Menstruation is having its pop-culture moment thanks to movies and books, but can India move past celebrating it?
By Maya Palit
Last year, students at Calicut Medical College launched a contest to encourage each other to submit haikus about periods, after an intern threw out an open challenge to see if anyone would dare to walk around with an unwrapped packet of sanitary pads.
The outrage that this incident provoked seemed more than a little out of place, particularly in a medical college, but the poetry campaign eventually went viral on social media. Meanwhile, singer Sofia Ashraf’s new Tamil song 'Period Paatu', which released last month went mega viral.
These developments are just two instances in a larger trend of periods getting an unprecedented amount of attention in Indian popular culture. Phullu, a mainstream film about a sanitary pad-maker has just been released, and another film, Padman, is in the works.
A new comic illustrated by Delhi-based artist Pia Alize Hazarika explores menstrual hygiene. And this month, a travelling art show by Boondh, an organisation that works to make the menstrual cup affordable, is exhibiting several works of art based on the theme of menstruation.
Two years ago, Indian Americans had spoken up after being shut down for making their periods visible: Kiran Gandhi, the M.I.A. drummer, ran the London marathon without a tampon and got hell for it, while Instagram deleted a picture uploaded of Canadian poet Rupi Kaur lying on a bed with bloodstained pyjamas.
With the Indian government’s thoroughly misplaced move to raise taxes on pads while simultaneously making sindhoor tax-free, it’s clear that periods are still a reality that people would rather not acknowledge. And while its current moment in the cultural sun is heartening, the question remains whether these treatments are beginning to sound like a stuck record. Are they doing more than just repeating the homily that period taboos are ridiculous?
Take the CBFC’s decision to give Phullu an A rating, and Pahlaj Nihlani’s logic that people in non-metropolitan areas will be flabbergasted by a film about sanitary pads. Both have got a good amount of backlash, and articles have suggested that Nihlani is upholding the very taboos that the filmmaker was hoping to break through. But Phullu is also unimaginative in that the only way it chooses to dispel taboos is by having a man who is innocent (the people in the film keep repeating this) discover the hassle that menstruation can be for women.
Does the upcoming Twinkle Kumar-produced film Padman look like it’ll be any better? Based on the life story of ‘sanitary pad revolutionary’ Arunachalam Muruganatham, an entrepreneur from Tamil Nadu who created news when he invented a machine to produce sanitary pads in the late 1990s, it looks like this film will also focus heavily on the heroism of another enterprising male inventor who creates his own brand of sanitary pads.
Resources about menstruation are being actively created for and by women. Many focus not just on the broad strokes — the well-known fact that menstruating women aren’t allowed into some of our temples, for instance — but the more specific issues that plague women. Author Ariana Abadian-Heifetz has published a new comic book titled Spreading Your Wings which addresses puberty and menstrual hygiene, and is directed specifically at rural Indian women. Illustrated by the Delhi-based illustrator Pia Alize Hazarika, it contains information about pads and accessing iron tablets for anaemia, and will be translated into Hindi as well. And it manages to do it all without being patronising.
In fact, Abadian-Heifetz raises a compelling question about the potential usefulness of art that focuses on menstruation, and the dangers of doing a Pahlaj Nihlani (who said in no uncertain terms that people from ‘the other India’ were obscured by a ‘purdah’ from basic biological facts like menstruation). She recalls, for instance, that when she discussed taboos with young women in self-help groups in Uttar Pradesh, they told her that that information was not what they needed to know. “Interestingly, when you would tell them certain myths are not true, their response was, ‘Of course, we know that’. They wanted to know how they could convey this to their parents and change the social thinking around it,” she said in one interview.
Another project that has been more effective because of its focus on specificities was conceived by Lyla FreeChild, a Jaipur-based artist working on gender and sexuality. She began contemplating creating art around the subject of sustainable menstrual cups in 2015. “When I came across the menstrual cup, and started using it in 2014, I was surprised that it had been around for so long and yet very few people I knew used it. I spoke to friends of mine, and some, even those who were sexually active, said they were reluctant about putting something inside their vaginas for so long. I wrote to SheCup [the producers of a sustainable menstruation cup in India] in December 2016 and created an installation in January-February 2017 that had 400 hanging menstrual cups, as well as explicit images of vulvas, breasts, and unshaved legs.” FreeChild told The Ladies Finger.
She vouches for the power of art in helping to shift debates around menstruation, because of the results she witnessed after her project on the cup: “When I used to just talk about cups, I didn’t actually see any friends shifting to it. After the installation, I stopped telling people they must shift, but almost 15 people I know have shifted since. I think art in any form has the power to propel a change, be it poetry, painting, installation, film or performances.”
A larger example of an exhibition that uses some of these mediums to talk about menstruation is ‘The Crimson Wave’, an art show that includes FreeChild’s work features, is using paintings, installations, photographs, and digital art to kickstart a dialogue about periods, taboos, and menopause. It was launched in Chennai and is also travelling to Bangalore, Delhi, and Mumbai this month.
The captivating pieces in this exhibition include the work of Priyanka Paul, an 18-year-old illustrator from Mumbai, whose prints reflect on the menstruation tax. It also showcases Bansri Thakkar’s book Silence of the Cramps that pokes fun at commercials that replace menstrual blood with blue liquid, and harks back to what the first period can feel like.
Some of the exhibit’s pieces tend to fall into the simpler ‘celebration of menstruation’ category: such as ‘Beauty in Blood’, a video project by Jen Lewis, a Michigan based conceptual artist. “It is clear the time is now to stand up and speak out on behalf of menstruation. It is a natural, messy but beautiful part of life,” Lewis is quoted as saying in a write-up about the exhibition (in possession of The Ladies Finger). This is one instance in which the insistence on acknowledging menstruation as necessarily beautiful comes off as a little contrived.
That’s not to say that art around menstruation has to have a practical value, but rather that the period dialogue doesn’t always have to include talk that portrays it as beautiful. It isn’t hard to gauge where that reaction comes from, given the constant vilification of periods. But the ‘celebration’ approach overlooks the fact that women have a range of experiences with menstruation. For some it is simply messy, intolerably painful (or not at all), or a logistically difficult few days in the month, not the inescapable essence of their womanhood.
This moment in Indian culture that is taking on a host of problems related to menstruation is a great comeback to the censorship of periods in public spaces, the internet and mass culture. It could still benefit from a focus on specific issues that plague women, which could include anything from recyclable cups to cramps or affordable sanitary projects. If it remains confined to just celebrating menstruation and its beauty as a rite of passage, it could end up becoming repetitive pretty fast.
The Ladies Finger (TLF) is a leading online women’s magazine delivering fresh and witty perspectives on politics, culture, health, sex, work and everything in between.