Published in September 2023
"I would tell my younger self
to stop being such
a good girl"
in conversation with Shreya Muley
Indu Harikumar has been online since 1995.
After attending fashion school where she studied illustration as a part of her course, Indu worked several jobs on the web that acted as forerunners to her later artistic endeavors.
One of these jobs was at the classic children’s magazine Chandamama when it was transitioning online.
She was unsure of what she wanted to do but access to the magazine’s archive prompted Indu to draw again.
At that point of her journey, Indu was unsure of solely pursuing writing or drawing so she ventured into both.
“I felt like a little bit of drawing and writing would help because I was not good at any, which is why
I wanted to hide and do both.”
Matchbox books: A small selection of books made in matchboxes picked up from streets by Indu Harikumar.
In 2008, Indu joined Katha, a nonprofit publishing house as the assistant editor of children's books. Over the years, Indu took up several full time jobs but she prefers working on her own.
“I need some structure but I can't survive rigidity. I work well alone.”
So far Indu’s oeuvre has covered a wide spectrum; she has authored and illustrated children's books, taught children and adults through art, and birthed the avant-garde ‘people-powered projects’ which has opened space for recording subjects that remain unsaid in our society.
In 2016, Indu shared her first “people-powered project” titled, 100 Indian Tinder Tales on Facebook which narrated experiences of people who entrusted Indu with their stories on the dating app Tinder. Nothing like that had ever been done then. The drawings were wonderful renditions of drawings by many European artists.
The project garnered huge traction, especially the ninth story which was Indu’s own experience on Tinder. This set her on a quest of curating & illustrating people’s stories of body, modern-day relationships, sexuality, love and desire.
Since then, Indu has mindfully curated a realm of people’s offline experiences and exhibited them online as stories in the form of illustrations and succinct writing. As per her,
Right Swiping ‘The Kiss’ , Story 9 of 100 Indian Tinder Tales by Indu Harikumar.
“All stories are data.
It tells you about how people behave, and what they are doing. It also gives you new ideas and teaches you things about yourself, things you probably didn't have a vocab for.”
Indu believes in nurturing her multifarious interests.
“I don't like streamlining, it's too boring for me. I have many ideas and I allow myself to do multiple things. I like new avenues.”
While she unabashedly taps into curiosities that lead her artistic trail, this year Indu realized her want for safety and security.
She ensures money inflow not only through commissioned projects but one of the ways she has organically achieved this is through her subscription-based newsletter ‘Love and Longing’.
As an avid chronicler of her work online and someone who documents personal life experiences on Instagram, Indu’s way to go is Digital Wellbeing. While shutting down and moderation helps, she considers the internet to be her community in several ways.
“When I'm looking for something, I can ask a question online and somebody always has an answer, which is how most of my work has happened.”
The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron is one book that Indu revisits time and again. She still follows Cameron’s idea of the “artist date” by going to a dance class without any company. As someone who started by learning Kathak, Indu finds dancing with complete strangers life-changing in several ways.
“Community dancing has given me a lot of self-acceptance and a feeling of being slightly safer in my body which is a good thing for pretty much anyone.”
Indu’s creative processes and body of work can be called a fine counterbalance of antithesis. She is fluid yet organized. She dwells in diverse avenues while managing to pioneer projects that are one-of-a-kind. Passion drives her but making sure it pays is a priority.
The following conversation taps into her unique ways of seeing, creating and developing her artistic practice.
How did the concept of people-powered projects come into being and evolve into their unique process
of research and curated storytelling?
When I did 100 Indian Tinder Tales, I was bored and I asked my friend, ‘what do I do? And she said, 'Oh, you know, there are those 100-day projects, and you should do that'. I was like, those are for people who don't make art. 'Why should I be doing that?' Then I was like, 'Sure, let me do this' and I gave her two options. One was ‘100 Ways To Love’ and the other one was this. I had used Tinder at that point. She said, 'No, don't be corny and do 100 Indian Tinder Tales’. And I was like, 'Who's going to send me stuff?' I would randomly ask people on my Facebook, 'Are you using Tinder?’
It was not something I planned to do, or any of the other projects that came over time. Even now, after all these years I can never gauge the path that any project will take because it's driven by people's stories. There is absolutely no method, it takes its own route.
When I started there was a huge demand for love stories but I eventually realized it was essential to have a gamut of stories that did not just paint Tinder in this happy light where people go and find love. People are complex, and do a lot of nasty things to each other.
It was essential to also document that.
Doing 100 Indian Tinder Tales was quite stressful. I got
a lot of press which was extremely scary because I've been a wallflower all my life. There is fear of doing the stuff that I do, and then this pressure of having to produce it. The kind of acceptance I had while I was drawing anything or sharing those stories, was tremendous for me.
#28, Identitty by Indu Harikumar.
When I first started, I only showed people kissing. I was also hesitant to show any kind of nudity.
Over time I did Identitty which was on breasts and there were people who sent me photographs of their breasts.
They could be covered or they could do whatever they wanted. I drew them as the pictures came to me. To desexualize breasts, I had also asked folks where they would like to be drawn, so I drew breasts in various locations. I don't think any
of the drawings even though explicit were taken down but I am not sure they would survive the censorship that comes
with today's Instagram.
How did you deal with staying true to the essence of these stories?
When I put out a call for 100 Indian Tinder Tales, I didn’t think anyone would write to me and I didn’t know what the stories would be like. There was no way for me to prepare for what happened to me but I'd say I learned on the job.
Over time, dealing with the stories has gotten trickier because I have done projects around gender based violence. It's already very difficult for people to share and then when I'm prodding, it could be triggering.
Now, I run any changes I make by the owners of the stories so that they know that it is kind of representative of what they want. I also ask them to share anything special they would like depicted in their drawings, like some folks talk about their tattoos, their lover’s moles, their favorite dress. I love having this tiny window into people’s lives.
There are certain rules which I put out because some structure is important. Most of my projects allow people to submit anonymously. The stories usually involve another person, so I strike out all markers so they are not identifiable to their friends. I also keep it open for folks who have submitted a story and approved a comic to withdraw a story.
Palanquin Bearers (Katha, 2012) written by Sarojini Naidu, embroidered on cloth by Indu Harikumar.
As an independent artist, have you ever struggled with self-discipline and consistency? How do you deal with that?
Fear really drives me. There will be times when you have absolutely no drive at all and that's when fear is a good way to get there. Otherwise, with my book where I do have a fair amount of time to do it, I used the Pomodoro technique earlier but now I use KanbanFlow.
When you work on your own, you also forget what all you do. It is a great way for me to keep track of what I worked on. On a weekly basis, I put, 'these are the things that you need to do'. It makes me feel good when I can tick those things off. Even small things like exercise, singing, cooking a meal, I like to put it on my KanbanFlow and that helps me.
While volunteering with Mumbai mobile creches, Indu made this artwork titled, Ms Machli From Machili Patnam Loves Van Gogh using seed pods for her first class with children on a construction site.
How have you struck a balance between finding paid projects, along with continuing your personal passion projects?
A lot of times when we see people on the Internet we have no idea how they lead their lives. We don't know how they're paying their bills and how they are struggling with money at all. Money makes you feel safe. It doesn't matter if you're getting all recognition and people are writing about you. You still want money because popularity doesn’t pay bills.
I have worked with many people over the years, and I've pretty much written emails to everyone saying that, 'I'm looking for paid projects, and this is what I do. These are the things that I'm looking for'.
I thought it was okay to be vulnerable and say that.
Even my Instagram is a passion project because it doesn't pay me. It's essential for me that I do projects that bring in the money every month.
“I have absolutely no shame in saying that I struggle making money because I would rather make money than be ashamed of not making money.”
What (books/art/work or travel experiences) and Who (people) have majorly influenced your creative journey?
Many years ago, I went on a three-month residency in Vienna. I was there to make a comic on my grandfather about how he went to school despite being a low-caste person. Though I did very little towards the comic, I feel that there was a drastic change in how I started to think and what I started to produce after that. I was 35 then and felt like I had missed the bus. I felt I was never going to find someone but I tried Tinder and I was very popular. That really massaged my ego and made me feel really great. It also led me to do all the work I have done around gender and sexuality.
“I have realized this - when you're in a new place where you don't know how to toe the line because you don't know what the line is, you have to make your own lines.”
Indu in Vienna during her residency.
I allowed myself to do many things which I wouldn't do here. I considered myself very liberated but I was kind of very conservative in my own ways. Seven years ago, I would have never thought that I would do the things that I've done today. Vienna was a major game changer for me in many ways; the kinds of experiences I had, and as a person who felt like, 'oh, now you're out of the shelf, nobody will be interested in you'. So it was quite an interesting experience which I think started to show in my work.
If there was anything you would like to tell your younger self, what would it be?
I would tell my younger self to stop being such a good girl. I would like to tell that to myself even now.
I did this workshop with young 18-year-olds where they had to write, ‘If you knew me you would know…' and they wrote extremely personal things. It was an anonymous activity and one person wrote, “If you knew me, you would know that I don't care what you think about me.” I wish I could get there, you know?
What hopes do you have for your work?
I feel my work is for myself. It has been a lot of self-exploration. It's amazing that it reaches other people and
helps them deal with themselves too but that has never been the purpose.
I do hope to make money and feel secure. There's a performance piece that I put together when the University of Cambridge asked me to present my work , and it was on Zoom. It was basically putting together all my different stories I have gotten through various projects in a performance piece. I do see myself doing that in person, multimedia interactive performance with art, animation, and all of that. So that's something that I've been quite excited about and want to do. Otherwise I am open to what the world will bring my way and hopefully, I will finish my book.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Photos courtesy Indu Harikumar.
Indu Harikumar is an award-winning visual artist and author who lives in Mumbai, India. Her key works create a safe experience-sharing space for capturing stories on gender, body, modern-day relationships, sexuality, love, belonging and desire.
Indu fills her bowl of musings, interests, suggestions and recommendations!
1. The Whole Truth’s milk chocolates
2. How to Feed a Dictator: Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin, Enver Hoxha, Fidel Castro, and Pol Pot Through the Eyes of Their Cooks by Witold Szablowski, translated
by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
4. Social dancing like Bachata and Salsa has changed my relationship with touch.
5. Thallumaala on Netflix (if you understand Malayalam even better)
6. When you need some hope, read Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke.