internet culture

With humour and honesty, an Indian illustrator highlights young women’s lives and concerns

Mounica Tata’s illustrations are quiet acts of rebellion.

“I have realised that we have all become so numb because of the kind of content we consume – we just scroll past everything,” said artist Mounica Tata. “You might read about an infant getting raped, and then read about a Diwali sale happening close by with the same expression and lack of feeling. So I want my work to make people feel [something]. Whether it provokes them to think, or riles them up, or makes them happy or sad, I am content as long as it makes people feel something.”

To that end, the 29-year-old’s illustrations – shared on the Instagram handle @DoodleoDrama – demonstrate the power of gentle subversion. In her colourful and determinedly effervescent work, Bengaluru resident Tata turns simple, everyday conversations into acts that resonate with quiet rebellion.

For instance, one of her illustrations features three zaftig female friends at a restaurant, speaking about Keto diets, cross-fit training and marathons. In the next panel, their expressions are sheepishly charming as they order cheesy fries, an Oreo shake, and a brownie sundae. Tata hints obliquely at the societal pressure to attain a slim body, while also highlighting the ironic ways in which conversations about fitness sometimes pan out.

DoodleoDrama often addresses social and political issues that are particular to the Indian context. While some illustrations highlight, with sustained sarcasm, the way in which marriages are arranged in the country, others dissect India’s culturally entrenched preference for fair skin. A series of illustrations also alludes to sexual harassment and marital rape.

“I am very invested in my work, especially illustrations that talk about these issues,” Tata said. “A piece of me chips away with every comic I make. If something has affected me deeply, I want to see what people think about it and see if there’s any other perspective they can offer.”

Much of DoodleoDrama dwells on what it means to be a woman in India, depicting the impact of menstruation, economic burdens that Indian women face, and the cathartic value of female friendships. For instance, in an evocative series of illustrations titled Sante (which means market in Kannada), Tata depicts a range of female vendors in a crowded marketplace, their eyes and bodies hinting at the reality of their lives.

Tata, who has had no formal training in art, said she began to discover and articulate her personal feminist politics after marriage – “When I went to look for a job, people would say things like, ‘Oh, you don’t look married’, and that bothered me. How am I supposed to look different if I am married? They say that once you wear the feminist glasses, you just cannot take them off. I think I put mine on around the time I got married, and I have not taken them off since then.”

DoodleoDrama mostly features plump people, with female characters frequently appearing with hair in their armpits or on their legs. Its illustrations also beautifully depict the quirks of an intimate romantic relationship. In one comic, for instance, a woman is attempting to cajole her partner into giving her water while they are both comfortably lounging on a couch. “Ugh, I think I’m choking and dying but I don’t want you to feel guilty about not giving me water and killing me,” she says. “Nice try. You convinced me. Almost,” her partner replies.

The quiet defiance in Tata’s work can be traced back to the story of how she started making illustrations. A commerce graduate, Tata acquired her post-graduate degree in mass communication from what she describes as a “very strict” Bengaluru college.

“We weren’t allowed to talk about professors, or the college,” she said. “So I started doodling in class during my post-graduate years and telling stories through my drawings. Although I did get caught a lot of times, to my surprise and amusement, no action was taken against me. In fact, the teachers also laughed it off because it was a comic. So that kind of gave me confidence that I can get away with anything with comics.”

Tata continued to draw comics about her life when she graduated and got a job as a copywriter in a multinational company. In 2013, she started a Facebook page called DoodleoDrama to share her work with friends and family. “I was never thinking of making a career out of it. I wasn’t looking at getting anything out of it really: audience money or recognition. So I didn’t put any pressure on myself.”

When she finally decided to quit her job to take up illustration full-time, she began to hone her artistic skills. “I’ve never really had to work too hard on my content as such, because that’s just been a reflection of my thinking, of what I am going through. But what I had to really work hard on was the visual aspect – on getting the designing right.”

Tata said she learned mostly from watching YouTube videos and with help from the art team in the company she worked for. “I am not very good at human anatomy, so I don’t try to put a lot of effort into trying to get the hands or the legs perfect. It’s all about the facial expressions for me.”

Initially, Tata was sceptical about how illustrations tackling issues such as harassment and child sex abuse would be received by her audience. “But a lot of women opened up and shared their stories in the comments – things that they had never told their parents or spouses or friends, things that they had not even admitted to themselves,” she said. “Comments are just the tip of the iceberg. I receive a lot of direct messages on Facebook where women just pour their heart out and tell me their stories.”

When she posted an illustration against marital rape, however, Tata received a lot of abuse online. “That comic took me almost a month to get over, because the threats and the abuse didn’t stop. I personally feel very responsible for what’s happening on my page. It’s very important for me to make it a safe space because I can’t have haters abuse other women on my page. I love a difference of opinion, but if people come there only to spew hatred and abuse, and to take away from the larger discussion, I block them.”

That said, her ultimate goal is that her work evokes strong emotions in the people who encounter it.

All images by Mounica Tata.

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