There are two kinds of art, we’re told. The kind that hangs behind glass cases in museums to drop French words like ‘l’art pour l’art!’ in front of. And the kind that wastes no time conveying its message. Today, even high-speed internet connections and instant messaging are constantly being revamped to capitalise on the flow of information, and it’s important for an art form to be both simple and striking. So it’s easy to see why a series of stick-figure comics by ‘Sanitary Panels’ has nearly 15,000 followers on Facebook. To figure out what makes Sanitary Panels tick, we caught up with Rachita Taneja, the artist behind the immensely successful comics and Facebook page.
A digital organiser who’s worked on environment and human rights, and net-neutrality in India, Taneja started the page in 2014. It was in response to the arrest of students who had criticised India’s newly-elected Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. “They were using Section 66A to arrest these students,” says Taneja, referring to a time when the very tech-savvy Modi was monitoring ‘threats’ to his public image. “I got angry and made my first comic about anyone who speaks against Modi being jailed.”
Since 2012, Section 66A of the Information Technology Act has been invoked to make multiple unconstitutional arrests, especially over statements made online, and it became the very first issue that Sanitary Panels took up. The Supreme Court of India decided to scrap this draconian law last year, but given that arrests were being doled out like free cars at an Oprah Winfrey show till then, wasn’t Taneja running a risk? “I’m super privileged, so the chances of someone targeting me for that comic would be very low.” And it was important for her to use her privilege to call out the bullshit.
Two years and 150 comic strips later, the stick figures and sanitary napkin logo have become fairly recognisable symbols. “I wanted it to be confrontational,” she explains. “Even with the logo, the name. Menstruation is a taboo in India. Women are punished when they are menstruating, and there’re so many superstitions around it, so I wanted it to be confronting and descriptive of the kind of comics I would make, or the kind of issues I would deal with.”
Feminism, LGBTQ rights, censorship, communal violence and more find their way into this no-fuss format. But these issues aren’t really everyone’s cup of tea, especially in a space dominated by panda videos, and memes (often the storehouse of sexist tropes). That’s where Taneja’s background in digital organising and mobilising comes handy.
“One way to push out your message is riding a social media viral wave,” she says. “If there is a Salman Khan ‘rape comment’ type of moment happening right now, and you talk about feminism, people will try to understand it a bit more because there’s already a conversation around it. Another tactic is talking being controversial about something.” Taneja did this around the time of the JNU protests earlier this year when the debate on anti-nationalism had reached fever pitch.
“One of the reasons my JNU comic went really big was because people were arguing in my comments section. Some were sharing it and saying ‘I don’t agree with this,’ and others were sharing it and saying ‘I completely agree with this.’ And then the third way is to be super-relatable,” she says. “You bring in people with a populist issue – a comic about puppies or game of thrones. And once you have that audience, who has liked your page or engaged with your content, you then very subtly start pushing out feminist and political commentary.”
A stick-figure with a feminist agenda. Who’d’ve thunk it? Maybe its’ the artistic choice – that home-grown, rough-notebook feel – that makes it so popular. “It wasn’t a choice, I just can’t draw that well,” laughs Taneja. “It definitely started off as something I did on the back of my notebooks, something I could communicate easily and quickly. I didn’t even expect it to get that big. I wanted to share my comics with my family and friends.”
But oh did it go big. Now, the series has acquired a style and aesthetic of its own, and is not likely to change. “I’ve tried digital drawing and it just didn’t feel as natural,” says Taneja, but she also shared with us a few challenges that Sanitary Panels faces. While the stick-figure isn’t gendered, per se, Taneja finds it hard to represent the gender spectrum: “If I want to draw a guy, I’ll draw no hair or short hair; If I want to draw a woman, I’ll draw long hair or a ponytail or whatever. But if I draw a stick figure who doesn’t identify with any gender, people will not immediately see it, unless I specify it.”
But that hasn’t stopped Taneja from trying to build conversations around gender and sexuality in her comics. And it’s working. “People have told me they find my comics informative and funny, which is what I’m going for. I’ve gotten comments from people saying they really like how I simplify issues for them, or point out the ironies of Indian politics or patriarchy in a very simple and easy to digest fashion.”
But anything that garners those who wanted to learn about feminism or equal rights also garners a rabid troll audience. “When ScoopWhoop did a listicle with some of my comics, there were a lot of really horrible things said about me. Like ‘call Rachita, let’s fight her,’ or ‘let’s rape her,’ things like that.” She remembers that the ScoopWhoop community itself had to intervene, but things aren’t all gloom and doom. “On my own page the community has actually been quite civil. There’s this amazing mechanism – whenever a troll questions feminism or is a right wing advocate, other people who like my page will come and comment, and defend my work, or my stance, because they believe it too, so that’s amazing to see.”
When we think about political humour, the associated names are usually Euro- or West-centric – you’ve got your Jon Stewarts or your John Olivers. Even South Africa’s Trevor Noah works primarily out of the West. But that doesn’t mean that India hasn’t had a rich tradition of its own. As far back as the post-Independence period, cartoonist R K Laxman began making his now-immortal ‘Common Man’ comic strips. Today, the very irreverent ‘So Sorry’ animated videos run on a national news channel. Even though the free-speech debate comes up every now and then – and has taken on new dimensions because of internet use – the space for political comment still exists, and Taneja is making use of it. So before we went our separate ways, we thought we’d get Sanitary Panels’ unique take on the following situations, and she most sportingly obliged: