Monday, April 4, 2016

On the power of humour and webcomics

Rachita Taneja
An interview with Rachita Taneja by Esther Moraes

“So I’m going to begin interviewing you now”, I declared awkwardly, as I looked at the animated image of Rachita on my computer. 

Having been friends for close to two decades, Skype calls are not unusual occurrences for us. This time, however, was unique. 

This time, I was interviewing her – not Rachita, my friend, but Rachita, the creator of Sanitary Panels, a webcomic that is slowly, yet surely, gaining attention for its sharp indictment of Indian society, politics, and everyday sexism. 

Rachita has commented on a number of political developments, frequently critiquing the Modi government, interspersed with occasional observations on the ridiculous problems of daily life in urban India.

Sanitary Panels, 19 October 2015

As a Senior Campaigner at Jhatkaa, Rachita is an activist by occupation, but she is also an active participant in social campaigns outside work. One example of this is the Save the Internet movement, which began in response to the net neutrality debate.

Rachita particularly enjoys talking about the Save the Internet Coalition, and her work as part of it. “With net neutrality there was a massive learning curve for me. This was really thrilling for me, being an activist and having to deal with something that was so new – I went from knowing nothing about it to being an almost semi-expert on it.”

In response to the net neutrality debate, 14 August 2015

“Experiences like this one definitely influence what I draw,” she says. “If I can’t work formally on these issues, I still feel like I need to contribute to it in some way. Through the comics, I can add my own voice to the movements. It’s the same with the current JNU situation – I’m not physically participating in it, but I do feel like I’m part of it by drawing about it.”

While SP has gained an increasing number of followers on Facebook over its two year life span, a comic Rachita made on the JNU issue went viral and resulted in a sudden burst of attention. With 10,000 followers, and its newfound reach of hundreds of thousands of Facebook users, Sanitary Panels has now started getting greater attention in both print and digital media (TOI, 7 March 2016; India Today; Vagabomb).

The comic that went viral, 19 February 2016

Does the viral growth intimidate her? “Oh man, definitely”, she laughs. “Initially, I felt like I could draw whatever I wanted to because no one would care. Now, I’m much more aware of the kind of comics I’m posting and the things I say. I want everyone to know that this is a progressive comic which is primarily political in nature. I don’t post more than one non-political comic at a time anymore. I mean, I’ll still post them once in a while, but I want to ensure that my audience is frequently exposed to political ideas, whether or not they agree with them.”

With the new audience, did she feel an obligation to comment on certain political issues over others, I ask.  “Well, with the sudden growth of my audience, I knew that the next SP I would post would be really important. I knew that I wanted to expose this new audience to something related to feminism. My view is, if you don’t understand or agree with feminism then you shouldn’t be following my Page. So I re-posted one of the older comics, just to test the waters. And the reaction to it was very positive, actually –  that post reached more than 200,000 people!”

Sanitary Panels, the re-posted comic, 29 February 2016

Sanitary Panels began in 2014 as a quick doodle, created in sheer frustration while she talked to her friends and brother about digital censorship in India. This was shared on social media, and, because of the surprisingly positive response it received, her doodles became a regular affair.

I ask her what most affects what she draws, work or her personal beliefs. “I think it’s a combination of the two”, she responds. “I frequently draw things I want to work on, but I also make comics in response to things I see on the news. Usually, issues that I work on are also issues that I feel very strongly about personally, like marital rape for instance. Sometimes I may want to make a comic about something, but I can’t – either because I don’t have an idea that is ‘SP worthy’ or I feel like I’m not equipped to talk about it. I didn’t make a comic about the Union budget, for example, even though I know it’s a very important issue, because I don’t think I can say something substantial about it.”

Sanitary Panels on marital rape, 12 March 2016

We move into discussing the comic itself, and, more specifically, the style of the comic. Does the rudimentary stick figure drawing inhibit her? “Oh, loads of times. There are certain issues I just cannot communicate through SP: race and sexuality, for instance. In a B&W comic, how do I show anything other than ‘generic white stick figure’? Or how do I show a girl with a shaved head? I can’t show the intersectionality of feminism, which I think is a real problem.”
“But I’m inspired by webcomics like xkcd, which always makes its point beautifully using the same style,” she adds. “I know that I have to find way around the limitations of my comic. Like, instead of depending on the drawing, I can show race and sexuality through the text I use. I’ve only made one comic that touches on race issues, and I thought that it was done quite cleverly. But I really have fun drawing SP, I like how it’s developed into its own style – doodles on a notepad that are scanned and uploaded to the internet.”

Made in response to “Travel is your Passion? All Lies”, an article about the problems of international travelling as an Indian

“But if I ever do teach myself to be an artist (if anyone considers this art!), then who knows, maybe I’ll develop another comic outside SP with its own illustrated characters and full colour!”

“One final question”, I say. “If you could pick any one of your comics as your favourite, which would it be?” Rachita laughs and cocks her head to the side, thinking about this quite seriously. She takes a while to answer, and finally says: “I don’t think I can pick a favourite, but some do stand out. I learned how to use humour without spelling it out when I drew about someone who publicly disagrees with the government. And I thought the comic I made about Rohith was really sharp – I took a long time to develop that one. But it’s probably the silliest ones I like the most, since they’re the funniest.”

16 June 2014

On Rohith Vemula, 18 January 2016

10 September 2016

Sanitary Panels is now featured on The Ladies Finger, a feminist e-zine in India, as well as