Art changes perceptions in the most expressive way. Mumbai-based writer-artist Indu Harikumar is not only changing perceptions, but also starting significant conversations by putting social media to its best use. Indu recently had a part of her work featured in a show called ‘What is Love?’, which was displayed at Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany. Moving on from the show, which explored love through the ages, Indu is currently helming an important crowdsourced project called #Identitty, where women can proudly share stories around their breasts.
SheThePeople.TV spoke with Indu Harikumar about #Identitty, her previous projects, what makes her evolve as an artist, and more.
How did you develop your interest in art and literature?
I was a hyperactive child and one of the places where I would sit and not run around was my drawing class, so my parents sent me there. My teacher let me talk and draw and I liked her, so while I was in school, I drew a lot. I didn’t read or watch TV at all though everyone at home read, but I enjoyed talking to people and telling stories. That seems like where it started for me.
You like to turn everyday things into art. What inspires you to do so?
It started when I taught my first art class at a Mumbai Mobile Creches Centre. Since I had never done this in my life, I’d ask the children, “agle baar kya banaye? ” and they’d say”didi, didi, aeroplane.” The children fed my nervous brain. They were full of ideas which helped me prepare for the subsequent classes.
The thing about working with waste is, there is no pressure to create great art and you just play with what you have, there is no going from point A to point B, a lot of times the materials lead you in ways you never thought were possible
This inspired me and the children. I wrote about our class on a blog which I didn’t think anyone read. But one day I saw Pratham Books had tweeted my blog. Soon all the publishers were following me. I got called to children’s lit events and every Wednesday, Pratham books would ask, “what are you guys doing today?” Random strangers would write to me saying I have been hoarding tickets from the time I was 16, I want to send it to you, I have a cassette collection, I think you will make something out for it, my mother’s old sarees may just be useful. I enjoy a challenge from time to time and this kept me in.
As a children’s writer, illustrator and art teacher, if you’re given the responsibility, what do you believe is that one thing — when it comes to the way art is taught — that you would like to change or introduce across schools in India?
I would say let everyone express, don’t stress on right or wrong or colouring inside lines, or writing the right way, let’s not police anyone.
Let’s not police anyone
Who are the artists that inspire you?
I love Klimt, I absolutely love Indian fabrics and embroidery (they inspire me to no end and I use both extensively in my work), I love a lot of art nouveau and also Indian Gothic especially at CSMT station, I go there to look at the carvings when I feel stuck. I also love Jamini Roy, Thota Vaikuntham, Durga Bai, Bhajju Shyam, Priya Kuriyan, Rohan Chakravarty (green humour), Rajiv Eipe, Maira Kalman, Mari Andrew, Koloman Moser. But mostly life inspires me.
Your work reflects your fascination with exploration of the world around us. When it comes to a specific art, how do you choose your subject?
Like you mentioned, I am a curious person. It is a tiny spark when I start and then in some time I am in no place to leave because I am so involved and that’s why I stay. If I knew that some of these projects that have been emotionally so engaging were going to take so much from me as much as they have given, I wouldn’t start.
Your current crowdsourced art project on Instagram called #Identitty seems really intriguing and significant. Please tell us more about it and what inspired you to create it?
I do several polls and stickers on Instagram on sex, sexuality, relationships and gender. This year, I was talking to someone on Instagram about breasts. She said how men only see her breasts and I shared stories about what it meant to be small chested. Our stories were so different and yet so similar, so after the conversation, I asked her if it would make for an interesting project and she said yes. And that’s how it started.
All women have stories around their breasts. The stigmas surrounding the way people view women’s breasts, make speculations and form opinions, have been at the forefront since the very beginning. How do you think we can go further and erase these stigmas so that young girls and women can feel most comfortable in their skin?
I think sharing stories helps. Most young people want to fit in and worry if they have been given the wrong kind of body. This shame of not being good enough can be made less hurtful if we all shared our stories.
I remember, I had once visited a school in Mumbai for a body image workshop. It was interesting to witness how they held classes on menstruation and body image, and the teenagers were so comfortable sharing their stories and asking questions. Initially, it was me who was hesitant thinking how it would go but there was no shame at all when I saw these children confidently asking questions and interacting about it. In fact, it were the adults who burst into giggles time to time. Now when I think about it, I realise that there’s less shame and stigma among people to openly talk about their bodies and sexuality.
Sharing is what helps a great deal in enabling people to feel positive about themselves
In 2017, your #BodyOfStories project had you sourcing stories surrounding issues of fat shaming. In what ways do you think we can broaden the conversation around body shaming?
I think answer will be the same. As we share, we let go of shame.
What led to your crowdsourced the art project #HowWeDate? Post #100IndianTinderTales, what did you draw from your understanding of dating and relationships?
#100IndianTinderTales was a personal project that started with my curiosity about what it was like to use Tinder in India. I really had not planned it but I am just a curious person who is/was asking the internet stuff, in the case I was also doing it so I have new material to draw from and I was surprised with the generosity of people who allowed me a tiny window into their personal lives. Post the project, my work has involved people’s stories and relationships, sex, sexuality and when I heard from Tinder, it seemed like something I would be interested in, knowing about what people think of dating, given it is so nebulous.
About my learning about dating and relationships, I would say as humans, we are all looking for connections. We all want to be seen, heard and loved. The formats are different now. Technology, particularly the popularity of the smartphone, accessible internet, have changed how we connect, meet and communicate with each other.
What people do with that connection is entirely up to them. Some don’t want to take it offline, others want longer connections, some brief connections, and some are online only for sexual intimacy. There exist so many permutations and combinations, but at the base of it, I think everyone is seeking connections, and technology gives people a private, personalised and judgement-free space sometimes
With Tinder soaring in full swing, how in your opinion has the dating scenario changed in India with the transition that the Indian society is seeing?
I grew up at a time where you only dated if you thought there was a solid future or you were in love. Within my friends, I knew lots of people who married the first guy they met (or at least aspired to), with variations across parts of the country and even within parts of Mumbai. I remember the lack of social media sharing of pictures and couple photos unless the twosome was married/nearly married, but this trend is also changing. The way I saw it and I had internet even as a teen, it was difficult to meet people outside family, immediate friends and workplaces. There was shame of the fear of rejection, judgement, unsolicited attention and the taboo label attached to dating.
Bollywood dictated romantic notions, and told us lines like, “Ek ladka aur ladki dost nahi ho sakte”, and “pyaar toh ek hi baar hota hai” narrative
I bought into this idea, and wasn’t looking to meet men outside of checking the long-term commitment/marriage box.
Interestingly now, there is less shame associated with romantic relationships. Women are expressing the desire to meet new men not just for the possibility of love, but also to discover themselves, that’s what I see from the stories I get. Women want to have identities outside of the relationship too
Women have told me, “When I go out on a date, it is with an open mind. I no longer look for compatibility and neither am I closed to the possibility. I just don’t want to define the course of relationship beforehand. Dating to me is spending quality time with someone you are interested in. It doesn’t necessarily lead to love or relationships.”
Which book, project or piece of art is closest to your heart?
There are two books I keep going back to, especially when I am stuck. One is Letters to a Young poet by Rilke and I love The Artist’s way by Julia Cameron.
Have the women in your life shaped your thought process and influenced your journey? If so, how?
My mum and my eldest sister. My mum is a complete work with what you have person, so DIY. You can complain about what you don’t have or create with what you have. My mum is a huge inspiration. So is my sister, she cooks, bakes, makes her own clothes and also works with the biggest chip making company.
What are your primary concerns while curating a project?
The concerns usually arise while I am in the midst of the project. I begin most projects in full earnest and unaware of all that is in store for me. I am just a curious person asking the internet for their stories.
What’s next in line with respect to more projects?
I don’t know as of now but I am working on a children’s book and will start work on my family’s story (something on caste and education), which I am doing as a graphic novel.
Use the internet, find your tribe
What is your advice to those who are on their way to explore unconventional paths?
Don’t work for free, don’t do things for exposure. Stick with what drives you, sometimes it is difficult, not having a fixed amount at the end of every month sucks, but being your own boss is great.