Sofia Ashraf is doing the unthinkable – she’s thinking! Not just that, she’s putting those thoughts into music and prose with her videos. Her video, ‘Period Patti’, produced by Culture Machine and available on the Blush Channel has started an important conversation about female menstruation hygiene.
TheDigitalHash got in touch with her and had an exclusive conversation, where we try to unravel the person behind the persona.
So, tell us about Sofia Ashraf, the woman behind Sista from the South.
I was born into a traditional South Indian family. I grew up with a spark of rebellion in my eye and a touch of hot pink highlights in my hair. I have always worn my convictions on my sleeves, my shoulders, my elbows, my knees and my entire being.
With my typical goofy sense of humour, unapologetic voice and a passion for engaging content, I am always trying to explore new media of artistic expression. Through my association with Culture Machine’s digital channel – Blush, I have finally been given a canvas to get my message out. And trust me, I have a lot to say.
What kind of music do you personally like?
I love Jazz, Garage Rock, Post-punk and alternative rock. I love Hip-hop from the 90s.
You have also done playback, how different is that experience from shooting your own video?
Playback tries to cater to a large audience. This immediately put the onus on popular demand over individual voices. When you create for yourself, you have less pressure to impress others. You are aware that people are watching your video to hear what YOU have to say, so you can be more honest to your voice and in effect, your art form.
Today, many rappers use explicit lyrics in glamorous songs. Do you think this is good for the rap scene in India?
I am not against explicit lyrics. Young people have a lot of pent up energy in them. Rap is a medium of passion. Some people show their passion and aggression through foul language. Being a writer, I prefer to go with word play. But, that’s just a personal choice.
What I am against though, is that there is the unfortunate presumption that chauvinism and sex alone sells in rap. Even Honey Singh started off rapping about Bhagat Singh and more serious themes, but had to turn to misogyny to get accepted. But, it wasn’t always this way. Rap, in its essence, is rooted in revolution and strife. It began among African musicians who used it as a form of spoken word. It walked hand-in-hand with the blues traditions. It danced to the crescendo of activism. It flirted with emancipation and had a lusty affair with the crusaders of free-speech. So, this trend of misogyny is definitely not good for the scene in India or rap in general.
Who do you think is the best rapper?
My current favourites are Andre 3000 and MIA.
What prompted you to get into this genre of singing?
Rap combines two of my favourite things. Music and prose. It is an almost cathartic experience that helps me channel my passion and aggression into art.
What drives you to select such controversial topics to rap on?
I don’t see them as controversial topics. I see them as issues that need to be addressed. I have been privileged enough to be given a platform to be seen and an audience willing to listen. 5 years ago, the idea that people will want to hear what a normal, non-glamorous person had to say about the environment was inconceivable. Now that I have the opportunity, I want to use it well.
What inspired you to make Period Paatu?
Sometime in 2015, I made the switch from Pads to Tampons for purely functional reasons. But, within a few months, I got an infection and visited my gynecologist who informed me that our Tropical climate might not be very conducive to using tampons. So, I began research on the effect of menstrual hygiene products on our body. That is when I realised how many bleaching agents go into pads and tampons. Not to mention, the effect of pads on the environment and the plight of sanitation workers who have to handle these pads. My quest was not in vain, though and I soon discovered the holy grail of menstruation. Or should I say, “holy cup”? I moved on to the Menstrual Cup and a year after cupverting, I realised it was as life-changing as it was touted to be. I felt this information was something that needed to be out there and decided to use the opportunity of Menstrual Hygiene Day to speak about the pros and cons of the Menstrual Hygiene Products available to us.
How did you put the video together?
Period Paatu was a particularly tricky video as there was a mountain of research and statistics that I needed to be presented to an audience that liked their information bite-sized and plated with plenty of “lol”s. I used to perform at a musical protest show in Chennai called Justice Rocks where the highlight for me was the Villu Paatu performance. As a format, it is catchy, comical, and quirky and at the same time allows you the freedom to cram a lot of information into the performance. I decided to adapt this traditional form for the modern “medai” (stage) – YouTube. I collaborated with renowned mridangam player – Viveick Rajagopalan to create the track. After watching hours of Villu Paatu performances, I narrowed down on some folk melodies and together, Viveick and I came up with the song.
And when I went down the folk route, I had the luxury of using plenty of folk elements from the kitsch art to the costumes to the comical intonation of the singers. Some observant viewers even noticed that the unicorn costume I’m wearing toward the end is a Sista-fied adaptation of Poi Kaal Kudhirai – a traditional dance form.
Tell us about the shooting experience.
Shooting this video was a blast. We had an 80% male crew and by the end of the shoot everyone was so used to hearing the words menstruation, period and vagina. Not one of them cringed or gaped. What a great way to normalise generally taboo conversations! Everyone from my super talented DOP – Debashis Dalai to my hardworking art director Kaustav, got very excited by the idea and concept, which really helped translate my vision. Even though, I directed the video, it was Apurva Gabhe, my Associate Director who was the backbone of the video.
Have your mom and other female relatives seen the video? What’s their take on it?
I don’t think they have.
What do your male friends and relatives think about the video?
My male friends loved it. Some gave me compliments on the video, some said it was their favourite video of mine. One or two even asked me a few questions about the cup. In fact, it was Satwik Gade – a male friend- who was pushing me the hardest to do something about menstruation.
In the video, you have spoken about steps that the Government should take to promote menstrual hygiene. Do you think women are doing enough for menstrual hygiene themselves?
I don’t understand this question. Are you asking me if women are keeping themselves clean during periods?
On a personal level, do you think Indians are comfortable speaking about menstrual or even genital hygiene?
Not yet. We are hoping to normalize these conversations.
You have been critical of the political scenario in India too, something that Indian artists have been averse to. What drives you to rap on it?
I am born into privilege. I can afford to lose a few jobs in order to stick to my principles. My end goal is not fame or Bollywood. Other artists who are competing in a rapper eat rapper world to make it big, don’t have that luxury.
Will we ever see you going back to the advertising world?
If I do, it will be only for socially conscious brands and accountable corporate. I am naive enough to believe that they do exist…somewhere.