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August 09, 2017

Why The Women From Kadak Collective Are Not Your Regular Cup Of Tea

Text by Sadaf Shaikh

A group of South Asian women are redefining the comics and illustration scene in India, as they dole out feminism in piping cups of kadak chai

A fortuitous glance at a matchbox christened Kadak supreme matches lit the proverbial light bulb in Aarthi Parthasarathy’s mind, who had been mulling over a fitting name for the recently formed collective of socially conscious women. She is one-eighth of Kadak Collective, a group of women storytellers who gleefully dish out feminism as a full-course meal with satire for starters, mordacity for mains and drollness for dessert. Parthasarathy, writer and filmmaker, was left feeling rather disgruntled two years ago at the lack of South Asian representation at East London Comic Arts Festival (ELCAF), one of the world’s most popular conventions designed to showcase disruptive works in comics and illustration. She immediately sought to rectify this, reaching out to like-minded women whose work she had been following for a few years, with some of them even having worked together in the past. That’s how she, along with Akhila Krishnan, Janine Shroff, Mira Malhotra, Garima Gupta, Pavithra Dikshit, Kaveri Gopalakrishnan and Aindri Chakraborty coalesced to form the first all-women collective of South Asian origin which not only commanded a table at ELCAF 2016, but also saw the contents of that table steadily disappear as most of their work was sold out when the festival came to a close three days later.

The collective, since its inception last year, has spearheaded two projects; Gender Bender 2016, a collaboration which inspects the sexes from an analytical lens and Reading Room, an initiative that encourages patrons to physically interact in a space replete with Kadak members’ very own artworks. The women, who identify with being a modern feminist sisterhood, are quick to eschew labels that bind their ideologies by words since each one of them looks at feminism from a unique perspective, injecting their geographical influences into its articulation. Parthasarathy channels her philosophical angst into a quirky weekly comic which goes by the moniker Royal Existentials. “It is inspired by a similar webcomic that uses Victorian imagery to relay humour loaded with biting sarcasm. My rendition, however, employs vintage Indian art to initiate a discourse on issues of caste, gender, hierarchy and general nihilism,” she reveals. At the outset, the reader may make light of these issues and appreciate the comic for what it is — a derisive parody of the times we live in. However, she believes this is only phase one of the objectives of her work. The real fruit of her labour is born when the reader graduates to identifying with her wrath at the world, adding to the collective fuel needed to galvanise society into action.

Malhotra, designer, illustrator and writer, divulges that the women are all part of a highly active WhatsApp group where they bounce ideas off each other, proffer constructive criticism and share quotidian anecdotes from their personal lives. Her work is mostly two-dimensional and she focuses her artistic talents on communicating with symbols, using the women of rural India as her muses. Her self-published zine Unfolding the Saree delves into the Madonna/Whore complex with regard to the sari-wearing Indian dame. It is even folded to resemble the actual garment, replete with a pallu and a mini wire hanger. “My zine pays homage to both Kareena Kapoor Khan from Heroine (2012) in a sensual black sari as well as Sonia Gandhi in her trademark khadi version. I wanted to challenge the commonly held view that the sari is a modest garment,” she states.

The collective is a vehement endorser of sexual expression and freedom, a trait which comes across clearly through London-based Shroff’s artwork. The illustrator-cum-artist explores themes like relationships, pregnancy and birth in her art, teeming with colours that are rich, sublime and understated all at once. Her work is perhaps the most reactionary for she minces no words, revelling instead in the dialogue initiated by her thought-provoking illustrations. The Queen is a feminist horror strip about motherhood that forces society to take a hard look at how it has always treated women as a means to an end — a machine for churning out babies, if you will. “I was fixated with Greek mythology when I was young, traces of which seeped through into my paintings that feature androgynous bird people.” This led to the creation of the comic Everything Drag, through which she sought to depict how being feminine could occasionally be a performance.

Kadak is conspicuous in its exclusion of male artists, a rejection that is very deliberate at present. Krishnan, film-maker, writer and illustrator, feels anything but apologetic on Kadak being a women’s-only space. “Women have been underrepresented in arts, or any other sector for that matter, for a long time and we are only addressing the restoration of power through this collective.” Her designs are based on creating stories from real life, through interviews, observations and drawings. And though Krishnan’s heart is firmly entrenched in feminism, her art isn’t necessarily so. “In 100 Days of Travellers, I sketched men and women on the dreary trains of London on the condition that their ensembles have a smidgen of red — it could be anything, their shoes, hats or headphones even. I wanted to capture humans in meditation — scrolling silently through their phones, listening to music, reading or occasionally conversing with a kindred spirit.” She observed these scarlet-tinted people for 100 days, at the end of which she compiled them into a volume supplemented by colour and captions. Hardly feminist, but Krishnan nevertheless found a way to infuse empowerment in her piece by describing it as a reversal of the female gaze that made anything red in a sea of black stick out like a sore thumb.

Illustrator and comic artist Chakraborty opines that the future of art is veering towards being more visually literate which is manifested through the emojis in our texts and the news disseminated through pictorial snippets and infographics. “Graphic narratives humanise casualties that are otherwise reduced to numbers and statistics,” she observes. Her predilection for the internet over the print medium doesn’t come as a surprise since the internet is a lot more reactionary. Chakraborty’s incendiary comic Thank You that she presented at ELCAF last year garnered strong responses online from women who had suffered a similar fate. The hand-printed zine, which alludes to her part nostalgic, part investigative design process, throws light on child molestation, a social ill that is rife in today’s society. It speaks about her pre-pubescent experience of being chastised by her mother for wasting food in a time when many people in the world were starving to death. In being admonished to be grateful for every little thing she possessed, Chakraborty went through a period where she thanked everything from her toothpaste and toothbrush to a shopping experience and her tiffin box. She remained in this state of beatific bliss until she had her first encounter of being inappropriately touched by a stranger in the marketplace when she was 10 years old. The last panel shows a caricature of a little girl who realises she doesn’t want to be thankful after all, growing steadily in size till she shoots to gargantuan proportions and glares fearlessly over the city.

Of course, the members of the collective exult in their drawing board being a potpourri of ideas that are influenced by different cultures and traditions seeing how they come from different parts of the world. But Gopalakrishnan, illustrator and comic artist, promptly relegates any assumptions that Indian women think only in kitsch to be a product of ignorance. Her comic, My Secret Crop, compares the crops from a field as a metaphor for the protagonist’s body hair. “Through my comic, I portray a young girl’s attachment with her own body hair as she grows older; a mirror of how women don’t necessarily deem it essential to get rid of body hair but are forced to part with it regularly to conform to society’s unrealistic standards of beauty.”

In the same vein is illustrator and comic artist Gupta’s Boy-Cut which talks about the social disapproval she faced on chopping her hair to a close crop. “A research project amid scorching temperatures cemented my decision to go short, eliciting dismal reactions from both near and dear ones as well as casual acquaintances. It left me feeling both vexed and bewildered and I channelled my anger into the comic for Gender Bender, relying on dialogue more than imagery, with crude sketches against a simple yellow background.” Going one step further, she also read up extensively on how people projected themselves through their hairstyles and the revolutions that were indirectly sparked through the length of one’s hair.

Designer, typographer and artist Dikshit’s interests lie in the resuscitation of the independent artists’ scene in India, which is increasingly gaining popularity since the advent of social media. She would, however, like to see a formal structure set in place as in the case of the American Institute of Graphic Arts. “Until that happens, I am content with putting my preachings into practice as part of my personal collection called Postcard People, created with the ambition of reviving the culture of sending out post. There is also my other project called Discipline in the form of a journal that chronicles my road to discovery.” One of the sections displays her paper salads, which are cutouts of various food items in fetching colours that make it look lifelike.

Working in a group with eight tenacious people has to come with its own set of challenges. But the women at Kadak find it incredibly rewarding. They describe their group as a personal search engine, where discussions result in going down a rabbit hole of several tabs until someone finally realises it is 4 a.m. and they need to call it a day. There are disagreements sometimes, but never friction, because the women value the personal drive and sentiments behind each other’s work.
Parthasarathy’s art is prolific and incisive, Gopalakrishnan’s drawings will make you want to take to the canvas yourself, Chakraborty’s research for her projects are mini projects in themselves, Krishnan’s drawings are fluid and emotive, Dikshit’s and Malhotra’s sense of design will blow you away with their ingenuity, Gupta’s capturing of nature and putting it to paper will make you want to quit your job and travel to Bali and Shroff’s colours will soothe you. Although they continue to take on individual projects that align with their aesthetic, the one thing they are all in agreement with is that any project that comes their way has to meet only one benchmark — the narration must be blisteringly hot with a few cookies of feminism to nibble on.

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