‘Badass’ Pin-Up Art Confronts The Indian Patriarchy

Nimisha Bhanot/Banga Studios

The concept of the “ideal” Indian woman has long confounded me. Of course, the word “ideal” is in and of itself highly problematic, but there seem to be well-accepted criteria for what qualities constitute such a woman — qualities many South Asian women have no doubt heard espoused, no matter which corner of the world they were born in. For example, it’s often said that the “ideal” Indian woman doesn’t drink, smoke, or have sex (unless she’s procreating to have a child with her husband).

This concept was strongly ingrained in me as a Disapora Indian in Singapore, from friends, family, and, well, all of society. Be modest, don’t express opinions, and be a great cook, I was told. It was all said in an effort to make me marriageable, the great big life aspiration that’s imposed on many South Asian women.

Above all, I was told time and time again, all through my teens, be chaste. It is impossible for women who are not virgins to get married into a “good family.”

Karvachauth. Artist: Nimisha Bhanot. Photo Credit: Banga Studios

Indian women are presented as mothers, daughters, and sisters whose purity and innocence must be “protected” by men at all costs, no casual sex allowed. To complicate matters further, we have strong examples of what “bad” Indian women look like in the form of Bollywood item girls, who are introduced in Indian movies to titillate, tease, and gyrate in skimpy clothes for the length of one song with provocative lyrics.

These women don’t represent what I aspire to be — but they do seem to be having so much damn fun. They come on camera to tell men (in under six minutes): “I’m Tandoori chicken, drink me down with alcohol” or “I’m too sexy for you, you’ll never get my body.” Then they disappear, no consequences, no judgment, no one reminding them that no good Indian family would accept them as a bride. They’re popular, seductive, and the polar opposite of the “ideal” Indian woman.

And yet, these depictions too are problematic, especially in a country that is contending with high rates of stalking, sexual harassment, rape, and murder of young women. The “item girls” flit on and off screen seamlessly, while the everyday Indian woman is left to bear the disastrous brunt of what these fantasies project to men and society about women.

Not Your Mom’s Bahu (Bride). Artist: Nimisha Bhanot. Photo Credit: Banga Studios.

The highly sexualized women of Bollywood aren’t associated with the “good Indian girl” of every day, yet in many cases, there are overlaps. Many urbanized and Diaspora Indian women drink alcohol, have boyfriends, and overall, are getting married later or eschewing it altogether. And *gasp* many have sex not just to procreate. But they’re also being judged harshly and paying greatly — sometimes with their lives — for not conforming to society’s expectations. There’s been much discourse around how the liberated Indian woman of today has threatened Indian manhood, leading to rapidly increasing rates of sexual violence and murder.

It’s clear that the concept of the “ideal” Indian woman has long needed a dramatic overhaul — a way to reconcile these two identities to reflect the reality of how, in a word, badass the Indian women of today are. The women who can be mothers and daughters and sisters, if they so choose to acknowledge those roles, but can also be sexy and sexualized, if they so wish. This dual identity is something Diaspora South Asian women like me grapple with on a daily basis; straddling our lives in the West with these expectations thrust upon us, from a society we may not have much contact with apart from when we visit relatives.

Sweeping Patriarchy Under The Rug. Artist: Nimisha Bhanot. Photo Credit: Banga Studios

All of which explains why I was so excited to chance upon 27-year-old Canadian artist Nimisha Bhanot’s “Badass” series, which captures these musings in visual form. Her recent work explores South Asian women via three series: Badass Indian Brides, Badass Bahus (daughters-in-law), and Badass Indian Pinups.

The Establishment caught up with Bhanot for a quick word on what inspires her work on painting South Asian women and redefining Indian patriarchy.

Ruchika Tulshyan: What prompted you to paint Indian women in these “badass” ways? Were there any personal experiences that led to these explorations?

Nimisha Bhanot: I wanted to create paintings of South Asian women breaking rules and the expectations set by cultural norms. I decided after hearing of the 2012 gang rape of Jyoti Singh, that I would make art which uses the gaze to talk back. I wouldn’t really pin my inspiration to solely my experiences; my inspiration comes from my friends, family, and the strong women in my life who break rules and expectations everyday.

Badass Indo-Chinese Bride. Artist: Nimisha Bhanot. Photo Credit: Banga Studios.

Ruchika: You’ve done many paintings in the Pinup series which represent Indian women as badass brides, including “Karva Chauth” (the North Indian Hindu tradition where married women fast for a day to ensure the longevity of their husbands’ lives). Could you explain why you chose this theme?

Nimisha: Marriage is traditionally a huge rite of passage for the South Asian woman, and everything we refrain from doing leading up to it is to ensure we are good enough for our in-laws. When you’re married, you then have a new set of expectations to live up to according to expectations set by your “new family.” It’s almost like it never ends. I wanted to depict the secret, sexy life that married South Asian women experience behind closed doors.

There are South Asian women all over the world who feel empowered walking around in just a Mangalasutra and some sindoor [necklace and vermillion worn on the forehead to signify married Hindu women] and there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. We need to stop shunning women with sexual confidence in our community, and I thought that juxtaposing those expectations against the playful compositions of pin-up art would be a great way to do it.

I Love My India/Watan Mera India. Artist: Nimisha Bhanot. Photo Credit: Banga Studios.

Ruchika: What responses have you received? Were people offended?

Nimisha: The response has been so good! People love my art and I have had a lot of people e-mail me to tell me how empowering they find my work. Of course some people get offended, but that’s the whole point of my work.

I find that when people are offended by my paintings, they start by telling me I’m very talented but that I should use my talent to paint something else. This, in the end, only makes me want to keep doing what I’m doing. I obviously don’t love negative feedback, but all feedback is good feedback, so I listen to what they have to say and just move on.

Bad Ass Maa Durga. Artist: Nimisha Bhanot. Photo Credit: Banga Studios.

Ruchika: What do you hope to accomplish with your series on Indian women?

Nimisha: I’d like to make more! I recently started including more pattern and motif into the backgrounds of my paintings and I’m loving it, so I think this will be a reoccurring aesthetic in my work.