Gendered Spaces in India

Pranita Choudhry

Examining the spatial exclusion of Women in India

According to the latest census, in India, there are currently 37 million men in excess of women. A country that experiences the giant gender gap in population, also has an equally large gender gap in employment where only 20% women currently participate in the labour market (according to world bank data). India’s performance is among the lowest globally with stark comparisons to its neighbours: 36% in Bangladesh, 59% in China, and 35% in Sri Lanka and 80% women in Nepal are currently in formal employment. This is in the vicinity of 80% for men according to an ILO report. The reasons for India’s low global ranking are all too well-known and obvious – patriarchal society, preference of sons over daughters, fertility, domestic and care activities. While economic growth and rising overall education levels for women are reasons to celebrate, absorption of women in the labour force through creation of suitable job opportunities has been all too slow. Invisibilisation of women due to economic growth was further achieved through increased household incomes that no longer deemed it necessary for housewives to seek work outside, also known as the “income effect”.

“the majority of the women who do work are mostly concentrated in the informal sector. The jobs they perform are part of the highly labour-intensive informal workspaces including menial work within agriculture, construction, handicrafts, or within home businesses.”

On the other hand, the majority of the women who do work are mostly concentrated in the informal sector. The jobs they perform are part of the highly labour-intensive informal workspaces including menial work within agriculture, construction, handicrafts, or within home businesses. Among the minority who make it to the formal sector, most are performing tasks that are an extension of home duties such as nursing, teaching beauty, healthcare, fashion, textiles, teaching etc. Take the textiles industry, for example, where 71% of the workforce according to a World Bank report are women, but where they are subjected to low pay, extensive hours, exploitation and bad working conditions. Women’s primary role in society is seen as that of a ‘caregiver’, therefore even professionally they are engaging in activities that are an extension of the home. Professionals or homemakers, they are never excused from taking on the burden of household chores and responsibility as caregivers to children and the elderly. 

“On average, women do one hour less of productive work as compared to men, and yet are responsible for three times more home-bound care work.”

On average, women do one hour less of productive work as compared to men, and yet are responsible for three times more home-bound care work. Take a look at the graph below that showcases the Female to Male ratio in terms of the time devoted to unpaid care work i.e. domestic and household chores as well as care activities for children and elderly. Amongst the highest in the world are Pakistan and India where women devote 10.25 and 9.83 hours for every hour devoted by men (respectively).

Deshpande, A. and Kabeer, N. (2019) (In)Visibility, Care and Cultural Barriers. The size and shape of women’s work in India (with Ashwini Deshpande) Discussion Paper Series in Economics DP 04/19. Department of Economics, Ashoka University.

While this has shifted slightly in urban spaces, the status quo remains in rural areas. Even in urban areas, policies and compliance is meagre especially in the informal sector and thinking about alternative careers such as those in manufacturing or technology is a distant reality.

The spaces that women claim are largely private. At the end of the day, it’s all a tussle between the public and private spaces and how power is experienced and negotiated within them that creates the silent rules we adhere to in our jobs, relationships, and interactions as a society. Take a look at the picture below of a small village in Bihar, India.

If you visit the interiors of India, you will see this as a common sight. While girls are tasked with commuting from home, holding containers of material or water, often several times a day, boys are found out playing, being with friends, or just running on the streets, just being who they’re supposed to be – children. In other words, you would see boys claiming the public spaces early on, while girls are restricted to private “for their own safety”. The only times they must only be out is to study or related to housework. Here’s another image that’s not specific to rural areas, but all around us.

As I ventured into the rural spaces, I was struck by how hard women worked all day long, engaged in agriculture work day after day as well as performing household duties, ready to forego any payments or rights. While their husbands often roamed about in the evenings to visit their friends or drink at the local pub, women often spent their evenings ensuring the rest of the family members, including the livestock, are well-fed and taken care of. This is an accepted form of behaviour instilled early on in life. Most women I spoke to expressed their discontent at the unfairness of it all, but simply didn’t want to voice their unhappiness from the fear of bringing shame to the family. I noticed they continued to treat their sons differently, maybe unintentionally, contributing to this vicious cycle. It demonstrates the deep-rooted acceptance of norms that dictate our behaviour and accepted both by the oppressed and the oppressor, that leads to the inter-generational repetition and continuation of the status quo, in rural and urban spaces.

“it’s not about the immediate monetary benefits but the consequential and intergenerational impacts on the lives of women and children. Empowerment is a holistic concept that cuts across the economic, social and political realms. It’s not just about getting job opportunities, but to be in an environment that’s productive, safe, and where women have the freedom to make their own choices.”

But isn’t it a woman’s duty to take care of her children and elders? why should they be paid for the tasks that they do for their family? Well, it’s not about the immediate monetary benefits but the consequential and intergenerational impacts on the lives of women and children. Empowerment is a holistic concept that cuts across the economic, social and political realms. It’s not just about getting job opportunities, but to be in an environment that’s productive, safe, and where women have the freedom to make their own choices. Gender norms dictate that claiming public spaces is considered desirable, attractive, challenging and ambitious, and are largely “masculine”, while being in the private sphere, no matter how much work you do, is considered feminine, a duty that’s taken for granted, in some instances leading to ill-treatment and exploitation. It’s about control. Take a look at the positioning and space distribution below which was completely unplanned and in fact but took place organically, reflective of the power dynamics.

“Power is exerted in many ways, one of them being “dismissal”. The collective acceptance of a narrative by those in positions of power, mostly men in senior leadership positions, political leaders, and at a micro-level considered heads of households, are often quick to dismiss or are inconsiderate to any other voices or viewpoints and assume the role of a decision-maker. It’s a system that seeks conformity rather than rewards creativity.”

Power is exerted in many ways, one of them being “dismissal”. The collective acceptance of a narrative by those in positions of power, mostly men in senior leadership positions, political leaders, and at a micro-level considered heads of households, are often quick to dismiss or are inconsiderate to any other voices or viewpoints and assume the role of a decision-maker. It’s a system that seeks conformity rather than rewards creativity. Their dominant presence in the public spaces is what leads to an insecure and unsafe space for women, who face eve-teasing and harassment, and thus have to constantly sacrifice their share of freedom & mobility to participate in the workforce. When taking a non-binary gender view, the experiences of those from the LGBTQIA communities who face violence and discrimination are nerve-racking and are immensely invisible. On other hand, the well-meaning male allies try they find it hard to make changes given the deep-rooted structural shifts that are needed.

The only solution to breaking this imbalance is for more and more women and girls to step into the public sphere and are well-supported to do so. However, with expectations around marriage, fertility, and care responsibilities, the challenge for us today is to facilitate this process and ensure they enter and then remain in the workforce. As the Economist, Amartya Sen explained, women can become agents of change only if certain conditions are fulfilled – they acquire more than basic education; they have an independent income; they have land rights; and that they have the freedom to work outside the house. However, when it is achieved, it brings about development not just for women themselves but others too. On average, countries with greater female labor force participation generally see later marriages, fewer children, better nutrition and school enrolment, and higher gross domestic product, according to the World Bank. There is also research that suggests that choices made by women’s groups not only led to empowerment for women themselves but greater development for children’s education and health, and the community at large.  

“The female labour force participation rate was the highest at 33% in 1972-73, and has been declining ever since.”

The female labour force participation rate was the highest at 33% in 1972-73, and has been declining ever since. Therefore, the challenge is real, to drive women from the “Private” to the “Public”. Unfortunately, there isn’t any quick fix to a problem this deep-rooted and ingrained. A change to this lopsided social structure will manifest only if we put in place certain provisions and solutions that are unconventional and multi-dimensional. At a policy and systemic level, change takes time and various initiatives are underway to influence policy change by organisations such as Sewa Mandir that unionised workers.. At an organisational level, some evidence-based initiatives seem to have worked in the west in the formal sector that may help lead the way towards increasing and sustenance of the labour force participation rate for women. Provisions such as having work-life balance policies in the workplace, effective protections against dismissal for pregnant women, shared parental leave, flexible working arrangements, company provided care services, a robust workplace harassment policy are some of the ways to help women continue being in the workforce. Having mentors and role models is crucial to help access the next stage, and to chart a path less travelled before and keep confidence and self-esteem high. 

While the gaps are structural with empty policies, profit-seeking corporations, poor implementation of laws, or political will, it is as much about changing individual behaviours, mindsets, attitudes, that rests upon us. We as citizens must keep our eyes open and intentions intact by ensuring we put in place a safe and dignified working environment, policies and contracts for staff members, domestic workers, part-time employees, ensure protection in the workplace, and have borders that are defined for our “employees” and not “servants”. Within the household, it is to encourage boys and adult men to teach their children that it is valuable to do “house” work, and a necessary aspect of being truly “independent” and “empowered”. It isn’t enough for men to think and say they “let” their partners work and that they are empowered because they have a job, it will take an equal division of labour both at work and at home. For women to claim public spaces, they need their partners and allies to pick up the slack in the private spaces, only then will the balance be restored.

“The labour force participation of women is lower by 0.3% as a result of the pandemic and girls are dropping out of schools where 37% from poor households in India are at risk of leaving behind their education, and more and more women are at risk of experiencing domestic abuse and gender-based violence. Others are pushed into early marriage or teenage pregnancies. 2.5 million girls globally are at risk of child marriage, India being one of the worst.”

To top it all off, the imbalance recently has further been exacerbated by the pandemic. The labour force participation of women is lower by 0.3% as a result of the pandemic and girls are dropping out of schools where 37% from poor households in India are at risk of leaving behind their education, and more and more women are at risk of experiencing domestic abuse and gender-based violence. Others are pushed into early marriage or teenage pregnancies. 2.5 million girls globally are at risk of child marriage, India being one of the worst. These are areas of work being taken up by various charities, NGOs and multilateral organisations such as the United Nations and other civil society actors. While many of us may not be able to shift these outcomes by ourselves, being part of the larger interventions and contributing is the need of the hour. In addition, there are things we can do and changes we can make within our own lives to contribute to a fight that needs our contribution. The pandemic has indeed offered us a unique opportunity, as we stay at home, to truly re-imagine our roles and contribute equally to all household chores to ensure we aren’t just advocates but practitioners of equality. 

Pranita is an international development professional, writer and activist, working with charities and not-for-profits, specialising in research and evaluation in youth development, gender and inclusion.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

Why Asexual Representation in Media Matters

Raavya Bhattacharyya

Discussing the need for greater inclusion of the asexual experience in film And television

The conversation around understanding sexuality as a spectrum has gained significant mileage in the world we live in today. The LGBTQIA+ community has spearheaded several movements to raise awareness on what it means to be queer, what it means to have a fluid sexual identity and what it means to live in a world that makes painstaking efforts to uphold heteronormativity as an ideology. Heteronormativity is a cultural belief that heterosexuality is the only acceptable sexual orientation. Examining the nuances of sexuality, especially in modern mass media, has been fruitful for many, helping people come to terms with who they are and what they identify as. Asexuality, however, is far from the spotlight when conversations revolve around sex and sexuality. 

“Asexual individuals may experience many forms of attraction, that can often be romantic, but they do not always have an intrinsic need to act on that attraction.”

How do we understand asexuality? What makes it so distinct from other sexual orientations? The Asexual Visibility and Education Network offers a comprehensive definition of asexuality – “An asexual person does not experience sexual attraction – they are not drawn to people sexually and do not desire to act upon attraction to others in a sexual way. Unlike celibacy, which is a choice to abstain from sexual activity, asexuality is an intrinsic part of who we are, just like other sexual orientations.” Asexual individuals may experience many forms of attraction, that can often be romantic, but they do not always have an intrinsic need to act on that attraction. Just because asexual people do not desire sex, it does not limit their emotional needs. Asexual individuals also seek partners for an emotional connection, a relationship that doesn’t always have to be romantic. Craving intimacy, closeness and communication are crucial in all kinds of relationships and are not limited to strictly sexual ones. Offering this distinction is key to understanding asexuality and what it means for a person to identify as asexual. 

“People believe that asexuality is not a sexuality, when in fact it is just as significant as being heterosexual, bisexual or homosexual.”

There are several myths surrounding asexuality that seek to diminish the asexual experience. People believe that asexuality is not a sexuality, when in fact it is just as significant as being heterosexual, bisexual or homosexual. Other myths include terming asexual people as “anti-sex” or believing that asexuality is an illness. Asexuality visibility is incredibly important for more asexual individuals to make sense of their experience and their sexual identity.


There’s no denying the fact that the media we consume has an indelible impact on how we see ourselves. From the time we’re children, what we watch unfold on screen contributes to our self-image and helps us make sense of who we are in relation to the world around us. This is especially why representation on-screen matters so much – it offers every kind of individual a mirror, a way of understanding themselves through another person’s experience that resembles their own. For decades, members of the LGBTQIA+ community have protested the lack of representation in film and television and how this reflects society’s belief that heteronormativity is a value that must be espoused by everyone. 

“The lack of representation of the asexual community in film and television renders them invisible and unseen.” 

Film and television are not merely forms of entertainment to be consumed and forgotten, their cascading effects have the potential to change lives and inspire a revolution. The lack of representation of the asexual community in film and television renders them invisible and unseen. An article by Psychology Today elucidates the importance of representation and its long-lasting effects on one’s identity. “When people see representations of themselves in the media, this can foster a great sense of affirmation of their identity. Feeling affirmed with one’s sense of self can boost positive feelings of self-worth, which is quite different than feeling as if you are wrong or bad for being who you are. The message that can come from a society in which LGBTQ people are invisible, especially through the lens of the media, is that “you don’t exist and you don’t matter.”

“Speaking to Bol Magazine, Shruti, a 25-year-old female, who identifies as asexual, discusses her struggles because of insufficient representation: ‘I didn’t even know there was a possibility of a person being ‘asexual’. It’s only when I started doing research based on my personal feelings and emotions that I even chanced upon the word asexuality…’.” 

Speaking to Bol Magazine, Shruti, a 25-year-old female, who identifies as asexual, discusses her struggles because of insufficient representation: “I didn’t even know there was a possibility of a person being ‘asexual’. It’s only when I started doing research based on my personal feelings and emotions that I even chanced upon the word asexuality. Previously I assumed only amoebas could be asexual and that sex was a crucial part of the human experience. In fact even in school, we learn that it is one of the most important physiological needs, according to Maslow. So yes representation would save us the trouble of having to go through the feeling of being weird, abnormal and not “human” enough.”


The erasure of the asexual experience continues to pose a problem for everyone coming to terms with their sexual identities. The tendency of mass media to project a hyper-sexualised society can make people who don’t desire sex believe that there is something intrinsically wrong with them. In film and television, sex is often seen as the ultimate form of romantic expression. When it’s not associated with romance, it’s coded as a “release” and one of the only means of “letting go” and “having a good time”. Romantic and sexual fulfilment is often the ultimate goal in mainstream visual narratives, a way to finally find your place in the world. Years of this kind of messaging has left individuals feeling inadequate when they don’t have a romantic or sexual partner in their lives. 

“For asexual people, especially, this constant bombardment of narratives that favour ‘finding a partner’ can leave them with a sense of dissonance.” 

For asexual people, especially, this constant bombardment of narratives that favour ‘finding a partner’ can leave them with a sense of dissonance. Shruti adds, “Although the Ace experience is not as difficult as other members of the LGBTQIA+ community, we do have our struggles. And just in the case of any minority group, having good representation helps instil a sense of belonging and relief that you are not the only one feeling a particular way. Sex isn’t the end of the world. Just like it’s okay for people to be gay or bi, it’s okay for some to not want sex. It’s as simple as that.” 

It’s important to note that not all asexual people are averse to sex, they simply do not have an intrinsic need for it. Some asexual people partake in sex, masturbate and are aroused but don’t actively seek a partner for sex. Other asexual people may not feel any arousal at all, both these categories exist and are equally valid experiences. Shruti continues, “I wish there were shows or movies that showed asexual acceptance and that it was possible to have a relationship and that being asexual does not mean you are “broken”. Heteronormativity is detrimental to everyone who doesn’t fall under its umbrella.”

“In recent years, one of the most memorable asexual characters has been Todd Chavez from the animated television show ‘BoJack Horseman.’ Todd’s character arc offers him the means to explore his sexuality and eventually come to terms with the fact that he’s asexual. ‘BoJack Horseman’ is sensitive in its portrayal of Todd’s asexuality and offers him the space to understand it and seek a community within which he feels welcome and represented.” 

Queer characters have a much larger representation on-screen than asexual individuals. Some of the most critically acclaimed films and television shows over the last few decades have had empathetic, authentic portrayals of gay, lesbian and transgender characters. This is not to say that the representation of the LGBTQIA+ is as widespread as it should be, but it is still significantly larger than the representation offered exclusively to asexual characters. In recent years, one of the most memorable asexual characters has been Todd Chavez from the animated television show ‘BoJack Horseman.’ Todd’s character arc offers him the means to explore his sexuality and eventually come to terms with the fact that he’s asexual. ‘BoJack Horseman’ is sensitive in its portrayal of Todd’s asexuality and offers him the space to understand it and seek a community within which he feels welcome and represented. Todd is perhaps one of the only characters in recent memory who has openly come out as ace. Characters like Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock) and Dr. Spencer Reid (Criminal Minds) have sometimes displayed characteristics of being asexual but have never openly discussed sexuality. Often characters that are open about their disinterest in sex are seen as abnormal or strange, this kind of misrepresentation is what continues to be so damaging to asexual people.

“Social media has created an important space for asexual people to form a community and authentically discuss their experiences.”

Social media has created an important space for asexual people to form a community and authentically discuss their experiences. These discussions are paving the way for the normalisation of asexuality and starting conversations on the existence of asexuality and what it means for a person to be asexual. Such normalisation is key to encouraging film, television and other forms of mass media to have a greater representation of asexual characters and craft narratives that value their experiences. Nuanced portrayals of the asexual experience are crucial for audiences to be aware of asexuality and foster empathy towards the asexual experience. Most importantly, wider representation on the screen will greatly help asexual people learn how to be comfortable in their skin and disengage with the false notion that sexual desire is intrinsic to the human experience. 

Raavya is a pop-culture nerd who lives and breathes books and cinema. An unrelenting feminist, she hopes to change regressive mindsets through the written word. This is her second article for Bol Magazine, read her article on contemporary feminism here.

Graphic by Hemashri Dhavala

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

The Clownselors

Spandana Datta

Talking to the founder of Clownselors, Sheetal Agarwal, on the impact of medical clowning and challenges of working during the Covid-19 pandemic.

May is recognised as Mental Health Awareness month. The concept of a Mental Health Awareness month came into being in 1949 in the US. It was initiated by an organisation called the Mental Health America, previously known as National Association for Mental Health. The idea is to raise awareness and educate the masses about mental illnesses and to reduce the social stigma around mental health every year in May. It aims to initiate an active dialogue about suicide and its prevention, an issue that is seldom discussed. As Glenn Close says, “What mental health needs is more sunlight, more candor, more unashamed conversation about illnesses that affect not only individuals, but their families as well.” The theme for Mental Health Awareness Month, this May is “Tools 2 Thrive”. “Tools 2 Thrive” lays out practical tools so one may effectively manage one’s mental health and increase their adaptability, irrespective of the circumstances. 

“Clownselors are a volunteer-based group that practice medical clowning. To get an insight into their work of medical clowning, what it entails and the inspiration behind it, we reached out to Sheetal Agarwal, a sociologist, a social anthropologist by training, lecturer by profession and the Founder of Clownselors.”

In India, organisations are endeavouring to not only create awareness around mental health but also actively improve people’s mental health conditions. Clownselors is one such organisation. They are a volunteer-based group that practice medical clowning. While medical clowning is a common practice in the west, it is steadily gaining popularity in India. To get an insight into their work of medical clowning, what it entails and the inspiration behind it, we reached out to Sheetal Agarwal, a sociologist, a social anthropologist by training, lecturer by profession and the Founder of Clownselors.

“Medical clowning is a therapy to aid in the healing process of patients at hospitals using dance, music, magic, drama, etc to reduce pain and anxiety.”

“Medical clowning is a therapy to aid in the healing process of patients at hospitals using dance, music, magic, drama, etc to reduce pain and anxiety”, says Agarwal. Speaking about the importance of mental health in hospitals, she explains: “The focus of hospital care is usually on improving the physical condition of the patients while overall well being is normally neglected. Mental health goes hand-in-hand with physical health, but is rarely considered. Medical clowning focuses on the overall well being of a patient. It is a distraction therapy that demystifies and humanizes the whole hospital environment for children & adults. The concept of medical clowning is that no hospital bed should deny a person his/her right to be happy. Clown doctors create an enabling and supportive environment through interactive play and humour that facilitates a patient’s adaptation to the hospital setting and improves their acceptance of medical procedures and staff. Medical clowning also helps reduce stress and fear in guardians and hospital staff.”

“It involves hospital ward visits from ‘clown doctors’ who are specially trained clowns.” 

Medical clowning aka clown care is a healthcare facility. It involves hospital ward visits from “clown doctors” who are specially trained clowns. Medical clowning is the brainchild of Patch Adams, a doctor and a clown! As a social activist, Adams believed that creativity, laughter and joy served as a catalyst in one’s healing process. He devoted forty years of his life to ameliorate the American healthcare system as he brought medical clowning into being.

Referring to its establishment as a “beautiful accident”, Agarwal talks about the inspiration behind Clownselors: “Clownselors came into being by itself, a beautiful accident. I was at a Moved By Love retreat in Ahmedabad in January 2016, where a woman named Dhara introduced herself as a medical clown. I grew up fascinated by circus clowns but heard the term ‘medical clown’ for the first time. I was intrigued so I looked it up on the Internet. I loved the concept of medical clowning and loved the idea of sharing smiles and reducing the pain of those who are suffering at hospitals. I wanted to try it myself. I contacted Dhara enquiring about medical clowning groups in Delhi but unfortunately, there were none. I was keenly interested and so, I would enquire constantly until one day, she suggested that I start medical clowning in Delhi. I said no way… I have no background in theatre and I have always been an introvert. How could I possibly start something like this?”, initially hesitant, Agarwal decided to go ahead with it.  

On how it started, Agarwal says: “Days passed but the thought of clowning stayed. One night I posted a random status update on Facebook, asking how many people would like to share smiles and give a purpose to a simple smile? I got 33 responses. I needed 15 volunteers and hospital permission to start clowning. I wrote to the Health Ministry of Delhi seeking permission to clown at a government hospital. They liked the idea and a meeting was fixed with the director, Dr Anup Mohta of Chacha Nehru Baal Chikitsalaya. He loved the idea and gave us permission. We were supposed to have a workshop that could not happen. On 9th July 2016, 5 volunteers dressed as clowns entered the hospital singing and dancing, the whole atmosphere changed. We started with OPD and covered the entire hospital spread over five floors. When we came out I could not stop smiling. I was smile hungover and so were the volunteers. Clownselors was born!”.

“Clownselors comprised merely five volunteers in the beginning. But today, the scenario looks different with Clownselors spreading smiles almost everywhere: ‘We have had 200 plus people volunteer at different clowning sessions and there are about 16-18 regular volunteers. We not only clown at hospitals but all kinds of vulnerable spaces like old age homes, orphanages, slums, refugee camps and the like. We also organize awareness campaigns using clowning as a medium. We conduct Free Hugs Campaigns, clowning workshops and sessions on stress management and team building’.”

Clownselors comprised merely five volunteers in the beginning. But today, the scenario looks different with Clownselors spreading smiles almost everywhere: “We have had 200 plus people volunteer at different clowning sessions and there are about 16-18 regular volunteers. We not only clown at hospitals but all kinds of vulnerable spaces like old age homes, orphanages, slums, refugee camps and the like. We also organize awareness campaigns using clowning as a medium. We conduct Free Hugs Campaigns, clowning workshops and sessions on stress management and team building.” 

“Although an effective practice, medical clowning can be intimidating for some, especially for those with coulrophobia. Furthermore, a ghastly portrayal of clowns in movies and books has led to a negative perception of them. Agarwal explains: ‘We respect each individual and their experiences and engage with them according to their needs.’”

Although an effective practice, medical clowning can be intimidating for some, especially for those with coulrophobia. Furthermore, a ghastly portrayal of clowns in movies and books has led to a negative perception of them. Agarwal explains: “We respect each individual and their experiences and engage with them according to their needs. If a person is scared of clowns, we try not to bother him/her but engage with people around them, which makes them comfortable, eventually.” A challenge like this can be tough to handle but the volunteers at Clownselors have managed to navigate their way around it. “When parents see their child engaged and happy after days, it immediately changes the perception of a clown in their head. We have had so many experiences where parents were initially suspicious and slightly uncomfortable too. But when their child smiled, they thanked us with tears rolling down their cheeks.” 

With the onset of a global pandemic, medical clowning groups, worldwide, were affected deeply. Like everyone else, Clownselors was hit hard. “Coronavirus disrupted all our clowning sessions”, Agarwal expresses with grief. “Since March 2020, we have hardly been able to visit hospitals as hospitals are allowing doctors and staff and not medical clowns. We have lost our projects at hospitals like Apollo.” 

“COVID-19 also gave us opportunities to spread our wings and reach every part of India through virtual sessions. We conducted sessions on mental health at universities, stress management sessions for corporate sectors, clowning workshops for children and adults and clowning sessions for children at different shelter homes.”

Though the impact was rough, her team has managed to make the most out of the situation with their virtual sessions. “COVID-19 also gave us opportunities to spread our wings and reach every part of India through virtual sessions. We conducted sessions on mental health at universities, stress management sessions for corporate sectors, clowning workshops for children and adults and clowning sessions for children at different shelter homes. We made videos and sent them to COVID-19 patients to cheer them up and their families. We also made videos on the importance of self-love and self hugs and making mundane tasks fun during the lockdown. We also conducted clowning sessions at migrant shelters during the last lockdown. This April, we were invited by the government of Meghalaya to conduct clowning at various hospitals in Shillong. We even clowned at a Covid ward at NEIGRIHMS Hospital, Shillong.” 

“People are quite receptive to mental health awareness especially once they experience a shift. When a simple act of smiling or laughing reduces the anxiety levels or when a child is not eating and starts eating after engaging with a clown, it changes the perception of the guardians.” 

Globally, it is the youth who have taken an initiative to create and engage in a dialogue about mental health awareness. But are most people receptive to their ideas? “People are quite receptive to mental health awareness especially once they experience a shift. When a simple act of smiling or laughing reduces the anxiety levels or when a child is not eating and starts eating after engaging with a clown, it changes the perception of the guardians.” But are the elderly equally receptive? Agarwal confirms, “At old age homes, the receptivity is higher as they crave human interaction and feel so much better after playing with the clowns. After a clowning session at an old age home, an old lady told us that it was the first time in her life that she had laughed so much and felt absolutely elated!”. 

“Even in 2021, the stigma around mental health is massive. It is this social stigma that prevents people with mental health issues from getting help, which in turn, makes their issues even worse. As individuals, we can grasp and discuss the gravity of good mental health. But as a society, do we practice what we preach? ‘Unfortunately, people are not aware of mental health. The stigma attached with mental health is real’, says Agarwal.”

Even in 2021, the stigma around mental health is massive. It is this social stigma that prevents people with mental health issues from getting help, which in turn, makes their issues even worse. As individuals, we can grasp and discuss the gravity of good mental health. But as a society, do we practice what we preach? “Unfortunately, people are not aware of mental health. The stigma attached with mental health is real”, says Agarwal. However, there is a shift in perception when patients respond positively to medical clowning. “We have heard doctors, patients, guardians say there is no point of this therapy, and medicines will do the work. But when they see the impact they believe in the power of such therapies and also how physical and mental health are interrelated.”

No endeavour comes without its challenges and for Sheetal Agarwal, a couple of challenges are inevitable, even today: “Since Clownselors is a volunteer-based group, one of the challenges we face is the availability of volunteers. Secondly, hospitals like the idea but are not willing to pay so sustainability is always a challenge.” 

Although Clownselors is a fairly recent initiative, they believe they possess the “zeal to heal” people. With their mission to improve the overall well-being of people, Agarwal says anyone can volunteer with them. “People can volunteer with us by registering on our website. People can help spread awareness about our work through social media and help us get connected with hospital authorities. People may also contribute and donate to our organisation.”

Although Clownselors is a fairly recent initiative, they believe they possess the “zeal to heal” people. With their mission to improve the overall well-being of people, Agarwal says anyone can volunteer with them. “People can volunteer with us by registering on our website. People can help spread awareness about our work through social media and help us get connected with hospital authorities. People may also contribute and donate to our organisation.”

With medical clowning causing ripples of positive change worldwide, more and more countries globally are considering it as a complementary approach, along with medical treatment. Clown doctors have infused hospital corridors with laughter and positivity, leading to an improvement in the health of most terminally – ill patients. Maybe laughter, truly, is the best medicine. 

Spandana is an English Literature graduate who loves writing and aspires to rebel against prevailing conventions, one day at a time. She is a Staff writer at Bol Magazine.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

In Conversation with Anjali Dalmia: A Young Climate Warrior

Vinay Agrawal

Discussing all things environment with Anjali DalmiA, Yugma Network, PLANT project, issues with EIA 2020 and how she views sustainability.

Climate change is one of the most pressing concerns today. It is a concern we cannot and should not ignore. It is a concern that deserves a priority on the list of agendas, not just at an institutional level, but on an individual level too. If you’re still scouting for a fitting new-year resolution, climate activism is one to consider. Make it a life-long commitment, and be an environmental crusader. 

“Anjali Dalmia is an inspirational climate warrior. She has resolved to fight for climate justice throughout her earth years. She is the co-founder of Yugma Network – a pan Indian initiative that works towards achieving ground-level environmental justice by broadening and contextualizing the discourse through local languages.”

Anjali Dalmia is an inspirational climate warrior. She has resolved to fight for climate justice throughout her earth years. She is the co-founder of Yugma Network – a pan Indian initiative that works towards achieving ground-level environmental justice by broadening and contextualizing the discourse through local languages. Committed to the cause, she eats, breathes and speaks environment. She was one of the force du jour in leading a national-level student movement in response to the problematic Draft EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) 2020 through the Yugma network. 

Yugma Network now runs a language society with more than 70 students, an environmental justice clinic working on legal avenues, and a narratives and education program to build a space for youth from non-English backgrounds to further the discourse. 

Besides that, Dalmia also works closely with SAPACC Maharashtra (South Asian People’s Action on Climate Crises) where she is involved in reviewing the water section of Maharashtra State Adaptation Action Plan on Climate Change. She is also an Indian delegate at the international Mock COP26. 

Where do you see yourself in 2021? Any climate-specific goals?

In 2021, I would like to spend time understanding and experiencing realities at a ground level. I would say that the pandemic has ironically, helped me connect a lot more to the world and the political and environmental situation in India. However, I often feel I am speaking from an extremely sheltered point of view. Hence, I want to travel and understand what environmental justice truly means to different people in India. 

Additionally, I would like to start some research on urban centres and environmental solutions, delve deeper into environmental education in schools, spend some time to understand environmental laws in India, and further the PLANT project. I would also like to collaborate with people working in the alternate space and explore different forms of local governance and policy-making.

Since you mentioned PLANT: People’s Living Archive of Native Trees, how did it come to life? Are you following any checklist for documentation?

“The goal is to create a repository of cultural and social narratives around Indian indigenous plants through a living archive method while also detailing their uses and distribution.”

PLANT started as a project for the Millennium Fellowship of 2020, in which Sowmya Vaidyanathan and I were fellows. The goal is to create a repository of cultural and social narratives around Indian indigenous plants through a living archive method while also detailing their uses and distribution. 

The research for the project will be aided by eminent conservationists, activists, and academics. As of now, the project is in its early stages and hence we are looking at our communities to begin collecting stories. We don’t have criteria as such, however, we are focusing on exploring religious, social, caste and class angles to stories of plants. Our first few stories are mostly based in Mysuru. 

Can you share a few interesting knowledge paradigms you might have had come across during documenting PLANT?

An interesting plant story we came across was the way we, as environmentalists and urban dwellers, see the Lantana plant as an invasive species. However, for the locals, the Lantana was an essential medicinal plant they had deeply incorporated into their tradition. 

How can the inclusion of local languages & dialects broaden the discourse of environmental activism? 

“In India, any movement based solely through English automatically becomes an elitist movement as it is only accessible to those who have learnt English in school.”

Language is a very powerful tool that not only helps in communication but also has a sense of identity and belonging attached to it. Many of us feel very proud to speak and hear our mother tongue, even when we can’t understand it. In India, any movement based solely through English automatically becomes an elitist movement as it is only accessible to those who have learnt English in school. 

But even then, many people who do speak English don’t connect to it at a deeper level like they would in their native language. Therefore, if an environmental movement aiming for social justice is only in English, it prevents the flow of information from environmentalists and authorities to a grassroots level, and also prevents those who are most affected from speaking for themselves. This often leads to a very homogenous and top-down movement. 

“Broadening the movement to include official state languages is a one-step better approach”

Broadening the movement to include official state languages is a one-step better approach, and it would be very important not to only have Hindi in a country as diverse as India, to help the movement spread across many more people who can then make decisions for themselves and make the movement their own by connecting it to their daily struggles. 

On that note, I’d like to ask you what dissent means to you?

I believe ‘dissent’ is an extremely essential tool today considering the way our society is structured. In an ideal situation wherein people are in power at the local level and large scale, dissent could be seen as a difference in opinions. 

Unfortunately in India, there are very few avenues for citizens to comment on and influence policy-making constructively. Most of our laws have been heavily top-down and there has been very little room for citizens especially youth to raise concerns and suggest alternatives. 

“dissent has played a key role whether it is physical protests (farmer protests or CAA/NRC) or online (EIA 2020). Dissent, therefore to me, represents the voices of the marginalized and most affected, who are rarely involved in the decision-making process.”

In such a situation, dissent has played a key role whether it is physical protests (farmer protests or CAA/NRC) or online (EIA 2020). Dissent, therefore to me, represents the voices of the marginalized and most affected, who are rarely involved in the decision-making process.

Speaking of draft EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) 2020, what are its key shortcomings and potential solutions to those? 

The EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) is a tool used by authorities to assess the impact of any developmental project on the environment, people, economy and infrastructure of an area before the project commences. It is also a public tool that allows people to voice their concerns and opinions. In India, a new draft of the EIA was released in March 2020. It severely diluted many requirements. Many projects classified as B2 projects (but still extremely destructive despite their small size) along with all defence and strategic projects as defined by the central government have been exempted from public consultation. 

Post-Facto clearance (which means that the project can begin by clearing and levelling land) has also been allowed for many projects, which has even been declared as environmentally destructive by the Supreme Court. Time for public consultation has been reduced to just 20 days, which means the public will only have 20 days to review the EIA report and give feedback amidst the pandemic, poor internet, and non-native languages; this is highly unconstitutional.

“EIA 2020 has also reduced the frequency with which industries need to submit environmental reports from twice to once a year. Many environmental clearance durations have been increased e.g. for river valley projects, a clearance that earlier had to be reviewed every 10 years now can be reviewed every 15 years. They are designed to help business and industries rather than to act as a tool for environmental conservation and justice.”

EIA 2020 has also reduced the frequency with which industries need to submit environmental reports from twice to once a year. Many environmental clearance durations have been increased e.g. for river valley projects, a clearance that earlier had to be reviewed every 10 years now can be reviewed every 15 years. They are designed to help business and industries rather than to act as a tool for environmental conservation and justice. It will lead to the exploitation of many marginalized communities and result in the mass approval of severely destructive projects.

In terms of solutions, I would say that the framework of the EIA itself is largely flawed. It has been criticized by many experts for creating a dualism between development and the environment. Additionally, since it is not a proper Act in the constitution, it is very easy to manipulate as it happened with the EIA 2020. Hence, we need a new framework based on public consent. If possible, the public should be given more decision making power. I would say that the entire EIA 2020 needs to be withdrawn and a new draft should be prepared. 

As someone who has designed and been a part of many tweetstorms, what is the right way to “tweet-storm” and what is a big “no-no”?

Usually sharing hashtags before the scheduled time is a big no. A successful tweetstorm from my experience should have a well-written tweetbank with tweets that include all the decided hashtags (usually 2-3 hashtags are perfect) along with tags of the relevant authorities. If the tweetbank has clickable links and images also, even better. This is usually circulated an hour or so before the tweetstorm. Having one WhatsApp group with all the dedicated tweeters helps. Retweeting is also extremely important.

How do you practice sustainability on a personal level?

To me, sustainability is definitely about the choices we make as a consumer. But it is also the mindset with which we approach our surroundings and society. As a consumer, I try as much as possible to live a zero-waste lifestyle. This means using a menstrual cup, natural soap and shampoo bars wrapped in paper, bamboo toothbrush, reuse and buying/borrowing second-hand clothes, using public transport like bus and trains over cars and flights, carrying my cutlery and tiffin while travelling, segregating my waste at home, and using biogas for cooking. 

Additionally, I am part of a wonderful initiative called “Pune Freecycle”, a WhatsApp group where people can give and take items based on goodwill. In terms of the mindset, I feel sustainability means interacting with people around me – talking to the akkas who clean the roads in the morning, having a conversation with the bhaiya running the corner grocery store, noticing individual trees near my house and sending and receiving positive energy, slowly walking around the neighbourhood. All of these are also forms of sustainability to me because they help me slow down and connect to my surroundings. 

Climate change is a reality we cannot afford to ignore. To safeguard the planet from any further degradation, each of us has to become a warrior in our own right. Our collective actions will determine the climate of the future. 

If we want to improve the standard of life, mitigate impending climatic disasters and preserve the planet for posterity, it is time to lead, make changes for the larger good and act accordingly and sustainably so. The time is now before it is too late.  Each one of us can be a climate crusader like Anjali Dalmia and can start young or old. 

An introvert by nature, Vinay believes in the strength and the beauty of vulnerability. He likes to read about arts & culture and has worked full-time as a features writer, and has contributed for various publications. Vinay is a staff writer at Bol Magazine.

Design by Hemashri Dhavala

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

Women Social Reformers You Should Know About

Priya Jayakumar

Remembering India’s inspirational social reformers

Annai Meenambal

Annai Meenambal was born into a Dalit family in Tamil Nadu and migrated to Rangoon (Myanmar) to escape the brutalities of caste system. Her grandfather and father were great Dalit leaders who were part of Adi-dravida movements. She was the first Scheduled Caste woman President of Scheduled Caste Federation (SCF) founded by Dr. Ambedkar. She presided over two major SCF conferences in Madras and Bombay in the 1940s. Her major achievements include being the first Scheduled Caste woman to become a member of Madras Corporation representing Madras University senate and Deputy Mayor of Chennai Corporation, honorary magistrate for Madras Province and Director of Scheduled Castes Cooperative Bank. She was the one who gave E.V. Ramasamy the title “Periyar”(the great one) and was one of the radical feminist leaders of Self-Respect movement. She worked for the welfare of Dalit-Bahujans till the age of 80. 

Hemalatha Lavanam

Dr. Hemalatha Lavanam was the daughter of a renown Dalit Telugu poet Gurram Joshua. Since childhood she faced the rigours of caste and untouchability. The Jogini system is a social evil in which the so-called untouchable girls of the villages in Telangana are dedicated to the deities Ellamma and Potamma. The children are regarded as village property and any man from that village has the right to sexually exploit these children. Dr. Hemalatha worked for the eradication of this religious custom and rehabilitation of children. Dr. Hemalatha, along with Vinoba Bhave and Jayprakash Narayan, worked for the rehabilitation of criminal tribes in Chambal Valley. She also was in the forefront of various disaster reliefs and rehabilitations. She led a Unity March on foot for 1400 kilometers in 70 days, raising concern and voice against the caste violence that occurred condemning the murder of a Congress(I) MLA in coastal Andhra Pradesh in 1989.  Dr. Hemalatha’s commitment for the poor and downtrodden made her receive a number of awards. She was a well-known writer and poet and published a number of books. 

Dr. V. Shantha

Dr. Shantha was an oncologist and the chairperson of Adyar Cancer Institute, Chennai. In her medical career spanning over 60 years, she dedicated herself on organising care of cancer patients, study of the disease, its prevention and control, creation of specialists and scientists in different aspects of oncologic sciences. She played a key role in the development of the institute from a cottage hospital which initially had 12 beds to a comprehensive one. She started affordable and quality cancer treatment in India treating 60% of the patients free of cost or at heavily subsidised rates. She was the first to initiate a paediatric oncology clinic, first to establish a cancer research and treatment centre in India, first to offer postgraduate in oncology course, oversaw the opening of the first hereditary cancer clinic in India and also conducted one of the first major cancer surveys in India. She  received various prestigious awards including Magsaysay award, Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan.

Mandhakini Amte

Dr. Mandhakini Amte dedicated her life to serving the Madia-Gond tribal community in the forest of Gadchiroli district, Maharashtra. She left her job as a lecturer in a medical college and settled with the tribal people in a hut along with her husband, Prakash Amte. She renounced her sophisticated life and committed herself to social work. There were no roads, electricity and water and she had to harvest paddy and vegetables for food. The Madia-Gonds feared civilized people and faced difficulties connecting with them. Slowly she won the trust of the people by providing treatment and medication to their ailments. There were no facilities and there were limitations in terms of instruments, infrastructure and medicine. She along with her husband started a project called the Lok Biradari Prakalp (The People’s Brotherhood) for the integrated development of Madia-Gond which now has a fully-fledged 40 bed hospital that caters to over 40000 patients annually and a residential school from 1st to 12th standard giving free education to nearly 650 tribal children. She is a recipient of the prestigious Magsaysay award.

Fatima Sheikh

Fatima Sheikh was the first woman Muslim teacher in India. When Jyotirao and Savitribai Phule were asked to vacate their ancestral home by Jyotirao’s father due to their reform, it was Fatima Sheikh who opened her doors for them and it was at the same building she joined hands with Savitribai to establish the first school for girls in India called “Indigenous Library” in 1848. She not only faced challenges from the Hindus for educating girls and the untouchables, but also from the orthodox Muslims as both the groups were against the idea of access to equal education. They pelted stones and cow dung at Fatima and Savitribai on the streets. But it did not stop the women from their contribution. Fatima Sheikh went from door to door encouraging families to send their daughters to school. She used to give counselling for hours to the parents who did not agree to send their daughters to school. Today’s women owe Fatima Sheikh for their right to education. 

Mahasweta Devi

Mahasweta Devi was a Bengali writer and an activist who fought for the rights of the downtrodden and tribal communities across India. Her literary works expressed concern on the landless labourers, tribes like the Santhals, Mundas and Lodhas, beggars and Maoist rebels. She lived in the Adivasi villages, befriended and studied their lives. She edited a Bengali quarterly – Borika, which stood as an embodiment of the voiceless. She wrote only on the marginalized communities and they were the protagonists in her novels. Even her fictional works contain socio-political messages. One of her most famous books is Aranyer Adhikar (Right to the forest) based on the life of the young tribal freedom fighter Birsa Munda. She also voiced against the Industrial policy of CPI(M) government of West Bengal. Speaking about her inspirations, “the reason and inspiration for my writings are those people who are exploited and used, yet do not accept defeat. Why should I look for my raw materials elsewhere, once I have started knowing them?”. She was honoured with various literary awards along with Magsaysay award, Padma Shri and Padma Vibhushan.

Mangaltai Kamble

Mangaltai Kamble was a landless Dalit woman working as a farm labourer in the farms of upper caste landlords. The Dalit in her village were treated as untouchables and they survived on the leftover food of villagers. She decided to cultivate but she had no lands. So she took control of village grazing land for farming. The villagers laughed at her for deciding to cultivate on a barren land and taunted her that she had gone mad. During that time many farmers killed themselves due to frequent droughts that led to crop failures. But Mangaltai stood strong on her decision and requested her husband to help. Fearing the upper caste villagers, he refused. So she took the help of her neighbour Sunanda Kamble and the women took control of about two acres of grazing land each. There was no money, water or resources for cultivation. They even encouraged other women to take control of the lands and formed Self-Help Groups. During monsoon, they relied on food grin and vegetable seed varieties that grow on less water. As the landless Dalits turned into cultivators, the upper caste villagers and leaders turned furious, destroyed the crops and even used police force to throw the cultivators out of the land. This did not stop her and she continued to struggle cultivating just to make-ends-meet. 

Dakshayani Velayuthan

Dakshayani Velayuthan was the youngest and the only Dalit woman among the 389 members of Indian Constituent Assembly comprising of 15 women. She was from the Pulayar community and she was the first woman to wear an upper cloth and was the first woman in her community to earn a degree. She was also the first Dalit woman graduate in India. She was the only girl student in science subjects in her college. Her upper caste teacher did not show her any experiments in Chemistry. She learnt by looking from a distance and graduated with a high position in class. She taught in an Ezhava-dominated high school and there were various instances where she was discriminated against. She called for proportionate reservation of Dalits in panchayat and municipality. Dakshayani said as long as untouchability remained, the word “Harijan” was meaningless, like calling dogs as “Napoleon”. She spoke against the centralization of power in the Constitution and wanted decentralization. She argued in favour of Article 17 of the Constitution that makes untouchability a crime by law. After serving as a member of the Constituent Assembly, she retired from politics and worked for underprivileged groups. Later, she organized a forum for Ambedkarite women called “Mahila Jagriti Parishad” in Delhi and worked with the slum dwellers.

Priya is currently pursuing a Masters in Social Work from University of Delhi. She is an Ambedkarite and an intersectional feminist. 

Design by Hemashri Dhavala

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

Is Thrifting The Fashion Revolution We Need?

Reayana

Why thrifting through Instagram stores is not the solution for India’s growing fast-fashion industry.

Hassan Minhaj’s “Patriot Act” episode on fast fashion highlighted the evils of fast fashion and the 2015 documentary The True Cost by  Andrew Morgan popularised the idea about the ethics of fast fashion. While Minhaj touches upon the ecological and ethical impacts that fashion has on our planet and us, mainly the brands  Zara and H&M, my critique of the episode is that although Minhaj spoke of the statistics of an American shopper, the episode mostly revolved around two non-American brands – Zara and H&M which are Spanish and Swedish respectively. In fact, the fashion industry has many bigger, richer and more influential conglomerates. Barring H&M, Zara and Uniqlo almost all other brands that contribute to fast fashion-esque problems such as Victoria’s Secret and Nike are American. 

“thrift stores are a tailored solution to a problem of large amounts of consumption and imports and that problem does not persist in India at the same scale it does in the US. Each Indian buys an average of 5 clothes per year, Americans consume 10 times more than Indians do.”

Simply put, Americans shop the most. China and America combined account for more than half of the clothes consumed in a year (39% and 16% respectively). Although China contributes the most numbers in this sector, if you factor in the populations of the two countries, Americans individually consume more. Americans buy 53 items of clothing per year while the Chinese buy 30. One solution to the American problem of hyper-consumption and a commodity-centric culture that is induced by late capitalism is thrifting. Put in context, thrift stores are a tailored solution to a problem of large amounts of consumption and imports and that problem does not persist in India at the same scale it does in the US. Each Indian buys an average of 5 clothes per year, Americans consume 10 times more than Indians do.

The Instagram thrift store phenomenon as of itself is innocuous, it reminds people to be mindful while consuming and also extends the life span of clothing, but if it is to become a cultural phenomenon I see it as an unnecessary imitation and injection of a piece of pop culture divorced from ground realities. In recent times there has been a proliferation of Instagram thrift shops in India. These pages are predominantly run by young women with the intention to promote slow fashion i.e. an eco-conscious way of consuming fashion. The collections usually consist of pre-owned clothes that an individual has owned, or sourced from vendors to set up a selected collection that may follow an aesthetic theme or are vintage. The clients are looking for alternatives to fast fashion and trying their best to consume fashion in a more cyclical way than linear. 

“Joshi is a big advocate for Instagram thrift shops and says that it ‘normalises the idea of not purchasing brand new to survive’. She also spoke about the social stigma attached to second-hand clothes that thrift shops help erase: ‘Many people are grossed out by second-hand clothes, they think it is unhygienic’.” 

Mrudula Joshi is a fashion design graduate from NIFT Mumbai and has worked in the Indian fashion industry for two years. She is a social entrepreneur and the founder of Ullisu, a sustainable lifestyle resources website. Speaking to me about her experience, she explains: “We were encouraged to find the lowest deals with factory vendors”. Joshi is a big advocate for Instagram thrift shops and says that it “normalises the idea of not purchasing brand new to survive”. She also spoke about the social stigma attached to second-hand clothes that thrift shops help erase: “Many people are grossed out by second-hand clothes, they think it is unhygienic”. She believes that there are many people outside the Instagram bubble of woke-ness that do not know why second-hand is trending and who need to be informed. The critique Joshi has of thrift shops is different from mine: “Currently thrift shops are not size-inclusive and more people need to join the movement for it to be”. 

“Jain explains: ‘I think online thrift stores are super because they’re so accessible to everyone…As we don’t have actual thrift stores in India it’s a lovely new experience…thrifting is the opposite of accessibility for me. It’s more about finding hidden thrift stores, going through a whole bunch of clothing and procuring unique pieces no one has seen before. That element is missing in the online experience.”

Surmai Jain is the founder of Polite Society, self-described as “a non-conformist power dressing” brand, Polite Society is one of the new fashion brands on the block. When asked about navigating through the fashion industry and the slow fashion phenomenon, she explains: “Thrifting has been around for years, and brands have managed to exist. Old can’t replace the new and vice versa so it doesn’t affect us that much”. When asked about her employees she says: “All of our workers have worked in export houses or mass production units before. It is a very different experience and a difficult transition for them. We might make only two garments a day but we don’t overlook the errors that are usually ignored in fast fashion garments. It takes them time to understand our values of quality over quantity.” On the thrift store phenomenon Jain explains: “I think online thrift stores are super because they’re so accessible to everyone, people who haven’t thrifted before are now discovering how it adds a unique value to one’s style. As we don’t have actual thrift stores in India it’s a lovely new experience. That being said, thrifting is the opposite of accessibility for me. It’s more about finding hidden thrift stores, going through a whole bunch of clothing and procuring unique pieces no one has seen before. That element is missing in the online experience.”

“India has a pre-existing robust system of informal markets. Formal retail accounts for only 35% of sales.”

India has a pre-existing robust system of informal markets. Formal retail accounts for only 35% of sales. The unorganised or informal markets, where most of the consumption is taking place consists of private commercial enterprises not registered with the government, which typically consists of self-employed individuals. By that definition, thrift shops are in a way gentrified informal markets. 

According to chief procurement officers (CPOs) at leading apparel companies, Bangladesh, Vietnam and India are at the top of the list for sourcing markets in future. India is on the top of that list for mainly two reasons. Firstly, India makes for a great hub for clothing manufacturing because of the easy availability of raw materials such as cotton, wool, silk and jute. Cash crops that are dedicated to serving the global apparel retail market are grown in abundance and 76% of farmers want to quit farming to pursue non-agricultural jobs. Secondly, because of the low labour costs that exist, if you compare the Gini coefficient (a ratio that represents income inequality in a nation or select group) among the top three countries on the CPOs list, India does the worst. Moreover, when it comes to minimum wages it does not look good either, Vietnam’s is higher and albeit Bangladesh has a lower minimum wage, India’s minimum wage systems are way more complex because the wages vary from state to state, based on skill and in many cases also vary based on sex. 

CPOs are always looking for new countries in Eastern Europe and Africa to set up shop in, for its proximity to the global west which will reduce transportation costs, they also are looking to replace offshore sourcing countries like China for countries like Mexico because of the formers rise in factory worker wages. A total of 41% of chief procurement officers expect to increase their sourcing share from India and the reasons for their interest and keenness in India do not seem altruistic.

“As we live in a world where the prowess of imagery is highly rewarding, the malleability of social media is not a factor to ignore. To participate in Instagram thrifting is extremely alluring for the factor of visuality, it looks good and feels good and although thrift shops do no harm, they do no substantial good either.”

As we live in a world where the prowess of imagery is highly rewarding, the malleability of social media is not a factor to ignore. To participate in Instagram thrifting is extremely alluring for the factor of visuality, it looks good and feels good and although thrift shops do no harm, they do no substantial good either. Not to discredit well-meaning endeavours that aim to democratise the fashion experience but if they are alienated from local consumption patterns, they end up just being emblematic and an insertion of the aspirational upper-middle-class into a scenario that could have happened without them. Indian thrift shops on Instagram feature expensive pieces and predominantly serve the middle class/upper-middle class with access to social media, whereas fundamentally, thrift shops are meant to serve the working class. 

The need for conversation around the issue of fashion’s impact on the working class and the environment are dire. India is leading the charts when it comes to population and has a growing middle class and thrift shops cannot serve these potential consumers/clients who want to consume new brands. A fashion revolution that forces big conglomerates to take into consideration their ecological footprint and take care of their factory workers is urgently needed. 

“In the postcolonial world, we live in today, where western cultural hegemony thrivingly prevails, reactions to environmental and socio-economical problems have to mutate with location change. Conversations need to be around lax FDI regulations that allow 100% foreign-owned single-brand retail operations, the impact of cash crops on the water table, the agrarian crisis and labour wages.” 

However, the conversations and actions are almost benign if not contextualised. In the postcolonial world, we live in today, where western cultural hegemony thrivingly prevails, reactions to environmental and socio-economical problems have to mutate with location change. Conversations need to be around lax FDI regulations that allow 100% foreign-owned single-brand retail operations, the impact of cash crops on the water table, the agrarian crisis and labour wages. 

“What India needs are pre-emptive measures, to stop the growth of the fashion market, to understand the growing middle class and their consumption patterns and their needs, to take responsibility for the workers and to understand which cultural movements to adopt from the west and which ones to discard.”

Thrift shops are a reaction to the consumption patterns of the west, it is a way of redemption, a way of curbing the damage done by the fashion industry. What India needs are pre-emptive measures, to stop the growth of the fashion market, to understand the growing middle class and their consumption patterns and their needs, to take responsibility for the workers and to understand which cultural movements to adopt from the west and which ones to discard. 

Reayana is an architecture graduate from Mumbai with a keen interest in cultural imperialism, urbanity and animal anatomy.

Design by Hemashri Dhavala

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

The Psyche of an Artist

Manashri Pai Dukle

An insight into the relationship of women artists with the work they create and their life

Content warning: rape, violence against women

Art is a powerful instrument for understanding the psyche of an artist, their psychological state, behavioural tendencies, thinking patterns, and personality traits that drive them to create. Art and life of an artist are interdependent. Reading into a work of art is as complex as creating it and it’s an open-ended phenomenon on either side of the process. What makes an artist include their psychological wellbeing/state and experiences that have an impact on how they perceive, analyse, process and deliver their work through different mediums and means? Every work of art can be decoded and studied with respect to its content and its background (referring to the process of its creation). Art is the reflection of the artist’s mind and psyche. 

Since the “soul” or the “mind” are concepts and not physical structures, Psychology considers studying behavior to observe and interpret the mind. It attempts to understand the objective behavior of living beings, scientifically, in relation to their environment and evaluates the reasons and causes of these behavioral patterns. It investigates mental processes through scientific findings. Art, on the contrary, is a catharsis of these mental activities. The major link between art and psychology is creativity, which binds the two disciplines together. 

“When you look at some of our species greatest creative achievements, you will often find a touch of eccentricity to it.”

The “artist” has been a recurring character in fiction and real life. Artists are perceived in a certain way and defined with a preset definition by society. Countless painters, composers, writers and musicians have suffered from depression, bipolar disorders, schizophrenia and other mental health issues. When you look at some of our species greatest creative achievements, you will often find a touch of eccentricity to it. Perhaps it’s not surprising that neuroscience has discovered that highly creative people’s brains are wired differently. Our culture often portrays artists as eccentric. An artist is considered far more likely to be an aberration than someone working in any other profession. Researchers refer to this as the “eccentricity effect.”  Two such artists are Frida Kahlo and Amrita Shergil, whose work was a result of the conflict in their mind and their traumatic life experiences.

“Art created by women is often more personal and emotionally purging with a sense of ‘feminine catharsis’, where the art conveys much more than what the artist tends to say.”

The creative merit of an artwork is often judged based on how viewers perceive the artist. Art is about accessing the deepest, most raw parts of yourself and challenging the audience. Perhaps more than any other profession, the act of creation brings artists closer to their subconscious. Statistics have shown that women are more likely (than men) to develop mental health conditions. Art created by women is often more personal and emotionally purging with a sense of “feminine catharsis”, where the art conveys much more than what the artist tends to say. Focusing on women artists, we can decode a pattern of relationships they have with the kind of work they create and their life story. 

Here are a few artists and a brief outline of their work: 

“Amrita Shergil’s persona, both as an artist of enduring repute and a woman of colourful escapades, continues to intrigue people several decades after her inexplicable death in 1941 at the age of 29.”

Amrita Shergil’s persona, both as an artist of enduring repute and a woman of colourful escapades, continues to intrigue people several decades after her inexplicable death in 1941 at the age of 29. Her multidimensional and iconic personality is reflected in her self portraits. Her vulnerability also shines through her position of being caught between a cold and conventional father and a deranged mother. She takes refuge in an artistic vision remarkable for its compassionate world view. Outspoken, contemptuous and critical of people she disagreed with, she was not only a prolific painter but also a magician with words. She proclaimed that “Although I studied, I have never been taught painting because I possess in my psychological makeup a peculiarity that resents any outside interference…”. 

Bharti Kher, another brilliant artist, focuses on creating art that reflects her own nomadic life. She was born and brought up in England, but in the early 1990’s she moved to New Delhi. She utilises the readily available “Bindi” which signifies “the third eye” worn on the forehead by the Indian women as a symbol of her identity. The “Bindi” plays the role of a basic building block for her masterpieces. She is also an expert in creating wild and eccentric resin-cast sculptures embroidered with Bindis, where her hunt for identity is prominent.

“Nalini Malani belongs to a group of artists who earned prominent name and fame internationally in the 1980s. Being a social activist, Malani’s work is based on the stories we have generally been ignorant about.”

Hema Upadhyay, took gigantic steps to establish herself among the spectacular women artists of India. She tried to reflect on her phobias, shortcomings and other real or imaginative tales through her paintings. She stated that her work was cathartic in the process. From 2001 till her death in  2015, she captivated the thoughts of art lovers with her magnificent works gaining her both appreciation as well as criticism from her viewers. Nalini Malani belongs to a group of artists who earned prominent name and fame internationally in the 1980s. Being a social activist, Malani’s work is based on the stories we have generally been ignorant about. She brought grave issues of race, class and gender in the limelight through her creations portraying her mind disputes in a visual and concrete form. 

Artist Rina Banerjee, inspired by “prakriti” (nature), constantly kept portraying the cycle of nature and the oscillations between constructing and prostrating movements of birth, death and rebirth. To depict the ephemerality of the objects which we chase, for example, she uses small glass bottles and shells to depict mobility, fluidity and a sense of guarded-home respectively in her work. 

“Arpita Singh with her enlarged visual horizon uses pink and blue that dominate her palette. Her paintings depict a wide range of emotions – from sorrow to joy and from suffering to hope.”

Celebration of humanism and intense curiosity to break the shackle of routine work, constitute the distinct features of Meera Mukherjee’s works. Arpita Singh with her enlarged visual horizon uses pink and blue that dominate her palette. Her paintings depict a wide range of emotions – from sorrow to joy and from suffering to hope. The story of her life is reflected in her works.

Anjolie Ela Menon’s paintings are easily identifiable by their bright colours and sharp outlines. Her work has constantly fluctuated over the years, from erotic to melancholy. Her work can’t be categorised in a  single genre, which inspires her to explore new territories to work with.  Every woman artist’s or for that matter every artist’s work is a reflection of their mind, life and persona. 

“Artemisia Gentileschi, a prominent artist, specialized in depicting strong and suffering women from myths, allegories and the Bible. A rape survivor, her work, shows her rage against men.”

Internationally, Artemisia Gentileschi, a prominent artist, specialized in depicting strong and suffering women from myths, allegories and the Bible. A rape survivor, her work, shows her rage against men. She was raped by her father’s colleague when she was 17 and throughout her career as an artist, she portrayed herself as a rebel.

“Georgia O’Keeffe is famous for her dramatically large, sensual close-up of flowers which essentially made them into abstract works. Her flower images were often accepted as interpretations that she disagreed with, particularly from feminist critics who perceived these paintings as a veiled illusion of female genitalia.”

Georgia O’Keeffe is famous for her dramatically large, sensual close-up of flowers which essentially made them into abstract works. Her flower images were often accepted as interpretations that she disagreed with, particularly from feminist critics who perceived these paintings as a veiled illusion of female genitalia. O’Keeffe was highly significant in influencing the gender balance in the artistic scene. She had a tragic life and suffered from clinical depression. Her story is characterised by suffering, professional and emotional setbacks, and by good fortune and the wisdom to take advantage of it. Though she was not thrilled with the truth of her own story and took pains to disguise her past through her work. 

“Frida Kahlo began painting during her medical treatment and she ultimately gave up her career in medicine to become an artist. Kahlo is famous for her self-portraits which often incorporate symbolic portrayals of physical and psychological wounds.”

Frida Kahlo is an artist with the most tragic life story that reflects through her art. Due to the grave injuries she suffered in an accident, Frida had to undergo 35 operations in her life, bear with relapses of extreme pain and could not have children. Kahlo began painting during her medical treatment and she ultimately gave up her career in medicine to become an artist. Kahlo is famous for her self-portraits which often incorporate symbolic portrayals of physical and psychological wounds. She said, “I paint myself  because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.” She is undoubtedly one of the most famous modern artists and perhaps the most renowned female painter. She also remains a staunch feminist icon for generations of women. 

“Tracey Emin, a British artist, has explored a wide variety of media and her art is known for being autobiographical and confessional. Her best-known works include ‘Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995’,”

Tracey Emin, a British artist, has explored a wide variety of media and her art is known for being autobiographical and confessional. Her best-known works include “Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995”, a tent appliquéd with the names of everyone she had ever shared a bed with; and “My Bed”, a  ready-made installation consisting of her own unmade dirty bed while she was going through a period of severe depression. Her works are unconventional and convey a strong, fearless personality and attitude.

There are many other artists who are recognised for their work, the way of working, why they work the way they do and their identity or appearance, to the viewers and critics. Through the analysis of their life, mind and work relation, we can define art as a quest of the creative mind to find answers to one’s own life experiences and the invisible mind, through the visible-visual. Art and Psychology are disciplines that are connected by creativity and creative minds. 

“As an artist, I have always been curious to dwell deeper into the driving forces of what I create. My mind, how the process is wired and the relation between my personality, behavioral tendencies and my work.”

As an artist, I have always been curious to dwell deeper into the driving forces of what I create. My mind, how the process is wired and the relation between my personality, behavioral tendencies and my work. The references or the conflicts that the two entities share. When I tried to read into the relationship or the trichotomy between the mind, art, and creativity I observed a pattern of this relationship in every individual artist’s life and the work. However, the effects and reasons had a slight difference for women artists. I further tried to read deeper into this. Most women artists have been using art as a strong medium of communication to pour out their fear and oppression and their deluge of desires in their art, using it as a medium to vent. The greatest names in the art have at some point in their life gone through psychological discordance and traumatic experiences, creating art that is extraordinary. 

Manashri is an Artist, Interior Stylist, Art educator, Art Historian and writer based in Goa.

Design by Simran Mehta

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

We refuse black coal, save Goa!

Suparna Chatterjee

An insight into the movement that seeks to protect Goa from becoming a coal hub and save the biodiversity of the state.  

The sea, sand and beach shacks along with some parties are what we have in mind when we think of Goa. But beyond that, the West Indian coastal state of Goa fosters rich biodiversity and dynamic cultural and political histories that have shaped the lives and livelihoods of the people and the ecology. All of this is currently under threat from a massive industrial onslaught. 

Goans are protesting against three infrastructure projects that will facilitate the transport of coal through the state. If allowed to proceed, as the protestors deem, Goa will turn into a “coal-hub” for the benefit of private players. 

Coal corridor through Goa? Environmental and socio-economic impacts

“Around 59,000 trees will be cut in Goa alone, and a total of over a lakh will be cut across Goa and Karnataka for the completion of these projects.”

The three infrastructure projects, namely the double-tracking of the South Western Railway line, a four-lane expansion of the NH4A, and the laying of a 400 kV transmission line, will all pass through parts of Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary and Mollem National Park, and lead to a loss of 170 hectares of protected forest land. Around 59,000 trees will be cut in Goa alone, and a total of over a lakh will be cut across Goa and Karnataka for the completion of these projects. The forests in Goa are home to around 721 plant species, 70 mammal species, 235 bird species, 219 butterfly species and many other creatures, some of which are endemic to the area. The projects will result in forest fragmentation, habitat destruction and disturb the ecosystem stability of the area. It will directly impact the life of the communities that reside in these forests, and will have detrimental impacts on the health and livelihoods of a large section of the population from across socio-economic classes. 

These projects are part of the Sagarmala program which the director of the Goa Foundation, Claude Alvares describes as a scheme of turning the state of Goa into a dedicated coal corridor and says: “[..]..not designed by Goans for Goa by the Goa government” but is planned by a set of foreign actors. As part of this program, coal is to be transported from the Mormugao Port Trust (MPT) which is located in Vasco, Goa, and is well connected through the railway and highways, to the neighbouring states of Maharashtra (via roadways) and Karnataka (via railways). It currently has a handling capacity of 12 MTP (million tonnes per annum), which is projected to increase to 51 MTPA for increased coal supply to the thermal plants and the steel industries of the neighbouring states. Coking coal is scarce in India and is imported from countries like Australia and South Africa into Goa via the MPT. Three public-private partnership terminals run by JSW, Vedanta, and Adani Group handle coal at the MPT.  

“A report published in DownToEarth magazine in January 2018 explains how from 2001-02 till the current day the coal and coke carrying capacities of the MPT have tripled, causing disastrous impacts on air quality and life of the locals in the area.”

A report published in DownToEarth magazine in January 2018 explains how from 2001-02 till the current day the coal and coke carrying capacities of the MPT have tripled, causing disastrous impacts on air quality and life of the locals in the area. The three projects were cleared by the National Board of Wildlife governed by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change in April this year through a video conference, along with 30 other projects, which essentially cut down scope for public engagement in the process of providing these clearances. 

Goans against Coal: protest movements in Goa against the infrastructure projects

The protests against the three projects started soon after they were passed. In the early stages, there were petitions, letters to the Central and State governments from citizens, civil society organizations and Goan youths. In July, the Goa Foundation filed a PIL at the Goa bench of the Bombay High Court on this matter. The protests slowly gained momentum with the involvement of larger sections of people through the use of social media. Several individuals as well as groups like SaveMollem and GoyantKolsoNaka started trending the topic on social media platforms to educate people and gather attention on the environmental issues in the area. 

On the night of November 1, at around 10:30 pm more than 5,000 people gathered near a level crossing at Chandor village in South Goa. These people were opposing the construction of railway tracks being carried out despite the Bombay High Court staying the double-tracking project in the protected area until the next hearing scheduled in December. Amidst the raging COVID-19 pandemic, the people held a peaceful protest till 4 am. 

“Speaking to Bol Magazine, Sherry Fernandes, a youth activist involved with the movement since June says that when all other means failed, the protestors had no choice but to take to the streets: ‘[..]..People tried everything and this is (our) last resort.’” 

Speaking to Bol Magazine, Sherry Fernandes, a youth activist involved with the movement since June says that when all other means failed, the protestors had no choice but to take to the streets: “[..]..People tried everything and this is (our) last resort.” For this activist and many others like her, the beautiful association developed with Mollem over the years, along with the love of its rich biodiversity and communities is what has driven them to be a part of the fight to protect it. She is concerned about biodiversity: “[…]..Slender lorises, Mouse deers, Hornbills and so much of life in the forest”, are all currently under threat. 

The midnight protest included the middle classes of urban and rural Goa, civil society members, activists, indigenous communities and large numbers of the youth. Fernandes describes the protest as “[..].. something so beautiful and peaceful despite the agitation amongst people which had forced them to come out, risking their lives amidst the pandemic.” The immediate response to the protests was an FIR filed by the Goa Police against the six convenors of the two NGOs – Goyant Kolso Naka and Goencho Ekvott, for unlawful activity and wrongful restraint. Fernandes says that the news of an FIR being filed was shocking, mainly because of the extremely peaceful nature of the protests which displayed varied forms of Goan culture, and there was no rioting or damage to property. 

The protest at Chandor was covered by leading online media outlets, and a buzz was created on social media. Following this, several email and signature campaigns were launched in which people from across the country participated. However, large parts of the country that often dream of a vacation in Goa are still silent on the issue.

“This movement is not the first of its kind in Goa. For long several groups have been protesting unsustainable mining in parts of Goa, coal import into the state, and the Sagarmala project since its inception.” 

This movement is not the first of its kind in Goa. For long several groups have been protesting unsustainable mining in parts of Goa, coal import into the state, and the Sagarmala project since its inception. Groups like the National Fishworkers Forum and several fisherwomen groups from the region protested against the Sagarmala project and the autonomy granted to the MPT in 2016. There have been protests in 2017 and 2018 opposing the infrastructure development and increasing coal handling permits at MPT. 

“The government has also promised a capping mechanism on coal imports into the state. Sadly, such statements have not been backed by documented proof, and revisiting government response to similar movements in the past proves that such claims are an immediate measure used by those in power to pacify protestors without actually taking up concrete measures to accede to the demands.”

The response of the government to such movements has not changed over the years. In the current situation, following the mid-night protests and media-outrage over the destruction of the environment, the Minister of Environment & Power in Goa, Nilesh Cabral while speaking to the media said: “Goa will not be a coal hub.” He also suggested afforestation in other parts to counter the effect of the felling of trees. However, there is an absence of a plan regarding such afforestation which has been cited as an ineffective mitigation measure to counter the carbon loss due to the felling of 200-300-year-old trees. The government has also promised a capping mechanism on coal imports into the state. Sadly, such statements have not been backed by documented proof, and revisiting government response to similar movements in the past proves that such claims are an immediate measure used by those in power to pacify protestors without actually taking up concrete measures to accede to the demands. 

What are the stakes? Who benefits? 

Urban environmental movements of this kind are here to stay; the movements to Save Mollem and Save Aarey forests prove this fact. It becomes essential to study the nature of these movements to understand how the dynamics of environmentalism are playing out in India. 

“Environmentalism in developing countries like India has been termed as ‘environmentalism of the poor’, where concerns of material distributive justice force people to protest against environmental destruction in contrast to environmentalism in developed nations where post-materialistic concerns shape environmental justice movements.”

Environmentalism in developing countries like India has been termed as “environmentalism of the poor”, where concerns of material distributive justice force people to protest against environmental destruction in contrast to environmentalism in developed nations where post-materialistic concerns shape environmental justice movements. Another form of environmentalism which is gaining popularity is “bourgeois environmentalism” where the middle-class seek environmental protection through institutional machinery. While environmentalism of the poor emerges out of concerns for immediate loss of livelihood and habitat as a result of environmental degradation, the bourgeois environmental movements are usually shaped by health concerns and loss of beautification due to environmental degradation. Street action against such forms of degradation is usually viewed as a means used by the poor, who do not have access to other forms of protest, while the urban or in rare cases the rural middle class usually resort to court petitions and other institutional means to further their goals. 

However, movements led by the middle class have often been criticised as rooted in a feeling of contradictory consciousness among them who, unaware of their own contribution to the problem seek end goals that try to secure environmental justice for them while negatively affecting the livelihoods of the poor. They sometimes have an elitist undertone and a blatant disregard for the poor. 

“Environmental problems and environment versus development debates must be viewed in the backdrop of politico-economical and ecological interactions at the local, regional and national levels.”

Essentialist arguments by conservationists are sometimes made to gain political support for environmental protection in India, and it is often suggested that challenging the premise of such movements has a probability of weakening the larger political discourse around environmental protection. However, it is equally important to study and critique the premise of such movements regularly to improve and redefine the ways of environmentalism to suit the needs of the marginalized. Environmental problems and environment versus development debates must be viewed in the backdrop of politico-economical and ecological interactions at the local, regional and national levels. The incorporation of interdisciplinary professionals into environmental conservation has started the dialogue for maintaining an effective balance between ecological conservation and seeking social justice and livelihood protection for the marginalised.

The movement in Goa tries to overcome some of the aforementioned barriers by taking into consideration the livelihoods and lives of the marginalised and by targeting the Central government’s backing of a few private corporations in bringing coal into Goa. It is an amalgamation of the two forms of environmentalism- the protestors mainly belong to the urban and rural middle class, with some representation from the economically marginalised groups. They are using petitions and other institutional means as well as mass mobilization to secure environmental and social justice. Concerns of ecological sustainability and life and livelihood protection form the basis of this movement, unlike other middle class movements driven by elite notions of ‘beautification’ or ‘cleanliness’. 

The infrastructure projects in concern will have severe environmental and social consequences and the current movement is backed by scientific claims, giving due recognition to the dynamic cultural and political history of the state.

“‘National integration’ and ‘benefit’ have often been used as terms to pass such infrastructure projects, which serve no purpose to the populace of the region in concern, who also face the detrimental impacts of such projects.“

On the other hand, the government-corporate lobby supporting and pushing for the project is evidently disregarding concern for the environment as well as the livelihoods and habitats of the people. They are either hiding facts and making false claims to pacify the protests, or suggesting unrealistic mitigation measures such as reforestation to counter the claims of irreversible environmental and livelihood damage. “National integration” and “benefit” have often been used as terms to pass such infrastructure projects, which serve no purpose to the populace of the region in concern, who also face the detrimental impacts of such projects.  

“Public opinion at all levels is very much required, and the current draconian ways adopted by the government in prioritizing crony capitalist gains and infrastructure development benefiting a few over the livelihoods of the masses is bound to see more such protests in the near future.”

Public opinion at all levels is very much required, and the current draconian ways adopted by the government in prioritizing crony capitalist gains and infrastructure development benefiting a few over the livelihoods of the masses is bound to see more such protests in the near future. Therefore, it is very important to define the nature of environmentalism and the intellectual and political premise of such movements, to effectively counter such detrimental developmental projects and further the cause of environmental protection along with social justice. 

Suparna is an early-career researcher working with Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) in Bangalore. She likes to explore and work on issues concerning the environment, society and gender. 

Design by Hemashri Dhavala

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

Is Contemporary Feminism Radical Enough?

Raavya Bhattacharyya

Examining the digital-age ideas of feminism, where they stand in historical context and why they fail to challenge patriarchal capitalism

The feminist movement has consistently evolved to show the world the many ways in which women have been discriminated against and made to feel like lesser beings. Each wave of feminism emerged with its concerns – voting rights, equal pay, workplace rights, reproductive rights, and so on. Right from when it began in the early twentieth century, the movement allowed women to awaken to the systemic injustice that was all around them, the kind of injustice many of them had learned to internalise. This collective angst had finally manifested itself into philosophy and an ideology that placed women at the forefront, recognising them as human beings capable of living a life of dignity without male intervention. Women wanted to be seen as individuals with rights of their own, deserving of equality and respect. After centuries of oppression, women were finally examining their lived experiences to see how much was being withheld from them. 

“At home, in the workplace, and nearly every sphere of society, women are viewed as the weaker sex who are always in need of male guidance and are incapable of making their own decisions. These sexist beliefs have stripped women of their agency and their rights.” 

The core principle of feminism, as feminist author Bell Hooks succinctly describes in her book ‘Feminism Is For Everybody’, is “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” She’s careful to explain that sexism is the enemy, “all sexist thinking and action is the problem, whether those who perpetuate it are female or male, child or adult.” As a belief, sexism inherently privileges one sex over the other. For centuries, the world has privileged men and their experiences over women. At home, in the workplace, and nearly every sphere of society, women are viewed as the weaker sex who are always in need of male guidance and are incapable of making their own decisions. These sexist beliefs have stripped women of their agency and their rights. 

In the first few phases of feminism, women had concrete issues to tackle, problems that needed fixing in the form of new laws and policy change. Years of struggle saw a significant amount of change, women were finally given rights that men had taken for granted. But for many women, these changes in law and order never seemed to reach the world they were living in. Despite societal proclamations of emancipation and empowerment, women were still regarded as the inferior gender. Feminist scrutiny and inquiry had to take on new forms to understand complex gender dynamics. Feminists were interrogating social and cultural systems to understand how inequality and sexism were still intact despite changing laws and policies that were in favour of women. 

Where does modern-day feminism stand?

Modern-day feminism prides itself on being inclusive after having tackled major conflicts and contradictions the earlier waves had. The rise of choice feminism saw women reclaiming their agency, supposedly liberated from the shackles of patriarchy. The assumption was that the ability to make any kind of choice is a form of absolute and complete empowerment. What we tend to overlook is that choice doesn’t necessarily imply a decision free from patriarchal conditioning. As choice feminism has grown in popularity, there has been a visible shift towards a kind of feminism that is accessible to a fault. 

“Social media has been instrumental in peddling a watered-down, ‘accessible’ version of feminism. This kind of feminism seems to pride itself in brandishing catch-phrases like ‘girl-power’ without any real exploration of where women stand today or the kind of new struggles they face and how feminists must work to abolish them.”

Social media has been instrumental in peddling a watered-down, “accessible” version of feminism. This kind of feminism seems to pride itself in brandishing catch-phrases like “girl-power” without any real exploration of where women stand today or the kind of new struggles they face and how feminists must work to abolish them. The birth of a consumerist form of feminism, a kind that distances itself from nuance and exists solely for temporary placation is our biggest challenge, one we need to overcome to understand that the inherent discrimination between genders still exists. Our capitalist society has comfortably bought into this accessible version of feminism because it serves their agenda, there are now more things to “sell” to women, a way to monetise a movement that has always been against the very system of reduction and objectification. 

Decades of living within a system that privileges men and their needs over women has resulted in many women perpetuating the very biases they’re so sure of having rid themselves of. An important example here is that of women’s beauty and grooming. Beauty standards for women are incredibly unrealistic, but so many of us, despite calling ourselves feminists, give in to them. We call it our ‘choice’ when we get rid of body hair, our ‘choice’ when we spend time obsessing over how good or bad we’re looking, constantly worried about being ‘appealing’ enough. A closer examination of these choices will reveal our internalised misogyny, the diminished ways in which we regard ourselves because of the way we look. What does ‘appealing’ mean? What does it have to say about the culture of shame and stigma the beauty industry has taught women to accept as part of themselves? 

Existing power structures that uphold patriarchy are alive and well, while we’ve made tremendous strides in women empowerment, we still have a long way to go. Class, race, caste, and socio-economic challenges add to the layers of disadvantage to many women. These women don’t have platforms to show the world the struggles they go through every day. Dalit women in rural India are at the mercy of the upper caste, routinely harassed by them, on the basis of their caste and their gender. These women also face discrimination within their households, bound by strict gender roles. Mainstream media is selective in its outrage which is why these women continue to be victims of cyclical oppression. 

“Intersectional feminism has consistently highlighted the importance of inclusion in the larger feminist movement, the need for voices of women who are victims of ‘double-oppression’ as a result of their gender and race/class or caste to be heard.”

Intersectional feminism has consistently highlighted the importance of inclusion in the larger feminist movement, the need for voices of women who are victims of “double-oppression” as a result of their gender and race/class or caste to be heard. These women are doubly exploited – first on the basis of their gender and then on the basis of their socio-economic status, race, ethnicity and other social identities. American law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectional feminism in 1989 to describe how the overlap of social identities was responsible for “compounding experiences of discrimination.” She explains that intersectional feminism is “a prism for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other. All inequality is not created equal.”

Women in rural India are still victims of brutal, regressive caste-based traditions that offer them no room for free thought and action. The latest data shows that four Dalit women are raped everyday, with many being raped on multiple occasions. Crimes against Dalit women are the highest as compared to all crimes committed against members of the scheduled cast. Gender-based violence persists, unchecked, at an alarming rate. Estimates show that  35 per cent of women worldwide have experienced some form of physical partner violence or sexual violence by a non-partner (not including sexual harassment) at some point in their lives. The stifling continues, but tokenisms on social media and the blatant commercialisation of ‘empowerment’ will have us believe that we’ve achieved all that we set out to. 

Choice feminism needs to be re-examined and questioned

Feminist author Jessa Crispin addresses similar concerns in her polemic essay “Why I Am Not A Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto”. She writes: “To understand how surface-level contemporary feminism really is, we need only note that the most common markers of feminism’s success are the same markers of patriarchal capitalism.” Crispin also sees choice feminism as inherently individualistic, a kind of feminism that is satisfied with token gestures in one’s personal life that only mimic true empowerment but still function within the accepted norms of patriarchy. We’re so consumed with “living our best life” and making choices that we think are radical that we don’t interrogate our mind-sets, our reasons for being and deciding. “Choice feminism blocks any discussion about consequences of how people choose to live their lives. Because the choice itself is feminist,” Crispin notes.

“Gender equality has not been normalised. Modern-day feminism has diluted many of the core, radical ideas that shone when the feminist movement first began. Early waves of feminism were focused on bringing down a capitalist, patriarchal society that privileged men and awarded them unchecked power.”

Many women feel a kind of dissonance when they look at the world around them. Posters proudly declare “the future is female” but women still have to “break the glass ceiling”, they still have to battle anxiety when they step out of their homes at night. They see women in positions of power struggle to consistently prove their mettle, they’re reminded every day what a “privilege” it is to even occupy such a role. Gender equality has not been normalised. Modern-day feminism has diluted many of the core, radical ideas that shone when the feminist movement first began. Early waves of feminism were focused on bringing down a capitalist, patriarchal society that privileged men and awarded them unchecked power. Feminism wanted women to have platforms that gave them the opportunity to make their own decisions while also promoting critical thinking. The fight for equal pay, reproductive rights and the right to education took place right beside the fight for a world that reimagined gender. Questioning and interrogating our corrupt, power-hungry social systems has always been intrinsic to feminism. 

Now we seem to be more interested in how a largely unjust system finds a way to benefit us instead of working to dismantle that very system, to question its immorality and the way it upholds oppression in the most insidious of ways. 

“Women empowerment is not solely about choice and agency, it is about a deeper investigation of the place of women in society, it is understanding that oppression can sometimes look a lot like freedom. A reclamation is essential, a need to make feminism political again, to make it more than the hollow shell it is becoming.”

Today, we need feminism more than ever to start conversations that have slowly been forgotten, buried under a shiny veneer of what we assume women empowerment to be. Our fight against patriarchy continues. We have to battle uncomfortable questions about the lives we lead as women that we wake up to the everyday and the casual sexism that relentlessly persists. We have to call out systems of oppression that don’t allow women a way out of their lives of misery. Women empowerment is not solely about choice and agency, it is about a deeper investigation of the place of women in society, it is understanding that oppression can sometimes look a lot like freedom. A reclamation is essential, a need to make feminism political again, to make it more than the hollow shell it is becoming. Our revolution must begin in our personal spaces where we reject patriarchy’s idea of liberated women. “Feminist thinking teaches us all,” as Bell Hooks says “especially, how to love justice and freedom in ways that foster and affirm life.”

Raavya is a pop-culture nerd who lives and breathes books and cinema. An unrelenting feminist, she hopes to change regressive mindsets through the written word.

Design by Hemashri Dhavala

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

“Kodavas have always seen Kodagu as theirs”

Sahitya Poonacha

A walk through the buried history of the Kodavas of Kodagu (Coorg), their colonial past and post-colonial quest for representation.

If we begin with the Kodavas, we must first speak of Kodagu. The hill station tucked away in the Western Ghats of south India which eventually turned into a mnemonic device for the Kodavas. Home to a tribe of warrior clans, never quite well-placed in the caste structure, addressed little in the media, and with little self-reflection by Kodavas themselves. Although, there has been much push in recent times to change this.

While their recorded history goes back to the 10th CE, their oral histories go farther back and have passed down generations. Barely reconstructed, these oral histories are yet to be pursued and are often rejected as hearsay. That being said, this article doesn’t seek to rewrite its history. Moreover, written by a Kodava herself,  it must not be taken at face value. 

“It was the British colonialists after all who called it ‘Coorg’ instead of ‘Kodagu’ and dubbed it the ‘Scotland of India’ a title similarly accorded to Shillong as ‘Scotland of the East’.”

Remnants of colonial history are found in India on every street corner, every household, and this includes the secluded hills of Kodagu. It was the British colonialists after all who called it “Coorg” instead of “Kodagu” and dubbed it the “Scotland of India” a title similarly accorded to Shillong as “Scotland of the East”.

What made and still makes the Kodavas different is that they stand out within the “imaginary” idea of India. As a tribal, egalitarian community divided into clans the Kodavas have existed in Kodagu with their own distinct culture and traditions rejecting the systems in neighbouring regions. 

“Kodavas have always seen Kodagu as theirs. These hills were hard to penetrate, tough to live in, with harsh climate and topography.”

Kodavas have always seen Kodagu as theirs. These hills were hard to penetrate, tough to live in, with harsh climate and topography. Kodagu remains nestled in the hills, a road trip from Bengaluru is the most common and only way to get to Kodagu. The martial Kodavas who possessed a strong sense of community, pride and dominance made it even harder to rule. This could have been a reason even the mighty Chola Dynasty couldn’t get a hold of the region leaving them in the periphery.

We see this continue today as Kodavas try to assert their identity as a different group, that requires autonomy, insulated and still angered by their past in modern India. They’ve had multiple separatist struggles in the 20th CE that are rarely covered by  the media, and a section still demanding homeland status. The historical records to help uncover these movements  curiously sit in the libraries of Britain and a few can be found in the National Library of India.

The Kodava Culture 

Let’s go to the beginning, Kodavas if you ask them their origins see themselves as having an Aryan  connection in heritage, essayed in M.P. Cariappa and Ponnamma Cariappa’s work as well. This is what every young Kodava grows up hearing in living room conversations, what history hasn’t proved or as some Kodavas say, hasn’t ‘yet’. 

For those who aren’t familiar with Kodavas or Kodagu, Kodavas constitute a patrilineal society centred around “okkas”, a clan stemming from a common ancestor. Each okka possesses an “ainmane” or ancestral home where they used to celebrate and congregate. Vast tracts of land were given to an okka or clan, called “jamma” lands, that are jointly cultivated and passed down over generations. The Kaveri Purana as part of the Skanda Purana identifies Kodavas as “Kshatriya-Shudra” (warrior and lower caste), something history and India neither expected nor explained. 

As nature and ancestor worshippers, Kodavas are known to hold the elements of nature in high regard. Many of their festivals are also centred on nature worship, particularly the harvest festival of Puttari and Kaveri Sankramanna marking the date that Goddess Kaveri began her descent. On many festive occasions offerings are made to ancestors. Kodavas eventually came to worship Hindu deities as interaction with those around Kodagu increased. 

Kodavas worship goddess Kaveri as custodians of the river that originates in the Brahmagiri hills. Kaveri’s story is intriguing. For me, a Kodavathi, the worship of a goddess who left her husband,   Brahmin sage Agastya for reasons debated has left an incredible mark. It is believed she left to serve the people, to save the world, and this story fascinated me. One simplified version of the myth, which I heard most growing up, is that Kaveri agreed to marry Agastya on the condition that he wouldn’t leave her alone. 

However, he once turned her into water and kept her in his kamandala (pot) asking his disciples to guard it, so that she wouldn’t leave him while he went to bathe. Recognising the trickery, she left him. As she flowed out of the pot she was unstoppable, even as men and women stood in her path. Legend has it, it was her force that turned the women’s sarees the other way around. Till today, the women of Kodagu continue to wear their sarees the other way around setting them apart from the conventional draping followed by Indian women. The story is powerful. These may be reduced to myths, but it reveals one thing, the attempt to assert an aspect of identity.

“Kodavas conduct marriages with little intervention by priests and worship a Hindu goddess who refused to be tied down. Draping the saree in their own way, and giving women agency in its mythology and culturally to some extent is a powerful story of liberation that fits in very well with the 21st CE aspirations.”

Kodavas conduct marriages with little intervention by priests and worship a Hindu goddess who refused to be tied down. Draping the saree in their own way, and giving women agency in its mythology and culturally to some extent is a powerful story of liberation that fits in very well with the 21st CE aspirations. However, today Kodavas struggle to make their culture felt.

The Colonial History of Kodagu 

“The Haleri dynasty’s entry into Kodagu became the lofty foundation for Kodagu’s recorded history on the map of India, following huge gaps of invisibility until then.”

A large chunk of Kodagu’s history starts and ends with the dynasty of the Haleri kings back in the 17th century an off-shoot of the Ikkeri Nayakas[i], who managed to make Kodagu their home and that’s when the Kodavas entered the dynamics and politics of Southern India. The Haleri dynasty’s entry into Kodagu became the lofty foundation for Kodagu’s recorded history on the map of India, following huge gaps of invisibility until then. 

Curiously, the Kodavas never had a Kodava ruler. Regardless of the ruler, it was the Kodava identity that had to repeatedly sustain itself through cultural preservation. Kodagu’s history of course has left its own impression and scars on Kodavas and has pushed them to stay the course. This is especially seen in the community’s memory of Tipu Sultan, who ruled the Carnatic between 1782 and 1799 from Mysore. The contest for Kodagu in some ways presented itself here. Often dubbed the “Tiger of Mysore” and alternatively a “temple desecrator” has been somewhat of a contested history. 

For Kodavas, they see this attempt to assert dominance as a traumatic, dark, blood-soaked past that India has undermined. The reconstruction of Tipu’s rule in sources has either glossed over his feud with Kodavas or has revolved entirely around this bit. Either way, the reconstruction has not been reliable, with unconfirmed  numbers, underreported facts, and some confusion. You might recall the protests in the district against celebrating Tipu Jayanti in recent times.

“This tug-of-war was actually playing out between the Haleri dynasty and Tipu Sultan which brought in the British colonialists into the mix, the greatest opportunists world history has seen.”

This tug-of-war was actually playing out between the Haleri dynasty and Tipu Sultan which brought in the British colonialists into the mix, the greatest opportunists world history has seen. Although, one should notice it was the Kodava identity that truly got caught in this triangular power struggle, trapped in the hills with little say over what happened to their status.

Mercara Fort
Image by Sahitya P Poonacha (2016)

“Chikkaviraraja was the last Haleri king for Kodagu, known to be impulsive and ruthless. Dubbed as the “Mad King” he was the only Haleri ruler in Kodagu who was wary of British control, when he tried to shake them a short-lived war was the result, after which Kodagu would officially be in the hands of the East India Company.”

Still, Kodagu in its  strained relationship with the Haleri dynasty in the 19th CE, would come to be signed off to the British in 1834 by Chikkaviraraja. Chikkaviraraja was the last Haleri king for Kodagu, known to be impulsive and ruthless. Dubbed as the “Mad King” he was one Haleri ruler in Kodagu wary of British control, when he tried to shake them a short-lived war was the result, after which Kodagu would officially be in the hands of the East India Company.

On the colonial front, they still enjoy some privileges, like being the only community allowed to carry arms without a license, an 1861 colonial exemption that came in place. This owes to the fact that Kodavas worship weapons. 

“The moment the British East India Company took over Kodagu, was the moment Kodavas once more had to wait for Indian independence.”

The British East India Company saw profitability in the hills for plantation agriculture. They acquired the martial clans that would then become associated with India’s defence for generations to come. Post-independence the community would eventually be home to national heroes such as General Thimmayya and Field Marshal Cariappa. The moment the company took over Kodagu, was the moment Kodavas once more had to wait for Indian independence.

Postcolonial Identity

Independence has been at the heart of Kodagu’s history, liberated in mythology by their goddess. Even as a small hill station Kodagu holds much diversity, Muslims, Gowdas, other communities and smaller tribes have coexisted through their own myths and timeless tales. Today, Kodavas try to preserve their  culture, through their shrines, ainmanes, jamma lands passed down generations and their revered padathi or traditions. All to some valaga beats, and celebrations like Kailupodhu where weapons and arms are worshipped. 

In the 21st CE, these traditions sustain in new forms even as many Kodavas have moved out of the hills. Many Kodavas continue to maintain their sprawling coffee estates, paddy fields. Notable Kodavas join India’s defence forces and contribute in various sectors. Kodagu meanwhile, now welcomes tourists from all over the world to find new ways to showcase and preserve the hill station. 

“The history of the Kodavas remains hidden deep within its forests, its rivers and its people. From this account and many others what becomes certain is that Kodava’s history remains partially uncovered and needs unbiased reassessment. Kodavas see themselves as unique, this can’t simply be sidelined as ‘pride’.”

The history of the Kodavas remains hidden deep within its forests, its rivers and its people. From this account and many others what becomes certain is that Kodava’s history remains partially uncovered and needs unbiased reassessment. Kodavas see themselves as unique, this can’t simply be sidelined as “pride”. Perhaps there is  a reason for it we haven’t explored. Why does this warrior tribe demand homeland status and self-rule?

The answers are in its history and this is the colonial baggage the community carries with it through generations beyond independence. Therefore complex power struggles are not simply a thing of the past. Lest we lose all this history to the trappings of development and more political dialogue. In 2020, ironically British chef Gordon Ramsay found something noteworthy about Kodavas’ Pandhi curry[ii] on his show with National Geographic and that’s hardly a brush on the surface.

[i] The real origin date of the Haleri dynasty is uncertain, but dates to the mid-17th century according to the Rajendraname. [ii] Pandhi curry is a pork delicacy loved by Kodavas.

Sahitya is a journalist and a writer with a voice. Finding time to pursue an academic interest in minority positioning in mainstream media between chasing leads and searching for stories that need telling.

Design by Hemashri Dhavala