Keerthana Kunath’s work addresses stigma and identity in rural India

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Kunath’s project, titled Naduu, pictures young women and girls where she grew up. Using photography, she hopes to stimulate the dialogue around sexuality and mental health


Calicut fashion and lifestyle photographer Keerthana Kunath attended the National Institute of Fashion Technology in New Delhi, India, after which she pursued a career in jewellery design. More recently, she refocused her attention on photography, studying fashion photography at the London College of Fashion. Her work is aesthetically compelling, but it also delves into social and cultural issues, including stigma, conditioning and identity. Many of her projects are rooted in her rural India upbringing, notably the lack of dialogue around sexuality, mental health and the body in this context. 

© Keerthana Kunnath
© Keerthana Kunnath

Can you describe your experience of growing up in Beypore, Kerala?

I fondly remember Beypore’s beautiful nature and pleasant people. Looking back now, I can, however, appreciate how conventional the society was and how much it influenced my upbringing. For instance, growing up as a young girl, we were always told how to dress and talk in order to fit into the perfect ‘good girl’ box. It is almost like there are walls that the society builds around children to mould them to fit someone else’s belief system. Such patriarchal and narrow-minded attitudes left me perplexed and unsure of my own capabilities.


Is there a message behind your project, Naadu?

Naadu is an examination of societal conventions in Beypore through the eyes of a little girl who grew up there. The work is an attempt to see a younger version of myself in the same area after 10 years. I’m trying to convey that many girls like myself and Ananya [a girl in the project] are inquisitive about the world beyond our town and want to break free from the cocoon that we live in. I want to stimulate discussions on topics, including mental health, sexuality, the body, menstrual health, relationships and gender through the work – vital subjects that are not discussed enough with young girls, leaving them clueless. 

I wish schools taught us about sex education and the importance of menstruation health in addition to science or maths. The right to education and information should not be confined to textbooks that simply teach skills for a minimum profession but should also assist a person to thrive as a human being. I want to encourage young children from small towns to be interested, to ask questions, to express their opinions, and to follow their hearts. 

© Keerthana Kunnath

Tell us more about this portrait [above]. 

There’s a lack of dialogue around mental health where I come from. When you live in a bubble of societal conventions, you get imbalanced about your own opinions and beliefs. This image of Aarsha sitting in the living room on a dreary day is representative of me while I lived in Beypore: confused, depressed and longing for a conversation.


How did you come to practise photography?

As a jewellery designer, I began photographing my designs during my undergraduate studies. After working on successful commercial campaigns in India, I became aware of beauty and gender ideals prevalent in commercial photography, deciding to explore the themes of gender binary and relationships in my own work. 


How would you describe your photographic practice? 

I enjoy photographing people open to exploring intimacy and sexuality. Sociocultural issues, such as heteronormativity and LGBT partnerships, were not discussed in my hometown. It’s a conscious decision to investigate themes that are still unspoken in rural India – places like Beypore – to unearth experiences that were either missing from my childhood or the community in which I grew up. 

Izabela Radwanska Zhang

Starting out as an intern back in 2016, Izabela Radwanska Zhang is now the Editorial Director of British Journal of Photography in print and online. Her words have appeared in Disegno and Press Association. Prior to this, she completed a MA in Magazine Journalism at City University, London, and most recently, a Postgrad Certificate in Graphic Design at London College of Communication.