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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From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.