We recently had the pleasure to exchange with Indian illustrator Alia Sinha who regularly shares her work on her Instagram account (@minor_grace). Her art embraces multiple topics, such as the relation to the body and sexuality, but also shares political messages and questions gender norms.
Could you tell us a little more about you: where you are from, how did you start drawing?
I am Bengali and based in New Delhi currently. I actually studied a bunch of different things (English Literature, Media and Cultural Studies), and then worked in a wonderful children’s library in Goa called Bookworm, before becoming an illustrator by accident.
It was while working at the library that I became aware of the sheer range and possibility of illustration as a medium to tell stories. I had always liked to draw and doodle, and my colleagues knew this. I sometimes made posters for Library events. One day, they gave me a blank children’s-book dummy to fill with as I pleased. I ended up creating my first comic, a zine of sorts called “An Evolution of Melancholy”. This was the first time I realised that I too could perhaps create comics or pictures, with their own worlds and self-contained logic.
When I left that job for health reasons (a very protracted illness), I spent six months sketching, painting and drawing as part of the recovery process, for the love of it really, as well as auditioning for plays and attending theatre workshops. I had up till this point tried to be pragmatic and focus on building a career instead of my creative pursuits. With the fear for my life kicking in, I experienced a huge adjustment of priorities. It became urgent that I do creative things for their own sake (also since I could not work at the time).
Do you have other art practices?
I have always loved theatre and I have evolved a practice of community-centric theatre facilitating weird games for whoever I could, through my Masters’ Degree and as part of my Library work. When I passed an audition for a sci-fi musical by a theatre group (Barefoot Theatre!), I was able to experience the professional theatre circuit for the first time (we toured on-and-off for four years with that production).
What previous projects led you to become a professional illustrator?
Along the way, in a series of lucky chances, people saw some of my artwork and commissioned me to make illustrations for them. I even designed the brochure for that play I talked about. “Point of View” was one of the organisations I worked with consistently back then. I was one of the illustrators working on their blog on sexuality and disability (now called “Skin Stories”). Most of my other projects came about organically, through word of mouth, or from people who had seen my existing work.
All of this was very new for me and I had no sense of the domain of illustration, no peers to turn to, and no sense of what my practice was. So, in 2018, I applied to study a Masters’ in Illustration as Authorial Practice at Falmouth University, in Cornwall, UK. The course finished in 2019 and clarified many things for me, especially how I understood and contextualised my own artistic practice.
A lot of my work has been with organisations working in the social sector. My projects have varied vastly from designing tarot decks, to editorial illustrations, to animation for films, to posters, to creating imagery for audio-plays, to logos, to banners for websites, to children’s book illustrations.
What I share on social media is closer to my personal art, some of which is explicitly political. It’s a kind of visual and emotive journal.
How would you define your art and what are your inspirations?
I like to see my art as a space for playfulness and political engagement, and I’m keen to explore how to bring performance and graphic art together in experimental ways.
I’m constantly inspired by unexpected sources: literary fiction, K-dramas, cartoons like “Tuca and Bertie”, and day-to-day occurrences. I am especially inspired by a vibrant peer-group of comic artists and illustrators on Instagram, who are socially and politically engaged even as they make gorgeous art. Orijit Sen, MariNaomi, Bakery Prasad, Artedkar, and Upasana Agarwal are some of them.
Sexuality and eroticism are also very important topics in many of your drawings. How do you approach gender norms and the relation to bodies?
I do tend to dwell on love, romance, sexuality and bodies in my artwork.
Culture in contemporary India is incredibly conservative. We see strict policing and surveillance of women’s bodies, queer bodies, non-normative bodies at all levels. There is barely any space or acceptance of free expressions of desire and sexuality. Much of this policing is rooted in oppressive, religious, caste, class, gender and sexual frameworks society is built on.
Navigating this landscape through adolescence and youth meant a constant mismatch between how we’re supposed to be/feel and how we actually are, in terms of developing a relationship with our own and others’ bodies.
Drawing from my own experiences of love and romance, as well as that of my peers, I am interested in showing love, desire, and one’s own relationship with the body as a utopian space. It is a view centred on choice, consent, and personal expression. One that is free from shame, the surveilling gaze, and rigid heteronormative frameworks. I like to draw larger-than-average bodies, as well as androgynous figures. I want to focus on the agency of the people I draw, on their delight and rootedness in their bodies, and the warmth, playfulness and wholesomeness that can be found in exploring their romantic and sexual selves.
While I recognise that this perspective is coming from a place of immense privilege (mine), I still wish it were normalised. And at some level I attempt to normalise it through my artwork.
The image on the right is an illustration by Alia Sinha for a series of eroticism poems from Sharada: “Enough, Let’s Fuck” and Other Poems of Art and Lust.
During the first lockdown in India, in March 2020, you started a series on Instagram in which you share your feelings. How did you experiment this particular period through these drawings?
That was a weird time all-around, I think. Three things characterised it for me: we were suddenly locked in and isolated, all sources of paid work dried up, and a massive humanitarian crisis unfolded in India.
My one instinct to cope with the intensity of that time was to draw. Sharing it online also felt like reaching out to others and anchoring myself in that shared experience. The biggest experiment for me was the continuity of characters and form over about 25 individual comics, since I tend to prefer one-off images.
Extract from the lockdown series (March – May 2020).
In these series, the character of the raven is very present. What does this black bird represent?
The raven in the comics was partly an imaginary friend, partly a personification of the Pandemic as a giant bird, partly a pun (being a Corvid). It was kind of inspired by medieval Plague doctor masks.
You also share political messages on your Instagram account. How do you experience this political engagement? Are you also involved in political groups or activities?
One of the things I gained clarity about within my practice is that I have to engage in some way with the terrible political events in India (and beyond). All over we’re experiencing a resurgence of fascist right-wing autocratic leaderships. I don’t think international audiences have access to the full situation here in India. Like, it’s REALLY very bad. It’s a lot to bear.
Not engaging is not an option. Furthermore, there has to be a way to do so that does not amplify the overarching narratives of despair and helplessness that the media constantly creates. These have been times of great adversity for everybody. In this context, hope itself feels like a political stance.
Even in my artwork I choose to amplify hope and hopefulness. People need comfort, humour, space to feel the overwhelming negative feelings safely. I want my artwork to provide these.
How do you feel, as an engaged artist, within this current repressive context in India? Do you have a particular message to share?
I think that regimes are much less solid and powerful than they portray. They will always collapse in the face of the people (or popular movements). India itself has a rich history of collective resistance movements. I feel it’s important not to give in to the feeling of individual helplessness that the current government’s violence engenders. Collective action is maybe the only way forward. It’s also essential to take the time to rest and recuperate when it gets too much. My message overall is to be compassionate with oneself and to Find the Others.
Do you have any projects you are working on right now or ideas for future plans?
I’m currently working on a graphic essay for an Anthology on Friendship in the South Asian Context. I’m also working on a couple of long-term personal projects which are super-exciting.
One of these is building an arts collective that uses ghost stories as a means of resisting the current re-writing of history the government is carrying out. It’s all very early-stage but there’s hope. 🙂
And someday, I want to make a full-length comic for sure. I want to see it in the shelves of my favourite bookshop in Delhi (The Bookshop Jorbagh).
“Quarantine: Brainstorming on the daily walk from bedroom to kitchen” (left image)