Laydeez Do Comics: Conversations about expression, censorship at a community for female illustrators
At an Indian chapter of the community Laydeez Do Comics, artists like Rachita Taneja and Priya Kuriyan discussed the response to their work as well as what it is like to be a female comic creator in India
The first ever Indian chapter of Laydeez Do Comics was launched in Bengaluru, where co-founder Nicola Streeten was in conversation with Aleesha Nandhra, Priya Kuriyan and Rachita Taneja.
They spoke about the subjects of comics by women, what motivates them to create art, and the backlash that follows when they make political statements.
Nicola noted that more women are able to use comics as a form since women in leadership positions are lending a hand, and comic creators are no longer fully dependent on publishers.
Amar Chitra Katha, Tinkle, Phantom, and Chacha Chaudhary — mention any of these names to an Indian millennial, and you'll hear a nostalgic sigh in response. Perhaps this sentiment explains why India has seen a rise in graphic novels in the last few years. It only makes sense that the generation that devoured these comics as children would move on to a similar form of storytelling as adults. Initially, these novels focused on subjects like contemporary interpretations of mythology and fantasy, the local markets in Delhi, and conflicts in Kashmir. Then, the women stepped in.
In 2008, Amruta Patil was the first woman graphic novelist to give the world Kari, the story of a lesbian woman navigating through her life in Mumbai. Slowly yet steadily, the number of women artists choosing this medium of storytelling has increased. This uptick, of course, means more diversity in the topics and issues covered. “Women have always chosen to express themselves through art and humor,” says Dr Nicola Streeten, an illustrator and a comic scholar, whose PhD focuses on the history of women and comics in Britain.
An excited Nicola is preparing to talk at the launch of the first ever Indian chapter of Laydeez Do Comics in Bengaluru, organised with the help of a wonderful group called Books & Brews. “I founded Laydeez Do Comics with Sarah Lightman almost a decade ago when we realised that we didn’t really have a forum to speak about comics beyond superheroes. We wanted to talk about the ones that are more autobiographical and encompass the everyday. The graphic novel industry, at that point, seemed particularly masculine.”
Laydeez is a largely UK-based community that provides a networking and growth platform for female-identifying illustrators. After gaining momentum in the last decade, they are now looking to start chapters in India. This only makes sense, considering the number of female comic artists here whose work is empowering young girls — girls who are increasingly looking for their own independence and identity.
On this fine Sunday, Nicola is joined on stage by some stellar artists — Aleesha Nandhra, Priya Kuriyan and Rachita Taneja. “I love drawing things from my everyday, especially food. But drawing zines about mental health is sort of a release,” says Aleesha. Aleesha is a London-based printmaker and illustrator, whose family roots are in India. Just a couple of weeks ago, Aleesha, along with Nicola, Rachita and a host of other artists, was in Nepal as part of a collaborative project called Creating Heroines. Initiated by the British Council, the project looks to bring together women artists and illustrators and build visuals of what it means to be a woman; a heroine, inspiring a younger generation of girls from the UK, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh. “Most discussions in Nepal were around anxiety and depression, and people don’t always have the vocabulary to put it across or just won’t talk about it because it isn’t a part of their culture," she says.
“I use the graphic novel medium to give a voice to misunderstood women,” says Priya, addressing the mostly female audience of about 20. Primarily an illustrator for children, she thinks that children’s books provide a great platform to be subversive in a subtle way. Parents tend to pick up on the small details that she adds to break down stereotypes and taboos, like the realistic portrayal of undergarments in an average household in her latest picture book, Ammachi’s Glasses. Priya’s contributions to the graphic novel industry, however, are not so subtle commentaries on our society. She recounts her grandmother’s gut-wrenching revelations about being abused by her alcoholic grandfather. “He was always painted as this heroic figure, where as my grandmother was the miserly, unpleasant one. Her stories helped me realise that she was just being the bigger person and it was her voice, conveniently distorted by the people around her, that I needed to put out there.”
In 2014, Priya, along with German illustrators Larissa Bertonasco and Ludmilla Bartscht, held a workshop for amateur writers and artists, as a response to the brutal rape in Delhi that horrified the world. The raw result of this workshop was Drawing the Line: Indian Women Fight Back, a fourteen-story graphic anthology, each story dealing with the multitude of issues women face in India, from skin color to sexual harrasment.
“Women do need to come together to make change,” says Rachita, sipping on her coffee as she mingles with the artists in the audience, some aspiring and some established. Rachita Taneja is a human rights campaigner and the creator of the particularly famous webcomic, Sanitary Panels. “We absolutely need platforms like Laydeez Do Comics,” she says. Rachita uses her webcomics as a foreground to educate people about serious issues and mobilise them. She helped set up jhatkaa.org, a campaigning organisation that helps people take control, and co-founded the Internet Freedom Foundation, that is committed to fight for digital rights.
“Comics about women’s issues usually incite comments along the lines of 'feminazi b***h', but with political issues, the rape threats are pretty strong in number," she says. Rachita recounts her highly publicised encounter with Facebook in 2017. Facebook had taken down one of her comments on a #MeToo post that read ‘men are trash’. Rachita, keen on highlighting the double standard, made a comic about how most of the comments on her political posts with rape threats still remained on the platform. Facebook, however, took down this comic too. “When Facebook took it down, it was mostly women who kept sharing it and refused to let it die,” smiles Rachita. “About 80 percent of my followers are women, maybe because I don’t objectify them and show them as they are.”
As Nicola points out, women have always been coming together and speaking about their issues in the form of words and pictures, but now, there are more women in positions of power, lending a hand to push forward these narratives. It also helps that in the era of social media, comic artists aren’t dependent on editors in publishing houses (that being said, Aleesha notes that Indian publishers are bolder than their UK counterparts when it comes to hard issues). To get a full sense of how wonderfully relatable yet impactful these comics are, all you have to do is open Instagram and follow illustrators like Mounica Tata, Aditi Mali, Sonaksha Iyengar and Priyanka Paul. Talking to these wonderful speakers, one can sense how their work is so deeply driven by their struggles to break out of the moulds society has built for them. There is also a sense of camaraderie that propels them forward, urging these women to challenge each other and the world. There are death threats, rape threats, abusive comments, dismissive remarks and snide observations about why women-only panels and groups need to exist (and yet no one really questions the countless men-only groups, Priya points out), but these women march on, fueled by their art.
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