Artist residencies A sixteen women’s pajama party

Spring Residency
Spring Residency | Photo: Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan New Delhi

For ten days in February 2016, sixteen artist- storytellers shared ideas and space at a dancer’s residency, Nrityagram, on the outskirts of Bengaluru to talk about how they, as women, see the role of role models in their cities and their worlds. Apart from an exciting and broadening exchange between two cultures across borders, the result of this residency is this year’s edition of Spring Magazine - a compilation of graphic stories conceived at the residency and developed in the months that followed. The edition #13 Elephant in the Room will be out this May (2016) at the Comic Salon in Erlangen.

Organised by the Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan New Delhi, this was a residential workshop with a structure – not a schedule. It was pretty much run by the sixteen participants themselves.

How did that work? Most of them were meeting each other for the first time. They needed time to get to know each other and come up with an idea of how to go about creating a story board for a magazine in less than ten days. They started off every day with a playful drawing exercise which served as an ice breaker between the groups. Artists organically volunteered themselves to lead the exercise. From fantasising a weird character and drawing their own version of it to drawing out a word as basic as “happy”, they worked with various warm-up ideas that set them in mood for an inspiring day.

Spring Residency2 One of the participants, Garima Gupta says: “I never thought that comic making can be such an interactive and lovely journey. It is 16 women’s pajama party.” Garima’s story is about self-moral policing; a girl who’s been policed all her life so much so that now her head dictates what she does.” | Photo: Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan New Delhi Post warm up the participants scattered throughout the luscious grounds of Nrityagram and worked on their own stories. The fluid schedule invited discussions throughout the day in random groups of three, four or even more. While jotting down my own notes and eavesdropping here and there, I found out that these discussions were not necessarily work related but a lot of the time candid chats around cultures which led the illustrators to insights into each other’s perspective and eventually contributed to their work. (I doubt that pre-planned presentations around generic gender based themes would ever bring about such intensity the way it did here.)

Spring Residency3 “To be able to ask candid questions during the process of your story creation is a huge luxury. One can go up to anyone anytime in the group and talk about stuff” said Barbara Yellin, when I asked her what she liked best about the exchange. Barbara’s story explores whether there is a social tradition in various cultures wherein women always bear the blame. | Photo: Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan New Delhi Many illustrators who had been a part of other residencies came with an expectation of sitting by themselves and working on a topic. While their ideas were vague in the beginning as far as their stories were concerned, the manner in which the encounter unfolded itself led to an overflow of thoughts and ideas. This exchange was an eye opening experience for many of them, where they worked with fifteen other artists from different backgrounds and cultures for the first time rather than being in private studios, working in their own shells.

For comparatively young Indian artists such as Reshu Singh and Kaveri Gopalakrishnan, seeing how other artists brainstorm and see their processes helped them to ruminate on their own process and further their stories. While Reshu in her autobiographical piece explores how role models change over time, Kaveri’s story talks about a girl who is in love with her body hair.

On being asked about what the residency meant to her, Larissa Bertonasco enthusiastically said: “This is a very special intimate space where individual talented women have gathered under one roof. For me the entire place is filled with a special energy and we the women of today have developed a language of our own, to communicate with each other.” Larissa’s autobiographical piece reflects upon lives of many people who accompanied her through various phases of life.

After the brainstorming sessions that took place in the first half of the day, everyone broke for lunch prepared by the young dancers who were themselves doing residencies at Nrityagram. From observing beautiful mudras of resident dancers to enjoying appetising South Indian lunches, Nrityagram itself had a lot of inspiration to offer. They happily let these moments motivate them and reflect in their work.

Spring Residency4 At one point when I as a part of the organising team, nervously asked Barbara about how comfortable she was working in an unknown space, she made a face and stated that this place is no more strange or unknown. “This is our place now, we manage it!” she firmly said. | Photo: Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan New Delhi By the third day I could easily spot the artists in their favorite corners, where they worked on their own stories post discussions. A common meeting point for them was the dining area where they had set up a mini library of assorted German and Indian comic and graphic books as another source of motivation.

Spring Residency5 From left to right: Kaveri Gopalakrishnan; Priya Kuriyan; Ulli Lust; Ludmilla Bartscht | Photo: Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan New Delhi I always looked forward to post dinner talks over a cup of herbal tea. Every evening one or two artists presented their published or non-published artworks to each other through a projector on an old white purdah that they had set up around the dining area. This was both entertaining and gave them an insight into their fellow artists’ works.

Within this 10-day period, which seemed like perfect number of days for the participants, they managed to ideate their stories and make a rough story board. What followed after the residency was only the fine tuning of the sketches. The harmony among the participants was constructive and many of them plan to take these contacts further and initiate future projects by themselves.

Spring Residency6 The artists interacting with Urvashi Butalia during the residency. | Foto: Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan New Delhi Apart from being a platform for exchange among the illustrators, the residency also served as an opportunity for them to meet Urvashi Butalia from the Indian independent publishing house Zubaan Books. Conversations with a publisher helped them better understand their market and the formats that are used. Their awe-inspiring ideas also moved Urvashi to publish the anthology in English for the Indian market that will be released later this year.

For curious readers like me who want a copy of the collection as soon as possible, #13 Elephant in the Room the next Spring Edition will be launched in May at the Comic Salon Festival in Erlangen. Along with the Spring illustrators, the Indian artists will be represented by Prabha Mallya, Archana Sreenivasan and Priya Kuriyan who will be showcasing their work at the collective stand of Spring and Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan, New Delhi.