Vandita Bajaj, Class of 2020 Caryl Churchill’s original play, Top Girls, premiered in 1982 at the
Rohit M. Nair, Class of 2019
A few months ago, I stumbled upon an image which was making rounds on Instagram. It was an illustration of a woman looking at a mirror, and staring right back at her from inside the mirror was a fierce looking Goddess Kali. This image made Samyuktha Madhu (handle: @sam_madhu) an overnight success. This was also my introduction to a part of Instagram that features artists, illustrators, and photographers who are trying to create an identity for the “modern, brown woman”. While feminist illustrators and artists started using Instagram much earlier to feature their works and bring forth new ways of imagining the female body, white-centric feminist art forced Indian artists to create their own niche to redefine and reinvent their identities in the global space.
“Brown Art” is an effort to depict the brown woman, who has unfortunately found little representation in today’s world both inside and outside the country. Several Indian and Indian-born artists have imagined a “modern, brown woman” — one who is fiercely independent, confident and aware of her own self. Their works range from colourful and trippy pop art, illustrations, doodles, drawings, and photography. The struggles of the Indian woman as she navigates through the intricacies of the modern day is a prominent theme in these works. The illustrations are brutally honest and show the ridiculousness of societal impositions on women. These Instagram artists pull down benchmarks of beauty, like hairless bodies and thin waist, by realistic depictions of women with body hair, stretch marks, acne and myriad of regular features for which women are shamed every day.
In an interview for SheThePeople.tv, Samyuktha says that, at first, her art served merely as an outlet to document the funny and irritating bits of her life. But seeing how her work resonated with thousands of other young women like her, she now uses it to address topics like sexual liberation and body standards. Where the majority of representation of women comes from the male gaze, seeing women’s lives from the eyes of female artists is a welcome change. The rawness in the representation of the female body is a strong step towards de-sexualising the female form. By highlighting women’s bodies for coarseness and naturalness, Samyuktha seeks to shatter representation of women as highly sexualised bodies. The individuality of the woman, the work she does, the decisions she makes, and the emotions she feels are what occupy the center stage in her images.
Other artists have explored different ways of representing the brown woman and her individuality. The invocation of myths and cultural symbols seems to be a popular method. For instance, the Goddess Kali figures prominently in several artists’ works. This is significant because Kali embodies strength and power, qualities that are usually denied to women in popular representations. It is an overturning of traditional cultural ideas of the delicate and dependent woman. One of my favorite illustrations is of a very confident looking woman holding up a cigarette. She bears a tattoo of a lotus on one arm and “Om” on the other. Placing contradictions in view of each other, thereby showcasing the absurdity of societal expectations, is another feature of this art.The art then, becomes an exploration for the space between tradition and liberation, and differentiates brown art from white feminism. The effort, I believe, is towards creating another kind of feminism — one that acknowledges the interaction between religion, culture, and liberal values.
Instagram has proved to be fantastic space for artists to explore new, unconventional forms to represent Indian women. However, it is also imperative to explore the limitations of Brown Art on Instagram in its breadth and scope. The art is consumed by a modern, upper-class, (possibly) English-educated population that uses social media extensively. It is, by no means, accessible and open to most people in India. The question thus arises: is it possible for Brown Art to represent women who do not fit into the category of the ‘modern’ and the ‘educated’? I am hopeful and excited to see how Brown Art will take these differences and assimilate them to produce new kinds of identities, based on the realities we live in.
The author is an Arts & Culture staff writer at The Edict.