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Interview: Kripa Joshi

On a peach coloured background, a woman of colour jumping. She is wearing purple ballet shoes and a purple one-piece swimsuit with white-grey patterns scattered on it. Her eyes are wide open and her hands are stretched open on both sides. Her hair is brown and open. She is throwing multi-coloured confetti. Beneath her is a blue circle. In a semicircle to her right is the typography, in purple: Throw kindness around like confetti!

Kripa Joshi, an Illustrator and Comic Artist from Nepal, is the creator of Miss Moti, a character who defies stereotypical notions of how a person should look, feel and be. Kripa’s own experiences growing up as a plump person and her struggles with weight, have informed and inspired Miss Moti. Kripa self-publishes and sells her work online and at comic conventions. She has displayed her art through exhibitions at various platforms over the years, including the London Transport Museum, The Lightbox in Woking and the Comix Creatrix exhibition at the House of Illustration in London. We thank Kripa for taking out the time and energy for this interview.

Shikha Aleya (SA): Kripa, on the website dedicated to Miss Moti, you have mentioned your painting called Hippo, where happy hippos are having fun at the borders of the painting, while a plump predecessor to Miss Moti stands uncomfortable at the edge of a pool amongst slim people. This contrast between happy animal and insecure human, what does it say about our notions of beauty and acceptance?

Kripa Joshi (KJ):I was trying to show that unlike other animals, humans tend to compare themselves with others and feel inadequate. A hippo happily wallows in water without worrying that it has a huge body but we are surrounded by insecurities and questions of a “bikini body” or “beach-ready body”. It suggests only a certain type of body can enjoy these activities. We need to value the person more on what they are on the inside. My elder daughter is at an impressionable age and always wants things that are “beautiful” and to give her an example I tell her that the true test of a cake is how it tastes, not how it looks.

SA: That’s true! Also, beauty and sexuality manifest abundantly and in diverse forms in nature, defying any efforts to narrow the scope of either. In your experience, what is it that leads people to confine these facets of life, or for that matter, make the effort to expand the scope of what is accepted and appreciated?

KJ: The notion of beauty is a construct of society. Every culture used to have their own notion of beauty, but with globalisation and the Internet, the definition of beauty seems to have narrowed.

In nature too there are concepts of beauty. In a lot of the animals the male will put on a show of beauty or prowess to impress the female for procreation. The evolutionary reason was to seek good or strong genes. Humans have however taken it further and used it as an identity in itself and as a label to pass judgement on others.

SA: In a recent online interview, you have said of Miss Moti, “The moment she becomes absolutely free, she also becomes naked. It’s an innocent kind of naked more than anything else; it’s about being true to yourself.” In thus being true to yourself, you grapple with issues of identity, which is at the core of the experience of beauty and of sexuality. What are some of the most significant issues of identity that you have grappled with, growing up? Please tell us something about yourself – your experience of life and the influences on you as an artist.

KJ: I was very insecure growing up and I used to compare myself with others and used to find myself lacking. For example, I used to think I was overweight in school, even when I wasn’t, because I was comparing myself with those who were slimmer than me. And so I struggled with the identity of being ‘fat’ and ironically with the idea of being ‘pretty’. Somehow being told I was pretty when I was young made me feel worse about my extra weight because I felt I was not achieving the ‘potential’ I was born with. And I think I tried to compensate for this by placing my self-worth on opinions of others and tried to seek their approval to make me feel better about myself.

Low self-esteem is something I struggle with to this day. And that insecurity directly resulted in the creation of Miss Moti because I wanted to create a body positive character that could inspire me, and others like me.

SA: Kripa, thank you for sharing this with us. On the subject of inspiration, you have spoken of your brush with post-natal depression in connection with your ‘Motivational Monday’ project. Would you connect illness and wellbeing to how we feel about ourselves and our perceptions of what others feel about us?

KJ: When we talk about health it is very important to talk about mental health as well. A person could look great in their outward appearance but be suffering within. This past year we have heard of so many cases of suicide, by high profile individuals who on the outside appeared to have had everything going for them. This just goes to show that there can be a big disconnect about what we feel vs how others feel about us.

We need to expand the notion of what it means to be healthy. Also, often, it is our mental insecurity, rather than physical ability, that stops us from achieving or even attempting something. So I wanted to counteract that with my Motivational Monday (also known as Miss Motivation) project, where I have shown Miss Moti engaged in various challenging activities which would seem unlikely for a fat person. And in most of these activities I have tried to find real life examples, like a fat ballerina or a fat person who trekked to the Everest base camp. It was important to see that such actions were actually possible and not just in the realm of Miss Moti’s fantasies.

SA: Most of us are introduced to concepts of beauty, body, acceptability, desirability and sexuality from birth, through infancy, at home and by the families that raise us. What does it take to create questioning and shifts within this foundational environment?

KJ:  I think a lot of the imbalance in society is because we focus a lot on the gender of the child. I have two young daughters and I am very keen to raise them to be strong girls and women. I saw a fascinating documentary about raising gender-neutral children. This affects everything from how we address or talk to the children, to the kind of clothes they wear, or toys they play with and the activities they are involved in. It means not telling a girl that she is “beautiful or pretty” all the time and not to excuse a boy’s bad behaviour with “boys will be boys”. It is about making sure we inculcate confidence in girls and empathy in boys.

This is especially important in South Asia where the patriarchal construct places different values and expectations on girls and boys. These are the foundations on which we build the concepts of self-worth as well as consent.

SA: On a macro note, do you think it is possible to shift the expectations of audiences, and consumers, of art and popular recreational forms, to create a wider acceptance and enjoyment of diversity? What would be some of the factors that could support this?

KJ: Yes I do think it is possible. This is what I have been trying to do with Miss Moti and more recently with the Miss Motivation series. I have been trying to depict an under-represented part of society, whether it be a woman protagonist, a fat protagonist or a brown protagonist.

Citing my own example, when I initially made Miss Moti, her skin was lighter. But after some feedback I intentionally made her darker for the Motivational Monday series. When I created her I was only dealing with the issue of weight, but I realised that by changing her skin colour I could make a bigger impact in representation of diversity. So I made that change because of engagement from the audience.

There have been several recent examples of actors, movies and events being called out because of their lack of representation, like for the Oscars. With social media it is easier to create and distribute diverse art and also to voice the need for diversity. So it needs engagements and awareness in society. Change will happen once enough people demand that change.

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