Comicsalon Erlangen
“A country, in which you can find simply everything”

The artists in Nrityagram
The artists in Nrityagram | © Chiranth Wodeyar

Freedom and self-determination – what does it mean to indian and german women? The Goethe-Institut helped bring together 16 female illustrators – eight from Germany and eight from India – at the Nrityagram dance village in India. They were seeking answers to all kinds of questions concerning role models for women in different cultures – and came to some surprising conclusions. These have now been published in the 13th issue of SPRING magazine and can also be seen at the Comic Salon Erlangen. Larissa Bertonasco talks about the artistic exchange.

Ms Bertonasco, how did the trip to India come about in the first place?

Two years ago, my colleague Ludmilla Bartscht and I ran a comic workshop at the Goethe-Institut in New Delhi together with the Indian illustrator Priya Kuriyan. This intercultural exchange was incredibly inspiring and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

One week of intensive cooperation resulted in a joint publication of the german and indian artists.
One week of intensive cooperation resulted in a joint publication of the german and indian artists. | Photo: Larissa Bertonasco
However, this time I didn’t want a teacher-pupil situation but rather a dialogue on an equal footing between professional illustrators. This is how the idea of a joint publication with Indian artists was born; it then took more concrete shape in February 2016 when our SPRING collective of female artists stayed at Nrityagram. Once again Priya was there, as were two other Indian illustrators from the previous workshop, plus five others who we didn’t know.

Did people work well together?

The atmosphere where we were staying, which was a school for classical Indian dance, really impressed us. There were plenty of opportunities to get away from the others and draw in peace, yet there was always contact between us. We Germans were so amazed by everything and often made excursions to the next village. There were so many new things to discover there, and so many impressions – it is impossible to put it all into words.

The landscape around the artists' residence was overwhelming.
The landscape around the artists' residence was overwhelming. | Photo: Larissa Bertonasco
At first we were a bit uncertain about which topics we could broach with the Indian artists – especially those of us who were in India for the first time. For example, would it be okay to simply start talking about sexuality?

During the ten days in which we worked intensively together, however, we discovered that we could actually talk very openly about everything. When you have a common basis – I’m sure it’s the same for musicians – you immediately speak the same language despite any problems there may be with verbal communication. We felt very close to one another and found that we had an incredible amount to say and to show to one another.

For example?

As far as our artistic work was concerned, we were particularly keen to convey the message that it can be very helpful when developing stories for artists to share and engage in an exchange with one another at times. This is something we have been doing for years in our collective. You can give each other tips or ask specific questions which help others to move forward.

Communication helps to develop stories.
Communication helps to develop stories. | Photo: Larissa Bertonasco
Through our numerous discussions, we Germans in particular also had the opportunity to get to know and better understand the country in all its diversity – even when this sometimes meant understanding only that there is a lot you do not understand. The deeper you immerse yourself in a culture, the more you discover that although the images you have in your head do indeed reflect part of that country, they actually represent only a very small part. Naturally we realize that we only got to know another small part during our meeting – and that this was shaped by the view of artists.

What sort of view is that? Did it differ considerably from your own view?

That was what was so fascinating! In terms of their content, the stories we were creating revealed that, as women, we are very similar as far as our hopes and dreams are concerned. We want freedom, self-determination and equality. We all have to battle against the constraints imposed by traditional roles, albeit in different ways because of our different cultural backgrounds.

Many of the stories that were produced in Nrityagram are biographical; for all of us, it was this individual and personal aspect that was very important. After all, regardless of cultural background, we are all influenced by our own stories and by the environment in which we grew up.

The stories have become very personal.
The stories have become very personal. | Photo: Larissa Bertonasco
What did you take away with you from the experience?

It goes without saying that we in Germany are able to lead comparatively self-determined lives, and that we have many opportunities. However, the standing of women within society is also changing in India, partly as a result of economic changes. Social relationships are changing, marriage for love is becoming more acceptable and women are pursuing professional careers. Our Indian colleagues told us that people these days do discuss gender issues or violence against women. Such discussions are initiated by young women in particular.

That said, this does not by any means apply to all of Indian society. Sexual and domestic violence, rape and caste inequality still of course pose enormous social problems.

One thing became clear to us: we were in a very diverse country full of contradictions, in which you can find simply everything – including incredibly modern women leading unconventional lives. The Indian female artists we met had made a very conscious and carefully considered choice to live like this.

Katrin Baumer asked the questions.