By Neha Kirpal
An artistic showcase of desi feminism ‘Gundi’ was recently on display at the newly opened Method art gallery in Mumbai’s Kalaghoda. Founded in 2017 by Natasha Sumant, an art director and multidisciplinary designer, Gundi Studios is a slow fashion and progressive media brand that celebrates assertive and independent South-Asian women.
Its streetwear is made in a female-centred supply chain, designed to honour historical resistance movements, and intended to be worn by independent women. Every piece of Gundi clothing features its signature branding embroidered using traditional zardozi techniques and is made in partnership with suppliers who have set out to impact women’s lives meaningfully.
Showcasing their work across New York, London and Mumbai, their art show included an installation called ‘Ghosts of Gundis Past’, frames of photo series centred around desi (south Asian) feminism, a photo series about how Gundi Studio works with women in rural India to make clothes, a video on code-switching, a video called Akeli on desi women being alone, and a rack of Gundi’s clothes to buy.
All products are handmade, homegrown, made of khadi, and come from all-female NGOs. “We see Gundi as a manifestation of expression, an important contribution to the artistic fabric of a generation,” said Method’s founder Sahil Arora.
Natasha, who is based between Mumbai and Brooklyn, spoke to us in an exclusive interview:
What was your inspiration behind setting up Gundi Studios?
I didn’t find a brand that spoke to this demographic of unapologetic women, and celebrated that kind of character. I didn’t find anything in pop culture, especially in India and south Asia, that celebrated a woman like that. I believe that if a character exists in pop culture, it validates those character traits that exist in people.
Tell us more about the work Gundi Studios does, its sustainable ethos, and how it is empowering desi women and battling sexism with fashion.
We are first and foremost a clothing brand, and secondly, we make media around feminism, especially south Asian feminism. That media can range from short films about female existentialism to long-form content on our website or photoshoots questioning certain gender stereotypes. We like to speak to the female gaze as much as possible. All our clothes are made with the intention of empowering women. That could be through the supply chain or its design.
All the products are not as sustainable as we would like them to be, but we try to follow as many sustainable practices in the production of our products as possible. Our fabric is mostly hand woven or made of natural fibres. We also have some polyblends in our materials, which we are trying to switch out of to find a more sustainable option.
How does fashion serve the cause of feminism, and what are its strengths and limitations in that sense?
We try to employ women on every level of our supply chain, because we believe that women, especially south Asian women, are victims of capitalism in a way. They’re really affected by the fashion industry, because they are either disenfranchised, low-wage workers, or women like me who are slightly privileged and see ads that play on insecurities to get us to buy stuff.
The word ‘gundi’ has a rebellious ring to it. Why do we still need to ‘rebel’ to demand basic rights that are apparently guaranteed to us in free societies?
We try to have all-women dealers and women in mid-level management. We try to get our fabrics from units in India where they employ women weavers. It’s a hard process, but it propels the demand for basic rights that are apparently guaranteed to us. The systems that are supposed to protect us are not doing their job. So, everyone has to speak out and rebel in whichever way they can. And that’s just not in India; it’s the state of the world right now. Healthy rebellion is really good, especially in democratic societies.
In Akeli, you highlight that women in the subcontinent aren’t taught or encouraged to be alone. Why do you think this is so?
From my experience and especially in south Asia, women are always taught to live for others. For example, our mothers take care of the family’s needs before their own. Women in general have just been taught to serve others, and we’ve been raised to kind of exist for others. We often get ready for someone else’s gaze. Akeli highlights why we are not encouraged to be alone, or female existentialism. Once people see women doing really mundane things alone, it’s just sharing our perspective. It’s necessary to encourage independence.
What frightens society so much about an independent, rebellious woman, when in fact pop culture frequently glorifies independent, rebellious men?
It affects a very longstanding power structure in humanity. We’ve always been second, that’s why people get scared when we rebel. Pop culture often glorifies rebellious men, because they have often been able to affect really big changes in the world. People are afraid of the kind of changes a rebellious woman might bring to the table.
Can modern-day politics help bring about social equality and ensure human rights? Are you optimistic about the current state of affairs around the world?
I hope so. People need to just keep expressing their needs, vote and push for the kind of legislation that they want. Even though it seems bleak and the news makes everything seem quite apocalyptic, I really believe in the younger generation, especially the one that’s younger than me. They are extremely well informed, caring consumers and citizens. I really hope that they will affect change.
I think that social equality has a really long way to go. I read a study somewhere that said that in 200 years, America will have achieved social equality. Social equality is also quite fluid and relative, so I hope that we can achieve it, but we also have to define what that looks like.
First published in eShe’s September 2019 issue.
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