Blurred Boundaries

“Blurred Boundaries” imagines the world as a network of systems and connections, conduits and tethers rather than isolationist nations. it speaks to how we experience the world currently- where paper maps are made obsolete and GPS technology gives us the topography of a place but also an illusion that we have knowledge of it. Its so funny how we feel connected and fearful of certain places at the same time. We try to build walls and have a new interest in nationhood but when you step back and see an image of the earth taken from the moon, we are just so fragile and interdependent and interconnected in so many ways.This installation utilizes screen-printed and hand-cut maps and Hanji paper to create layers upon layers of complexity. Playing with the polarities of micro and macro, I use screen-printed patterns sourced from electron microscope scans of Hanji (Korean paper) which then inform my cutting. Hanji has long fibers that make the paper strong yet thin. By using this a a layer, I make the maps pliable, giving the work a sense of movement and fluidity. The piece seeks to disturb and displace the very intent of a “map” to locate and identify. In this era of global movement, this work is an act of disregarding boundaries that divide us and asks the viewer to contemplate matter and also what constitutes our interconnected world.

Sumi ink and screen prints on hanji and paper maps, handcut and suspended

On Hands

My dear friend Laj Waghray has made a lovely documentary titled “On Hands”. She filmed artists, gardeners, musicians and crafters who use their hands to create their art or the product.

My commentary on hands is much more prosaic. Last year I developed carpal tunnel syndrome. My hands became tingly, then numb and painful and then so weak I started dropping things. I had never stopped to consider how much I needed my hands. Cooking, cleaning, folding clothes, washing my hair and even brushing became almost impossible. I started using a dictation program on my computer and voice recognition on my phone. I’m an avid reader and turning pages or holding a Kindle became painful. I couldn’t paint or draw which usually helped me relax. I couldn’t do yoga -many exercises put pressure on my hands. Even driving was hard- holding the steering wheel hurt.

My hand surgeon recommended, well, hand surgery .. but I had to exhaust all other options first. In the meanwhile my family really stepped in and took over “my” tasks including my teenage son who did a lot of cooking  and meals! One night while cleaning up the kitchen my son turned to me a little tired and frustrated by the mess and said.. “Mom you do this every night…putting things away and picking up things left around”. I said “Yes.. I do”.

After a few months of trying therapy, acupuncture and steroid shots I had the carpal tunnel release done. I decided to do both hands at  once so I wouldn’t have to miss too much work.

During my recovery I had to rely entirely on my husband for simple tasks like eating, drinking, dressing, combing my hair and tooth brushing. But as functions returned rapidly I gained a new appreciation for these two hands, like the joy of clipping your own nails or squeezing shampoo from a bottle. Chopping vegetables and cooking again was not a chore but gave me a feeling of independence. I didn’t even mind folding laundry! I’m still working on getting back to yoga- that Downward Dog puts too much pressure on the scars. But I can hold a book and I can pick up a baby at work without being afraid I might drop her. We take so many things for granted. This has helped me truly appreciate the simple things my hands do for me.

Svapna Sabnis is a pediatrician, mom and a wife. She is in private practice and is Clinical Associate Professor of Pediatrics Medical College of Wisconsin and Clinical Adjunct Professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. She is an immunization advocate and Director of Immunize Milwaukee and the Wisconsin Council on Immunization Practices. She is on the board of several peer reviewed journals and an active contributor to research work.

She loves to teach medical students and residents, was awarded the Best Doctors in America 2010- 2017. She is coauthor of a textbook –Pediatric Decision Making Strategies. She likes to garden and dabbles in watercolors in her free time. She’s still trying to have it all and achieve balance in her life.

Wrapping Air in Cloth

“Wrapping Air in Cloth” uses a universal form of wrapping one’s belongings in a piece of cloth. Except these are empty shells that allude to the innumerable lives lost at the border when people flee danger and poverty. I am in search of forms that have multiple meanings.  This one in particular has many – on a physical level, it could stand in for the body and breath, on a metaphysical level, it could stand in for transience and how nothing belongs to us. On a global level it is the universal and ancient form of carrying one’s belongings and on a political level, it could symbolize all the lives lost when refugees risk life and limb in the hope of a better life.

 Nirmal Raja is an interdisciplinary artist living and working in Milwaukee. She approaches her practice as a process of sifting and communicating sensations and ideas with varied materials and processes. Conceptually driven and thematic, her work straddles the personal and the political and is a response to lived experiences that are distilled and strengthened by research in the studio and through reading. She examines notions of memory, identity, place and belonging. Performative collaborations with other artists and the larger community have recently become part of her practice. Occasionally, she curates exhibitions and organizes and facilitates situations that articulate moments of connection and empathy.

The “no-excuse” guide to making time to workout

We know the importance of exercise and how it can help us stay physically active, mentally alert and emotionally happy. Most of us have access to multiple gyms in our neighborhood that offer a fun variety of classes. We also have good intentions to develop exercise routines and sometimes we start out strong, but most people struggle to maintain consistency with their workouts.

As a fitness coach, I often hear people say that they don’t have time to work out. We juggle work, families, multiple passions and are burnt by the end of the day. I would like to share my top 10 NO EXCUSE tips to help you fit a workout routine into your lifestyle. Ready, set, go:

Win the mind, win the body

Some of the busiest, most successful people in the world swear by their exercise routine and credit their workouts as one of the reasons for their efficiency and success. So, remind yourself that if they can do it, so can you.

Baby Steps

Sometimes we have an all or nothing approach to fitness, which is why gyms are packed from January 1st to the 15th. I recommend you commit to going 1-2 times a week at first and when you have consistently done that for a month, then add another day and so on.

Don’t try to be a superhero

You don’t have to do it all yourself. Ask family members to pitch in with household duties, and support you in your health goals. Remember that if you are healthy and strong, you will be able to do more for yourself and everyone around you.

Make it fun

If you hate running, don’t invest in a treadmill. Find a workout you enjoy and chances are you will show up more often if you enjoy it. Try out a new class in your neighborhood, most gyms offer free trials to attract new clients.

Find an accountability partner

Find a friend or family member who will hold you accountable. Someone who will actually send you reminders and check in with you or become your gym buddy.

Rome wasn’t built in a day

Changing your habits is one of the hardest things to do. Be patient and focus on progress not perfection. Think big, but start small.

Set up fun rewards

For every week that you make it to your goal, put a dollar or more in a gym jar or give yourself an NFR (Non-Food Reward). A mani-pedi or coffee with a friend, or a new dress can serve as a fun incentive to get you to the gym.

Attitude of Gratitude

Remember that there are so many people in the world who cannot work out due to injuries or limitations or financial reasons. If you have the physical ability to work out and you can afford a gym membership, then be grateful for your body and keep it in the best shape possible.

Sign up for a charity 5K or an obstacle race

Find a local race in the upcoming months and use that to get yourself going. Sometimes the pressure of an upcoming event can push you to show up and be more consistent in your workouts.

Hire a fitness coach

If you absolutely cannot get your mojo going, you may want to invest in a coach who can get you going with fun workouts and accountability until you develop a routine of your own.

IT’S NOT ABOUT HAVING TIME, IT’S ABOUT MAKING TIME

Chitra Rochlani of Livingston, New Jersey is a NASM (National Academy of Sports Medicine) certified personal trainer, Precision Nutrition Coach and owner of FIT WARRIOR CHITRA and works in Florham Park, New Jersey. In 2014, Chitra had a life-changing personal transformation when she lost 80 lbs. and she uses this personal experience to inspire and motivate her clients to get lean, strong and fit. Her motto is “Win the mind, win the body” and she believes that fitness, nutrition and mindset are the three pillars of success and contribute to lasting change. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook.

A journey through singing

Music has always been a way for people to create meaningful connections. However, when you learn to sing or perform as opposed to simply listening, it has another depth to it which cannot be experienced otherwise. According to my parents, I have been singing for almost my whole life. They say that when I was a toddler, I would run around the house singing songs of my own childish language. Of course, nobody really understood what I was saying, but they simply nodded along in agreement to my profound “lyrics”.

When I began kindergarten, I remember sitting on the bus with my friend and singing together. Though we would sing completely different songs, we were attempting to mimic the music our bus driver played on the radio. As a 6 year old, I had already begun to feel a love for music. 

Throughout my childhood, as well as now, I was engrossed in Hindi film music through my parents’ love for it. Though I never really understood the plot of the Hindi movies, there was never a moment when I did not enjoy listening to the dramatic love songs sung in my beautiful mother tongue.

Later, I was encouraged to join my fourth grade choir club in school, where I learned songs all the way from Christmas carols, to Korean folk songs, to pop songs.

When my parents noticed my interest for singing, they enrolled me into a Hindustani classical singing class. At the time, I was ten years old and it can be said that the only thing I really cared about was my Nintendo DS. Needless to say, I went into the class assuming it would be boring, seeing as it wasn’t Hindi film music. For a while, it was all scales and simple songs. I reached several points at which I considered asking my mom to quit. However, the day came when I was sick and ended up missing a session. To make up the class, I had to join “the big girls” for one hour. I did not know what to expect, and I was nervous as to what the older girls would think of me. 

As soon as I walked into the room, I was mesmerized by how confident they were, how eloquently they went through the warm ups, how easily they were able to memorize a song, and the smooth yet precise way their voices flowed. But what truly caught my eye, was how they were enjoying themselves. At that moment, I realized that singing wasn’t just something I liked to listen to, it was something which I wanted to have as a lifelong skill; something which I wanted to enjoy and pride myself with. I wanted to be known as one of “the big girls”.


More recently, I attended my first Hindustani classical music concert for Pandit Jasraj, a renowned Hindustani classical music singer. I will admit, my parents may have been involved in forcing me to go to the concert, but the experience was well worth it. Prior to the concert, I remember feeling the lack of excitement which I had felt during the early years of learning to sing. I childishly argued that if I already knew about the art form from my own teacher, then why did I need to go see someone else do the same? That in itself was the answer to my question. 


During Pandit Jasraj’s performance, I was in awe to see what I had been learning in my class be executed so gracefully. His voice and skill is like no other I have heard before. I was able to listen to and identify the variations and details of his songs which I had struggled to grasp during classes with my teacher. Pandit Jasraj’s performance gave me the final push in understanding that my love for singing goes beyond the way it sounds; rather it goes into the way I am able to build and improve. It is about enjoying the work I put into building such a skill. 


Finally, I am proud to say that I am now one of “the big girls”. I love learning the meanings of lyrics. I love hearing improvement in my voice. I love understanding the history behind what I am singing. And I know that this is just the beginning. 

Naina Waghray is a jersey girl and junior in Montgomery High School. She loves to sing. Her other passion is running that she enjoys with her buddies at school all through the year in the central Jersey countryside.

What motivates me to fight for clean air in India

I have practiced clinical medicine and public health in India for over 20 years in a number of roles, including academic researcher, educator, corporate medical director, and patient-centered clinician.  In 2015, after six years of living and working full-time in New Delhi, I thought I had undertaken every precaution to keep my family healthy: pesticide- and hormone-free food, purified water, mosquito protection… you name it, I had probably investigated it and figured it out.

The one thing I completely neglected to protect against was the air pollution. In fact I was oblivious to India’s air pollution until, in our final month in New Delhi, my then 9-year old daughter required emergency room care for sudden-onset asthma attacks. Coincidentally, in that same month, the World Health Organization announced that New Delhi was the most air polluted city in the world.  We had no choice but to move away, not just for an upcoming job transfer, but simply to protect our children.

I was grateful that we were moving to live in clean air, but both professionally and personally, I felt I had left behind a huge problem, affecting everyone I knew and loved there. I could not let it go. I now travel to India every few months, in part to support a non-governmental organization that raises awareness and advocates to mitigate India’s air pollution crisis.

A few days ago, a young New Delhi-based reporter asked me for my “expert opinion” on how air pollution harms children in India. Here is an excerpt of what I wrote:

“Children born in air pollution face shorter life expectancies compared to their counterparts born in cleaner air… Children suffer physical health harms, including diminished lung growth and development, and increased prevalence and severity of pneumonia and asthma… [they] risk functional health harms including suboptimal cognitive development and sports performance. Air pollution is associated with depression, anxiety… and contributes to cancer and lifelong chronic diseases in adulthood including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and dementia…”

These health facts are easy to summarize, but they do not convey the whole story.  What is more difficult to articulate is the stress and suffering that air pollution has created for millions of Indian people.  Including me.

I hate all the coughing. It starts within three days of my landing in New Delhi. Every friend is coughing or suffering some respiratory symptom. The plane is full of coughing passengers when I depart.

I cannot fully enjoy Diwali anymore.  I dread the futile arguments my friends and family will have with neighbors who insist it is their “right” to set off illegal firecrackers.  I dread the off the charts toxic air my friends and family will breathe in the subsequent weeks. I mourn the loss of elderly neighbors and relatives who have died of respiratory illness in the post-Diwali smog.

I hate that I discouraged my 75-year old father from visiting India for his elementary school reunion last November, because I was worried that the toxic air and ill-equipped health care system would seriously harm him.  

I feel sad for scheduling my children’s India visits only during the monsoon season, when the heavy rain reduces the air pollution. I feel guilty for limiting if and how long my children can play outside for those few weeks, knowing that their friends practice sports in worse air, every day.

Air pollution is not just a health problem harming our bodies. Air pollution compromises our moods, how we celebrate weddings and holidays, and how we live, work, play and travel. It is a crisis, affecting families just like mine, every single day.

Ultimately, for me, the only marker of success in this fight is India achieving clean air, for every person, every day.

I now know many of the experts and activists in India engaged in this fight, and I join forces with them.  We lack a sure path to clean air. Yet, we know that solving this crisis is entirely possible. Other countries have successfully cleaned up their air.  And Indian history has proven the country’s will and capacity to dramatically change.

India can and must overcome its air pollution crisis.  We have to believe it is possible, bring our skills to it, and keep at it. Not just life, but more importantly quality of life, is at stake, and worth fighting for.

Gita Sinha MD MPH is a physician specialist in Internal Medicine and Infectious Diseases and an independent consultant in clinical medicine and public health. She currently serves as a member of the executive team leading strategy and evaluation for a non-governmental organization dedicated to fighting India’s air pollution crisis.  

Gita completed her undergraduate and medical degrees at Stanford University, Internal Medicine residency at Brigham and Women’s Hospital/Harvard Medical School, and Infectious Diseases fellowship and Masters of Public Health degree from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where she served as Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine/Infectious Diseases for over 10 years.  Throughout her career, Dr. Sinha has led programs in clinical and public health education, and health services delivery for rural and urban populations in India as well as other South and Southeast Asian countries. Her roles have included Principal Investigator for an NIH-funded community clinical trial of HIV clinical services in rural Maharashtra, Visiting Faculty and Research Director in clinical medicine and public health in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, and co-Medical Director for a New Delhi-based primary health care start up company.

Her work-life motto is a quote by MLK Jr. which is present on her refrigerator as a reminder, “Never, ever be afraid to do what’s right, specially if the well-being of a human or an animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.”  Born and raised in the United States, she divides her time between New Delhi and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where she lives with her family.

Girl Friends

“Friendship is the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person, having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words.”

George Eliot

What would women do without our girlfriends?

I have different girlfriend groups. My primary group is one that started when we had young children- my “mom friends”. We first met when our children were toddlers. We got together so the children could play and then found ourselves lingering to talk more. Initially about mom stuff, then other things. All of us are artists in some form, some do it professionally, the rest of us as a hobby on the side. We connected through being mothers of Indian descent, trying to celebrate Diwali, Dussehra, and for a few memorable years even Holi together.  As our children grew we could lean on each other not just to help each other out with kid stuff (pickups, drop-offs) but also with deep personal losses and sadness that come as you get older. Through illness, losses, health scares, surgery, divorce, and emotional breakdowns. We took care of each other and each other’s children. The children are teenagers and young adults now, but we still meet. One from our group moved to Australia but she’s still on our group text. We push each other to do better or more, to open our horizons. We’ve cheered each other on to professional and personal successes. We support each other through failures. We are sisters, our bond is deep and I hope unbreakable.

My other friend group consists of my friends I trained with during my residency. I’ve known these women for almost 29 years. We don’t meet as often but we have a “book club” where we try to get together a few times a year to talk about the book and catch up on each other’s lives. These are the women who understand what I do as a woman physician, who went into medicine sharing the same idealism which has turned to pragmatism. We still love our patients but not the baggage of corporate medicine. We struggle with balancing personal and family needs with work and the need to do “more” to make the world a better place. These women inspire me and also “get” my professional struggles.

Then I have my painting friends. We meet alternate weeks at each other’s homes to paint together and share painting techniques. I never paint on my own, there is always something else more urgent that must be done. But when I get together with these ladies for two hours we just paint and talk about art, politics, families, books, and movies.

I have work friends who have my back (and I theirs’), family (lovely sisters in law), and other friends I don’t meet as often as I’d like to. I’m lucky enough to have a mother who is also a girlfriend. She lives across the ocean in India but as a working mom herself, a child psychologist and an author she is my role model too. We talk several times a week, email and text. We talk about her grandchildren of course, but so much more. I get my love of art, books, travel,  and gardening from her.

Debra Tannen the author of a You’re the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women’s Friendships states- “Talk plays a larger role in many women’s friendships than it does in many men’s, and when times are tough, talk can come into its own. Telling a friend what you’re going through can make you feel less isolated.”

This talk seems to be the secret of why friendships are important to women. Socially isolated people are at greater risk of poor health -high blood pressure, heart disease, infectious diseases. When we seek out friends we are following a biological need as well. People with strong social relationships have higher survival rates and longevity. Underlying our friendships is biochemistry, an increase in hormones that help us stay happy and calm (oxytocin, endorphins, dopamine, serotonin) and a decrease in hormones that are associated with stress (cortisol). There seems to be a deep biological need for these social connections.

Strong social bonds are important for survival even in animals, not just primates, but also dolphins, giraffes, deer, bison, elephants, birds, to name a few species. These bonds are most common in females of the species.

Our women friends comfort, nurture, sustain, feed and elevate us. As Julia Child said “Remember, ‘No one’s more important than people’! In other words, friendship is the most important thing―not career or housework, or one’s fatigue―and it needs to be tended and nurtured.”

Svapna Sabnis is a pediatrician, mom and a wife. She is in private practice and is Clinical Associate Professor of Pediatrics Medical College of Wisconsin and Clinical Adjunct Professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. She is an immunization advocate and Director of Immunize Milwaukee and the Wisconsin Council on Immunization Practices. She is on the board of several peer reviewed journals and an active contributor to research work.

She loves to teach medical students and residents, was awarded the Best Doctors in America 2010- 2017. She is coauthor of a textbook –Pediatric Decision Making Strategies. She likes to garden and dabbles in watercolors in her free time. She’s still trying to have it all and achieve balance in her life.

Navaratri

It is the morning after several nights in a row. Nine nights, to be precise. The gods are carefully divested of their crowns and garlands, their long black tresses tied back with wispy cotton threads, packed into recycled plastic bags and put away in the big black trunk that holds the history of inter-continental crossings and multiple house-movings.

The living room reclaims its position as marginal to the life of the household- so maybe it is more correctly named the “(with)drawing room” (we don’t really live there, do we?)- after having served these ten days as a site of communing with friends and family from a variety of circles, many of whom we see only once or twice a year. But there’s a temporary void beneath the window where the steps stood, making space for the descent of the gods from the storage area off our terrace to the level of our everyday. It will take a couple of days before the mundane reasserts itself and the memory of green and blue-tinged bodies, and their other-wordly aura, fades. “The room seems so empty now,” my mother in law remarks after we’ve cleared the last of the festival paraphernalia.

Navaratri, like almost every other festival, brings up all kinds of ambivalent feelings in me. There is nostalgia, of course, for uncomplicated times and the innocence of childhood, where the only protests had to do with getting up early or having to take an oil bath or going around with the invitational kumkum bharani, exposing oneself to the curiosity of the neighborhood aunties who would comment on the length of one’s hair or the inadequate number of bangles on one’s wrist. But that was always made up for by the innumerable varieties of sundal and sweets that one was offered by those very same aunties. And I was also one of the fortunate few who was never asked to sing for my sundal, having deftly sidestepped those obligatory Carnatic music classes that most of my contemporaries in the Tam-Bram circle were privileged to attend. Much to my parents’ regret, I suspect (and truth be told, to my own as well).

Now that I’m an auntie myself (as my children often remind me when I show embarrassing signs of forgetting), and I am the one offering the sundal and sweets, not to speak of being the one who has to spend that extra time in the kitchen cooking it all up, the ten-day festival (even though it is technically nava-ratri or nine nights) represents not just the opportunity for silk and music but also… work. And that work, and everything it represents, is implicated in all sorts of politics that my academic self cannot ignore.

My friends who are more deeply rooted in the progressive academic discourse would have much more to say about this discomfort and its relationship to modernity but for now, I’d just like to lay out some of the contradictions that I am constantly trying to reconcile (and why one even needs to reconcile them is another question, for another time).

–how does one deal with the notion of the oppressive Brahminical without discarding everything that is beautiful and good in tradition?
–how does one hold on to the aesthetic aspects of culture while also refashioning the meanings held within the form(s)?
–in other words, how does one appropriate the form while discarding all that this very form may have represented in the past?
–how does one learn to take pleasure in the social and cultural opportunities that such festivals offer in a truly secular–and egalitarian–way?

Each year, I try to deal with these questions, sometimes subconsciously, as I put the bomma golutogether and make my list of people to invite and balance my time between the demands of work and the extended kitchen time. Many of the dolls that we display have a special meaning for my family; the main pieces were made by my mother in law over forty years ago, lovingly and painstakingly, and each time we bring them out is a chance for her to recall her younger, more agile self and take pleasure once again in the sense of crafting something. Each year, as we prepare the display, we listen to stories of the making of the dolls, the years the family spent in Shillong, the many people who came and saw and what they said. This invariably leads to conversations about other navaratris in other places, and my children (if they happen to be here) and I are treated to glimpses of the past which tend to stay buried the rest of the year as we go about our regular business. We remember people who have turned into faded faces in our photo albums, and get a sense of what life was like before modern telecommunications.

So clearly, the sense of ambivalence also derives from another sort of nostalgia, for the loss of neighborhood, of the ease of getting around, of dispersed families, of a calendar that respected the personal and the familial and recognized the need for a periodic slowing down of the professional. The days leading up to the festival, I’m anxious and nervous about managing things, and I allow a resentment to build up, telling myself that I am only meeting expectations, that I am doing things that are not part of my modern-liberal psyche. But that’s only partly true. I am myself loath to give up the practice, because it is tied up with so much that I value and respect, with so much that–when I allow myself–I truly take pleasure in.

And in the doing of things, in the ritual of setting up the display, the resentment fades. While those questions and contradictions remain, I set them aside for another time, another space, another context.

by Usha Raman of University of Hyderabad, moved into academia after close to two decades as a freelance journalist and health communications practitioner. Her teaching interests include news reporting and feature writing, specialized writing (science, technology, environment and health), feminist media studies, science/health communication, and social impact of digital media. Her research has been in the fields of cultural studies of science, science and health communication, clinician-patient communication, children’s media, popular feminism and digital culture studies.

As a 2016 Fulbright Fellow, she spent a semester as a faculty researcher at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, USA. Usha is an honorary fellow of The George Institute for Global Health and a member of the ethics committees of L V Prasad Eye Institute and the Indian Institute of Public Health, Hyderabad. She is Editor of Teacher Plus, a monthly magazine for school teachers in India, and writes a fortnightly column on learning skills for The Hindu’s Education Plus titled Backpacker’s Guide, as well as a fortnightly review column on podcasts for The Hindu’s Sunday Magazine, Peace in a Pod. She is the author of Writing for the Media (Oxford University Press, 2009) and a volume of poetry, All the Spaces in Between (Writers Workshop, Kolkata, 2009), as well as a blog What are words worth? Usha obtained her Masters in Journalism and Ph.D. in Mass Communication from the University of Georgia, USA.

Feminist Mom-ent

I hadn’t heard the term “feminist parenting” until I was way past the age of raising kids, and well into raising young adults who thought they were well past the age of being raised. But I’ve been a feminist ever since I can remember, even before I knew the word or grasped the full implications of the feminist fight. I’ve never regarded myself as anything other than perfectly capable of doing the things I wanted to do—whether it was the short-lived dream of becoming a world renowned molecular biologist or a drug-designing organic chemist, or the other one of writing that killer investigative story that would win me the Pulitzer—or at maybe the Ramnath Goenka Award. And not for a moment did I attribute not being able to do the things I wanted to do to my gender. Looking back, of course, with a keener—and more critical eye—I can see the points at which an unconscious response to deeply entrenched expectations on my part and a structural orientation on the part of society, nudged me in one way or another, or made a certain choice easier—or more acceptable–than another.

So when my children were born, one lovely girl after the other, there was no question that they would be raised as human beings, first, and human beings last. This is not to say that there were no gendered paraphernalia in their lives; given the plethora of adoring aunts, uncles and grandparents, they had their share of little-girl gifts. At different points they wore pink and purple and lace and frills, they fantasized about being princesses and mermaids, they demanded Barbie dolls and glitter, which I gave in to reluctantly and always with a bit of a deconstructive lecture. But they also had swimming and soccer, karate and cycling, and were encouraged to climb trees and when possible, mountains. They watched me and my husband share tasks and responsibilities, they watched him defer to me on some things and me to defer to him on others. Yes, we also found ourselves and our ideas often hemmed in by the expectations of a traditional South Indian family structure, but despite this, there were spaces for conversations that steered around and through these constraints, acknowledging them yet offering possibilities of resistance and change.
It helped (and helps) that they are surrounded by female strength of different kinds: grandmothers with a strong sense of self and their own respective passions; aunts who laughed heartily, unafraid; cousins who had made unpopular choices and those who had adopted convention but retained a measure of choice. And it also helped (and helps) that there were many men in their lives who never used the words “you’re a girl, so…”.
It’s never easy being a parent, and it wasn’t easy for me–who had strong feelings about the ills of the world and what to do about them. It’s even harder when you are constantly trying to resist conventional wisdom while keeping the peace. I’m not a natural non-conformist, and I hate to rock the boat…I’m the kind of person who will nudge it sideways, a little at a time, believing firmly that the course will eventually change.


But ideology has not really been a conscious part of the parenting approach—although, one might argue, our political beliefs form the subtext even of our domestic lives. They surface occasionally in our interactions with family members, run through the arguments we have in spoken and unspoken words, the ways in which we treat those who work for and with us, and in the manner in which we approach the market. But I suppose the ideology would have been evident in the books we bought for the girls, the activities we enrolled them in, or the ways in which we dealt with the ups and downs of life, or in our interactions with people and the world.
So it was no surprise that daughter number one made choices that were fiercely her own, challenged only in relation to how they spoke to her mind and soul rather than their “value” in the employment market, that there was no question that she would follow her heart no matter where it took her and how long a journey it would be. And it was no surprise that daughter number two found her passion in sports, that there was no question that she too would stumble through those highs and lows in her own way, that we would neither shield her from disappointment nor set any ‘external’ standards.
What I have done is try to be (pretty much) transparent. I’ve talked with them about my own uncertainties, frustrations, hopes and dreams. I’ve shared with them my vulnerabilities and my anger. I’ve also done things I’ve enjoyed, and taken my space as and when I’ve needed it. But there is one thing I haven’t been able to do, and that is, to lay down my own guilt in the face of not meeting imagined expectations. Fortunately, though, they see the futility of that guilt and often try to talk me out of it. It’s in the middle of those conversations that I stop and think, “Wow, they have grown up, indeed!” 

Perhaps in the final analysis, feminist parenting is really about creating a space where there is both conscience and consciousness, a space where self-concept is untethered to the limitations imposed by expectations of [gender or other] roles. It’s not to say that things have been ideal. They still have to deal with the [gendered] anxieties that arise when they’re out late or in unfamiliar contexts. They still need to offer justifications about being safe. But I can see that the same anger I feel simmers in them too. It’s an anger that leads one to uncover narratives of oppression in popular culture and the other to rally against discrimination in sports.

But still, twenty-seven years later, when my daughter admonishes me fondly upon my asking if my dangly earrings look “too young for me”, saying, “Ma, what sort of a feminist are you?” it makes me smile inside.

Usha Raman of University of Hyderabad, moved into academia after close to two decades as a freelance journalist and health communications practitioner. Her teaching interests include news reporting and feature writing, specialized writing (science, technology, environment and health), feminist media studies, science/health communication, and social impact of digital media. Her research has been in the fields of cultural studies of science, science and health communication, clinician-patient communication, children’s media, popular feminism and digital culture studies.

As a 2016 Fulbright Fellow, she spent a semester as a faculty researcher at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, USA. Usha is an honorary fellow of The George Institute for Global Health and a member of the ethics committees of L V Prasad Eye Institute and the Indian Institute of Public Health, Hyderabad. She is Editor of Teacher Plus, a monthly magazine for school teachers in India, and writes a fortnightly column on learning skills for The Hindu’s Education Plus titled Backpacker’s Guide, as well as a fortnightly review column on podcasts for The Hindu’s Sunday Magazine, Peace in a Pod. She is the author of Writing for the Media (Oxford University Press, 2009) and a volume of poetry, All the Spaces in Between (Writers Workshop, Kolkata, 2009), as well as a blog What are words worth? Usha obtained her Masters in Journalism and Ph.D. in Mass Communication from the University of Georgia, USA.

On Belonging

I could say many things about the upcoming two person exhibition and my collaboration with Lois Bielefeld. I could load this post with art theory terms, postcolonial phrases, race and political commentary and technical jargon. But it will not explain what this work has meant to me over the last two years. I will simply tell you a story.

Two years ago, I came back from one of my trips to India to experience what felt like a different country. With a new president, each day brought sensationalist headlines, new announcements and events that highlighted an increasingly polarized America. I needed to wrap my head around what was going on, observe, read, speak to mentors and friends before I returned to the studio, questioning whether my work was relevant anymore.

An idea slowly began to emerge that demanded more courage from me than I have ever given before. For the first time, I included my physical self in the production of a body of work. I reached out to Lois Bielefeld, who I did not know at that time, with the idea to explore how race is perceived visually through garment and skin color and how intimately tied the body’s relationship to place is. I donned each of my barely used saris and worked with Lois to produce photographs that show me overtly performing difference while exploring and embedding myself in the landscape of Milwaukee. We titled this work Reaching Across 5 1/2 yards / 8497 miles. It spoke to both the length of the sari fabric and the distance between my place of birth and the place I live in now. Over the next year and half we traversed Milwaukee’s pocketed and  segregated spaces and experienced each other’s personal sanctuaries and the city’s public places of power. The result is a visual quilt of photographs that reflect different facets of Milwaukee.

Nirmal walking in Milwaukee, “overtly performing difference.”

Throughout this journey, Lois and I had many conversations- on her childhood memories of Milwaukee, on religion, identity, politics and art. We were walking by the Milwaukee Riverwalk one day and came across the American history engraved on its boardwalk. This led to discussions on how each of us understood this history, mostly written by white men. The burden of America’s violent and racist history weighed heavy on us as we discussed the Muslim ban, riots in Charlottesville, Standing Rock protests, police brutality against African Americans, border walls, shootings at Sikh Temple of Wisconsin and Olathe Kansas in addition to other racist incidents against people of color. I made a rubbing of the history engraving onto 30 meters of organdy fabric which then became a prop for another body of collaborative work with Lois. We titled this work that included 12 performance based photographs, What is Recorded / What is Remembered.

The rubbing of engraved American history on an organdy fabric sari.



We expanded this work by reaching out to our friends, diverse women of different ages, races and sexual orientations involving them in a performance based three channel video work. It was magical to see how generous and willing they were to perform with us not knowing what the end product may look like.

The circle grew even larger with the production of an audio archive that not only included the women we invited to perform but also community members we admired and respected. This is an ongoing project that explores how each of us contend with history- personal, national and global and includes our hopes and fears for the future in addition to how we have come to understand what being American is.
All this may sound confusing –  with subjects that are vast and complex, but it all comes down to the personal, the self and moves outward to the community like ripples. We hope that our work is the pebble that causes those ripples. What was an impulsive act of reaching out to a stranger in a desperate need to understand and build something together, has led to a special friendship and incredible learning. I have come to understand my community better, to gain comfort through human connection, learn from wise and knowledgeable women, listen to the hope in young people’s voices. These are the intangibles that are behind the work. We hope that you may feel these intangibles, invisible as they are, filtering through the exhibition and for those of you far away, perhaps through the images and links on our websites.

It takes courage to reach out to a stranger who is different from us. To have conversations that are uncomfortable and new, but if we approach it with a spirit of inquiry and learning, we may realize that we all have the same fears and concerns. You never know what might come of that interaction.

No art can be shared without the support of space and visibility. We are incredibly grateful to The Warehouse, John Shannon and Laura Sims Peck at Guardian Fine Arts to generously host this exhibition at their 4000 square foot pristine gallery space. A space large and generous enough  to hold this work and share it with Milwaukee.

On Belonging
opens March 8th and will be up till May 31st,
The Warehouse, 1635 W. Saint Paul Ave., Floor 1, Milwaukee, WI 53233

Opening reception is on March 8th, 5-8 pm
The gallery is open by appointment Monday – Friday. Please call 414-252-0677 or email info@thewarehousemke.org

 Nirmal Raja is an interdisciplinary artist living and working in Milwaukee. She approaches her practice as a process of sifting and communicating sensations and ideas with varied materials and processes. Conceptually driven and thematic, her work straddles the personal and the political and is a response to lived experiences that are distilled and strengthened by research in the studio and through reading. She examines notions of memory, identity, place and belonging. Performative collaborations with other artists and the larger community have recently become part of her practice. Occasionally, she curates exhibitions and organizes and facilitates situations that articulate moments of connection and empathy.

Lois Bielefeld