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Artist and illustrator Indu Harikumar’s new project #identitty tries to break the stigma around women and breasts.
I believe that one of the best ways to express your feelings is art. And feminist art is art that explicitly seeks to both express individuality and demand equality.
Amongst contemporary Indian feminist artists, Indu Harikumar is a prominent name. Mumbai-based illustrator Indu Harikumar started practicing art again by sharing her everyday life and drawings on blogs.
Having spent 23 years working on various websites, forums, and blogs, Indu mostly shares her art online now on Instagram to her 12k subscriber base. In a fun telephonic conversation, Indu shared with me how her journey began, her popular #TinderTales project and how she is seeking to reinvent the conversation around women’s breasts today, with #Identitty, moving it away from the male gaze.
Talking about her journey, Indu says her parents would send her for drawing class as a child. She later studied fashion and history, and illustration and embroidery were her favourite subjects. However, she never worked in the fashion industry, instead handling corporate websites for about seven years.
While working in the digital space, she found herself getting involved in children’s publishing, looking at digital children’s content and that’s when she started drawing and creating on an everyday basis.
When asked about using the Internet as a medium to exhibit her art, Indu says that she has always looked at the Internet as a place of refuge, a place where she could write and share like no one was watching.
While working in children’s publishing, she also volunteered to teach her first art class at a Mumbai Mobile Creches centre. The class she taught used found objects to create art, something that Indu now believes in. Her Instagram profile says, “Will recycle anything, especially love.”
She says, “We had no budget and very excited children. So I would pick up leaves, bottle caps, seedpods and we would turn that into art. It was very exciting and inspiring and I started populating my blog with the projects.”
“One day, Pratham Books tweeted my blog. This meant all the other children’s publishers started following me. I started to get called to children’s literature events. Book contracts happened.
Random strangers would write to me saying I have been hoarding tickets from the time I was 16, I want to send it to you, I have a cassette collection, I think you will make something out for it, my mother’s old sarees may just be useful. I enjoy a challenge from time to time and this kept me in.”
When asked about the jump from kinder to Tinder and she says, “I still write and illustrate children’s books and enjoy it a lot. I also enjoy working with children. As for Tinder Tales, it came from my personal experience.”
Talking about her project, #100IndianTinderTales she says,
“I was in Vienna on an art residency when I first tried Tinder. I was 35 and didn’t think I stood a chance at dating. But I was pretty popular on and off the app and wrote about my new found validation. With my ego severely massaged, I thought I should try my luck in India. But it was a bit disappointing which is when in 2016 I thought I should ask people about their experiences. I didn’t expect people to talk to me about something so personal but I still put the idea out there. After the 9th story, I started to hear from random strangers and and this crowdsourced project really shaped work.”
With the project Indu wanted to know what other people’s experiences on the dating app in India were like and was looking for inspiration but it ended up changing her perspective on gender, sexuality, dating and upped her self-esteem. It also found her space in a museum in Germany, Kunsthalle Bremen, where her work hung next to Picasso, as part of an exhibition on love.
Post the project, Indu has done several crowdsourced projects around gender, sexuality and body positivity, all told through people’s stories. Through her projects, she has built a small community on Instagram. She uses the platform to ask readers personal questions about sexuality, relationships etc and the responses that she receives are overwhelming.
“I have had people writing to me that hey I am battling with this could you ask people if they feel the same too? My Instagram is now just not a place for me to share my art but it also a small community of people sharing stories and talking about stuff that people generally don’t talk about.”
Just like Indu, there are other artists too on Instagram who inspire people and talk about the things that matter. However, to continue doing the work you do that is centred on such heavy themes, people do need to find and renew their inspiration and also bring in diversity. This is what Indu believes too.
“I am interested in several things, so I follow a variety of artists and people on Instagram. Mostly people who do work that is different from mine because mine is heavy…I really enjoy Green Humour and Priya Kuriyan’s, work a lot. Also, Lisa Congdon, Theegulla Venkanna, Deepa Balsawar, Bohra sisters, Samantha Dion Baker, among many others. My inspiration online comes from people who work on themes that are different than mine.”
Her ongoing project #Identitty started its journey in January when she posted a story on Instagram. She asked people about body positivity and one message moved her the most.
“So this one person messaged me in January (2019) that they are big busted and how when they were getting catcalled and they felt that they were wrong. They said men only noticed my breasts as if the rest of me doesn’t even exist.”
In response, Indu shared what it meant to be a flat chested woman and how people called her names like ‘carrom board’. She says, “I felt undesirable…like something was missing.”
Though their experiences were different, they were also similar. This conversation lead to Indu’s crowdsourced project, #Identitty, in which she called for “women to send photographs of their breasts – covered or uncovered – along with their story around their breasts”.
She turns these photos into illustrations and posts them on her Instagram with the accompanying stories. So far, the artist has put up around 39 posts of women speaking about how they have struggled or felt empowered because of their breasts.
At first, Indu wasn’t sure if she would receive stories but the responses that she received were pretty overwhelming. She reveals that all the messages that she has received have taught her something or the other special. However, the most intriguing story has been a story about this Odissi dancer.
As the sender shares her story for the project,
“…back then as a young woman, I knew that all my conscious life, I had been taught – through a strange kind of social osmosis – that a woman shouldn’t draw attention to her breasts. Like, never ever. Peeping bra straps must be hidden away quickly. Dupattas must cover blooming chests entirely. The more loose and unshapely the outlines of your clothes, the better.
There was definitely no template for woman-who-shows-her-breast.
So imagine my shock, when the women in Odissi, based on the beautiful damsels of temple sculpture, were totally okay with their breasts. Hell, they were in love with them.”
This was one story that Harikumar loved creating the illustration for. The journey to complete acceptance is what moved her the most from each story. She says, “I spent a lot of time drawing these stories. And I have never looked at someone’s body the way I have paid attention to the pictures that come my way. And with that, there is a certain amount of acceptance that comes with it and helps me grow as a person”
Apart from the acceptance, one thing Indu adds as she continues drawing for #Identitty is, “there is no right kind of body, we are all made to believe that something is missing. And how normative it is to comment on a woman’s body and to dismiss it.”
The project has moved her and many of her female followers to think differently about their breasts – and view them with greater acceptance.
Talk of her journey as a feminist, Indu says, “My mother has been the biggest inspiration in my life. Without knowing anything about feminism she is a feminist. I remember her always telling us clearly, be financially independent first and then marriage.”
She says #Identitty and #100indiantindertales have taught her a lot about feminism and about ‘personal being political’. Although the #Identitty project is no longer open to entries, it has indeed helped a lot of women.
It has helped many women to become more accepting of their own bodies. You can also be a part of Indu Harikumar’s journey towards challenging these stigmas by following her here.
All images belong to Indu Harikumar
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