Pati, Patni Aur Woke: In Conversation with Smish Designs

Aarushi Zarthoshtimanesh 18th Mar, 2021

At a time when we have been bound to the confines of our homes, the world outside has still managed to drown in a tsunami of pressing crises every waking moment. But, with this overwhelming wave of new problems and issues, we have found ways to keep afloat with the power of our voices and the strength of all those individuals who are pouring their lives into igniting change. One such radiant person is the powerhouse Smish Designs.

Her work and art have long been reverberating with the courage to question and critique all that we must passively swallow in society. And as she celebrates her first solo exhibition with Method, we got to sit down and delve deeper into her art, beliefs, emotions, and more!

Standing at the precipice of having your first (and definitely not your last!) solo show as an artist, looking back, how would you choose to summarise your journey up until now?

I think I’d begin by saying that I’d never imagined reaching here. I’ve studied such a vast array of things in my life and never truly studied the arts. My heart was always closer to design and sketching but, I never had that chance to study fine art as I’d hoped I would. Even as a kid with a passion for creativity, my parents were against the notion of me pursuing art further since it didn’t fall under this category of a ‘white-collar job’. But I found a way into the creative world through architecture and then graphic design.

Studying graphic design in New York, stepping out into the world, gave me this wonderful chance to broaden my horizons to new ideas and progressive opinions. And I began drawing my inspiration from the people there who strut their thoughts, their creativity and their vibrant personalities, openly and confidently. Then coming back to India, I found new and rich local artistic languages to explore and delve into. But, for me, the 2019 Indian elections were a tipping point. After that, was when I really started making political art and since then I’ve never looked back.

How has the emotional, critical and creative process been to make art and ideate for your solo show? In that process, what made you decide to have the exhibit revolve around the powerful themes of gender, marriage, and more?

I’ve grown up exposed to a lot of the harsh realities and complexities that marriages often have. And I’ve seen a lot of bad marriages and relationships that have failed and brought immense pain and shame especially to the women involved. Now being in my thirties, there is this pressure from society and my relatives to settle down and I can’t help but ask –

Why? What is this norm that I must bow down to?

It doesn’t make sense to me to conform to this compromise that is usually borne by one gender in particular over the other – women. Often made to bear and tolerate so much for the sake of a pretense and status that society tells her to preserve.

Even on a macro level, on a nationwide level, cases of dowry and marital rape are so prevalent. Our country’s judiciary and judges are still adamant about not passing bills and laws against marital rape, on the pretext that ‘the sanctity of marriage‘ should be preserved. It is such an abused term and used so often to cover up how in India, most times they don’t even treat women as human beings. Honour, prestige, respect all of it lies in our stomachs. In our preservation of our ‘sanskaar’ and status, which I feel stems from these deep-rooted patriarchal and Brahminical ideologies.

A groom on a horse, in wedding attire, shown the middle finger.
Dulha- Smish Designs, 2021.

I may not be married to host this exhibition, but I don’t have to be to have an emotional understanding of it and to talk of this issue that is locally and globally plaguing women everywhere. I hope this finds a way for them to feel something – understood, empowered, seen. This exhibit is by a woman, for women, and of course, everyone who is fighting to be heard and carve their path out of society’s outdated traditions.

Tell us about any other illustrators/ artists or Instagram platforms, similar to yours, that have used their art as a medium for garnering change today, and ones you feel greatly inspired by. Do you feel that sense of community within the changing world of ‘creative activism’?

For me, the first name that immediately comes to mind is – Orijit Sen (@orijitzen). I see him as someone who is so gutsy and unabashedly brave in sharing his opinions, and that has been a source of constant inspiration to be as bold as I can. Additionally, the account Sanitary Panels, who is always so thoughtful in addressing certain issues, I only wish I could someday reach that consciousness of thought. Bakery Prasad, who pushes me and motivates me to keep going, Mir Suhail and his work as well and so many more make up this community of brilliant artists and activists I look towards for hope and support.

Even with the title of this exhibit ‘Pati Patni aur woke’, you’re impregnating this misogynistic title of a 90’s Bollywood movie, with the concept and practice of ‘wokeness’. What to you, is truly ‘being woke’ beyond its overconsumption as a popular hashtag?

I was actually in two minds whether I should keep this title or change it to something else because truly, I don’t see myself as being ‘woke’. I have a lot to learn and even more to unlearn, and I don’t like to assume any titles and labels for myself other than those of illustrator or designer. Today Gen-Z is so outspoken and this term that was coined by them, especially in relation to racism and the black lives movement, is co-opted worldwide now. Of course, the title alludes to the misogynistic movie title that means – ‘Husband, wife and the other woman’, and flips it into ‘Husband, wife, and wokeness’ as a part of the narrative instead.

Through that satire, I want to accommodate the idea of opening our eyes to change and supporting equality within marriages. I was looking to represent this institution through a feminist standpoint and see marriage beyond a convention that women have to follow and fulfill some form of duty of being a wife and a mother.  So, this particular exhibition is closest to my lived experience as a woman and my anger towards the disadvantages I have faced. As my first solo show, I wanted it to truly come from my heart, and even as a ‘feminist-in-training’, living in India, I wanted the work to reflect those contexts.

A beautiful brown woman dressed in her wedding attire, with a VR headset that reads PATI PATNI AUR WOKE.
Pati, Patni Aur Woke- Smish Designs, 2021.

Being an illustrator, with an engaging social media platform and having the digital world as your permanent gallery space to share your work, how do you think exhibiting in a physical art space like Method, adds or changes the context and experience of seeing a Smish Designs piece?

I truly believe art should be for everyone! And working with Method and seeing how open and accessible they have been has really changed my perception of how an exhibition or gallery can be. In our country, so many of us are still getting accustomed to formal gallery spaces and I want to try and break that intimidating outlook towards that experience and contribute my work as a point of having more open conversations for everyone and anyone – even beyond social media.

I definitely love seeing my art in protests but with this exhibition, Method has been so supportive to an artist like me and given me this chance and platform to be as bold as I want to, and that in itself is a form of rebellion and protest. As someone who only wants her work to speak for itself, I value their trust in my art. Through this, I can further celebrate my identity and womanhood confidently but not have myself be the focal point in the work.

In our world today, with so much to consume, so much around us is disintegrating and falling apart, our attention and energies are often stretched far beyond our capacities to rise up for the better. How, in this world of ‘activism burnout’, have you been able to personally keep aflame?

I actually feel very sad about that. People nowadays seem to have a 3-second memory. There is so much happening to everyone every single day, that we end up getting over a lot of issues that should be further broken down, further supported. Our empathy ends up having a time limit of 24 hours after which we move on to the new issue at hand. Then often I do go into the spiral of how I don’t feel like I’m doing enough, only creating art and not necessarily policy changes.

But I remember this conversation with Madpauldiaries and he brilliantly brought forward this point of how we are documenting our surroundings and it is crucial as ever to have that in the pages of history. That stuck with me and since then I have been able to see how art can be a space of sharing our outrage, of feeling, of voicing our pain, truths, and beliefs beyond words. I have a lot of such affirmations for myself that help me be strong and confident within myself and that really helps too.

Additionally, is there a series or a piece you look back on and realise it had a far greater reach and impact than you’d imagined?

I feel like my claim to fame was the piece ‘Weighing Us Down’, a spin on the national flag of our country, which I did during the NRC/CAA protests last year. It was at a time when so many wrongs were being normalised around us and I tried to channel the agony and anger I felt in regards to that somehow. I was so scared to share my thoughts. I posted that piece the first time and actually deleted it as soon as it went up! After that all my artist friends rallied around me, kept encouraging me to put it out there, and with the growing agitation politically, I finally decided it was alright to post, and then it was history!

The Indian flag, with a blue man holding the saffron up as it tries to drown out the other colours.
Weighing Us Down- Smish Designs, 2019.

*cue the interviewer bursting into tears* Wow, that is powerful!

Are you crying? I am so touched that my words have made you feel so strongly. Even back then, the responses I was getting were both overwhelmingly negative and positive. I was always so anxious that I’d get arrested at any moment but, now, that life-changing time has got me here. Seeing my work breathe and be present at protests and become a part of this growing revolution is the reason I do what I do. We don’t always need galleries and exhibitions to experience art – protests become this active space for our works to speak up as well. Today with my exhibit here at Method, this opportunity to speak my mind, to have my voice and art ring in their space, is a protest all its own.

Pati, Patni Aur Woke by Smish Designs, is an ongoing exhibition at Method Bandra, from Monday 8th March to Monday 29th March 2021.

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