India

The woman who draws other people's Tinder dates

Tinder dates Image copyright Indu Harikumar

Indu Harikumar is the brains behind #100IndianTinderTales, where she illustrates Indians' experiences of online dating. She tells the BBC what motivated her project and what it has grown into.

"You must have a European lover." Those were the words of my Russian flatmate as she pushed me to try Tinder.

I was 35, just out of a relationship, in Vienna on an art residency and very reluctant. I felt I stood no chance at love or even meeting anyone worthwhile. Plus, I didn't speak any German and was worried that men I right-swiped would be at my door looking for sex.

But jet-lagged, and with nothing to do, I installed the app. Soon I found it was not only a great way to meet locals, but also, the fact that I was brown in a predominantly white country meant my "dateability" was very high.

Over the next few weeks, I walked out of museums, into cafes and was always asked if I'd like to go to the "Indian store". There was cake and wine, art and banter, and lots of laughter laced with serious flattery.

Image copyright Indu Harikumar

After my three months in Vienna, I came back with a fully massaged ego and decided to try Tinder in India.

Whether it was Delhi or Mumbai, it was all the same - I didn't last a day. Random men I had not matched with were finding me on Facebook. I was no longer an exotic stranger.

This sudden drop in "dateabilty" led me to conduct a social experiment. I invited people to send me their Tinder dating stories, which I hoped to turn into illustrations.

I ambitiously called it #100IndianTinderTales but wasn't hopeful. Why would people open up to a complete stranger?

But I went ahead, put out the call, messaged friends on Facebook and fired up Tinder on my phone, telling myself all misogyny would be turned into art.

My first post was just that. A man I had matched with opened with, "spit or swallow?" When I said "spit", he told me Tinder wasn't a place to answer such questions unless I wanted to be labelled a "characterless woman".

I quickly swiped left and turned that into this drawing.

Image copyright Indu Harikumar

Eventually Indians both in India and around the world began sharing their stories with me. These revealed that online dating was not as simple as it's made to seem.

There were urban women in my age group who were struggling with feelings of anxiety and shame. Their worries ranged from "what will my friends and family think" to "am I being slutty" and "but I am divorced, what about my child?"

Then there were the younger people who swiped when they were bored and breezed through the experience.

For some, these relationships would never turn into real life interactions and, yet, they were very important, while for others it was a way of understanding relationships before agreeing to arranged marriages. And for some others, Tinder was for fleeting encounters.

But the common thread I saw was that for all of them, their phones had become private, judgement-free spaces where they could search for entertainment, validation and, most importantly, connection.

Image copyright Indu Harikumar

A young girl from Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) shared the story of a man she met after being rejected several times because of her height.

"I decided to offer him sex so he wouldn't reject me. But surprisingly he said he wanted to know me better first. We planned to go on a date and found out that we had a lot in common and he had no problem with my height (which is a very big deal for me). We have been dating for four months now and I have never been happier in my life."

A gay man who requested anonymity talked about how Tinder helped him find love.

"Obviously we couldn't say 'I love you' in the company of other people so we came up with a code where we would bang the table or any surface to the beats of We Will Rock You and it became an important sound for us."

Image copyright Indu Harikumar

Sexuality can be tricky, given that it is influenced by so many factors which are then reinforced and reiterated by popular media.

In India, where Bollywood is a major influence, women are still often portrayed as sex objects with zero agency. Indians are still very secretive about sex so it was very heartening to see several women opening up and sharing deeply personal experiences.

Like this one - "It is the coldest thing I've ever done - to pursue an intensely sexual encounter with an absolute stranger from whom my heart wants nothing. It also makes me feel alive. We meet and have a spectacular night without an ounce of sleep. I get a cab in the early hours of the morning and as I ride back, there's a smile on my face, a glow in my body and an absolute absence of guilt."

Others confronted societal taboos like having sex during their periods by sharing conversations between friends before a Tinder date - "Pro tip: Just put a dark towel on the bed. Go for it, babe!"

Image copyright Indu Harikumar

Over the past two years, I have sought personal stories for various projects around dating and sexuality and I still hear stories from complete strangers about Tinder dates.

Although this wanting-to-meet-the-soulmate is a constant story, I also hear from women expressing the desire to meet new men not just for the possibility of love but also to discover themselves.

#100IndianTinderTales eventually evolved into a project where women talked about sexual agency. They discussed among many other things, the preference for "rough sex" over love-making, what it meant to be sexually fluid, sexting, physical abuse, extra-marital affairs, homosexuality and fat stigma.

They created a space for others to pitch in and started a small, safe community. They asserted themselves as sexual beings who were taking control of their bodies and their minds. Their willingness to share their stories, without shame or embarrassment created a community of people saying, "Me too."

Some of the illustrations from #100IndianTinderTales are on display at the Kunsthalle Bremen museum in Germany as part of an exhibition called What is love? The exhibition is on untll 27 January 2019.

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