Thousands of pilgrims annually flock to the Kamakhya temple in Guwahati, Assam, for the Ambubachi Mela, a celebration of the yearly menstrual cycle of the presiding deity, Devi Kamakhya. The four-day festival sees the worship of a yoni-like stone that represents ‘Mother Shakti’, known popularly in this form as the ‘menstruating goddess’. And yet, when Mumbai-based artist Aniket Mitra shared his artwork on social media depicting a sanitary napkin with a red, bleeding lotus on it, surrounded by a chalchitra—an artistic rendition that traditionally backgrounds Durga in certain representations—he was abused and threatened, and the piece was taken down.
It seems that our patience and tolerance for menstruation is selective and temperamental. Despite the growing dialogue on the topic, in many sections of society talking about periods still makes people turn a shade of red that could very well match Mitra’s bleeding red lotus. In India especially, there’s been an overpowering silence around this natural female process, cloaked in shame and a lack of awareness. On the other hand, like Mitra, a growing number of artists and activists across the country are turning to various forms of artistic expression to create discourse on the normalisation of menstruation.
It’s not surprising that people have turned to art—when words and debates turn into screaming matches of who can be the loudest, art serves as a powerful tool to make people introspect, spark conversations and broaden mindsets on stigmatised subjects. With a growing arsenal of mediums like painting, zines, installations, photography and digital art, more and more people have found solace for their frustration as well as power in this form to create an impact. 20-year-old Priyanka Paul is no stranger to using her artistic talents to fight the good fight. Paul, better known by her digital moniker ‘Artwhoring’, doesn’t shy away from using her platform to call out society on its misgivings and regressive beliefs, be it in the space of race, caste, gender, sexuality or, in this case, menstruation.
From a menstruation zine to a satirical horror-thriller film poster titled The Bleeding, Paul doesn’t hold back when it comes to calling out the hypocrisy of Indian society and the media for their perpetuation of the stigma. One particular photograph is a top shot of a stark white toilet splattered with blue ink. “Dear Pad Ads, I’ll bleed like you want me to. In blue,” she writes about the image on her Instagram page, alluding to the blue and green liquids that depict menstrual blood in advertisements and campaigns.
Art by Aniket Mitra (right); Menstrual blood art by Lyla FreeChild
Graphic designer Bansri Thakkar too addresses the role of the media in her zine Silence of the Cramp, breaking up her project to address three important aspects when it comes to the dismantling of the menstrual taboo—taught silence, hiding, media and silence. A graduate of the Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Thakkar elucidates on the subject in each section of her project through stories, anecdotes and experiences of people of all ages and genders.
Both Paul and Thakkar have contributed to the work done by social enterprise Boondh. Thakkar was a part of ‘The Crimson Wave’, a first-of-its-kind travelling art exhibition showcasing works in various mediums that address menstruation, and some even done with menstrual blood. Menstrual blood has become a pigment in many global artists and activists’ palettes, including Carina Úbeda Chacana, Zoe James and Lani Beloso. Be it as a way to protest, normalise menstruation, or shock people into dialogue, Menstrala, a term coined by artist Vanessa Tiegs to be the title of her own series of works, is slowly growing into a movement of its own.
In India, it is perhaps only Jaipur-based artist Lyla FreeChild who has used menstrual blood in her paintings. It started in 2014 when she made the switch to using menstrual cups and continued to work with Boondh, creating a larger cup-shaped art installation out of menstrual cups at Prayag, the first ‘Grand Digital India Mela’ that was hosted in New Delhi. She also fashioned them into earrings for herself, using her work to draw attention to the increasing amount of waste that disposable sanitary products create, and the impact this has on the ecosystem.
Equated with other ‘waste and discarded materials’ of the human body, the use of menstrual blood in art throws people off but for many women, it’s about breaking the stigma and connecting with their own bodies. In a country where young girls drop out of school when they start menstruating, shopkeepers wrap up sanitary pads in brown paper bags faster than you can pull out the money to pay for it, and where the majority of the female population doesn’t have access to low-cost sanitary napkins, falling prey to deadly diseases and infection—what role does such artwork play? These artists are among a growing number who aren’t in it just for the shaming of people with preconceived notions about menstruation. More than mere lip service, they are working towards normalisation, and calling for others to own up and work towards the same.
However, it’s debatable whether the blood and sweat of artists putting hours into creating ‘menstruation art’, and then days trying to ensure its survival in the real world, is creating effective, practical impact. Are we just progressive people discussing progress with our progressive friends?
On the one hand, there are still ‘well-to-do and educated’ households where a girl’s menstruation is hushed up and myths of touching pickles and impurity survive. Sexist jokes about PMS and hormonal women make up a chunk of many comedy routines and conversations amongst the country’s youth. But at the same time, we’ve witnessed some unexpected and hard-earned victories, from growing online conversations and awareness initiatives to on-the-ground achievements like the removal of GST on sanitary products. The Supreme Court’s rejection of the restrictions on menstruating women entering Sabarimala temple in Kerala came as a breath of fresh air for a country that seems to be moving backwards in many ways.
Maybe change is happening at its own pace, but it is when the work of artists, activists and organisations seep through the intersections of society that we will truly break the stigma.
(The writer is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist who writes on art and related topics)