Her paintings, however, do not identify the subjects or give out clues about where they are from, thus allowing women to bare their bodies and discuss their most intimate feelings in a space that’s safe and built on shared experiences. “Of course, I ask them to do only what feels safe and comfortable. Also, I delete all the images, once the illustration is done,” she shares.
Harikumar had intrigued many back in 2016 with her first crowd-sourced project #100IndianTinderTales, as part of which she regularly posts questions around sexuality, mental heath and relationships on social media, and often has people writing to her about their personal experiences.
Since then, she has used her Instagram handle, @induviduality, to engage with users asking them to share their thoughts regarding same. A year later, she was back with #BodyOfStories, which shares stories of sexuality, gender, and body image issues.
Among the experiences that have been documented under Identitty, is the story of a transwoman who recently underwent sex reassignment surgery.
The vivid illustration feature shades of blue and pink, both to represent gender binaries and the trans-gender flag colours. It was shared with the caption, “They say, “I woke up with a tightness across my chest, a dull ache in my groin and several new scars. Just like that, the envy of a three year old had taken 21 years of pain and vanished.”
On being quizzed about the story, Harikumar says, “It has to be about ANR (Adult Nursing Relationship or erotic lactation from a woman). Freud was right, maybe.”
All illustrations and requests, Harikumars says, are revelatory to her but the artist has her favourites – the illustration of an Odissi dancer wearing a pink sari, a slightly melancholic face, and standing in a dance pose. A woman wrote to her about being a conscious young woman till 18, who had been taught to never draw attention to her breasts; “peeping bra straps must be hidden away quickly,” she wrote.
“Dupattas must cover blooming chests entirely. The more loose and unshapely the outlines of your clothes, the better. There was definitely no template for a woman-who-shows-her-breast.” But life changed surprisingly when these Odissi women, based on the beautiful damsels of temple sculpture, were totally okay with their breasts, gracefully keeping slightly cupped palms under their breasts, draping the pallus across their torso without trying to hide anything.
Her Instagram page, where she posts her artwork, has become not only a place for artistic expression but also a platform for people to have a dialogue on body positivity, sexuality and sex experience. “As I used Tinder in Europe, #100IndianTinderTale started with my curiosity about what it was like to use Tinder in India. I really had not planned it but I am just a curious person who is asking for the internet stuff. It opened a whole lot of opportunities and experience for me. Even a lot of my gender politics or body politics came through those stories,” says the artist who has also displayed her works at Kunsthalle Bremen, a museum in Germany.
Art changes perceptions in the most expressive way, but the Indian society is still largely conservative and women are expected to dress modestly. But ever since Harikumar announced #identitty, her Instagram is flooded with narrative stories around breasts. The artist feels that sharing stories helps erase stigma surrounding the way people view women’s breasts, make speculations and form opinions.
Harikumar’s illustrated tales of sex, desire and body parts have inspired flattering reviews and has given her the confidence to flourish. Despite shame creeping into most stories, her paintings also channel the joy and pride women take in their bodies.