Reading Vidyun Sabhaney’s simply sketched graphic story, there’s much to relate to. In the days following the gang rape of a young physiotherapy student in New Delhi in 2012, Sabhaney admits to finding it increasingly difficult to keep track of the myriad stories of gender violence, which merged, ‘hopelessly into one another’. Where was it that she’d read about the woman whose fingers were chopped off? Like many of the other 14 stories in Drawing the Line (`695, published by Zubaan), a groundbreaking collection of female visual art, her work is deceptively simple. Musing on the ‘media deluge’ in frames drawn across seven pages, she comes to the conclusion that the story was in fact from a Bengali Patua scroll which she had encountered as part of her research work. “Have I become so used to stories of unresolved crimes that I could see no difference between a mythological tale and a report of a real crime?” she asks.
This is not the only question that will stay with you if you dedicate a few hours to devouring this eclectic anthology of visual stories, addressing issues relevant to the women’s movement. Brought together for a workshop led by comic book artist Priya Kuriyan, the result is a collection that covers topics as diverse as the job market, sexual abuse and the fixation with fairness. In The Prey, Neelima Aryan retells in images, a story that her mother, a Malayalam writer, first told in words. Priyanka Kumar’s reflection on everyday existences is the only completely wordless story, while Soumya Menon subverts the 'Ideal Boy' charts by imaging an ‘Ideal Girl’ who finds the freedom to step out of the moral constraints placed upon her.
Each artist has a distinctive hand, and it’s an absolute joy to encounter a new voice every 10 pages or so. Some stories are set out in the sort of frames that might traditionally come to mind when you think of a comic book.
Others work more like illustrations, with minimal text accompanying full-page visuals, while most utilise a mixture of the two. It’s inevitable that some will speak more to you than others, and I was particularly moved by the gentle power of Hemavathy’s haunting sketches of a woman who had faced sexual abuse within her family.
Faces devoid of features make her protagonist’s experience seem universal, while her use of dots, dashes and lines is nothing short of beautiful. As Nisha Susan (of The Ladies Finger fame) says in her introduction to the book, it’s clearly an excellent time to be ‘a feminist with greedy eyes’.
Each graphic story is preceded by an introduction, helping to connect the reader with the storyteller and the context of her narrative. While some stories are a celebration of the sisterhood (Diti Mistry’s depiction of the ladies’ coach of the Mumbai local trains springs to mind), others are more didactic, reaching out and offering solace to the reader. “Even now, years later, when empty roads are uneasy ways to walk by night, I think of Sharmila’s expanding universe within that one locked room: as Manipur is hers, Delhi is mine,” declares Ita Mehrotra, remembering her encounter with Irom Sharmila. It’s not hard to imagine this becoming your mantra as you step out after dark.
Concluding the anthology, Ludmilla Bartscht, a German artist who helped facilitate the workshop, says that what Drawing the Line shows definitively is that the pen is mightier that the sword.
“It was not about turning everything on its head or about fighting back using the same awful weapons,” she writes, but instead about being “brave, strong, full of love and goodwill.”
Like many of the other creative responses to gender inequality that have been proliferating in recent years, in this the book is absolutely successful.