Sonaksha Iyengar’s drawings often feature a girl: sometimes she has planet-spangled dark, long hair spreading over her head like a galaxy; sometimes she has her eyes closed, brooding; sometimes she peeps out of her blanket, silently asking her maths teacher if she can count stars instead of apples and oranges.
When I meet the Bengaluru-based graphic artist in a café, I feel like I recognise the girl in her drawings. But if I had unconsciously expected a bit of artistic flakiness or millennial flightiness in her, there is none. This 23-year-old woman, whose Instagram series on mental health is a whopping success, is confident, mature and sharp.
Our conversation over plates of chilli-cheese toast makes it evident that she knows what she is talking about, and illustrating. Given the sentimentalism that usually accompanies talks on mental well-being in the public domain (with celebrity mental health campaigners like Deepika Padukone often found dabbing their eyes suggestively), Sonaksha’s clear-headedness on the subject is persuasive.
Her Instagram series, A-Z of Mental Health , which illustrates a mental disorder for each letter of the alphabet, has been widely viewed and commented upon. The drawings, made using watercolour and digital media, are simple, brightly coloured, and come with bits of explanatory text.
Sample this: For ‘G’ she has ‘Grief’, showing a woman sitting on her haunches, eyes closed, head bent, in G shape. Raindrops, in sunshine yellow, leafy green, fuchsia pink, keep falling on her head and all over her. The accompanying text says: “Grief does not come with a time stamp.” The idea is further elucidated in the comment space: “You can’t ‘get over it’. Grief doesn’t come with
a manual, nor does it come in steady doses... It looks different for everyone. It’s already really difficult to breathe and be when you’re drowning in grief so support and compassion are really important. Be kind.”
The need for kindness is one of the threads in the weave of Sonaksha’s work, which has now moved beyond A-Z to cover everyday issues of living and coping, like her messages to “Dear Brain” or the Garden of Kindness series. Being kind includes being kind to oneself, as the drawing of three delicate-looking flowers suggests. The text goes, “There is nothing in nature that blooms all year long so don’t expect yourself to either.”
Before she found her forte in illustrations, Sonaksha had been writing a blog on self-care and body positivity when she was in high school. “Over the years, I felt the need for a safe space where people could engage in conversation about mental health issues, and simply be, without feeling mortified about what was going on in their heads,” she says.
She chose to speak in the social media arena, this time with her paint brush, because graphics was the medium where she felt most at home.
What’s the norm
Sonaksha’s posts draw comments from people who often thank her for saying what they couldn’t. Her pages on Instagram and Facebook have created a symbiotic space: Sonaksha often makes an illustration to go with a line of wisdom somebody has shared. Her eyes shine when she talks of the positive response her work has received, which, she says, “makes you feel less alone.”
The aloneness that comes with not being able to think and behave like the rest, especially in this digital age, where everybody seems to suffer from a surfeit of happiness, had bothered Sonaksha. She wanted to tell herself and others like her that “it’s okay if you are not having a great time.”
Ironically, people around her, including relatives, had assumed that she too was having a great time, what with being young and socially privileged, and were surprised when she started seeing a therapist.
“Everybody needs therapy: a psychological disorder can affect anybody, even if they are doing well in their studies or jobs. I was tired of how people associated mental issues with craziness. I felt the need to emphasise that mental illness is ‘normal’ and that even an apparently healthy person might have it,” says Sonaksha.
It is not that Sonaksha has drawn only from personal experience. Against some letters of the alphabet in the A-Z of Mental Health series, she has listed disorders very few would have heard of. For this, she researched intensely for two months, reading online articles, seeking her therapist’s help and attending group meetings where people discussed mental health issues. “You cannot exactly understand what’s going on in other people’s minds, but you can get an approximation,” she says.
Sonaksha says she paints primarily for herself, to see her thoughts laid out on paper, formalised. Now that she has got a regular job, she doesn’t get much time for herself, but still paints compulsively. She hopes to come out with her own illustrated story book one day. Who is her favourite author, I ask. “Jerry Pinto,” she replies, and I give her a mental high-five.