"You know art as a subject or people who are involved in it, make it without over-sexualising stuff", says Shreya Josh, a protean handpoke artist, currently based in Goa. When asked about the role of art in demystifying nudity and sex, she elaborates, “In figure drawing (the practice of drawing of the form based on a live model in various poses), I really have a lot of people normalise a women's body and the different body types.”
We were up, close, and personal with Shreya as she walked us through a journey full of struggles, dodging all the curveballs life threw at her. While most of us know her as the passionate, self-taught artist that she is, there’s more to her story. “When I started 4 years ago there was no one doing hand-poked tattoos. Many people in the rural areas did hand-poked tattoos but the contemporary stick and poke culture was turbulent in India. So, I made it my mission to come back (from Chicago) and really make it a thing.” But the transition was slow and steady, for Shreya took things at her own pace. She rose to fame with her work on Instagram as Tender Pokes (@tenderpokes), and her feed is all shades of colour, inclusivity, body positivity, and candor. In her personal life too, she ardently advocates for the aforementioned aspects but had her fair share of challenges growing up.
Josh reminisces some early experiences with her body and how she was fortunately comfortable with it, a remark that holds great relevance in a society that teaches you otherwise.
“I luckily had no issues with my body because I feel like I've been fine with my style — my boobs are saggy because I don't wear a bra so it's the natural state they're gonna be in. There are a lot of things that are considered ‘flaws’ but they don't affect me, like stretch marks on my butt or my thighs. However, during the lockdown when I had to meet up with my family, every time I met someone I would get to hear comments like, ‘you've become so thin’, ‘you've become so skinny’. But, whenever I touch my ribs they feel quite ‘ribby’ and that's something that doesn't make me feel sexy.”
Another instance she quotes about being subjected to such impositions sprouting from teenage years, “I had the longest skirt in my class. I was in 12th I guess and you know how everyone gets their uniform tailored a bit, so the girls get their skirt shortened. My parents never allowed me to do that.” If you’re a vulva-owner especially, body shaming is a recurrent theme in your life. Shreya was no exception to this parade, and it was a lot harder when one’s own family is marching. She adds, “For them (family) it's not like they're shaming you, it's a compliment, but it never comes out like that.”
As she acknowledged how the bodily insecurities are more widespread and such ‘compliments’ can root from years of conditioning, Josh opened up about her vitiligo, and how that shaped her interactions with most people in her life.
“I have vitiligo, on my fingertips and around my lips; it grows slowly. I've had it since I was young and my parents really tried to ‘fix’ it back then. We had visited these doctors and they would advise me to put this lotion on me every day in the morning and sit in the sun for 30 minutes to expose my skin to the sun. It was just so boring and since I was young I've never been able to follow a schedule. I couldn't get up every day and do that, so I never used to listen to these things but it was icky and kind of sexist. It had affected me for a long time because in high school that's something I would feel awkward about.”
Speaking of high school, she still has a vivid image in her head of being pointed at for a birthmark on her face. “So I would get to hear some things from people like ‘oh is there something on your face?’ And I would start cleaning it and then I realised that it's my birthmark they were talking about”, says Josh. So, what was that like for her? She points out, “The vitiligo has evolved, I had it on my face (not so much though when I was younger). I'm glad about it because as a kid it was much harder to deal with...I would be told stuff like ‘you have to fix it’ and when it got bad I would cry and say ‘don't say these things to me, this makes me self-conscious’...Now I let them say whatever they want to, I'm not trying to impress anyone and whatever is happening with my body is a part of my body, and this is something that I can't control.”
Despite being at the receiving end of such remarks, she found love in a hopeful place. And, was that easy? Here’s what Josh has to say:
“I had to go to Europe on a solo trip for two months, like before we (she and her now-husband) got together. So, I was in a very different mental state and wasn't looking to be in a relationship with anyone. But we just had such a strong bond that throughout that trip we were talking every day on the phone. When I came back, we got together. Usually, I used to lie to my parents about going out at night or sleeping over at a guy's house, so I would lie that I was sleeping over at my friend’s house. But with him, I knew that this was such a serious relationship that I will have to just tell them because I won't be able to lie about it often.”
Marriage, however, was never on the cards. It happened partly due to the parental pressure on her end, and even though Shreya quips that the two “bitched about these family/wedding dramas”, they were then gonna fit the ‘cliché’. Getting all nostalgic, she recalls, “I had a love marriage. My husband’s parents are too cool. I was so excited about it, I was living with them for a year, which would anyway be something peculiar according to society. Through the lockdown, we had been living together and he proposed too. On our 1 year anniversary, my parents said that you guys have to get married and you can't have a long engagement.”
“But”, she says, “We became one team and that made our bond stronger.” Be it home to finances, Shreya took cognizance of the poignancy of equality in a relationship. On digging deeper, she reveals, “I've had it easy with my partner because he's really very understanding. Even with my period pain, unlike most men he asks me how my period is every time… And even other things like cooking and all, it is something that I would take a back seat on intentionally, just to ensure that he also does it.”
Circling back to the life-long conundrum related to appearances and sexual experiences, Shreya threw some light on how body hair has been viewed distastefully over the years for many women and vulva-owners in general — her own account highlights adolescence as the rite of passage towards better acceptance of the hair rooted in her body.
“I don't shave, and this one time I was in Goa, people were visibly indifferent to my hairy legs. To make myself feel better, I looked at my uncle's or dad's legs and I'd feel like yeah that looks fine right? Because, if you looked at my hairy legs without associating it with a girl’s leg you would be cool with it, like you would when the legs are that of a male.”
Coming to terms with the mystical nature of sex often begins with mainstream porn. As inquisitive teens constantly questioning the way the world works, we often try to reach the other side but things get lost in translation. A similar feeling clouded Josh’s sexual expedition as she let us in on some of the common misconceptions she used to have about sex, “There was one of course about the ‘things you would break while having sex for the first time’. When I had sex for the first time, it wasn't like oh my god I'm bleeding; I just had an understanding that I haven't had it before and these things happen”. Time traveling our way into the present, she explained how her understanding of and comfort with sexual intimacy became nuanced. “After being with someone in the lockdown I started enjoying foreplay”, she says, “and it used to be something awkward but now it's so comfortable. When I just look back on those one-night stands and hookups, they were all so stressful. Compared to that, sex is now really fun, needless to say, it can also be painful sometimes.”
The awkwardness is still there, and it’s here to stay; that’s what we can play around with. This reminds us of Shreya’s first drawing session back in Chicago: “I was just setting up my stand and all of a sudden a person took off his pants and stood there, everyone else was thinking that's a bit different. (laughs) It was a bit uncomfortable for sure but obviously, they always came to our school so everyone was used to it.” The takeaway? Instead of fixating on shame associated with our bodies and sex, we could just, well, graciously laugh off the goofiness and embrace it with ourselves or our partners.
This is why the modern feminist discourse, with added emphasis on sexuality, pleasure, and sexual wellness has been the need of the hour. With the idea of lubes and massagers being more prominent nowadays, we can see a shift in the narrative — from a repressive & subjugated stance on sex to a liberated and inclusive one. And, isn’t that what art is all about?
You can find Shreya Josh on Instagram here.
Edited by: Anuja Razdan