Chauvinism Has Met Its Match: Meet India’s Dissenting Women Artists

Pop Culture

Chauvinism Has Met Its Match: Meet India’s Dissenting Women Artists

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

Art, like a fever, sometimes has mysterious sources. This one begins almost imperceptibly. An older, intimidating girl takes a smaller girl, Megha, to an isolated room. A hard slap and Megha is stunned into submission. Inexplicably, this continues week after week, because Megha fears enraging her tormentor. Then an adult warns her – you might lose your hearing. Anxious, the girl finally resists. She grows up, and channels her feverish indignance into poetry that speaks for the powerless, the intimidated, the abused.

Anecdotes like these are metaphors for society’s own personal biography. At a time when debates about majoritarianism or patriarchy tinge living room conversations and social media exchanges, the voices of India’s content creators ring out defiantly. Foremost among them is Megha Rao. You might know her from her declaration of being a “well read threat” on Instagram.

Emergence of a clear voice by India’s women is a comforting reassurance that their perspective will be recorded.

Rao routinely makes news for her poetry and spoken word performances. She is in her twenties, but already an author of three novels. A few years ago, Rao’s spoken word poem, “I’m in Love With this World” went viral. She is now using these platforms to register her dissent.

I meet Megha over a simple yet unconventional breakfast – macaroni, French toast, hash brown potatoes, and black tea. Megha is seated on her bed with Charlie, her monochromatic cat, forlornly lounging to the side. Megha Rao, however, is someone else. “Megha Rao is my alter ego,” she says. “She’s not just a poet. People see Megha Rao as this fierce kajal-wearing woman with a shawl around her, she breathes fire, she’s a dragon.” The self-imposed multiple personality disorder is a coping mechanism. “I am not her all the time, I am her on stage, or when I need her badly after a terrible break-up, she is someone I look up to.”

A string of damaging bullying episodes while growing up have been parlayed into a career as a writer and a poet. Sample this:

… angry women
don’t give a fuck about
flower crowns and
nice shampoo,
she washed her hair
with his blood and called it

Rao’s early work was two romantic novels. Poetry served as personal therapy for her persistent mental health issues that continued through a Masters in Literature in the UK. She discovered herself as a spoken-word poet however, when her work for Terribly Tiny Tales was spotted by Roshan Abbas of Kommune, a performance arts collective in Mumbai. Performing an eight-minute poem that urged women not to submit to advertising’s unrealistic standards and media manipulation at the SpokenFest seems an emotive inflection point.

Suffused with defiance, her lines protest:

I am not the simple break down of body parts,
the glamorous side to objectification,
another tool kit for ejaculation,
I am the ugly truth, the bleeding tooth,
the need for diets and cosmetic surgery, for breast enlargement and labiaplasty, everything I do is a provocation!

“It’s very overwhelming, people hooting and crying and howling, it’s like emotions all over the place!” It’s an adulation counterbalanced by the intimidation of religious hardliners who chafe at mythological references. “Someone reading this might pelt a stone at you, might stand outside your house with torches, ready to skin you alive!” she quotes her parent’s anxiety followed by endearing entreaties “don’t become too popular”, “why don’t you write about good boys?”

Nasty messages online, societal suppression don’t perturb her. Encouraged by the gratitude of her fans, she’s interested in the serious work of resurrection. “I want to awaken the dead, that’s all I want. It’s not in me to stop. As a person, I’ve always been fearless.” Armed with Instagram, the artist who tackles toxic relationships and political oppression channels spoken word poetry as salvation to those who can’t speak up for themselves.

Art, like a fever, sometimes has mysterious sources.

Rao is only one of the fearless breed of artists, who seem determined to ensure that they are heard. Suddenly the same digital platforms used for the establishment’s propaganda are now the very arena of protest. As India’s socio-political discourse swings between the carnival and the corrosive, courageous content creators are inscribing their own imprint on society’s psyche.

If poetry can awaken the dead, then musical parody can probably nudge them to do a war dance. Not that Jhansi aka Tanvi Rajgarhia had that in mind when she stumbled on to the La Salle College of the Arts in Singapore. An arduous three years of grounding in musical theatre followed before a year of despair and desolation that saw her travel the country attending shows. Until her audition tape, a medley parodying demonetisation and prominent politicians, made the cut on Queens of Comedy – a reality show for female stand-up comics.

Producing punchy musical parody videos has been her preferred path – she’s taken on themes like women’s bodies that are constantly policed, and the state of the media today. In her rousing anthem of a poem “I Will See You There”, co-authored with Megha Rao She takes on demonetisation, patriarchal pressures, and even the CAA. “I don’t set out to change the world, I only set out to say something that pokes my heart – CAA angered me so much.” Her tone is impassioned. “What can I do?… that will last longer than me going out on the street and protesting?” says the diminutive performer.

Disregarding the opinions of children comes naturally to self-absorbed adults. So nobody noticed Saloni Gaur. She didn’t make the same mistake. Today, the opinionated adults she noticed while growing up in West UP’s Bulandshahr are transmuted into characters in the universe of her Instagram persona, Nazma Aapi. Tickling people with topical observations comes naturally to the political science student who still mimics the college principal to amuse her classmates.

If poetry can awaken the dead, then musical parody can probably nudge them to do a war dance.

Standing outside the hostel, Saloni grins when I remind her of the recently viral video featuring her popular persona, the burkha-clad Nazma Aapi’s take on Delhi’s unbearable pollution. “I don’t say anything, my characters are saying everything. It’s not my opinion, it’s their opinion!” she vehemently exclaims when describing the last two years of posting comedic takes on current issues.

I counter, querying her about the retaliation from less tolerant quarters. “I don’t think there is anything to be afraid of in your own country… you are just one tweet away from being a kind of a revolution,” she responds, articulating a defiant idealism before describing what sounds like comedic camouflage. “People on both sides look at my videos so it’s better to keep my political opinions to myself and my parents also say that I should,” she parries back.

These content creators seem eager to use the establishment’s own follies against it. Like fever vaccines that use sub-lethal amounts of virus to immunise the body, they’re sniggering at society’s sacred cows through their parodies and poetry. This emergence of a clear voice by India’s women is a comforting reassurance that their perspective will be recorded. Chauvinism, whether in the politics of society or gender, may have finally met its match. It just doesn’t know it yet.