The thought of female comic characters conjures up images of svelte, scantily clad superheroines. But Miss Moti, a plump south Asian woman created by Kripa Joshi, a Nepali illustrator who lives in Surrey in the United Kingdom, defies this stereotype with casual confidence. Miss Moti is particularly path-breaking considering the paucity of fat female characters in popular culture, including films and television.

Since her initial appearances in the short stories Miss Moti and Cotton Candy and Miss Moti and the Big Apple, Miss Moti’s popularity has only grown, spanning across continents. The stories are typically about the fertile imagination and dynamic personality of the titular character.

After a short hiatus, Miss Moti returned this January in a series of illustrations titled Miss ‘Moti’vation, which Joshi shares across social media platforms every Monday.

The idea for Miss Moti was born with a painting called Hippo in 2007 while Joshi was working on her MFA in Illustration at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. The painting featured a plump woman wrapped in a towel feeling self-conscious about getting into a pool, with hippos frolicking about in the water. Joshi describes the exploration of body image issues in Hippo as a precursor to Miss Moti. She eventually decided to craft a story about a plump woman rather than working on isolated images.

Miss Moti is a product of the artist’s own insecurities and body image issues, which are perhaps shared by several women. “The name came about because a friend of mine used to call me Moti, that was his nickname for me,” Joshi explained. Although it was intended as a friendly joke, the name stayed with her and she decided to use it for her character in an interestingly subversive way. The Miss Moti logo, which features the ebullient woman seated on atop a large pearl, is emblematic of the philosophy behind the name.

The series also emerged out of what the artist calls her own limitations. “Miss Motivation came from two years of frustration,” Joshi said. These struggles include difficulties in her personal life as well as the repercussions of the earthquake in Nepal.

Kripa Joshi.
Kripa Joshi.

Her sister suggested Instagram as a medium for the Miss Motivation series, and the idea appealed to Joshi because “it demands a square image, something that I can manage with all the other constraints”. As the look of Joshi’s illustrations evolved from her initial Madhubani-inspired style, she updated the logo, making Miss Moti’s hair longer and skin more brown.

However, there is more to Miss Moti’s personality than just her appearance. “I hope people don’t like her only because she is plump,” Joshi said. “I think people like Miss Moti because of the philosophy she imbibes.”

In the past few years, there has been a surfeit of cartoonists sharing inspirational artwork, ranging from Zen Pencils by Gavin Aung Than to Buddha Doodles by Molly Hahn. The medium itself seems to be especially amenable to spiffily crafted motivational messages. It is the range of possibilities that comics offer that has spurred this trend, Joshi said. “It is the perspective of the artist illustrating the quote that makes it interesting.”

It often takes the artist as long as two days to finish her Miss Motivation images because of the process involved in selecting the quote. “I don’t want her to be too dictatorial or preachy,” Joshi said. “And I don’t want to use quotes that have the word ‘I’ because I want her to be for everybody. Finally, the quote I chose comes from a personal space.”

While she is plump, Miss Moti is never seen in boxy attire that fat women are traditionally told they must wear. “Having felt bad about myself, I wanted her to be someone who would not be limited by her weight. So it was a conscious decision to put her in different kind of clothes,” Joshi said. The character’s clothing is reflective of her personality. In Miss Moti and Cotton Candy, for example, the character goes from being clad in a grey, polka dotted dress to finally appearing nude as she loses her inhibitions.

‘Miss Moti and Cotton Candy’.
‘Miss Moti and Cotton Candy’.

Considering the kind of attire that plump female characters appear in normally, this decision struck a chord with readers. Through her choice of clothing, Miss Moti gleefully embraces her size, and has effectively become a feminist icon.

“It was not called feminism, but the importance of women was instilled in me, subconsciously. Initially, when people asked me if I was a feminist, I was indecisive because feminism had almost become a dirty word,” Joshi said. “As I have grown to know more feminist people, I realised that it is about equality between men and women.”

Miss Moti appears in a variety of avatars as she is engaged in several activities, ranging from rock climbing to cycling. She even appears as the goddesses Lakshmi and Saraswati. “Hindu goddesses are quite voluptuous,” Joshi observed. “It’s ironic the kind of body image issues Indians face now, considering their past.”

Miss Moti in her goddess avatars.
Miss Moti in her goddess avatars.

Most Indian popular culture reflects this preoccupation with a slim female body. Hindi cinema, for instance, notoriously excludes fat women. Joshi believes that although different kinds of heroines are now visible in Hindi films, such as Dum Laga Ke Haisha (2015), size remains an issue. “Representation of women in Bollywood in general is not that great, because a lot of times, they are just showpieces around a man. And those kinds of women, because they were playing someone’s love interest, have to look a certain way,” she said.

Future plans include a book that compiles a five-story arc around the character, tentatively titled Miss Moti in her Elements. Joshi also aims to make Miss Moti available to children in the form of a colouring book. “I think it is the vulnerability which connects people with Miss Moti,” Joshi said. “I don’t think she just speaks for people who are overweight; her personality is generally about overcoming your inhibitions. I’m really happy if she inspires people, but she comes from struggle.”