It was the year 2014. People were being detained and arrested for Facebook posts and circulating "anti-Modi" messages on WhatsApp. And while these detentions caused an outrage, they made Delhi-based Rachita Taneja want to do something more in-your-face. "I thought if they want to arrest people on the basis of what they say on Facebook, I'll give them something to be mad about," she says.
That's how she made her first comic strip, and posted it on Facebook.
The comic strip Rachita made in context of arrests made under section 66A of the IT Act.
"At the time they were just doodles I drew on my notebooks and shared with my friends," says the 24-year-old. However, she found that people started to like them and share them widely, prompting her to make a Facebook page for her comics.
And so Sanitary Panels was born on June 15, 2014. "I knew I wanted the name to have to do with something taboo," says Rachita, "and maybe there were a few sanitary pads lying around," she adds as an afterthought.
And while Rachita knew her friends and family liked her comics, she didn't think it would become as popular as it did. Currently Sanitary Panels has more than 20,000 followers on Facebook and features comics on a variety of issues such as environmentalism, LGBTQ rights, politics, net neutrality and feminism.
Rachita says that her comics are based on the injustice and hypocrisy meted out by the powerful and privileged in the society.
While Sanitary Panels is more of a self-expression project, Rachita works with an NGO and identifies as a human rights and animal rights activist. She has also received her share of internet hate ("Rape threats, physical violence, had all of that thrown at me."). But her primary aim is to start a conversation with her comics.
"To start any conversation, it is important to have a platform to speak. Through social media, I think I can expose people to varying perspectives," Rachita says.
But in an age of keyboard warriors, do internet debates and discussions translate into real life change? "I have no way of quantifying or checking the impact my comics have made. But I have received feedback from people telling me that they hadn't thought about an issue in a certain way till they read my comic," Rachita explains. And that, Rachita says, is a start.
One such example is this strip, which she made on the language games governments play.
Rachita concedes in an earlier interview to Youth Ki Awaaz (YKA) that the popularity of the comic also owes itself to social media waves. She told YKA's Shambhavi Saxena that people are more likely to relate to or read something on feminism when someone like a Salman Khan makes a comment about a difficult shooting making him feel like a raped woman, because people are already talking about it.
"Another tactic is to be controversial about something," she said, pointing to a comic she made about the furore around JNU earlier in the year. The third way to go about it is bringing people in with something popular and then once you have them hooked, subtly start pushing 'feminist and political commentary'.
Rachita's style is distinct, with its bare stick figures and handwritten quality. While it began as a result of her inability to draw too well, she says that she chose to stick with the style even after the comic became popular because it makes the content, "accessible, shareable and funny."
The burgeoning popularity of her comics has led her to consider options like merchandising. However, whether the comics will go in that direction depends on her audience’s reactions. "For now I'm happy creating them as a means to express myself and start a conversation," Rachita says.