Female comic artists Drawing for a better India

Drawing the line Workshop
Drawing the line Workshop | Photo: Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan New Delhi

A workshop for women graphic artists was held in New Delhi last year, at a time when a protest movement against the widespread rape of young Indian women was just beginning to take shape in the large country. The workshop culminated in a book called ‘Drawing the Line’. In the book, the participants reflect on their lives in Indian society.

Larissa Bertonasco, slim and upright, is sitting in her studio in a former vicarage in Hamburg-Winterhude in Germany. A book with a red cover is lying on the table in front of her. Many different sketches of women throng the cover. The title: Drawing the Line. The black-and-white visual stories are all the product of the Indo-German drawing workshop held in New Delhi, which Larissa Bertonasco helped conduct.

‘The stories, they came very naturally, on their own. We were just talking amongst ourselves and a great deal happening even when we were establishing contact with each other. For instance, what may have been normal for them, we had to broach once again. Come again? What’s that then? For instance, I still recall that we did not know the word “eve teasing”, which is commonly used in India. It means the rather crude public harassment of a woman, whistling, perhaps hassling them in an even more unpleasant manner. That was something that was mundane for them, something they no longer even noticed.’
Central issue: How do women see their lives in Indian society?

Fifteen young Indian women artists took part in the workshop on graphic stories. This was in early 2014, at a time when a large protest movement was beginning to take shape for the first time in India – against the rape of young Indian women, with incidents increasingly coming to light. How do women see their lives in Indian society? This question was the focus of the workshop.

‘The process of drawing or creating a story is a highly intimate one. And I believe the willingness to open up and to actually show something that moves you, this was of course a very protected environment for this.’

The graphic works illustrate a range of widely differing aspects. Talking of parents whose sole concern is to marry off the daughter. Illustrating the often unequal education opportunities available to girls and boys. But also showing – very amusing – how an unborn girl is already practicing kickboxing in her mother’s womb!

‘Because one has the same language, namely drawing. It is simply a means of communication that works without words. There is a real closeness. It’s wonderful to experience this. I think musicians must feel the same way. That’s a language where one can communicate with others, can share thoughts.’

In Hamburg, 43-year-old Larissa Bertonasco works primarily as an illustrator. She became famous because of her illustrated cookbook, "La nonna, la cucina, la vita", a collection of recipes from her Ligurian grandmother. And she is a member of the SPRING artists collective. A fluctuating number of women who bring out a self-financed and independent monothematic issue containing graphic stories, collages and sketches once a year.

‘I do believe that we were an inspiration with SPRING. We also gave a talk, we highlighted all that we do. And showed that these feminist issues are certainly not our primary concern, we are only women, we have to fight for our freedom. We are simply women and we do this as a matter of course. And the Indian women were hugely inspired. Said, we have to do something like that here too. Lovely to see that something like this can also be infectious, can also give you courage.’

The workshop participants all come from relatively liberal families, are studying art or are already working as illustrators and can therefore also be multipliers in Indian society
Larissa Bertonasco is thrilled with the angry, serious but also humorous stories which started in the workshop and have now been collected into a book – Drawing the Line.

‘I think the story of Samidha is a great story also because it is so typically Indian. She describes this issue of eve teasing. A perfectly normal day when she goes out of the house and crosses the street. The come the men, whistling after her, “tz tz mhh” – and she, who was so small before, discovers her own power and becomes the goddess Kali who draws on her own strength to defend herself. The men explode, shatter, and in the final drawing she is sitting completely relaxed, drinking coffee, smoking a cigarette and winking at the reader.