“There is no escaping censorship and there is no grand reward for toeing the line. I like myself more now that I’m free to speak my mind,” says Kajol Srinivasan, graphic designer by day and stand-up comedian by night. She started out being an engineer and then went down the road to follow her passion and be who she wanted to be, to take a chance on herself, and to transcend the gender barriers of society.

SheThePeople spoke with Kajol Srinivasan on the issues young artists face in India.

An engineer with an unconventional and creative career in graphic and website designing, and now also a stand-up comedian, please do share how you shifted from engineering to following your passion?

I became a summer intern for an IT company in my third year of engineering and decided it was really not for me. I spent most of my time there beautifying their presentations. During my fourth year of engineering, I worked part-time at Crest Communications which at that time was India’s foremost company in visual effects. Then I graduated in engineering, taught myself web design and photoshop and started my own one-person company. The first two years were a bit tough but soon I started getting outsourced work from ad agencies and then from corporates, which I do to date, along with comedy.

I’ve not broken away from engineering totally as I programmed too, until a few years back when it simply became too much to handle on my own. 

Comedy happened almost three years ago. My mom got diagnosed with Parkinson’s about six years back and that changed my life a lot. It’s difficult changing gears so drastically and reconciling this idea of what you thought your life would be with the sudden new reality. And having to accept your parent is not the superwoman you always pegged her as, and suddenly your roles are reversed. I think I stayed in a depressed limbo for over two years until it suddenly gave way to this strong desire to express myself on stage. Writing was something I had always done, but going on stage as a performer was new territory.

I met this comedian on a dating app and he registered me for an open mic one month down the line. He said: “You have one month, you can do this”. I lovingly wrote what I know now to be a horrendously boring Ted Talk, but the audience was forgiving that night. I got laughs and I figured I was obviously the chosen comic the scene had been waiting for. Then I tanked for the next three months. I was so scared of going on stage I used to fake fever and avoid mics. The reason I was tanking was that I was trying to talk on topics that I thought the audience wanted to hear. The thing is they wanted to hear about the friend zone etc, but not from me. Then one night out of sheer desperation I spoke about an actual experience, a disastrous visit to a psychiatrist, and that clicked. Because it was real and specific to me.

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How has engineering helped in making you the person you are today?

I’m logical and organized to the point where I irritate most people. I’m the sort who messages dates at nine am asking them to confirm where we are meeting at nine pm. I think the term is ‘control-freak’. But perhaps I was that way before doing engineering; the degree just lets me validate it. However, this is super helpful when it comes to managing two careers.

You have dropped out of engineering, one of the highest and respectable careers in India. Why do you think art and creativity are considered as an “unconventional” career options? What exactly is the convention of society as far as good career prospects are concerned?

We are still living in the past. Whether it is a career or a relationship, everything is sacrificed on the altar of stability. The general consensus is that if it is fun, it can’t be good. I see change happening now with influencers and social media-based careers on the rise, but with a very small, elite section of society. When I chose to start out on my own I had pressure on me to earn to run the house as our finances were not good, and I can totally understand parents’ expectations as well as kids who are denied the chance to follow their passion. I’ve always balanced it with the two jobs. I did designing, but I also took on boring data entry work and website updations for the money. It can be done.

How do your personalities as a stand-up comedian and a graphic designer complement each other?

Both involve expressing myself artistically, one through design and the other through writing and performance. And I love both. Years of graphic design has given me experience in dealing with corporate clients and being a professional. Comedy helped me find my voice and stand my ground. Earlier I was the biggest push-over on earth. I had a serious problem saying no to the most outlandish client demands. 

How difficult is it to switch from a conventional, high-paying and secure career to a new and erratic pathway of art and creativity? Is there any mantra that you would like to share with aspirants who are on the verge of making a big choice as you did?

Keep BOTH your jobs for as long as you can. Your day job will give you money to live on. Keep your art free of pressure to provide for you. If I made this dramatic switch to comedy from my day job I can imagine how insecure I’d be regarding money because right now I can’t bank on the number of gigs coming in. And a lot of gigs fall through before finalization. The whole point of choosing your passion as a career is to enjoy it.

Years of graphic design has given me experience in dealing with corporate clients and being a professional. Comedy helped me find my voice and stand my ground.

Your stand-ups are topical and strong comments against conventions and gender stereotypes in society. Many artists are afraid to confront society because of the stringent criticism they might receive. What is your take on such criticism? How do you deal with it?

I used to be scared of confronting society myself until the day I realized that being in their good books wasn’t all that different from being in their bad books. There is no escaping censorship and there is no grand reward for toeing the line. I like myself more now that I’m free to speak my mind. It’s never easy dealing with criticism but it gets better with time. Take a good look at the people criticizing and judging you, do you want to be like them? If you don’t, their approval means nothing. 

What do art and creativity mean to you? Self-expression, a mirror to society, or an escape from reality? Is there a limit to how art should be a criticism of society?

A combination of all three I guess. I just know that there is nothing else I can see myself doing. Art has always meant more to me than most personal relationships. I’m the happiest writing or designing on my own. I don’t feel art should be limited in criticizing society, but then we have the sticky problem of defining what art is, and speaking for comedy I will say that sometimes I see jokes that are edgy for the sake of being edgy and banking more on shock value than anything else. At least in the artist’s mind, there should be a clear route to what his final point/criticism is. However, this is a really grey area and will always lead to either censorship or crassness winning. 

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Do you think artists in India are free enough to showcase their criticism of society and bring a change?

At this point in time, we are probably facing the most censorship we ever have.  But artists will still find the way. Because it’s also a time when art is extremely important because it can bring forward messages in a non-confrontational way. Bringing change is wonderful if that happens, but it is essential to speak regardless and not let people think that every voice with a differing opinion has died out.  

What is your message for aspiring artists who are still hesitant to come out?

Read “So You Want to be a Writer?” by Charles Bukowski. It says it all.

Today social media is the finest medium to explore one’s self and allow people to know your talent. But it is also a platform where you can be totally misled, through fake profiles, hateful trolls, and comments. In this context, would you like to talk about social media as a means of freedom of expression and how its misuse can be dealt with?

We underestimate the power of social media. If you have, say, 15,000 followers, you’re essentially like a small radio station. So there’s a certain amount of responsibility that goes with it, and a certain amount of trolling too. Hateful comments are meant to cause you pain, and they do. It’s not nice being told you’re ugly and a host of other things and most insults are disgustingly sexual. But Twitter just mirrors society. There are nice people and nasty people, the only difference is that you probably would not run into the trolls in your normal circles personally. However, as a huge Twitter handle told me when I was starting out “If you can’t handle the hate, Twitter is not the medium for you”. You grow a thicker skin. After all, there is just a certain permutation combination of insults. No one has gotten really original in ages. And with paid trolls, you know their agenda.

I used to be scared of confronting society myself until the day I realized that being in their good books wasn’t all that different from being in their bad books.

What I follow is this: Be very sure of what you want to say because you will have to stand by it. Reference facts where possible. Be clear you are not hurting someone in a personal manner. Call out the incident, behavior or goof-up but don’t bring it down to a comment on their physicality etc, which is incidentally exactly what trolls do. Satire is a weapon against the mighty and most jokes always punch up. And always be ready to apologize if you have inadvertently messed up.

As a woman comedian and also a part of the women in the workforce, what would you say about the gender disparity in pay, prejudices in the workspace based on gender and still many? How much of the gender disparity do you have to face and how do you deal with them?

Mostly I have found that your brand of humor and your following will decide your market value irrespective of gender. There are some idiots who follow the old codes of patriarchy. One senior gentleman at an event came onto my stage and asked me to leave. I’m very popular around Women’s Day with a lot of corporates asking me to perform at unfortunately-our-budget-is-low-this-year events. But it gets better as you go on. Eventually, you find your audience, and you gain your footing.

What is your idea about women empowerment in India, as far as career prospects are concerned?

I attended an artists’ residency organized by the US consulate and Akshara on the theme of Women’s Empowerment. Unfortunately, I can answer it only in the context of women in my strata of society and possibly doing an artistic job. It’s an uphill task. You have to constantly prove yourself. As a comedian who speaks on issues, some of the flak I deal with is simply that I’m speaking, and not smiling prettily and improving my face value. When a man speaks, people listen to what he has to say before reacting.

But challenges are good, they force you to grow. One of the common things a woman has to hear is that she is an “attention-seeking whore.” There is no male equivalent. I’ve been trying to popularize “Attention seeking gigolo” but not many takers yet.

At one point I questioned myself…am I really doing this for attention? Because it’s so ingrained in us women to step back from the spotlight, that we start feeling guilty when we don’t. However, the fact that today we vote, drive, work, earn and smoke in public is because women down the years have stood their ground and defied society. So, by all means, seek attention. If the career prospects aren’t there yet, create them.

Rudrani Kumari is an intern with SheThePeople.TV.

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