As an Indian woman, Tinder fascinates me. The dating app’s shopping-meets-hook-up-experience premise is a strong departure from the traditional Indian mindset toward finding a partner — a pursuit that is only ever meant to end in marriage, and which does not typically encourage women to play an active role in making decisions.
So when I stumbled upon #100IndianTinderTales on Facebook — a project by Indian artist and illustrator Indu Harikumar that documents the stories and experiences of Tinder users in India and Indians using Tinder abroad — one of the first things that stood out to me was that most stories featured clearly articulated likes and dislikes, sexual preferences, fantasies, and experiences . . . many of which would be considered scandalous by typical Indian standards.
Indu embarked on this project to find inspiring new content for her daily art practice. Having herself used the app overseas, while on an artist’s residency in Europe, she found it was a novel way to meet interesting people. Since then, her project has evolved into something that’s challenged Indian relationship ideals in powerful ways.
I asked Indu what it means to women contributing to the project, to have the liberty to choose partners for love, sex, and for some, marriage. “In a world where women have always been judged and dismissed based on their looks, a lot of women have told me they feel powerful left-swiping when they see pictures of Tinder users,” she says. “Tinder helps weed out the men you’re definitely not interested in and focus on those who you think may be interesting. It puts us on a level playing field.”
While the West may have a love/hate relationship with Tinder, in India it’s a tool that enables choice for women as they navigate one of society’s greatest obsessions — relationships and marriage. About 95% of contributors to Indu’s project are women, many of whom have shared stories about how using Tinder gives them the upper hand.
Indu says that Tinder has made her question her own social conditioning as well, presenting opportunities to push her boundaries and challenge her inhibitions. This liberation is particularly potent in a country often focused on the Ideal Indian Woman, whose primary role is to look after and preen herself, and to arm herself with the requisite skills that will make her worthy of being chosen for marriage.
In addition to providing women with the powerful ability to make their own decisions when it comes to relationships, Tinder has enabled more openness surrounding the often-taboo topics of sex and dating — and this openness has in turn been cultivated and encouraged by Indu’s project. It is liberating to see young Indian women (and men) talk freely about their experiences, from preferring polyamorous relationships and fetishes for feet, to managing in cities with a lack of safe spaces to hook up, to having period sex, to realizing fucking is more fun than love-making.
I caught up with Indu to chat about her experiences illustrating the whole spectrum of Tinder stories, ranging from raw and unbridled to funny and heartbreaking, and to understand how the app has subverted India’s traditional love/marriage paradigm.
Revati Upadhya: You started this project to give yourself inspiring content to draw. But it’s turned into a large project that’s gone viral. What have you learned from illustrating these stories so far?
Indu Harikumar: What I like most about this experience is that the project seems to have given people a space to share their emotions. We don’t have enough spaces for that. Many times even our closest friends don’t hear us out. Or what we want to share is difficult to just open up about. I find being able to talk about things you don’t otherwise open up about to be a very healing process.
Though we share so much on social media, and we curate the way we want to come across, there’s clearly so much we don’t share. With this project, a lot of the stories were free from those perfect images you generally see. People seem more raw and real. For example, one woman talks about how she likes fucking. I found that amazing, because I am usually not able to talk about these things, even with people I may like or be close to.
Revati: Like me, you’ve also dated in a pre-Tinder world. What is the one positive change dating/meeting people via Tinder has brought?
Indu: The women I grew up around were very clueless about sex. I was always more curious, but women I hung out with never talked about sex. Even if they were married, my age, or we were in private — it never came up. So if you start having sex at a later age, there’s so much confusion in your head. There is also such a taboo even about seeing different men. Most women I have known married the first guy they met and settled. In my 20s, I was told that if a guy talks to you about sex, it means he wants to sleep with you. That was how it used to be.
My Tinder experiences have made me meet a lot of men from different cultures and I have realized I can have many of those conversations I couldn’t before with them.
Tinder has also made me very aware of my preferences; what I like and what I am looking for. When men are open to ask for sex, I am not always offended — I might have been in the past. Also, I now find it easy to say no. And saying no doesn’t always mean we have to stop conversing or communicating. That has been refreshingly different.
Revati: What are your three most favorite stories from the project so far?
Indu: There is one about love and self-sabotage that’s great.
I like this from another story:
“Earlier, my refusal to ever use Tinder was supported by my belief that life is its own dating/hook up/happily ever after app. But clearly, life isn’t enough. Or maybe human nature is just fucked. Maybe human nature is fucked because life isn’t enough or maybe the fact that life disappoints us first makes even more comfortable with disappointing ourselves.”
And I really enjoyed sharing my own Vienna Tinder experience, because it made me feel that I could fall in love again, in the way I could when I was a younger person. And the guy left me with a body-positive message, “Beauty Needs Space.”
Revati: What was the hardest story to relate to and therefore illustrate?
Indu: When I started, I told myself I would not judge. There are many stories where I have no personal reference and find it really difficult to relate. For some women, things like how they come across when they eat a burger on a date matters, but it’s a trivial thing for me. There are other stories of abuse that I am not ready to deal with currently and haven’t gone back to.
Revati: What was the saddest story?
Indu: This story was the saddest. It came to me in the beginning of the project and I wrote back to the person that I really wanted to hug her and I felt such a mixed bag of emotions. She told me that writing it made her feel lighter. In my interaction with her, she said: “Life is too short and we keep postponing things.” At the time, I was holding back from texting someone, and interacting with her gave me the courage to go ahead and do it.
For me, the project is therapeutic in many, many ways. As much as I’d like to disengage, these stories help me deal with my own demons, my own fears. One of the things I love about this project is that in most societies, being vulnerable is not okay, and with so many people opening up, the lab pup in me thinks it has some company.
All images courtesy of #100IndianTinderTales