Updated: May 2, 2015 12:00:16 am
By: Manjula Padmanabhan
Title: Drawing The Line: Indian women fight back
Editors: Priya Kuriyan, Larissa Bertonasco, Ludmilla Bartscht
Pages: 164 Price:Rs 695
This collection of 14 graphic art stories reminds me of karela (bitter-gourd) chips. While they are definitely an excellent and tasty addition to any thinking person’s library there’s no masking the harsh flavour of the central ingredient: oppressed urban Indian women. In these pages they’re smiling at themselves but through clenched teeth and tears.
The artist-writers are all women, outspoken and confident in their abilities. Their drawing styles range from naive-art to guerilla-comix, with an emphasis on spontaneity and detail, rendered in black, white and grey. The narrative style is more like documentary than fiction and the texture is similar to amateur videos on YouTube, complete with jerky transitions, abrupt conclusions and awkward camera angles. There are proofing errors and at least one place (page 93) where a portion of the drawing appears to be incorrectly positioned.
But the point of these “stories” is their content, not their style. The crude draughtsmanship of many of the pieces perfectly matches the cruelly unequal situations in which many millions of women live. The majority of the pieces concerns the ways in which women, particularly those who are young and unmarried, are oppressed by the surrounding culture. They are expected to marry, to be dutiful, to be modest, self-effacing and, of course, conventionally beautiful. Two pieces, ‘That’s Not Fair’ by Harini Kannan and ‘Melanin’ by Bhavana Singh address the obsession of Indian parents with fair skin and its relevance to a daughter’s marriage prospects.
The theme of marriage hovers harpy-like over several tales. ‘The Photo’, by Reshu Singh is a lively tale of a girl’s unwillingness to pose for a photograph that will be sent to prospective grooms. ‘An Ideal Girl’ by Soumya Menon uses a schoolroom-chart style of drawing to show the Ideal Girl growing up to be an Ideal Wife and ends with that Ideal Girl deciding that she doesn’t want to be “ideal” any more. ‘Ever After’ by Priyanka Kumar shows us a woman escaping from the tedium of a conventional life with a husband and female gossip-buddies, into a fantasy realm with mysterious, lascivious monsters.
‘The Prey’ by Neelima P. Aryan is about a young woman trapping and destroying an eagle who is a metaphor for a lecherous man who lurks in the neighborhood scratching his hairy balls. ‘Asha, Now’ by Hemavathy Guha is a memory-tale in which a woman recalls being molested by her own brother. ‘But What is Basic Space?’ by Kaveri Gopalakrishnan talks us through the fear of being molested in public spaces. ‘Someday’ by Samidha Gunjal is a triumphant goddess fantasy in which a young woman finally turns on the crowds of male gawkers around her and eats them up!
‘The Walk’ by Deepani Seth is a quiet, grey-toned meditation on women and relationships in the vast impersonal space of the city. ‘Broken Lines’ by Vidyun Sabhaney makes a clever and provocative connection between depictions in traditional pata chitra of the gory punishments awaiting female sinners in the afterlife to what we see in the news about acid attacks and gang rape. ‘Ladies, Please Excuse’ by Angela Ferrao is a cheerful but frustrated view of the relative ease with which men find jobs compared to the trials faced by young women.
Two stories address oppression by agencies other than parents or men. ‘The Poet, Sharmila’ by Ita Mehrotra is about the extraordinary Manipuri activist-poet, Irom Sharmila, and her 15-year-long fast. ‘Mumbai Local’, by Diti Mistry is about a young woman whose oppressor is a cheeky insect that climbs up her leg on a crowded Mumbai commuter train. Her saviours are the other women around her. Befriending them becomes her release from her own preconceptions about people and places.
The editors, Priya Kuriyan, Larissa Bertonasco and Ludmilla Bartscht, all of whom are artist-writers in their own right, provide endnotes and insights into the creation of this collection. Nisha Susan in her ‘Introduction’ tells us that the December rape in New Delhi and the protests that followed the incident were the catalyst for this book. Given that background, it’s quite remarkable that except for a couple of stories such as ‘Someday’, the general tone is wry and melancholic, almost genteel. There is hardly any raging against cultural traditions, parental authority, political parties or religion.
It is as if the artists and editors wanted to remain within the bounds of what would be acceptable in middle-class homes where skin-whitening creams will continue to be on a young woman’s must-buy list of cosmetics and daughters will continue to be “married off”. The book brings home the powerful but poignant message that even while wanting to express outrage and frustration, young middle-class Indian women continue to toe the lines that others draw around them.
Manjula Padmanabhan is a writer, artist and creator of Suki.
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