Kadak chai, the strong and sharp tea preparation intended to jolt the senses awake, was in the headlines last fortnight, thanks to an unlikely analogy Prime Minister Narendra Modi drew to black money. But eight female graphic storytellers having been boiling up their own version since March.

It began with Aindri Chakraborty, an animator and comics journalist, who found that Comic Cons and arts festivals she visited left a bitter aftertaste, thanks to their lack of representations of women of colour.

Chakraborty felt that an art collective made of, and for, brown women could address the lack of diversity. She reached out to other female graphic artists online to form Kadak – a collective that is focused on changing the preoccupations of the Indian subcontinent. The group’s latest project, Reading Room, will be presented at the Cuckoo Club in Mumbai, from December 3 to 6.

The group, which consists of eight women, from Mumbai, Bangalore and London, had presented its work in the form of comic zines, prints and postcards in June at the East London Comic Arts Festival, and was shortlisted to appear at “Gender Bender”, a curated event for artists providing fresh perspectives on gender at Bengaluru this year.

Reading Room was drafted as part of the event at Bengaluru, a way to house the varied works created by Kadak’s artists.

Kadak's Reading Room.
Kadak's Reading Room.

“We were working on gender related pieces to be shown both online and offline,” said Aarthi Parthasarathy, a filmmaker from Bengaluru and member of Kadak. “We put up our work on Medium. The idea was always to create a space where everyone could engage with the work.”

Kadak’s physical reading room is a travelling library of sorts that contains approximately 21 in-house titles, including collaborative efforts with artists who are not part of the collective. Since the artists are scattered across different cities, several members have never met.

“Reading Room for me is replication of Kadak Whatsapp group, where we are forever discussing and laughing about all things women,” said Garima Gupta, a comic artist based out of Mumbai.

Apart from making their work available online, the physical Reading Room is important to Kadak.

“There are many distractions online,” said Parthasarathy. “Here, the idea is that you just sit with a book, which is becoming extremely rare these days.”

As a result, the Reading Room is a typically post-modern space – both physical and virtual. London-based illustrator and designer Janine Shroff said the dual presence of the Reading Room is especially pertinent because “that is also exactly who we are: eight women, online and offline simultaneously”.

Alone but Not Lonely by Akhila Krishnan
Alone but Not Lonely by Akhila Krishnan

Most of the work in The Reading Room illustrates how women navigate with rigidly prescriptive norms which define femininity. Chakraborty’s contribution In & Out narrates the experiences of intersex academic Valentino Venchietti through the prism of the social turmoil caused by Brexit. Shroff’s Everything Drag also explores the area that lies between the two poles of gender identity. Aloe Vera and The Void, which is a collaboration between Parthasarathy and Renuka Rajiv, an artist external to Kadak, features an interview with a trans-woman and dissects how caste intersects with gender.

Boy Cut by Garima Gupta
Boy Cut by Garima Gupta

Gupta’s Boy Cut explores the social connotations associated with a woman sporting short hair and is based on her own experiences.

“It was a message of solidarity for the women who want short hair, but are tormented by social pressures,” said Gupta. “It was a hug, saying, you know what, let’s cut it shorter the next time.”

Comic artist and illustrator Kaveri Gopalakrishnan’s Misfits takes a peek into the strange, and often belittling, expectations placed on female bodies, while London-based Akhila Krishnan’s Alone But Not Lonely offers an endearing glimpse into the home of a woman who has thwarted social expectations by choosing to remain single.

With Shifting, typographer Pavithra Dikshit details the several subtle changes that modern Indian women must make in their everyday lives. Personal Cyber Space, illustrated by Mumbai-based graphic designer Mira Malhotra, dissects the gender-skewed politics associated with online spaces.

Misfits by Kaveri Gopalakrishnan
Misfits by Kaveri Gopalakrishnan

Apart from these eight titles, some of the work Kadak artists made, prior to joining the collective, are also available in Reading Room. All the works portray the most intimate living spaces of the people whose lives they chronicle, yet are extremely aesthetically diverse.

The lives of the eight women who make up Kadak are as varied as their visual styles. As Malhotra puts it: “We are all different in terms of the expressions of our sexuality, our locations, our desires or lack of them, for a family or married life.”

However, these differences never hamper their collaborative process. According to the members of Kadak, diversity enriches the collaboration because the artists learn a lot form one another.

Kadak habitually churns out content that espouses feminist values, but the egalitarianism of their work process could also be construed as feminist.

“I think the ways in which we work, online and through collaborative documents, is in and of itself a feminist working process – in that it is unconventional and ‘new’, so everyone’s voice is heard,” said Krishnan.

“I see a parallel between our model of participatory democracy and feminism,” said Chakraborty.

The artists often subvert conventional visual grammar, turning traditional artistic forms on their head. Parthasarathy’s popular comic series, Royal Existentials, for instance, uses miniature paintings to deliver tongue-in-cheek insights about patriarchy and class privilege.

Royal Existentialists by Aarthi Parthasarathy
Royal Existentialists by Aarthi Parthasarathy

Parthasarathy believes that now is a good time to be an independent graphic storyteller in India: “People are looking for this kind of content,” she said. “Artists are experimenting with a variety of different media.”

Malhotra added: “It will be fun to see how Indian visual culture shapes some of the conversations around feminism.”

Most of the India-based Kadak artists believe that Indian audiences are receptive to feminist content. While they are pleased with the dialogues about feminism in Indian popular media, they are concerned that some of these conversations are motivated by commercial interests.

“It feels like feminism is just a tag that is being slapped onto virtually anything,” said Shroff. “If we were to look outside our cosy bubbles I’m not really sure about actual receptivity.”

The artists at Kadak are attempting to illustrate authentic female experiences in ways that comfort and unsettle audiences. “I’d like people to make space for work like this, to understand that sometimes an emotion is all you have to convey a story,” said Krishnan. “Words will not do the job.”

Everything Drag by Janine Shroff
Everything Drag by Janine Shroff