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Unapologetically Making It: IC Interviews Kaviya Ravi

“Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human being can be taught to feel. Why? Because whenever you think or you believe or you know, you’re a lot of other people: but the moment you feel, you’re nobody-but-yourself. To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”

– E. E. Cummings

As an artist and founder of community space, Studio Pause, I was excited to talk with Kaviya Ravi, a first-generation Indian American from Louisville, Kentucky who was in the new batch of makers on Season 3 of NBC’s “Making It”. The light competition, hosted by Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman, has the best makers from all over the country compete each week as they take on complicated do-it-yourself crafts.

FAMILY MATTERS

Kaviya Ravi’s story starts in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, India and transitions to the US. She comes from a very traditional family, so it’s a traditional story, she says. At 21, she had an arranged marriage to a man who lived in the US. Growing up, arts and creativity were not encouraged as a career path so Kaviya got her degree in science and when she came here, she enrolled in a master’s program.

“I was just so miserable,” she says. “I was not passionate about it. I was always a creative person wanting to explore that side of me. My husband – who is my best friend, we’ve been married fifteen years – he saw how unhappy I was, and he said I should follow my dreams, just go do what I want to do.”

That’s how she enrolled in art school. She got a BFA in interior architecture and has not looked back since.

When I first came to the US from Mumbai, India, it was to meet my sweetheart and his parents. When we got engaged and my in-laws-to-be threw a party to introduce me to their community, I remember how the guests would ask me if I was a doctor. No, I would say. Engineer? No, I would say. Oh, they would say with a smile and move on to catch up with the next person. But that was 22 years ago. Nobody back then was interested in an art director who worked for one of India’s famous advertising agencies. What does such a person do? It was hard to imagine. Mad Men hadn’t been imagined yet. It would air 10 years later… 

My first struggle, however, was at home, when I was 16. Why would you want to go to art school when you have such good grades in science? That was the question.

Left to right: Kaviya Ravi and Sushmita Mazumdar

I asked Kaviya what her family’s response was. Turns out, she actually did not tell them for a long time that she had quit biochemistry. “I don’t think they were very happy with it but, you know what, at the end of the day your life is your own and you follow your dreams. If you’re not happy with yourself then what’s the point?” Her in-laws were probably okay with it—they did not have that discussion, she said. 

I wanted to know more about that wonderful man, her biggest supporter – her husband. I wanted to know his views on her work. She said she was very lucky that in spite of having an arranged marriage she had ended up with this very supportive man who is not afraid to let her take the spotlight. He is also somewhat of a feminist and they believe in equal rights. Their ideologies are similar, and she felt lucky to have someone who is unconditionally loving.

I remember how my fiancé, worried about what I would do for 6 months waiting for my work permit after we got married, had faxed me the application to be a docent at Smithsonian Institution’s Asian Art Museum in Washington DC, where we would be living after we got married. Volunteer at a museum? I was not excited by the idea. But as I watched the fax machine print out the application, I saw the famous elephant sculpture from Ellora caves on the cover page. As I looked at it, I felt a warmth, a familiarity that could comfort me in a new country where I had no family and didn’t know anybody. Little did I know then how the museum would become my school, my most favorite space.

CREATIVITY & IMAGINATION

“The desire to create is the vehicle by which we, as humans, extend our minds and souls beyond the limits of our physical selves.” – Gustav Reyes

Family stories settled, I asked about the fun stuff—her work, conceptual as well as the artmaking. She explained that since she started so late on her journey of becoming an artist, she had to learn to be conceptual as well.

Kaviya Ravi with her handmade chair.
Kaviya Ravi with her handmade chair.

“It’s a thought process for me. Growing up I was so constrained in my thought process my imagination didn’t run wild. So that in itself is a process for me.” To think that you don’t have to restrict yourself in your thinking. You can let it open up now. “I don’t think it’s completely open yet,” she says. “It’s a gradual process. I have to tell myself push it some more, push it some more…”

As for working with her hands—she has loved that forever! “I love feeling my materials go through my hands whether it is yarn or clay, shaping these beautiful objects. Or even just being covered in paint. Notice in “Making It!” I am the messiest maker!…My dad said when the pictures came out, ‘Oh my goodness, you have the dirtiest apron on!’ And I said, ‘Yeah, that’s how I work.’ I feel everything through my hands and it’s everywhere. You are an artist so I know you understand the feeling of all those materials. It gives me so much joy, you have to go through it to experience it.”

I knew exactly what she meant. And I knew many like her. As a book artist, I play with structures and papers that help tell the real-life stories from my childhood, stories I taught myself to write with my American kids in mind. And I also knew exactly how that kind of imagination and creativity can upset others because they cannot fathom where your ideas and skills, curiosity, and play are coming from.

I was recently talking to a CalTech graduate now in his 80s. “When they have stacks of 1500 applications and will only take 300, I asked them what they look for,” he said. “Creativity, for one, they said,” he smiled. I had to ask, “Which STEM schools teach that?” Because research shows that many STEM students don’t even know how to brainstorm. That skill students learn from the arts. Yeah, imagine that!

Kaviya’s excitement and joy show through so clearly. As does her culture. You can’t miss all the color and texture on her and in her work. I know it comes from being Indian because it’s in my art as well.

“In a lot of ways our culture is so loud—in our love, in our conversations, in our love for color. I tend to gravitate towards textiles and textures. It comes from starting any celebration by going to the stores and buying sarees. Spending hours with aunts and cousins looking at so many sarees and buying one!” she laughs.

I relate totally. “It’s all that passion that is in my work. It is almost an homage to all my women and my connection to textiles,” she says. “It’s not like everything I make is Indian, but it is part of my story. Art is self-expression and my story is my tie to my culture.”

Her words take me to a book I recently read, Desire of the Moth, by Champa Bilwakesh. Set in colonial Southern India a lot of the setting was not familiar to me. But the moment the women interacted with their silk sarees and jasmine, I was there! The senses of sight, touch, and smell immediately connecting me with them, with their loves. It made me marvel and wonder: how long have we been connected like this?

Kaviya used to work with Anthropologie but has recently ventured out on her own with her website Khromophilia. It has given her the opportunity to be the woman that she wanted to be. She wants to be a lifestyle brand — her catchphrase: Unapologetically Colorful. Right now it showcases items created by her but she would like to encourage more people to make their creations and bring them to her so she can represent them. “I am absolutely living my version of my American Dream. Coming here definitely opened my eyes to possibilities to dream big, follow my passions even to give up the steady paycheck and to make this work full time.” 

WORK LIFE

The word full-time hit a nerve. I had decided to give up my work after I had my second child and it rankled for a long time. I missed my money. I missed that person who I used to be. But it led me to my new career moving from making art for my clients to making art for myself and my children. As I taught myself how this worked, I taught others. Turns out there are many who wanted to tell their stories to their children and were happy to learn how to do that from me. And they were not just immigrants. 

Kaviya and I discuss the cultural implications for this trajectory and she says desi culture didn’t really affect her. “What does affect me is when people don’t take this seriously, like this is a side gig you do or just like a hobby. I put a lot of hard work into it and that doesn’t get recognized. Being a doctor or a scientist or an engineer are the only things that people take seriously and that is so unfair. There are so many ways to live a fulfilling life and we are all doing our part so that needs to be recognized. Hopefully, someday it will be.”

This statement reminded me of the work I do every day at my community space for art and stories. So many from all kinds of backgrounds grew up having to think of what career they can have so they can get a good job, get married, buy a house… the usual. But where in that equation is finding out what you are good at? Or what your purpose is in life? Or what work brings you joy? So many have shared stories about parents who told them to not pursue the arts, even told them to not waste their time doing that. One young Nigerian man said his parents told him to give it up because he was not good at it.

“Are they artists?” I asked. He shook his head. “So how did they know you were not good?”

This question is always left percolating throughout my studio. I remember a retired editor who visited.

“I have to warn you, my art teacher told me when I was little that I was no good in art,” she said as I gave her a brush.

“What color do you like?” I asked.

“Yellow,” she said dipping the brush into it. I held her hand and helped her brush make a curve.

“I painted a banana,” she squealed, and the others cheered. But I was fuming. How dare an art teacher take that away from a child!

India Currents was born from the first-generation Indian immigrants coming to the Bay area and not having a space of their own. We try to amplify different voices that speak of doing so many different things. For many, there is a struggle that goes with being desi. How do we tell them how we embrace what we need, to get to where we want to be?

Kaviya had so much to say! She said it was definitely a very lonely experience. Being in art school and not knowing anybody who had done it before, she had to figure it out for herself.

“I tell them, ‘Yeah, I’m not a biochemist anymore. I gave that up and I’m going to design school,’ and they just don’t get it. They’re like, ‘How is that a serious thing to do?’ But life is not only about a lucrative career or above making money alone—at least for me, it is not. I want to have fun with my work. When I am 90 years old and in a nursing home, I don’t want to feel like Oh my god I missed out on all these things! I do not want that, so this is the path I have chosen for myself. I might make millions! Who knows?” 

SHOWING THE WAY

Kaviya Ravi on NBC show ‘Making It’.

Clearly, Kaviya Ravi has a vision of what she wants, so kudos to her for paving the way. Being on TV she represents the desi community. Turns out, it was very stressful for her in the beginning. Representing the entire community is a hard place to be at.

“Especially the pressure you are under when creating all these things in the time frame that they give you on the show.”

So she had to think about what she wants people to see her as, what message she wanted to convey about her culture.

“At the end of the day, I want to come across as a good human being and portray my culture and my story in a positive way.” She was happy to be on such a positive show where everybody was so encouraging.

Speaking up and mental health are stigmatized in desi culture, especially in response to desi women. Kaviya Ravi was fortunate that her husband saw that she was unhappy and was able to help her.

“Luckily, he was able to see it and vocalize it,” she said. “Depression is real and I did go through it and even though you see the colorful part of me, I remember being under all this pressure. It’s so new being in an arranged marriage, to being a wife. I am a child-free woman, and I chose this lifestyle for myself. It is something so not-heard-of in the Indian community and all this really got to me.”

Her husband encouraged her to seek help and also got her a puppy, Zorro, who had a positive impact on her mental health. In fact, he was scratching at her door as she spoke with me over Zoom, she said, laughing happily. “It’s your life and if you don’t want any of those things you don’t have to. And ten years from now if you change your mind you can absolutely do that,” she explained. “I am not ashamed to say I go to therapy—everybody should. Taking care of our mental health is so important. I don’t understand why there is a stigma connected with that.”

The burden of representing an entire nation became a joy. Many resonated with her story and got in touch with her saying, “I’m getting married and I’m already being questioned!” 

As an artist, I know how sensitive we are and how we feel everything from our inside and outside worlds. Our art is often our way of processing it all and creating something out of it—be it novels, poetry, paintings, dance, or music. 

HOME

“I am 37, so in a few years I’d have lived here more than I would have lived with my parents back home, and it feels like home. Louisville is home. It’s hard back in India because I have been away so long people don’t connect with me. India has moved on and I have also moved on,” mentioned Kaviya.

She feels like she is in the middle. “Sometimes it gets lonely because I am American, but people don’t see me that way here. You can understand we are all that way. You just take the best of both and keep positive and create a community for yourself.” If there is one thing that would come out of this show, she says, is finding that connection, because she has been to that lonely dark place where she felt no connection with anybody. “If I can provide that connection to somebody that’s all I want really. That’s it.”

Then there is pushing the boundaries of what mainstream media might consider art done by Indian Americans. But art is so subjective in everybody’s eyes Kaviya says. The media will broadcast what feelings her art projects and she hopes viewers can just absorb it and enjoy it.

Kaviya wants all the women watching—irrespective of their culture or background—to knowing that we all have the common patriarchal society where we take a backseat. “None of us have to follow the rules set for us, none of it. It’s all in our heads. Break out of it, follow your dreams, follow what you are meant to be. Life is so short, so just be you and do you.” Do not compare your life to anybody else’s, she points out because everybody is on very distinct journeys. “Our stories are so different and it is so unfair when we compare our own success or what we define success to somebody else’s. So just follow your own path, concentrate on what you want to do, enjoy it, and dream big.” 

This is Year 8 of my studio, a space where anybody can share their art and stories. I believe when we get to know each other, our knowledge of people and community changes; we become more accepting of each other. That’s what I have been doing here and that’s why I am curious about what Kaviya said about using her work to build community.

She was excited and thought it was wonderful. “I wish I lived closer! I want to connect with more people…best ideas are born from collaborations and all of us working together…Are you on IG? I will find you right now and we will connect!”

“Art is Fun. Art Heals” is the title of a write-up by a person who is part of my community space. She is a therapist and wrote this piece for our current community project We PAUSED! A handmade book by Studio Pause. The collection chronicles the creative process of the Studio PAUSERs during the pandemic from Feb 2020-Feb 2021. How did they process it all and cope with the anxiety and the uncertainty? 

Sharing these stories can change how we understand what art is and who artists are. And the range is all around us, if only we care to look and learn. Kaviya did not make it past week three of Making It, which airs on Thursdays 9/8c but her story has already been viewed by millions. She is on her colorful way and enjoying the ride. How many of us can say that? How many of us will give our dreams a shot? And to imagine that we already have it in us, as South Asians, those colors and textures from our heritage which can help with that. Then we can have more reasons to celebrate it all!


Sushmita Mazumdar is a self-taught writer and book artist, writing stories from her childhood for her American children and making them into handmade storybooks. Encouraging everyone to share their stories of home, heritage, and migration she opened Studio Pause in 2013 mixing community voices into her own work, allowing cross-cultural collaborations and dialogues to inform her creations.


 

I Decided to Paint and Give 100 Ganeshas After COVID Hit the Bay Area

2020 has been a challenge for all of us and will be etched in our memory for our lifetime.

Painting was always on my bucket list and in February  2020 I decided to enroll in art class. But as luck would have it, just after 3 classes, COVID happened. My art teacher asked me to continue practicing painting with the advice “Just believe in yourself and you will do it”   

March 2020 arrived and gave the whole world the gift of time with nowhere to go. After much soul searching, I decided to devote an hour or so every day to pursue my passion for painting. I realized there is nothing to lose and I would improve by learning from my mistakes. I decided to paint for an audience of one – myself. 

My first painting was in March 2020 when ‘Stay at home’ was first announced around the globe.  I decided to paint to bring calmness and peace to my anxious mind about the uncertainty looming around the global pandemic.  I decided to paint Ganesha, the remover of obstacles, as I always visualized that Ganesha up there was guiding me and watching out for me. Painting was like meditation and was truly therapeutic, engaging the brain cells in a very unique way.  

The best part was that I was very inspired by my first effort and decided to continue painting. I am truly grateful for the encouragement from my hubby, daughter-in-law, daughter,  and son. Their honest feedback and the perfect gift of an artist table on Mother’s Day helped me to better focus on creating artwork. 

I shared pictures of my artwork with friends and family via social media. My next-door neighbor was very impressed and asked if I could paint Ganesha for her. Suddenly my passion and free time had a purpose. One thing led to another and in the span of 365 days,  I have created over 100 paintings and shared or gifted over 85 paintings with neighbors, coworkers, family, and friends around the globe. 

Beside Ganesha, I challenged myself to line art with topics that evoke serenity – like ‘Newborn bond,’  ‘Meditation,’ and ‘Gratitude.’ 

My newfound passion was a perfect win-win situation. I had an outlet for my creativity and found purpose while hunkered down at home, while my family and friends enjoyed my artwork in their home.  

I was touched by their comments; ‘Your aura comes through in the paintings of love and laughter,” “The meditation painting reminds me that no matter what is going on in my life, I can find peace,” “You inspired me to start painting again,” and, “I will keep your Ganesha painting next to my Allah to bring peace in this world.” 

It was humbling that my artwork could bring joy and happiness to brighten the life of my near and dear ones. The icing on the cake was when my Mom asked me to paint a Ganesha for her 80th birthday celebration.  

While we cannot control what life throws at us, we can control how we react to it. Life is all about finding joy and happiness in those situations.  

I have transformed my very lonely dining room into a lively art studio. This corner of my house energizes and brings serenity at the same time. The vivid colors remind me of the blessings of beauty from Mother Nature, and serenity comes from the knowledge  that a superior power  is always giving me the strength to face any obstacles in life or removing them for me 

Twenty years from now, I hope to look back to my COVID phase as the time I discovered a new passion in my life and proudly say that I am a COVID-born artist!


Hema Alur-Kundargi is a registered dietitian, culinary artist, and is determined to be a lifelong learner. Find her at @theculinarydietitian

‘I Want My Work to Encourage People to Stop & Think’ Says Michelle Poonawalla

(Featured Image: Michelle Poonwalla and Circle of Life Artwork)

Artist, businesswoman, philanthropist, and socialite Michelle Poonawalla recently showcased a series of her new artworks at the Tao Art Gallery’s exhibition The Tangible Imaginative for the Mumbai Gallery Weekend. Michelle’s four oil on canvas works—Blue Wave, Desert Rose, Forest Flutter and Flutter Fly—come from the artist’s Butterfly Series, and feature three-dimensional, sculptural elements affixed to the canvas. Painted in bold colors, the works feature gold-effect butterflies.

Futter Fly

Poonawalla lives and works between London and Pune. Her practice combines cutting-edge technology and traditional artistic mediums, often utilizing sound, video mapping, projection, motion sensors, and other techniques. She has previously exhibited her work at the Saatchi Gallery, London; Alserkal Avenue, Dubai; and as a collateral project at the Kochi Biennale, India. More recently, Poonawalla has also begun exploring work with shorter digital format films.

In this exclusive interview, she spoke to us among other things about her earliest artistic influences, nature as inspiration, her favorite art medium, and the butterfly symbol in her works.

Tell us a little about your oil-on-canvas works at the Tao Art Gallery’s exhibition The Tangible Imaginative for the Mumbai Gallery Weekend.

MP: The four works come from my Butterfly Series which evolves beyond traditional 2D painting, incorporating sculptural elements that bring the artworks off the canvas and into the viewer’s space. A lot of my work features the butterfly symbol which for me represents both beauty and freedom–an ephemeral creature that is the result of a metamorphosis.

What was the idea, inspiration behind them?

MP: The works all have different inspirations and stories behind them. For example, Blue Wave is inspired by Mumbai and references the city through its free-flowing language and color. Desert Rose, which also features butterflies, represents the inherent beauty in nature’s patterns as I allowed the butterfly sculptures to fall naturally on the work before affixing each one where they landed.

A theme often addressed in my work is the strength and beauty of nature and the importance of preserving it. This is perhaps most obvious in Forrest Flutter. Painted in dark earthy hues and greens, the work celebrates the forest. 

You are the granddaughter of the iconic south Mumbai architect Jehangir Vazifdar. Tell us about some of your earliest artistic influences.

MP: From an early age, I was taken to some of the greatest museums and galleries in the world. I have always loved art and painted throughout my life and studied Interior Design at university. I was perhaps most inspired by my grandfather, Jehangir Vazifdar, a renowned painter and architect. My grandfather had a very special technique in oil painting with a ruler which he shared only with me, and it is important for me to carry on his legacy.

Your work is known to explore universal, socially engaged topics. Tell our readers about some of these themes.

MP: Art is a universal language with a powerful voice, and I’m conscious my work is used to spread a positive message. For example, I have recently produced a series of video works that explore environmental change and other issues around us today. I want my work to encourage people to stop, think, and introspect. Be it climate change, water scarcity, or violence in our world, people should always stop and think.

Desert Rose

Which is your favorite art medium? Do you feel that digital art is the future of art?

MP: I enjoy acrylic and work in acrylic for my butterfly paintings. However, I wouldn’t say I have one favorite medium. I’ve worked in oils a lot and I am looking forward to exhibiting some drawings at the 079 Stories gallery in Ahmedabad soon.

Digital art is certainly something we are seeing more of but I think physical painting will always have a place – it is important to be able to physically engage with artwork in person. I’ve always been interested in combining cutting-edge technology and traditional art forms, and digital art has allowed me to create huge immersive installations where the viewer is completely emerged in the visual image. Technology gives an artist the freedom to explore endless possibilities; it allows a greater feeling. I also think digital art speaks the language of the younger generation, and it keeps their interest in art growing.  

What are you working on next?

MP: I’ve got several projects coming up, including showing work in a drawings exhibition at the beautiful 079 Stories in Ahmedabad in February. Later in the year, I will also be showing work in a group exhibition in Delhi. Alongside this, I am exhibiting work online with several platforms including digital work with SeditionArt.com and several new works I have just produced for House of Culture. Hopefully, there are a few international projects on the cards which I will be able to announce later in the year. 


Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer and editor based in New Delhi. She is the author of ‘Wanderlust for the Soul’ and ‘Bombay Memory Box’.

Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam: From Trinidad to America

Being newly retired, memories of my childhood bubbled up, as I finally had time to daydream. My father’s grandmother, Gangee Maharaj, arrived in Trinidad from Raipur, India in 1900. Many Indians came to Trinidad as indentured laborers eventually earning plots of land from the British. Thus, my great-grandparents received their own land, passing it on to my grandparents, on whose farm I grew up. I remember vividly our two beloved cows, Rani and Raja. We were often blessed with fresh and nutritious milk.

To become an eligible bride, one requirement was to be able to skillfully puff a paratha! Achieving the perfect architecture and weight of the delicious and well-known flatbread takes practice. Only then could you have your handprint painted on Grandma’s kitchen wall. This meant that you were allowed to enter her kitchen and prepare a meal under her supervision. My first painting had to be of this kitchen!

I also remembered the wonderful folklore of Trinidad infused by the many African immigrants. We heard many stories of mythical creatures. Moko Jumbie was invoked to protect the people during the long and arduous slave boat journeys from Africa. The Soucouyant is a vampire, popular in many Caribbean countries. I remember being very scared hearing some of these stories as a young girl!

My paintings are of memories from my childhood, which was steeped with traditional Hindu ceremonies, African folklore, the natural beauty of the islands, and the array of cultures of the diverse population.

The world is a family 

One is a relative, the other stranger, 

say the small minded. 

The entire world is a family, 

live the magnanimous. 

Be detached, 

be magnanimous, 

lift up your mind, enjoy 

the fruit of Brahmanic freedom. 

—Maha Upanishad 6.71–75 

The Yamas and Niyamas of Healing Patterns and Colors is the title of my newest painting collection.

Imagine that these ethical principles, the yamas and niyamas of the ancient Upanishads are embedded in all my paintings. The sage, Patanjali expounds on them in his Yoga Sutras. Sutra means “thread” in Sanskrit, which you can see represented by the many-colored line segments in this painting collection. 

Indra Persad-Milowe’s Art Piece, The Yamas and Niyamas of Healing Patterns and Colors.

YAMAS: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras lists five yamas, or moral restraints, which apply specifically to how you behave outwardly toward other beings.

1) Ahimsa – Non-violence in thought, word and deed 

2) Satya – Truthfulness 

3) Asteya – Non-Stealing

4) Brahmacharya – putting the “path to the Divine” first and foremost in life 

5) Aparigraha – Non-hoarding, freedom from grasping 

NIYAMAS: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra lists five niyamas, or observances, which apply specifically to how you conduct yourself on a more personal level. 

1) Saucha – Cleanliness 

2) Santosha – Contentment 

3) Tapas – Self Discipline 

4) Svadhyaya – Self Study 

5) Isvara-pranidhana – Surrender: offering yourself completely as a vehicle of the Divine will 

My ten-piece paintings capture religious and cultural life in so many patterns and colors, just like our world is full of varieties of patterns and colors. They reflect many disciplines and ideals of life: faith, fortitude, sacrifice, respect, and love. Love and respect for all patterns (ways of life) and colors (global cultures) are a very important Hindu worldview – “VASUDHAIVA KUTUMBAKAM” (The world is a family).


Indra Persad Milowe is a visual artist living and working in Salem, Massachusetts. She is currently working on an extensive series of paintings, drawing upon childhood memories of growing up in Trinidad during the 1950s.

Paras Borgohain: Khul Ja Sesame

Stories of plight, of unrequited love, of untold history are the threads that stitch the seams of our ever-expanding world. These are the narratives that empower us to learn and to empathize with small tales of astronomical weight.

This has become Paras Borgohain’s mission: storytelling of impact. As a filmmaker straddling industry in both America and India, his unconventional life path has given him the power to bring these narratives to the screen. He aims to bridge the gap between everyday people and important stories from around the world. 

Borgohain began his academic career at the University of Delhi, where he studied English Language and Literature. Early in his life, he began to see the importance of telling stories and bringing many of these narratives out of the shadows for public consumption.

“I needed to find a point of entry into the industry,” he said, speaking of the time of tumult towards the end of his education. Following Delhi University and a graduate diploma in Communication from Mumbai, Paras found himself at a production company that exclusively worked on daily Indian soap series.

“It was not something I wanted to work with because I hated watching them as a kid,” he said. While it was a grind for him, he knew that it would be the best way to network into the industry. It taught him about working under pressure. He recounted staying up late into the night, coming up with storylines that would be filmed at 7am the next morning. But still, the industry was stagnant, the plotlines of mothers-in-law and revenge were often hard to identify with as a young person. 

Borgohain’s thirst for mission driven work brought him to Galli Galli Sim Sim, India’s Sesame Street. Collaborating with in-house educational researchers breathed life into his career. He was finally doing something that mattered to him: shaping the development of the next generation of Indian children. 

Galli Galli Sim Sim was a safe space for the production group. People on the team got married – that’s the kind of family the show was. 

“Writing for children isn’t what I thought I’d be doing in terms of my artistic goals,” he said. He wanted to write about things that mattered to him, metafictional narratives and stories about minority groups, topics too heavy for a children’s television show. Due to this, Borgohain took up several freelance projects over the next few years. He worked on community radio shows for UNICEF, for pockets of the world that didn’t have access to television. He assisted with the screenplay writing for Turner Broadcasting. He helped contribute to a National Geographic documentary about how the 1980s changed India. Through these projects, he learned about the issue spaces he cared deeply for, but he realized he needed to stop doing commission work. 

“I was afraid that I would lose my individual voice,” he said. 

This was the tipping point for him. He decided he needed to write his own feature film, “Deepest, Darkest or How Not to Lie.”  

The story begins with a gay man who dies mysteriously. He writes a letter to his friend, a PR professional, and she is tasked with figuring out what happened to him. She explores his life and must come to terms with their mirrored experiences with unrequited love and suppression. She must find out what lead him to believe that life was hopeless. 

Paras Borgohain, winner of the BlueCat Roshan Award (Image taken from BlueCat)

The story, about loss, acceptance, and identity, had huge success, winning the Bluecat Roshan Award for best Indian screenplay in 2016. Paras finally had a way into the industry, telling stories close to his heart of the struggles of LGBTQ+ communities in India. This was the type of storytelling he always dreamed he would be known for.

Soon after, Borgohain enrolled in UCLA’s professional program at their film school. Here, he sharpened the core of what he wanted to write about. 

“Do your words on the page do your thoughts justice?” He always found himself asking himself about the authenticity of his words. 

Today, he is working on fleshing out projects that he began at UCLA. He’s working on a project about Assam from the 70s to 90s, taking a historical lens that has rarely come to the mainstream media. He is in pre-production for a film about the decriminalization of homosexuality in India, called “The Crash of ’14,” which was his final project during his professional education. 

The project closest to his heart is one about an LGTBQ+ activist and author from the 90’s named Stan Leventhal. Back in 2013, Borgohain had written a blog post about how much Leventhal’s writing had moved him, with its lucid and unique voice about the AIDS epidemic. With serendipitous help from the internet, he managed to get in touch with the late Leventhal’s family, who gave him permission to turn his book into a movie. 

Paras looks back at his career with gratitude. 

“It’s taken me 14 years to get from working on soaps to something I give a damn about.”

His advice for aspiring Indian American filmmakers is simple: be open and resilient. 

“If you want to break into a tough industry like entertainment, you have to be thick skinned,” he said. It took him several failures and jobs to get to where he is today. 

But above everything, he says to trust your internal creative compass. 

“What’s going on inside you as an artist, what your personal experiences are, that’s your next creative masterpiece.”

Swathi is a junior at Duke University studying Public Policy and Computer Science. She hopes to continue to learn through the lens of her Indian-American heritage.

Rina Banerjee: Make Me a Summary of the World

May 16–October 6

 

This story was sent to us and Co-organized by San José Museum of Art (SJMA) and Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA)

Organized by Lauren Schell Dickens, curator, SJMA and Jodi Throckmorton, curator, PAFA


Rina Banerjee: Make Me a Summary of the World is the first mid-career retrospective of the artist’s work. The exhibition presents almost twenty years of Banerjee’s large-scale installations, sculptures, and paintings—including a re-creation of her work from the 2000 Whitney Biennial; sculptures featured in the 2017 Venice Biennale; and recent work for the Prospect 4 New Orleans biennial.

Rina Banerjee (b. 1963 in Calcutta, India) grew up in London and eventually moved to New York. While the visual culture that she experienced as a child in India greatly influences her aesthetic,  her immigration to the UK and her love of the diverse culture of her current home, New York City, form the core of her practice. Banerjee creates vivid sculptures and installations made from materials sourced throughout the world. She is a voracious gatherer of objects—in a single sculpture one can find African tribal jewelry, colorful feathers, light bulbs, Murano glass, and South Asian antiques in conflict and conversation with one another. These sensuous assemblages reverberate with bright colors and surprising textures present simultaneously as familiar and unfamiliar.

Amidst a progressively factious turn toward nativist politics in the United States, Banerjee relentlessly creates work that reflects the splintered experience of identity, tradition, and culture often prevalent in diasporic communities. Significantly, her career as an artist, beginning in the late 1990s, parallels the expansion of the global art world, the Internet, and the repeated rise and fall of “identity politics” in art.  Though Banerjee is one of the most important artists of the post-colonial Indian diaspora living in the United States, and her work has consistently gained visibility internationally (especially in Asia and Europe), she remains relatively unknown to U.S. museum audiences.

Rina Banerjee: Make Me a Summary of the World focuses on four interdependent themes in Banerjee’s work that coincide with important issues of our time: immigration and identity; the lasting effects of colonialism and its relationship to globalization; feminism; and climate change.

Catalogue

A full-color, ca. 160-page catalogue was published in conjunction with the exhibition and available for purchase at SJMA’s Shop.

Touring schedule

Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, October 27, 2018—April 7, 2019

San José Museum of Art, May 17—September 29, 2019

Palm Springs Museum of Art, CA Spring 2020 (TBC)

Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville, TN, August 6—October 25, 2020 (TBC)

Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, NC  (TBC)

Learn more about this wonderful exhibition here:  https://sjmusart.org/exhibition/rina-banerjee-make-me-summary-world

This Article was provided to India Currents by the San José Museum of Art