By Saaz Aggarwal
I had never really given much thought to my vagina until a local tabloid asked me to write about the vagina ‘beautification’ surgeries that are trending in India these days. They are supposed to make vaginas ‘aesthetically pleasing’. My vagina always an important part of my body, but I’ve always preferred to have it nicely covered up most of the time, and never gave it too much thought even while in actual use. Soon after the column appeared, Art2Day, a Pune gallery, invited me to participate in a Women’s Day show with an art work and a piece of writing to go with it.
Until a few days before this, my writing and art had been quite separate, and naming a piece was the only time they came together. At the January 2017 Art Mandai show — an event where artists sit with vegetable vendors at Pune’s Mandai market to sell our wares — I had combined the two for the first time. My products included a series of plastic placemats, incorporating an image from a previous work, and a poem to go with it.
Since the process of discovery of vagina was fresh in my mind, it was a natural choice for one of my Women’s Day themes. I picked up a length of plastic pipe lying neglected in my garden and got to work.
I had a few insights about vaginas and sex. First, for practical reasons, a woman can’t really spend a lot of time enjoying the beauty of her own vagina. Our bodies are not constructed to do so. So if a woman has a surgery to make her vagina ‘beautiful’, who was it supposed to look beautiful to except her sexual partner?
I find it difficult to believe that a tighter vagina, or a longer penis, actually do enhance sexual pleasure. Or perhaps they do. And perhaps Santa will climb down that chimney bringing presents at Xmas. I mean if Santa came down your chimney some night, it might feel like Christmas. Or not. Depends on the Santa and depends on the chimney is what I say. Who knows. The world is a strange place.
I mean, the world seems to include men who get sexually aroused by pictures of new-born infants’ vaginas and women who don’t really mind being operated on. The men seem to want their sexual partners going through medical procedures that involve anaesthesia and surgery to look that way.
Thinking about vaginas, I became aware of a faint regret — that I had not been more conscious of my vagina in its heyday, by which I mean when I was younger. It made me want to tell all the young women I knew:
“Hey! You know what! There’s a part of your body that nobody can see and it’s really important, ok? Nurture it and love it and always respect it. Never cultivate a relationship with anyone who uses it as a cuss word. And while you might wish to share it freely with others, be wary of the ones who exploit you; who use it for their pleasure without thinking about your pleasure, or emotional needs.”
Despite these insights and convictions, when it came to depicting a vagina in art, I felt confused. Wasn’t it possible to represent female genitalia without having people see it as obscene and vulgar? Without evoking shame? Traditional Indian art often portrays the yoni in cold stone or with geometry but I couldn’t relate to these. And I wasn’t inclined to invoking mystic sacredness or awe for fertility. I wanted to create something that would express life and beauty, and perhaps the private whims of a woman, in a non-titillating way. I talked about this to my friend Ramya and she directed me to the work of the American artist Georgia O’Keeffe.
A lot of O’Keeffe’s work is abstract and one of the themes she is best known for is her evocative close-ups of flowers. When critics described them as a symbolic representation of women’s genitalia, O’Keeffe is said to have consistently denied that intention. For my purpose, however, flowers were perfect. The reproductive organs of plants, they are usually colourful, lively, sweet-smelling and attractive.
This reminded me of my indignation against the tradition of men wooing women with flowers. Given the associations, isn’t it in fact more appropriate for a woman to offer a prospective lover a bunch of flowers? Nudge-nudge, wink-wink? But no, the romance rule-writers are firm: flower-giving is a one-way transaction and to transgress it would be ridiculed; the man would feel bewildered and probably run away.
Deciding to overlook the power hierarchy as irrelevant to this project (for the sake of situational convenience), I started painting women’s faces around the pipe, giving each one a flower approximately where her privates would be.
To start with I felt diffident, because I had never done anything like this before. Most of my work has not required any particular skill at drawing because, to be perfectly honest, I haven’t any. The last time I tried to actually draw anything was way back in Biology class, when the teacher held up my diagram of a frog so that everyone could guffaw at it along with him. It’s true that a lot of my work is imbued with intricate detail, but ah — that is really just my skill with the pen.
When I took up painting, I started with a series of contemporary urban India, simulating a traditional Indian folk style. They were colourful and funky and didn’t require an understanding of perspective, anatomy or architecture. Their focus was showcasing the incongruity of our daily lives that we are oblivious to: like the lines of couture the media presents, while ignoring the laundry lines hanging from windows, far greater in number and relevant to far more people..
And that’s when it struck me that my tribute to the vagina was doing something similar: showcasing a part that was essential but hidden; hidden because it was feared and misunderstood, because it had the power to raise feelings of guilt and horror when confronted. It made me feel sorry for my vagina, for having neglected it and not given it the attention it deserved, for even considering it a nuisance quite often. I resolved to be as affectionate and indulgent — as possible.
I kept drawing, and when I saw the result, what surprised me most was how important the theme was to me. One of the women somehow had a foetus growing inside her. Another had white hair. There was variety in the flowers, and there were women there with vaginas of different kinds.
As I painted a rich maroon background to reflect period blood, a thought arose from within: “Omg this pipe is 20” long. I should call it ‘Mine is Bigger Than Yours’!”
But then my vagina self showed me a better way. This was not a competition. And everybody doesn’t appreciate sarcasm. And sarcasm isn’t the only way to have fun. And if you have to depict a whole vagina, it would have to be extruded therefore it would actually have to be quite phallic. And most of all because I just want it to be a celebration of something beautiful and precious that can be private but not shameful, not silent, not suppressed or repressed. Just shared at your own discretion.
Saaz Aggarwal is a writer whose body of work includes biographies, translations, critical reviews and humour columns. As an artist, she is recognized for her Bombay Clichés, quirky depictions of contemporary urban India in a traditional Indian folk style.