Being Aishwarya Arumbakkam



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Genesia Alves talks to Aishwarya Arumbakkam about Bandra, her new project, and being a woman in Mumbai.

Aishwarya Arumbakkam comes in the door, her wispy fringe standing up from having cycled to our flat through ridiculous Bandra traffic. You’re likely to forget how young she is when you’re talking to her. This baby-faced 20-something combines the ballsy, feisty gumption of a crime reporter with the keen, intuitive eye of an artist. It is a potent combination. Her black and white photography gets under your skin. You look. You look. You can’t look away.

Her last exhibition, Items, was a series of everyday women, dressed as classic vamps, doing everyday things. Her previous exhibition, Stalked, featured victims of stalking portrayed with such delicate vulnerability that it makes you feel voyeuristic, predatory.

Aishwarya is from Chennai. She studied Film and Communication at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. She finished her stint at NID with a six-month exchange program at École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs, Paris. Then she moved to Mumbai. Specifically, to Bandra.

As we chat during the day, I realise this young woman kowtows to no imposed gender boundaries. Where did you get your feminism from, Aishwarya?

“It’s the only place I see myself living in,” she says, “here. It’s community based. I prefer small stores to malls, walking to taxis, knowing my neighbours. It’s safe. It’s affordable. There is always something to do, someone to meet.” One of Aishwarya’s hangouts is Duke’s on Chapel Road – a decades old eatery with great malabari parathas, kheema, dal-fry and reliable tea, popular with the old locals and the young people from around the world who now call the area home.

But Aishwarya doesn’t just hang out in Bandra. A friend runs a football camp for underprivileged kids in a gigantic slum in Reay Road. This is no Dharavi. You don’t read about this slum in the paper. Tourist buses don’t go there. It is a parallel universe. It can be dangerous. She finds it heady and compelling. “The dominant population in the area I shot was Tamil,” she says. “Signages, advertisements, music, food, language – it was a jolt back to another time in my life. It’s funny what familiarity can do. It put me at ease. I love how edgy, dramatic yet vulnerable the whole space is. There are no facilities, terrible sanitation. It’s beyond awful. But there’s a constant buzz.”

As we chat during the day, I realise this young woman kowtows to no imposed gender boundaries. Where did you get your feminism from, Aishwarya? She shrugs. “I’ve always been fiercely independent. And then, your everyday experiences contradict that, oppose your instinct, your behaviour, try and force you to conform. I was always feminist, but being in such a patriarchal society just enhances it.”

In one picture in Items, a trained physiotherapist sits in the twee costume from the song “Mera Naam Hain Chin Chin Chu” in the film Howrah Bridge. A far cry from the coquettish Helen, she holds a dumbbell in one hand, perched on an exercise ball. It’s funny. But not “ha-ha” funny. “Items was the most well received and understood body of work I’ve done,” says Aishwarya. “It was fairly sharp, yet playful and that attracted a lot of people to it.”

Stalked is more disturbing. “It was a reaction to several things around me,” she says. “Our bodies, the way we view them, the issue of stalking, its portrayal in popular media, being a woman in an urban environment. Documenting this was tougher for the victims than me. They opened up, put themselves out there. The process of making the images was cathartic. It created a space to accept themselves, their bodies and take a step towards moving on.”

Aishwarya’s day job is in commercial filmmaking. She throws herself into it. “TV commercials offer me excellence in terms of budgets, aesthetics, scripts, technicians. A lot of it is very creatively satisfying. But a majority of commercial work is governed by paradigms that don’t always allow you to voice your own opinion. Hence the importance of having a parallel artistic practice.”

Her new project has begun. It deals with her environment, the body, mindset. It will make waves. What’s scary for a young woman in Mumbai in 2015, I ask her. “Living here as a woman is scary,” she says, “But what is liberating is that it’s the only city in India you can still probably live as a woman, without going absolutely crazy.”

You can find Aishwarya Arumbakkam’s work on her website.