Cartoons and comics can appeal to a larger audience instantly. And Instagram has gradually become a hub for incisive, funny, and fiercely feminist cartoons.
On International Women’s Day, we take a look at some of the popular Indian cartoonists trying to bring visibility to women’s issues, breaking stereotypes and bashing the archaic ‘sanskaari bride’ trope. It’s not just the visuals that stand out, the well thought out punchlines hit the mark too.
For Bengaluru-based artist Mounica Tata (@doodleodrama), her art all about putting an end to the “hush-hush” attitude.
From talking about vulnerability and promoting body positivity, her artworks cover issues that are often difficult to talk about. Be it controversial marital rape or child abuse, she find a fine balance to deal with sensitive issues than to ignore it completely.
Tata says it’s important to “work on the content and visuals in a way that the message doesn’t get diluted.” The 31-year-old illustrator stresses that because of the sensitive nature of the topic, it’s important to “be inclusive” and do thorough research before putting pen to paper.
Calling her art an ‘extension of herself’, she says: “I cannot separate the two and hence with every piece of content I put out, I pour-in a little bit of me into it.”
“I find it easier to be me online than be someone else, that would be exhausting. For some it’s difficult and challenging to be vulnerable online and I get that, but for me, it’s liberating!”
Arguing that ‘representation matters’, she adds: “Growing up, I didn’t see my body type represented anywhere. So now that I have a platform and a voice, I wish to rectify it.”
Saying that most of her work stems from her personal experiences, for her feminism in extension of the actual definition is the freedom to choose and to have agency over one’s body.
“Not anti-men just pro-women”, reads one of the illustrations created by artist Tracey (@illustracee), which perfectly captures what feminism is, a concept often misunderstood.
Describing her cartoons as ‘unapologetic’ and ‘unlady-like’, Tracey says she tries to portray women in the most feminine avatar but cutting out all the coyness.
Asked why Indian attires are her predominant theme, her answer is simple: to break stereotypes. “I design my women and portray them in Indian ethnic wear because it has been stereotyped for so long. Women that wear ethnic clothes are labelled as ‘behenji’, ‘the boring one’, ‘the not so cool one’. While women that wear western or rather revealing clothes are sexy and hot,” the 25-yr-old illustrator from Hyderabad says.
“Women in western outfits are considered the chilled out ones but the moment they show some more skin, they become the sluts and whores,” she adds.
As she chooses to paint most of her characters in darker hues, the artist highlights how important it is to have brown skin representation. “I think it’s known how deeply rooted the fabric of colourism is in the Indian society even today. I’m wheatish brown and I grew up hearing I was too dark for boys to like me, not from my own parents but from everyone else around,” she explains.
Underlining the choice of colours, she contrasts the rich brown skin tones with vibrant, almost neon outfits, because dark skinned women are always told not to wear bright colours as it doesn’t suit them. “I want it to portray that the colour of an individual’s skin doesn’t have anything to do with their worth.”
Taking it a step further, is illustrator Aastha Sahdev (@aasthapastaa), who is busy reinterpreting classical artworks that had a different sense of femininity attached to it. Looking at her feed, one may often find cartoons inspired by the works of Raja Ravi Verma, Nihal Chand and Mughal miniatures, among others.
The 28-yr-old Gurugram-based artist says art from the past is evergreen and that’s why she chooses to infuse it with modern day themes. “Ravi Varma’s style is so realistic and easy to relate to. His work increased the involvement of common people with fine arts and defined artistic tastes among common people for several decades,” she explains.
“So, what better way to convey a message that is so important and so real to reach the masses?”
Talking about what inspires her slogans, the young artist says it’s a will to fight against the ingrained inequality. Arguing that a woman in today’s world has to do it all — manage both home and work — she says it adds too much pressure. However, it’s not the same for their partners.
“There are commercials and photographs that label women as ‘superheroes’ for doing everything. But I ask why? Why can’t women just be equal. Why do we have to either put them on a pedestal of virtue as goddesses or superheroes and yet continue to disrespect and disregard their basic rights. It pains me everytime I see that happening.”
While such desi representation and sensibilities have struck a chord with the audience, it’s not just female artists who are making a compelling case. Delhi-based artist Ayush Kalra (@ayushkalra), who took social media by storm in 2020 with his anti-fairness cream cartoon, says, feminism is often misunderstood and is here to bridge the gap.
“Feminism is something which asks for equal rights for both males and females or for all genders,” the 22-year-old artist asserts. To him, feminism is all equality and letting go of all sexist behaviour.
“There can be no human rights agenda, there can be no better world and no Sustainable Development Goals without a feminist agenda. It will simply fall apart without it and men need to be a part of it,” the digital artist stresses.
“I think the obvious part for me, as a man, is to pay attention to power and privilege. To question it and to use my voice where I can, to call other men into this, and to call out others when required…” But he believes that all men should be feminists. “If men care about women’s rights, the world will be a better place. We are better off when women are empowered, it leads to a better society.”
While bridalwear cartoons have become immensely popular, there are other artists who are making feminist arts, not to always fight but to inspire. And Hricha Nilawar (@quirky_cloud) is one of the prominent cartoonists reminding all about strong feminists characters from India.
The Indian artist based in Berlin says it all began with her child. “When I work on any illustration, my daughter who is about to turn 4 would always ask who the character is and what they did. At one point, I thought this a good opportunity to introduce her to strong minded women from India and imbibe what real feminism is actually about,” the 31-year-old says.
Her adorable portrait series, which has inspiring female characters like Savitribai Phule to Sudha Murty, is an ode to India’s history for the next generation. “As I am a mother raising my child outside India, I constantly struggle with the thought of my child not being connected to her roots, this series is my attempt to give her that connection.”
Saying that feminism is all about true equality that leaves no one behind, she hopes her cartoons inspire all. “It’s about levelling the playing field between genders, and ensuring that women and girls of all diversities have the same opportunities in life available to boys and men.”