A salute to the quiet warriors of handlooms — artisans, as they add a human touch to our otherwise assembly line wardrobes, in a soulful celebration of handloom month
by Asmita Aggarwal
Strapline: She is a P(h)D from JNU and has written a book High heels and Rainbow Hijaab, to be published at the South Asian department of Hamburg University. This political science professor is a new face for the runway! Meet the brightest on the block—Nancy Pathak
By Asmita Aggarwal
Tell us where you were you born and raised?
I was born at Agra, but I was raised all over the country, as my father was in a transferable job. I changed 12 schools and then shifted my base to Delhi, for graduation that is why I had a very multicultural and liberal upbringing.
What got you interested in fashion?
Fashion was always a social observation for me. So my first interest in fashion rose when I realised in my teen years that fashion was power. All my friends, school mates, cousins, and even my sister were heavily influenced by fashion at the most basic level, at the level of body and biology. It wielded power over me as well. It started determining what I would like and not like about my body. How I would want my body to be and be presented in front of the world. That is when the nerd within me started looking at fashion as a weapon to gain social acceptance.
What was your first exposure to fashion?
My first exposure to fashion as a participant was when a friend started convincing me that I could actually become a plus-size model and that I should go for auditions. I had absolutely no expectations of the auditions. I was rather there to have fun and feel good about myself. But my selection in the auditions gave me a new confidence. I had been extensively reading on body politics and had written on gender issues in the past, for me it was an opportunity I had scored to work on the field now.
Your parents are into academics, how did they react to your career choice?
My father is a Judge and my mother is a homemaker, who devoted her life to the upbringing and education of her children. I come from an extremely academic family, so my deflection from core academics towards modelling came as a shock to them. They have always known that their child is unconventional and a rule-breaker, but this time I had really pushed the limits. It took me some time to convince them that my career in modelling was not taking me away from my academic pursuits in any way. Now they are making peace with it and showing some confidence in me.
You studied in JNU, known for its intellectual prowess, tell us your experiences there?
JNU is a utopia and a paradise of theories. It is actually how the society should really be, liberal, tolerant, open to ideas and opinions, respectful towards women and celebrating diversity. JNU was liberating. I wish society could be more like JNU. I did my master’s in Political Science and went on to complete my Ph.D. in School of International studies. My specialisation is on Elites, ideological state apparatuses, and propaganda as a means of legitimacy creation.
Do your JNU friends turn up their noses when you tell them you work in fashion?
Very interestingly, they have been proud of me and have applauded my efforts, but definitely, they do not see it as serious business and it definitely falls much lower in the ranks of activisms in their understanding. They usually do not see fashion as anything more than a system that objectifies and promotes consumerism, but what they fail to see is that fashion has a lot of cultural power. It can become a very effective instrument of mass change if used efficiently. Like most of the languages of masses discounted by academic elitism, fashion is also a very powerful language that academicians are yet to realise.
You are writing a book on gender’s role in fashion, what prompted you to pen it?
My book is on (re)claiming one’s bodies through means of fashion. I had written on the question of gender in various international journals in the past. For all the genders, body and clothing become a very important part of the identity and the debate on their rights. I wanted to specially raise the question of the LGBTQ+ identity in the context of their religious and cultural rights, especially when the orthodox religion was not offering much acceptance to the community. Modernity and fashion became an important means to express their gender. But fashion also provided the scope of innovation to accommodate the expression of the religious and gender identity both at the same time. Hence the book got the title High heels and rainbow hijaab. It is under review at the South Asian department of Hamburg University and is expected to release by December 2020.
It was the belief ingrained in me by my JNU teachers like Nivedita Menon, that academics is not just limited to classrooms, but must acquire some activism. My book and my participation in the inclusive modelling culture are all part of my activism for the inclusion of the ‘invisible bodies’.
What changes would you like to bring about in fashion?
Fashion has been a domain of cultural and capitalist elites for a very long period of time. It is high time that it becomes more representative. I would want fashion to innovate and provide space to the bodies which have been brushed under the carpet for so long and have been made invisible. Fashion has to change the common sense and acceptance that societies have towards bodies. I would like fashion to promote real bodies, specially-abled bodies, healthy bodies, bodies of all ages and all genders and the ‘invisible bodies’ in the public eyes. I would want it to shift from gender binary dressing towards a more rainbow spectrum of dressing. The change has already begun, we just have to prevent it from falling prey to a very objectified understanding of bodies. Fashion should no longer be about just consumption, but it should also be about empowerment and reclaiming cultural representation in the public eye. It has to change the definition of ‘acceptable’ through making style statements and by starting positive and gender-sensitive trends. Why should the masses aspire to follow the fashion? Why can fashion not adapt to the needs of the masses?
How do you think we can break gender stereotypes?
First and foremost, we can start defying the stereotypes ourselves. Our bodies become the biggest prisoners of these stereotypes. Embrace your own individuality, love your bodies, follow your sexuality and express it unapologetically in public spaces.
Secondly, learn beyond the gender binary. Treat all genders equally. Read and keep your arguments ready to defend your beliefs in gender diversity, they will come handy against the people you will disturb in the process of expressing yourself and challenging the norms.
Thirdly, don’t let anything or anybody define your limits based on your gender. Prove them wrong with your capabilities and hard work. Excel at what you do, become a role model for all genders irrespective of what gender you are in your environment.
Fourthly, if you are raising young ones or are elder siblings to them, take your job as an educator and a role model seriously. Raise kids who respect gender differences and desist gender hierarchies.
What role did you as a teacher play in creating awareness about body positivity?
As a teacher of political science, I am tasked with the job of discussing gender politics every now and then. I take that as an opportunity and do not refrain from talking about body politics to the young minds who also happen to be the main audience of my activism. By this process, I try to discuss with them how they can’t let their bodies become an object of capitalist consumption. They cannot feel incomplete just because they do not fit the definition of “perfect” as the market wants to sell to them. My main motive remains to teach them to find beauty within their bodies, resisting the temptation that the market offers them and look for beauty even beyond their bodies, to help them develop confidence in their capabilities and other abilities that are not always body dependent.
Tell us about how many pages is your book and what topics have you tried to cover in it?
It is still under the process of review so it will really be unfair to comment on the number of the pages of the book at the moment, but I have covered various topics under the book, such as the history of bodies in fashion, the position of Islam on the queers, representation of LGBTQ+ community in fashion, new spaces opened by fashion for the representation of the category of genders within religious categories, innovation in fashion by the Muslim LGBTQ+ community members.
Are women in glamour becoming more inclusive, how have you used your voice to raise concerns about health?
The answer to this question will be, yes, I think women in fashion are becoming relatively more inclusive than they used to be. I grew up in times when there were literally anorexic models walking the ramps of some of the most high-end fashion shows. We have reached that understanding that such beauty standards are completely un-aesthetic, de-humanising and unacceptable. But even today I see the aspiration among the women to imitate the bodies of other women and brooding over un-achievable beauty standards set by the industry.
I have time and again tried to reach out to the women through the means of social media content where I have created videos with models of all sizes, raising issues like mental health, and different notions of aesthetics. I try to be a good role model. I do not edit my body in the pictures I upload on my social media and whenever I take grooming classes with young women I tell them that their confidence and their smile is their best features.
What are your future plans and what do you aspire to do?
I aspire to continue my work in academics, but I do not want to lose touch of the ground reality at the same time. I want to be an inclusivity and health policy expert in the long run. I wish to not only keep contributing towards it academically but also on the field I would like to work with the organisations who work in the field of public health and gender rights. At the same time, I would like to keep mass media and fashion as my means of communication with the young minds. I wish someday, some of my research will contribute towards some useful policy formation and contribute towards a society more gender-sensitive than today’s.
What is your personal style mantra and how do you think fashion is a powerful means of communication?
My style mantra is that ‘best style is the one that makes me feel my best’, anything else whether it is trendy or not should not matter to me, if it does not make me feel and look good. Not all styles are meant for all bodies. We need to realise that everybody has its own aesthetics and fashion must cater to the needs of the diversity rather than enforcing the same standards on different bodies.
Fashion is a very powerful tool of communication because it has a visual appeal to itself which makes it very easy for the consumption of the masses. One style trend has the power to influence much more than any book or any print article has. I think Ashley Graham alone brought about much more acceptance, to bodies of all sizes then any book on feminism ever did. In my opinion fashion has been a missed opportunity, but it is never too late to reclaim the cultural spaces that the scope of innovation in fashion opens up to masses, specially in the age of social media.
Dealing with a tragic loss to being a breadwinner Gunjan, is a force to reckon with.
By Asmita Aggarwal
She lost her father at 13, and had to move cities, Delhi to Jaipur, being the only child, she also had to quickly become the breadwinner, so Gunjan Hada Rajput, who is completing her graduation, is a girl who has faced many storms with equanimity. She started her journey in modelling with small pageants and supported her mother by taking tuitions during the day and finishing school work at night, making each day a fight for survival. “I have done small odd jobs in offices as well as in educational institutes, saved money to learn how to operate computers and thought one day I will get a chance to really do what my heart desires,” she adds.
Making it to LMIFW as a fresh face could not be considered less than magic for Gunjan, who soon realised it was a well-paying job that allowed her to travel, and her mom, a housewife always encouraged her to do what made her happy. “I never compromised on my studies, I am pursuing my graduation privately and keeping my eye on becoming India’s top model,” she adds.
Fashion comes with its own set of uncomfortable situations that Gunjan over time has learnt to manage, whether it is being weighed down by a 10 kg lehenga, but walking with confidence or feeling left out in a largely exuberant world inhabited by affluent, successful, well-travelled people… it affected her initially. “Earlier I used to keep to myself as I felt intimidated and cornered, and would hesitate to talk, but over time, life is a big teacher and I’ve learnt how to respond,” she explains.
Her favourites on the style map are Manish Malhotra, who is known for his vivacious ensembles and Rahul Mishra, who tells a story that tugs at your heartstrings with his environment consciousness and humble aesthetics. “I would like to be part of their shows someday,” she smiles.
She hopes to be a supermodel and that’s her ten-year goal, and at 20, she admires the Hadid sisters, Bella and Gigi, and the Indian model who she respects is Laxmi Rana. “I supported myself my teaching small kids, and when they see me on TV and jump with joy, I feel I have made something out of my life, but this is just the beginning I hope that life throws some interesting surprises along the way,” she concludes.
13 to 25, life has been a whirlwind for Mayara, a Brazilian model, who has been an avid world traveller
By Asmita Aggarwal
Coming from Brazil’s most prosperous financial centre Sao Paulo, for Mayara Fonseca modelling is the only things she ever knew. Since the age of 13, when she was discovered by a photographer back home and made a photo series that won her many more contracts, there was no looking back.
Mayara’s journey back home soon ended, as since the age of 16 she started travelling all over the world, from Italy, Germany to Mexico working with coveted brands like Moschino, selected from an array of girls due to her towering height, almost six feet. “The biggest drawback in modelling is that you are far away from home, and I miss my family. The good part is that I became independent from an early age and can cook, clean, learn new things and have travelled almost all over the world and got a chance to see many cities, giving me an exposure of a lifetime. However, my parents are very supportive and have encouraged me to chase my dreams,” she adds.
Language has never been a problem for Mayara, but food often poses an issue, so she sticks to salads, non-fried, and non-spicy cuisine to make sure she eats healthy, even though she is not a regular gym-goer. “Italy and India are quite similar, both are culturally rich and if we talk about safety like a lot of people warned me when I was coming, it is the same in Brazil. My parents used to accompany me everywhere there also. I don’t feel unsafe here at all, in fact, I’ve lived and worked here for three years now,” she adds.
The interesting part is that Mayara never wanted to be a model, in fact, due to her height she was bullied in school, but when she entered modelling it was a chrysalis. “I am close to my older brother who is 27, two years older than me, he has really helped me through some tough times,” she confirms.
The future seems like a blur currently even though Mayara finished high school, she hasn’t gone to university and feels there is no age to get educated. “The focus now is modelling and I’m loving every moment of it. My mom completed her nursing degree in her 40s and now works in a hospital. I too would like to pursue interior designing as working with spaces interests me. The other option is international business as I have been to so many countries for work, it would be fun to know how businesses work,” she concludes.
From a village where girls aren’t educated to making it to the spotlight, Nisha Yadav is a story waiting to be told.
By Asmita Aggarwal
No one would have even heard of Shuklawas, Rajasthan, a tiny hamlet tucked away unlike its more popular magnificent havelis, but maybe one-day people might associate it with Nisha Yadav, who made it to the list of new faces this year. Born to a farmer-turned-activist, who had to support five children with a meagre income, Nisha remembers a tough childhood where new clothes were a novelty and hand-me-downs, a norm.
“I think I was in class 11 when I got my first new salwar-suit, and we never had electricity at home, no roads, and I used to walk almost 2 km daily to study in a government school which was only till class 10. After that for high school, I used to walk 8-10 km to a nearby village to study walking amidst mustard fields. In the winter, due to the dew, we would get so wet by the time we reached school that we would return home with a terrible cough and cold,” she remembers.
The beauty of fashion is now it is no longer a reserve of the rich and famous and in the true sense of the word is really inclusive, as it is embracing women of all backgrounds. “I am really tall and we had absolutely no exposure to style of any kind, and my family never supported me in my endeavours of making it to the catwalk, in fact, they resisted it constantly,” she adds.
In fact, they wanted her to be a judge or clear the UPSC, so she studied economics and did her bachelor’s in computer application from Jaipur where she was exposed to the world of modelling. “Glamour kind of attracted me and seeing my photos published in many small publications got me hooked,” she explains.
Interestingly, Nisha was never exposed to a laptop till she got into college, her mom being illiterate; her dad ensured all her five sisters got education. Most of her siblings are government servants and they really don’t care about modelling. “My dad, I would say is intrigued about my new life and I’m typically from a Hindi medium school, so it took me some time to understand what people around me were saying when they converse. But today I would say I am not an expert but I can find my way around English speaking fashion people,” she smiles. Without a godfather the struggle was enormous and even though Nisha admits she never won any pageant, it didn’t affect her morale. “My family felt I was wasting my time so I was in a dilemma and I left modelling in the middle for some time,” she says.
At 25, she believes modelling is not about a good height or pretty face, but more to do with confidence and personality, so her dreams are big…maybe New York Fashion Week someday. “My sister is an IAS officer and she has always supported me emotionally and financially. She wants to see me on the ramp at London Fashion Week,” she confirms.
Though her goals are quite clear, she wants to open an NGO for girls like her, who want exposure but have none, have dreams of making it to the gilt-edged world of fashion, but can never do it. “I will give free classes on modelling, posture and building personality based on what I have learnt,” she concludes.
A former banker armed with an engineering degree and an MBA, Pavitra admits fashions charms were irresistible
By Asmita Aggarwal
It doesn’t matter if you have studied engineering and topped in it or also equipped yourself with an MBA degree to make sure your job prospects are high if you give it all up to be a catwalk princess. That’s just the story of Pavitra Malaiappan, a new face at LMIFW, an army kid who grew up with progressive parents, who rather than holding her back and forcing her to continue a job at a leading bank gave her the wings to fly. “I had this insane love for clothes, styling, and fashion, and if you look at it, this is something that you just can’t wish away, it stays with you. Honestly, I came into my own when I began modelling,” she says.
With her father, a mechanical engineer and older brother an IT professional, belonging to a Tamilian family, academics was always encouraged with a mom, who is an educationist. “Modelling has changed in its dynamics as the acceptance of it as a profession has grown due to social media, which has helped aspiring girls,” she explains. However, Pavitra believes it is a tough space to operate as you need the most important ingredient “drive” to reach the summit. Having faced intense criticism, she kept her chin up and always found strength in her family. “I kept my sanity by doing things that I love—painting; Thanjavurs and I rescue pets, as animals have been my first love. Though I am an avid reader and writer, it is something I hope to develop further in my spare time,” she informs. She admits she gets her creativity from her mother who teaches kids in the most unconventional ways, opening up their minds rather them pressurising them to perform for grades.
Though, professionally she would like to do something that combines her two areas of interest—fashion and management. “I was a really shy person and fashion helped me embrace my body and let go of my inhibitions. The challenges made me grow into a strong, bold person and to be on the catwalk where you are open to scrutiny,” she says.
Meeting former Ms. Universe Sushmita Sen changed her life, and among those who she has admired on the catwalk include, Noami Campbell and in India, it was Sonalika Sahay, who during a show made her feel part of the contingent. “I’ve worked in a bank and I would say that it taught me many useful things—time management above all and quick decision making. But I am an artistic person and I can’t see myself doing an am to pm job for the rest of my life,” she concludes.
Zenia Boga, is a model of many talents, from styling to acting, glamour makes her heart sing
By Asmita Aggarwal
At six feet one inch Zenia Yazad Boga, literally and almost metaphorically looks down on the rest of the world! But this is actually part of a genetic lottery that she won thanks to both her maternal and paternal grandparents who are more than six feet two inches tall. “I moved to England for my higher studies so there everyone is already so tall, I wasn’t considered an anomaly; in India, a lot of people just stand and stare at me,” she giggles.
Zenia, from a Parsi family, began modelling almost two years ago and came back to the country to complete her Bachelor of Mass Media (BMM), and pursue modelling full-time. “My mom has been pushing me to take up modelling after I won the May queen contest, which helped me in grooming and was my first attempt at the spotlight,” remembers the young model selected this year.
Though fashion has been her calling since she turned 16, and the UK helped her observe behind the scenes when she interned with matches.com, Clark’s and L.K. Bennett and worked with a stylist for Indian magazines. At 23, she was ready to finally come out of the shadows and face the camera, as she believes she is not cut out for a corporate job like her father who is the CEO of Intellika. “My younger sister is training to become a chef, both of us chose career paths that made us happy and luckily my parents are extremely supportive, especially my mom who is a teacher,” she admits.
Interestingly, Zenia has a passion for art and has been sketching which she hopes to develop in the future with a fashion line, as styling was a big part of her journey. “I love the catwalk more than the staid print campaigns, in fact, people often come and ask me where I get the confidence to pose so effortlessly. But when I’m up there I really own it and I want to create a beautiful image,’ she explains.
Taking acting classes at Jeff Goldberg, Zenia wants to explore different facets of her personality and being a trained Bharatnatyam dancer she also wanted to learn Western dance from Shiamak Davar, but her first love is freestyle, as it lets the body find the rhythm. “I really can’t tell you what I will do in the future, as I live my life one day at a time, but I do know I will continue to model till it gives me happiness,” she concludes.
For Sneha Ghosh, 27, who found meaning in life through yoga talks about why the body and mind need to be in tune
By Asmita Aggarwal
Her tryst with glamour came when she was selected for the Femina Ms India Eastern round, but due to strict attendance in St Xavier’s College, Kolkata had to give up her dreams to winning the crown. But destiny has its ways to compensate and in Sneha Ghosh’s life, it appeared serendipitously when she had no passport and had to fly to Malaysia for the finals of Asia’s Next Top Model contest in 2014. “I met a lady IAS officer, who helped me when I told her that I need my passport in a day and it did come to me. I told her I am going to represent my country internationally and she understood,” says Sneha.
The contest taught her co-living with girls from different parts of the country, almost 20, sharing cultural experiences and dialects as well as food and clothing. She faced racism and people made fun of her accent, as many came with pre-conceived notions about India, though she survived all of it with courage. Making it to the top 10 was an achievement, and what kept her out of the race, in the end, was a momentary lapse of confidence. Sneha always had long, lustrous hair, the contest posed a challenge where without a mirror they chopped it all off and almost shaved her head from one side leaving her shocked. “I didn’t do my photoshoot well as I couldn’t work my new hairstyle. But I realised that you can’t let one element of your body decide your demeanour—whether it is your tresses, waist or legs. Confidence is more internal than external so let your personality shine through,” she adds.
And just observing was a learning curve when during the lingerie round at freezing temperatures the contestants managed to pose, while Sneha hesitated, leaving her inspired. “I never wanted to be a model, I hit upon it by chance, my dream was to be an IAS officer, but I was bullied in school and had no self-confidence. Modelling really helped me get that back,” she admits.
Initially, parents didn’t support her, they wanted her to choose conventional paths, they would shy away from telling people that she was a model, but there is a lot more to Sneha than just ramp walk. She is a practising yogini, it has been the fulcrum of her existence, and she also keeps fit by kickboxing, weight lifting realising that the body will change at every age, from 16 to 86, so you need to keep fit. “Yoga calmed me down, I had many body issues, and also taught me self-love, it has been an enlightening experience for me,” she confirms. What upsets Sneha is that when people talk of yoga it is only Baba Ramdev or Shilpa Shetty, but yoga, she feels needs more ambassadors. “When people think of yoga I want them to think of me as I know its true essence,” she affirms.
In her spare time, Sneha loves riding her bike and would love to sing on stage or take up playback singing as she is a trained classical singer. “This is for my mom, who loves to see me croon,” she smiles.
Her motto remains, “grow” through life, not “go” through life… and listen to yourself and your body. “You have to stop looking for validation from the outside world and deal with our insecurities by loving ourselves, without caring about judgements of the world,” she concludes.
Modelling is witnessing a chrysalis of sorts with small-town girls becoming coveted faces on the catwalk. One such tale is of Pragya Bais, a lawyer…
By Asmita Aggarwal
She grew up in a small town—Singrauli, in Madhya Pradesh, in a joint family, she had five siblings and her dad used to also support his brother’s family as her uncle refused to work. Such challenging circumstances kind of polished the rough diamond— Pragya Bais. “It was hard for my father, but he did all this without ever complaining. I had two pairs of clothes one for home and one for when we went out, which was seldom. We travelled in general compartment and mom would make us rotis which would dip in tea and enjoy, on our train journeys,” she smiles.
So today when Pragya made it to the list of models to walk for LMIFW and took a flight to get to the city, she remembered those humble days with family. “I used to watch fashion TV when I was young, that was my only knowledge of fashion and no one in my home is even remotely connected to this field. In fact, they don’t even consider it a profession worth talking about. My dad always told me not to join, as models he felt are not respected. So today when he sees me do well, he talks about my success to our relatives. I am happy to see him change his view of what women are perceived to be like in fashion,” she laughs.
Pushed to studying law, Pragya completed her degree from Pune University, (also she was committed to help people in dire straits), but her heart was set on modelling so without telling her parents or asking them for any financial help she would go for auditions. “I was keen on constitutional law as that really connects you to the grassroots. But life under the spotlight fascinated me. To earn money, I joined a company and worked as a customer assistant for Rs 18,000 a month that would help me join a gym, buy clothes and pay for travel,” she adds.
However, life kind of metamorphosised, and from an introvert, who had no self-confidence and could never face anyone, fashion instilled in her the will to succeed and chase her dreams. “Now to be a model it is not about just ‘beauty’, you need individuality. And I hope to also do theatre as acting interests me and I am saving up for it. With family acceptance things are now easier,” she admits.
In the future, Pragya hopes to start her own business as she has been smitten by certain aspects of designing, and maybe later would like to pursue it. “I think what has brought me here in life is my optimism and never-say-die attitude. I tried many times for India Fashion Week, but I never made it, however, it didn’t dim my enthusiasm. Unlike many other girls who were crying and complaining when they didn’t get selected, I took it positively and came back next year, with a better version of myself,” she concludes.