Anushka Kelkar is a 21-year-old photographer, who recently graduated from Ashoka University with a major in Literature and Journalism. BrownGirlGazin is the Instagram account she started in March 2018, where she regularly posts portraits of women intended to be honest and redefine beauty outside of conventional media portrayals.
Anushka has been thinking about and studying gender for the past four years through literature and sociology, and her series confronts the challenges involved in being a woman in India and the 21st century. The portraits are powerful and eye-catching, with each woman simultaneously displaying vulnerability and confidence in front of the camera. They all narrate their struggles with living in and accepting their bodies, and how this relationship has changed over time. From being called too dark to too thin, each story connects to a larger discourse of body image in society and mainstream media. Now based in Mumbai, Anushka shares the background behind the project and how it has personally impacted her.
Tara Anand: How did you come up with the idea for BrownGirlGazin?
Anushka Kelkar: While growing up, I felt like there was a deep disconnect between how I saw the women around me, and the way women were presented in the media. The women around me didn’t look effortlessly flawless and they all had days when their hair just would not co-operate or their skin flared up. In my eyes, this didn’t make them any less beautiful—I saw it as a sign that their bodies were alive —moving, breathing, rebelling, and living.
As I got older, my social media feeds started to feel more and more curated. ‘Effortless beauty’ became the norm, and I saw a very narrow definition of beauty being embraced. I wanted to expand the way women think about beauty and create a space where women could openly talk about their experiences with their bodies —the pressures they have faced, the ways in which they have been able to change their relationships with their bodies, and their insecurities regarding them.
I did a performing arts course in one of my last semesters at university, and it forced me to really start listening to my body and trying to decode its language. I realised that so much of my relationship with my body was influenced by external pressures that I had never even fully realised or acknowledged, and being allowed to talk about these feelings allowed me to feel a lot more comfortable in my skin. I wanted to create a platform where I was making portraits that weren’t just documenting one type of beauty.
I believe that the images we see around us shape the limits and possibilities of the world we co-habit. By making portraits of women who might not fit into conventional definitions of beauty, and embracing bodies, which haven’t always been celebrated in Indian society along with stories about the experiences of these women I hope to force people to expand the way they define beauty.
iii) It’s black excellence and the recent coverage of it that made me feel a little more at ease with the bright colours. It is icons like Lupita, Janelle Monae, Zendaya and Rihanna really killing it at this game and I thought “Why not brown girls?” Orange may be gaudy, but that should not stop me from looking godly. –@tansquare
TA: In one of your initial posts, you mentioned that your goal with the series was to click pictures which were honest and real, and allowed the subject to work with their bodies with as little interference as possible. Do you think you’ve achieved that?
AK: In some senses, I think I have achieved that—I feel like I’ve succeeded in creating an atmosphere where the participants of this series feel comfortable sharing intimate details about their relationships with their bodies with me, and they allow me to capture them in ways that they haven’t let anyone before. I still find it hard to document women’s bodies without objectifying them, or just allowing them to be. I think this process is one that’s going to go on for a while, and I still have a really long way to go.
TA: What do you do to try and capture an honest photo?
AK: Before I photograph anyone, I ask them to send me a short note about their relationship with their body. It can be as broad as they like, or they can choose to focus on a particular aspect of it but this note really helps me to start imagining their context and allows me to start planning the shoot. Having a little context to their life really helps when I finally meet them to shoot them, because it doesn’t feel like we are strangers. I think one of the most important things required to capture an honest photo are trust and comfort — no one feels comfortable with the camera instantly, especially when they are baring their layers (both figuratively and literally).
For me the process of shooting someone, and seeing them open up on camera is more meaningful than the final outcome and I let my subjects know that if they don’t feel ready to share the photographs on social media after my shoot, that’s completely alright. All these things allow me to build genuine relationships with my participants and they make it possible to make more raw and honest portraits of women.
TA: Do you think being photographed impacts a person’s comfort with their body?
AK: Definitely! Being photographed is a very bodily experience—you’re conscious of how your body is being seen, of how it moves, and what it’s saying about you without you being able to fully control it. I think it forces subjects to acknowledge their bodies and with most shoots that I have done, towards the end I can actually see women starting to play with their bodies more and feeling more comfortable taking up space.
TA: What have some of your favorite experiences been while working on this series?
AK: Honestly, I don’t even know where to begin. I could start with the first photo-shoot I ever did for this series when I wasn’t even really sure of where I wanted this series to go, or how I would present these portraits. It was a really hot Saturday, and two of my friends and I were on campus all weekend with nothing to do. We decided to do a photo-shoot in the pool, which was empty at that point. Both my friends are performers and have done a lot of body-movement and somatic practice performances and have a really interesting relationship with each other’s bodies. We decided to do this shoot without any make up, and with some random clothes and we ended up shooting for almost 3 hours. It ended up being the best first shoot I could have ever imagined—seeing the two of them work with each other, and allow me into their performance and not shy away from my gaze gave me the confidence to actually do this series.
Ever since then, every shoot has been a completely unique experience. From the first participant who was open to letting me take a picture of her in a bra, to two friends who allowed me to capture their stretch marks without even pausing for a second, the people I have photographed have constantly surprised me. Allowing someone to document your body, blemishes and all isn’t easy and every time someone signs up to do this I’m so humbled and inspired.
Gia&Kalpa on a very hot day in a very empty pool. Bodies do pretty incredible things when they aren't being directed or constrained. For me, growing up in India and being a woman has meant constantly fearing my body– never showing too much of it, constantly policing it, and sometimes even feeling ashamed of the stares it brings. On this page I want to make portaits of women and their interactions with their own bodies, and other people's bodies with less shame and guilt. limbs overspilling, heads banging, summer sweat sharing, loud laughter- intimacy exists in so many different forms, and I'm really excited to share portraits where I've been allowed to witness fragments of these moments – – – – – – #ftwotw #featurecreature #blueskinblueprint #fuckbeautystandards #indianwomen #feminism #lookrookie #photographysouls #uonyou #girlgaze #indiaphotoproject #pursuitofportraits #friendsinmyfeed #creative_portraits #thehomegirlnetwork #browngirlmagic #browngirlmag
TA: The photographs are posted with a few lines by the subject about their struggles with body image and conforming to societal expectations of beauty. Are there any experiences growing up that affected your relationship with your body which you can share? How do you think this relationship has evolved?
AK: Like every other woman, I’ve definitely had struggles with my body image and one of the experiences that I remember the most clearly is when a really close friend told me that I would be curvier if I started exercising more. I’ve always been really skinny, and it’s something that I used to be really insecure of when I was younger but over the years I had started caring less and less about it. When he said that though, I suddenly couldn’t look at my body the same way for a couple of weeks. I kept feeling like people were looking at me and judging me because of how skinny I was and I felt totally paralysed.
I was able to get out of that space eventually, but I think that incident just reminded me of the ways in which women’s bodies are often seen as public property—open to critique and feedback from everyone around. I don’t want to hear what people think I should or shouldn’t do to my body unless I ask and with time, I think I’ve been able to take the things that people say about my body way less seriously. No one else knows my body like I do, and I have to have faith in that and choose whose opinions I want to take seriously regarding my body.
TA: Did your university experience affect this evolution in any way?
AK: Oh definitely! I only started thinking about this disconnect as a much larger systemic problem when I moved to a residential college and lived on a floor with thirty other women. For the first time in my life, I heard girls openly speaking about their own insecurities regarding their bodies. “I’m too fat”, “I’m too flat”, “My skin looks like a volcano that just erupted”, “I’m scared no one will ever love me because I’m too dark”, the list was endless. The women that looked perfect to me seemed to be as insecure as me and none of us ever let even a slight hint of these insecurities spill into our virtual lives. We all wanted to be seen as effortlessly beautiful but in the process, the images we were sharing weren’t really honest representations of us. I wanted to disrupt the images of ‘effortless’ beauty to show other women that this idea of beauty that we are all constantly pushing ourselves towards is a total construct, and we need to re-define these narrow standards.
ii) Baring myself this way is a step towards embracing my imperfections that I have, in the past, very consciously ignored. I don’t know if I can still call myself beautiful but I have learnt to feel beautiful and made peace with my imperfections, also making them a sign of my rebellion against lame social beauty norms. Perfection is fucking overrated. Nothing is perfect. It’s all about your perspective that makes you biased. Though I haven’t yet succeeded in loving my body the way I want to but I know I am on the right path and it’s only me myself who can accompany me on this path. –@kanchanuzumaki
TA: In the process of doing this series and hearing all these stories, has your understanding of body positivity changed?
AK: A lot of people seem to believe that body positivity means that you should always love your body, and that you can’t be ‘body-positive’ if you have days where you feel really uncomfortable in your body. Inhabiting a body is a complicated and confusing experience, especially as a woman in India, where there is a very narrow idea of what constitutes as beauty. I believe body positivity is more about the journey of getting to know your own body, and that means that there will be days when you feel completely comfortable with your body but there will also be days where you feel like you hate it. Instead of thinking about body positivity as a means to reach an end, which involves loving your body fully, I think it’s more productive to think about body positivity as a tool to de-construct the beauty standards that exist and to be kinder to your body.
TA: Do you see a relationship between social position and body image?
AK: Most certainly — even just being allowed to think about your body, and comply with beauty standards all comes down to privilege. These standards can only be attained by someone who has the means to spend money on certain brands, and has the time to cultivate their body to look that way. When we think about the obsessions Indians have with fairness for instance, it’s impossible to discuss that without talking about colonialism, caste and class.
i) I was first chucked into a swimming pool by my dad when I was 2 and a half years old. Since then I basically swam my way through school and only really stopped in college because ashoka never had a pool for the first 2 years I was here. I've swam at the districts, state and national levels multiple times — so I've had to swim in all sorts of pools with all sorts of people all over the country. –@nitstagram__
TA: How would you define ‘beauty’?
AK: That’s a really hard question but I’d say being comfortable in your body and inhabiting your body unabashedly; without shame or fear.
TA: What are your future plans for the series?
AK: When I began this series, I didn’t really know if anyone else would care about it. It was just a side project that I couldn’t stop thinking about, but now it has become such an important part of my life. I have met some of the most incredible people through it, and I’m going to continue making portraits of women in Mumbai. If you’re interested in this and you identify as a woman, you can send me a message on Instagram and be a part of this!
At some point in the future, I definitely want to do the same project with men and document their vulnerabilities and relationships with their bodies and maybe also have a podcast where you can actually hear me talking to some of the participants. At some point, I would also be interested in capturing subjects with different gender identities and document their relationships with their bodies and the kind of pressure they face. Honestly, this project has constantly surprised me and surpassed my expectations and I hope the future brings lots more of that.
iii) I pride myself on taking great care of my body. I derive strength from myself–through my posture, my flexibility, my muscle,my endurance. When you're 5 2', you do anything you can to feel bigger or stronger. For me, respecting my body and making it as resilient as possible became key. Fuelling my body and challenging it every day is a way for me to gain control over everything that's bringing me down. I've had a tough time striking a balance between the form I want, and the form that's expected of me. I've been obsessive about 'problem areas' and eating clean. I've beaten myself up over skipping a day of exercise. But I'm proud to be at a stage where I'm both unapologetically narcissistic and have stopped taking my body seriously, in that, I now know how to have fun with it, instead of always stressing. My body is neither a machine, nor a temple. It's mine, and it's growing, learning, and playing everyday. –@kaagniharekal
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