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An Indian woman in a bright magenta sari smiles as she sits on a wooden swing in a small gallery space. On the walls are pieces of colorful square fabric with hand-stitched messages.

A place for Indian women to do… nothing

Namma Katte (“Our Space”) connects mental health, art, and public spaces.
Filed Under
Written by
Vidya Krishnan
Artwork by
Indu Antony
April 23, 2024
Read Time
4 min

In a small shutter shop behind a crowded railway station in Bengaluru, if you know where to look, you will find the rarest of rare things: Indian women at leisure.

Public spaces in India have always been hostile to women. In 2021, as intimate partner violence peaked during COVID, private spaces became hostile, too. That’s when Indu Antony rented the shop, called it Namma Katte (“Our Space” in Kannada, the local language), and invited women to do… nothing.

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“Initially, we would just sit together,” says Antony, an artist-in-residence at the Museum of Art and Photography in Bengaluru. Her project “Mindscapes Bengaluru” put mental health in conversation with art and public spaces. “I wanted to make sure that women doing nothing becomes a part of our public memory,” she told me over a Zoom call. She imagined a space where women did not have to be constantly productive nor looking over their shoulders when out in public. At Namma Katte, leisure is the organizing principle—and a political act of resistance.

Though women outnumber men for the first time in Indian history, women continue to be a gendered “minority,” struggling on a daily basis to occupy public spaces, especially after dark. Antony’s art is changing that reality in small and unexpected ways. Allowed to be at leisure, women started producing art that explored themes of mental health, grief, sisterhood, and safety.

Antony started the project with no real end goal. She liked to knit, so she started doing that with the women who wandered in. Then one woman asked if she could stitch something she was upset about. When she stitched the words “I cried a lot when he beat me yesterday,” she opened the floodgates for other women to use knitting as a medium to share their stories.

The women condensed their stories to a line or two and recorded them on a piece of blouse fabric:

I felt uncomfortable when my husband’s brother peeped into the bathroom.

He drank a lot yesterday.” 

I woke up after the acid attack knowing that I lost one eye.

Soon it snowballed into 547 stories. Around the same time, the Wellcome Trust, a health research-focused philanthropy, approached Antony for a public art project. She proposed Namma Katte. The stories were stitched onto a 23-foot-long skirt and displayed at the Museum of Art and Photography.

The textile exhibit—featuring stories of heartbreak and violence and scarcity and fear—has had a strong impact on the communities it holds a mirror to. In one case, four men tried to set fire to the exhibit. Antony was there and confronted them. “When I turned around, thirty women were standing behind me, ready to defend their space. I realized the landscape of Namma Katte had changed; women were starting to own up,” Antony says.

The space itself is still in use, something like the “room of requirement,” the secret room from the Harry Potter series that could provide anything students required of it at their moment of need. Women come together, hold hands, cry, mourn, share, and laugh. There’s a swing and back scratcher too—for those itches you can’t reach by yourself.

The exhibit, displayed between April and August 2023, has grown since Antony conceived it. Next month, Namma Katte will travel to the State of Fashion biennale in the Netherlands, with new stories and a fresh textile exhibit that combines mental health with the water crisis faced by the women of Bengaluru.

Top image: A woman enjoys the swing on the opening day of Namma Katte, February 28, 2022.The swing is meant to make the space feel like a place where women can relax. The inscription says, “Come, swing.”

Photo: Vivek Muthuramalingam

Filed Under
Black and white portrait of Vidya Krishnan
Vidya Krishnan
Krishnan is a journalist based in India. In her nonfiction debut, The Phantom Plague, she deconstructs the global tuberculosis response. Read more from Vidya Krishnan.
Indu Antony
Indu Antony is an artist based in Bangalore, India.

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