This is me: Shreya Gulati on how her creativity is driven by negative emotions

Being jealous of someone makes me want to do even better work

This is me: Shreya Gulati on how her creativity is driven by negative emotions

I had read the Kama Sutra before I got the call. What’s strange is that it hardly mentions anal or oral sex, despite being one of the most established texts on sex.

Anal sex is a global taboo. It has so many negative connotations. I was enticed by the whole concept of the Durex project. How often do you get to start a conversation around anal sex?

When we created the new positions, we wanted to show them working for all couples, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. Anal sex is often portrayed as a dominance thing or shameful. I wanted to show it is about shared pleasure. I also wanted the images to feel relatable. Regular porn is often one-sided and about domination. It never felt real to me. I wanted people to look at my illustrations and think: “This could be me.” It’s not all balloon boobs and six packs. 

I started out studying communications design and realised pretty quickly that illustration was my favourite form of self-expression. In my work, I create women who are really bold, strong, often naked, sexual and not afraid of how they are being perceived. They are inspired by things I feel I want to be but can’t because of my fears and insecurities. I hope some day I have the confidence to be like them. 

I tend to draw women who are not smiling. I hate it when people tell you to smile more. I can’t tell people to just go away when they say that to me, so I express how I feel through these women who don’t care and are unabashedly themselves.

My creativity is not driven by positive emotions, it’s driven by anger, frustration and jealousy. Being jealous of someone makes me angry and I want to do even better work. I feel like these negative emotions work for me. I take all of those feelings and take it out on the paper. There is a vulnerability that pours out. 

When you’re in a creative space or field, people crave to constantly be motivated. But you can’t always be motivated and positive. I don’t set those expectations for myself. You can be yourself and you can feel down and not motivated. 

My favourite piece of work was a project called “Indianama” (pictured above),  a group exhibition in Delhi where you had to pick a year in India’s history and illustrate why it was important. I chose 1977. It was the year Shakuntala Devi, a renowned mathematician, published a book called The World of Homosexuals, the first book on the topic written and published in India. She had found out her husband was gay and instead of shunning this man and feeling hurt by it, she decided to explore the how and why of it all. There was a political upheaval going on in India at the time, but if the book had received the attention it deserved, inclusion in India would have been very different. 

Books have always been a big part of who I am. I grew up in a very small town in North India and there wasn’t much to do. I was very introverted, hiding in corners reading and doodling. My favourite author is Haruki Murakami. 

The world has turned upside down this year. It has made reading more challenging because I don’t have commuting time to spend reading. It has also made the creative process harder. I realised I was taking all these things for granted, including being able to go out and hear people’s stories. Having no outside experience is intimidating. How do you suddenly start finding a source of inspiration from within? 

My illustration is my food for the soul. But I also enjoy problem-solving in my job as the creative director of a small design company, Houndstooth. I’ve also been saying I want to write and illustrate a children’s book for a while now. So much so that when I was working on the Kama Sutra chapter, my husband kept jokingly reminding me it wasn’t appropriate for children. So creating a book that is child-friendly will be my next project. 

Shreya Gulati is an illustrator and creative director based in Mumbai. Her illustrations are bold, colourful and full of strong women. She worked on the recent Durex campaign with Havas to challenge misconceptions around anal sex. As part of this work, she illustrated “The Forgotten Chapter” of the Kama Sutra, which included new positions such as “The fearless cowgirl” and “Ride the tiger”. 

As told to Kate Magee