Born in Mumbai but raised in London, UK, graphic artist Janine Shroff’s work shows signs of an individual who does not completely get the sense of belonging to one particular country. But she is conscious of steering away from showing stereotypes of Bollywood culture and bhangra in her artworks and interpretations of Indian culture. Strongly driven by narrative, Janine’s work has evolved, but rich references to gender and feminism remain through her androgynous characters. As one of the seven artists for Saptan Stories, Janine shares her excitement about working on this massive crowd sourcing event in this interview:
You were born in India and are currently living in the UK. How do you find the two cultures relate to each other, and how does that affect your work?
There is, of course, a long history of British colonisation of India and when younger, most middle-class Indian kids grew up on a mixed diet of Indian cinema and comics alongside English TV and books (“Fawlty Towers”, “‘Allo ‘Allo!”, “Are You Being Served?”, Enid Blyton stories). So it’s interesting when you move away. You notice those differences more clearly as well as the things either side has assimilated or erased. Moving here gave me a different perspective on my work both from a European viewpoint as well as from an Indian one. I slowly became more aware of a lack of brown bodies in European art and that definitely made me think about what I drew in a more considered manner.
What is the perception of UK culture and art in India, and in your case, vice versa?
This is a tough question because, like many people who have moved away from the country they grew up in, you have the strange feeling of being a part of both countries, and simultaneously of neither. I’m not clear on what the perception could be either way and even so, the answer would vary depending on who you were asking. It could all boil down to stereotypes I suppose – Bollywood and bhangra, P.G. Wodehouse and afternoon tea.
How important is it to you to introduce art to people who might not normally see it or have access to it?
It’s important that art is not seen as just for the privileged minority. The perception is that it is not relevant in our day to day existence. But art helps us communicate things sometimes that can’t be said. There are also many studies that demonstrate how participation in the arts can make societies more cohesive, healthy and cooperative. You can never have enough of that!
How do you see storytelling as part of your art?
All of my work has a strong narrative running through it. Within each illustration are many little stories or characters interacting with each other in a particular way, but condensed into a single image.
What excites you most about being part of Saptan Stories?
I really like the unknown quality of what may happen with a live, evolving story, created by the public. It’s both a little scary and exciting because anything can happen. My favourite story of recent years was the one in which there was a public vote to name the polar research ship and submarine. And instead of the planned, serious names, the public went with Boaty Mcboatface. You have to love the public sometimes. I’m still upset they refused to name it that!
Bird-headed humans and masquerade or plague doctor masks are a recurring theme in your work. What do they mean to you?
When I was a teenager I had a small fixation with Egyptian mythology, animal headed gods and with masked people. It was a way to depict very detached characters in my work. I was also very interested and fascinated by androgyny. Over time that developed into both gendered and androgynous bird people that run through most of my drawings. The meaning has evolved into a more abstract one now, but I think it still retains those earlier elements.
Some of your images are incredibly detailed and full of life and storytelling. How much of this is planned, and how much worked out in the drawing process?
Prior to starting a new drawing, I doodle small thumbnail sketches (really roughly) and also email myself some notes of things I want to include. But, a part of the fun and excitement is not knowing exactly how it will turn out. You have a vague idea of where to aim for but the journey is the most interesting part.
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