Women at work

A women's art collective is serving a dose of truth–strong and Kadak

Kadak Collective’s latest project, Reading Room, is a virtual-physical space for South Asian female artists.

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
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London then and now – As experienced by Indians

While much has changed, the timeless quality of the city endures.

“I found the spirit of the city matching the Bombay spirit. Like Bombay, the city never sleeps and there was no particular time when you couldn’t wander about the town freely and enjoy the local atmosphere”, says CV Manian, a PhD student in Manchester in the ‘80s, who made a trip to London often. London as a city has a timeless quality. The seamless blend of period architecture and steel skyscrapers acts as the metaphor for a city where much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

The famed Brit ‘stiff upper lip, for example, finds ample validation from those who visited London decades ago. “The people were minding their business, but never showed indifference to a foreigner. They were private in their own way and kept to themselves.” Manian recollects. Aditya Dash remembers an enduring anecdote from his grandmother’s visit to London. “There is the famous family story where she was held up at Heathrow airport. She was carrying zarda (or something like that) for my grandfather and customs wanted to figure out if it was contraband or not.”

However, the city always housed contrasting cultures. During the ‘Swinging ‘60s’ - seen as a precursor to the hippie movement - Shyla Puri’s family had just migrated to London. Her grandfather still remembers the simmering anti-war, pro-peace sentiment. He himself got involved with the hippie movement in small ways. “He would often talk with the youth about what it means to be happy and how you could achieve peace. He wouldn’t go all out, but he would join in on peace parades and attend public talks. Everything was ‘groovy’ he says,” Shyla shares.

‘Groovy’ quite accurately describes the decade that boosted music, art and fashion in a city which was till then known for its post-World-War austerities. S Mohan, a young trainee in London in the ‘60s, reminisces, “The rage was The Beatles of course, and those were also the days of Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.” The likes of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were inspiring a cultural revolution in the city. Shyla’s grandfather even remembers London turning punk in the ‘80s, “People walking around with leather jackets, bright-colored hair, mohawks…It was something he would marvel at but did not join in,” Shyla says.

But Shyla, a second-generation Londoner, did join in in the revival of the punk culture in the 21st century. Her Instagram picture of a poster at the AfroPunk Fest 2016 best represents her London, she emphatically insists. The AfroPunk movement is trying to make the Punk culture more racially inclusive and diverse. “My London is multicultural, with an abundance of accents. It’s open, it’s alive,” Shyla says. The tolerance and openness of London is best showcased in the famous Christmas lights at Carnaby Street, a street that has always been popular among members of London’s alternate cultures.

Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

“London is always buzzing with activity. There are always free talks, poetry slams and festivals. A lot of museums are free. London culture, London art, London creativity are kept alive this way. And of course, with the smartphones navigating is easy,” Shyla adds. And she’s onto something. Manian similarly describes his ‘80s rendezvous with London’s culture, “The art museums and places of interest were very illustrative and helpful. I could tour around the place with a road map and the Tube was very convenient.” Mohan, with his wife, too made the most of London’s cultural offerings. “We went to see ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Opera House and ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. As an overseas graduate apprentice, I also had the pleasure to visit the House of Lords and take tea on the terrace.”

For the casual stroller along London’s streets today, the city would indeed look quite different from what it would’ve to their grandparents. Soho - once a poor suburb known for its crime and sex industry - is today a fashionable district of upmarket eateries and fashion stores. Most of the big British high street brands have been replaced by large international stores and the London skyline too has changed, with The Shard being the latest and the most impressive addition. In fact, Shyla is quite positive that her grandfather would not recognise most of the city anymore.

Shyla, though, isn’t complaining. She assures that alternate cultures are very much alive in the city. “I’ve seen some underground LGBT clubs, drag clubs, comedy clubs, after midnight dance-offs and empty-warehouse-converted parties. There’s a space for everybody.” London’s cosmopolitan nature remains a huge point of attraction for Indian visitors even today. Aditya is especially impressed by the culinary diversity of London and swears that, “some of the best chicken tikka rolls I have had in my life were in London.” “An array of accents flood the streets. These are the people who make London...LONDON,” says Shyla.

It’s clear that London has changed a lot, but not really all that much. Another aspect of Indians’ London experience that has remained consistent over the past decades is the connectivity of British Airways. With a presence in India for over 90 years, British Airways has been helping generations of Indians discover ‘their London’, just like in this video.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of British Airways and not by the Scroll editorial team.