Loader

The Making of Women I Could Be

By Gita Wolf

I often think of different kinds of women, I imagine what their lives are like… and I draw all the things they’re free to do and be.

Limited time offer: Get 20% off The Women I Could Be
and the
Active Women card pack until November 4th!

We’re proud and gratified to finally present the world with a project that is especially close to our feminist hearts. Several years in the making, the story of how this amazing book came to be is worth telling, at length.

Meet artist Sangita Jogi

Sangita's Story

In my community, girls are married off very early. I was too, and had to go to my husband’s village… we’re a large family and a lot of household work falls to me, as the youngest bride…

Sangita Jogi lives with her extended marital family consisting of her husband, children, and in-laws, as well as her husband’s brothers, their wives and children. They are farm labourers, and Sangita’s life is no different from that of scores of young women in impoverished rural communities. Her husband’s village in Rajasthan is in a region known for its strict patriarchy. Women are expected to be veiled in the presence of men, and are rarely active in any kind of public life. Despite all this, Sangita has discovered an extraordinary creative outlet for herself: she draws.

Hard at work

Whenever I can, I sit down to draw. At night, mostly… or during the day, when my chores are done and the children are asleep. When I’m painting, I don’t think about anything else.

Her art is therapeutic, in a sense. But it is also much more: it is active and energetic, fuelling a positive spirit that is remarkably questioning.

Dive right in!

A modern woman thinks differently. Of course, she’ll do housework, but also other things. She listens to her family, but doesn’t necessarily agree with everything they say… even if she can’t say that out loud sometimes.

Given her circumstances, it’s hard to say where Sangita’s extraordinary perspicacity comes from. She has very little formal education, and regrets not having been able to continue her schooling. Perhaps it has to do with her natal family: her father and mother were both self-taught artists. Originally from a nomadic performing community in Rajasthan, they settled down with their extended family near Ahmedabad, Gujarat, earning their living from manual labour, occasional performance and a few paintings they sold. 

Sangita’s parents: Tejubehan and the late Govind Jogi

The couple encouraged their children to draw, and the environment at home was always creative.

Scenes from Sangita’s childhood

You need your family to support you. And mine did, as much as they could… I loved the way my father drew and I’d ask him many questions.

Tejubehan illustrating in her inimitable style; a spread from Drawing from the City

My mother taught me in other ways. She’d say, never copy other people’s work… let it come from your own mind.

Sangita in fact came to our notice through her mother Tejubehan, a wonderful artist in her own right. We’d worked with Teju for several years and created two unique books with her: Drawing from the City and Mother Steals a Bicycle. During one of her visits, Teju brought along Sangita’s drawings, talking at length about her imagination and talent, and lamenting her sadly limiting circumstances.

Sangita’s universe of fabulous women

I find enough time for art only in one place. And that’s my mother’s house. When I’m there, she lets me get away with a lot… she understands that I need time to draw.

When we first saw Sangita’s drawings, we were blown away. No doubt inspired by her mother Teju’s work—which also featured strong and resilient women—Sangita’s art had a youthful, edgy brilliance which was completely her own. Her women were uncompromisingly modern—fun, feisty, fashionable, and outrageously over the top.

Life’s a party

What I love drawing most is modern women. A woman who pursues her own desires. A woman who is fashionable and likes to look beautiful, yet someone who is also intelligent.

We knew right away that there was a book in there. But it needed to be more than a collection of delectable images. They can be relished on their own, but they tell only half the story. We sensed that there was more to be discovered in the poignant tension between Sangita’s life of restraint and her uninhibited art and imagination.

Contrasting lives

A modern woman won’t get married unless she has a sense of self-fulfilment.

It’s not a question of simple irony or voyeuristic wish fulfilment. Sangita’s quest is real, in the deepest sense of the word—sincere, unpretentious and completely without attitude. She explores what it means to be a ‘modern woman’—who has the world open to her—without guile, envy or self-pity. She’s well aware of the treatment of women in patriarchal society, but negotiates her own course through it.

Moving forward

I’ve even got an award for a painting about a girl in our neighbourhood who was abused by her in-laws. I cried when I painted… and later, someone told me that I should draw happier things. And so that’s what I went on to do. Not that I stopped drawing sad stories. But I thought to myself: let a girl be, let her live happily.

This sense of easy openness to the good things of life radiates from Sangita’s images. The women she conjures up relish everything: the warmth of female friendship, the excitement of far-off places, the energy of sport, the thrill of performance, the pleasures of dressing up, the hedonism of parties, the joy of photographing women doing different things…

A mosaic of modern women

I like to draw pictures of women enjoying themselves, in whatever ways they like... women can do so many things these days. There’s no end to what they can achieve.

Sangita’s own work is a living testimony to what women can achieve. But in her own life, there are many things she wishes she had the power to change.

Creating a legacy

I want my daughter’s life to be different. I want her to go to school and college. When she grows up, I’ll teach her painting. I want to pass on everything I know to her.

It is her art that keeps Sangita going. So looking at her sunny images while keeping in mind the reality of her life does complicate matters. Then again, when we do this, the experience is uplifting, rather than saddening. Perhaps because we’ve had a chance to feel something rare: an embodied sense of the radical potential of art. We see that art does matter. And that it has nothing to do with privilege or expensive material. Sangita’s own circumstances may not change overnight, but the agency she exercises so masterfully—her play on desire and aspiration, with all its inherent complexity—is something to be cherished and passed on. We wanted that to be at the core of her book.

Bringing It All Together

What we intuitively grasped as the basis of Sangita’s book turned out to be more of a struggle to achieve than we anticipated. Many of our artists are not familiar with the book form, nor have they set out to make a book. So when we collaborate with them, we work actively to create a viable form of the book, bringing in editorial and design elements that do justice to their story and art. 

We began with stacks of black and white drawings, pen and ink on ordinary white paper. We loved the eccentric characters, the confident lines, the whacky details, and the potentially infinite stories.

Black and white original

We also heard an account of Sangita’s story. Then we saw her photo, and the contrast between her conventional appearance and the outrageous women she created was astonishing, to say the least. 

Clearly, we needed to talk to her at length. So one of our designers arranged to meet Sangita, prepared with questions on her life, imagination, ideas, influences, hopes… the oral interview was in Gujarati. Sangita was thoughtful and articulate, and we transcribed and translated her words into English. 

But then the question of how to bring the two strands—her art and her life—together as a narrative posed a challenge, both editorially and design wise. Initially, we played with the idea of a fashion magazine format: it seemed a fun way to frame Sangita’s modish women, with their extravagant appearance and high-flying activities. Perhaps her views could appear in the form of a long interview inserted into the book. So the images and text would essentially be separate.

Initial design direction

Very soon, we realised that the fashion angle was limiting. The long process of sorting and ordering Sangita’s images into themes made us realize just how broad and rich the material was. From clothes and parties to travel, sport and performance—a broader conceptual canvas was needed to do justice to all the things these women were up to.

Portrait of a performer

But the problem was that in many of the best images, the women were rendered just as figures, who appeared to be floating on the paper. They needed to be anchored to the ground—or fly in the air, as the case may be—to give the scene a context and location, and turn it into a story. So we sent Sangita some selected images, with a couple of suggestions on what could be done to ‘complete’ the scene. Of course, what we got back from her surpassed anything we could have imagined. (We’ve noticed that she has taken on this form of rendering in her new work!)

Setting the stage

The initial fashion template idea had put us in mind of adding colour to the black and white drawings. Not too many—just one or two fluorescent, eye-popping ones that fitted right with Sangita’s youthful vision. She loved them.

The final spread in vivid colour

Meanwhile, things were not going too well on the editorial front. The thematic selection was fine, but page after page of images—however stunning they were—was proving hard to take in. Moreover, connecting these images to what Sangita was saying in her interview seemed to demand too much of the reader. What we had intended as the concept for the book—connecting Sangita’s life and work—didn’t come through in the form we had. We needed something far more interactive.

So it was back to work, for the editor and designer. We restructured the book, section by section, using Sangita’s words from the interview as the narrative voice. It worked much better.

Section pages introduce new themes

We went on to treat the broader context of Sangita’s life differently from the rest of the book, keeping them to the first and last sections. We would have liked her to illustrate these sections, but unfortunately the pandemic intervened at this point, and we lost touch with her for more than a year. So the designer had to use images from other work as illustrations.

Glimpses into Sangita’s context

And between the pages of her life, we’ve featured Sangita’s women in every kind of delightful situation. Quotes from Sangita become captions that comment and move the story along, adding a frisson of poignancy along the way.

Globetrotters

There was just one last thing left to do. We called Sangita, translated the book back to her, and checked whether she was happy with it. She was. Asked if there was anything more she’d like to put in, she didn’t disappoint: 

I want to add that I admire women who are not just beautiful, but also intelligent. Women who win the world over with both beauty and brains.

After the book was printed, we called her again and this is what she said:

I have no words for how happy I am that this book is done. It’s my first book and I am so grateful to all of you for it. I love the colours specially… they’re so fun and unexpected! I never imagined my work would look like this…

Sayonara!

Gita Wolf started Tara Books, as an independent publishing house based in India. An original and creative voice in contemporary Indian publishing, Gita Wolf is known for her interest in exploring and experimenting with the form of the book and has written and over twenty books for children and adults. Several have won major international awards and been translated into multiple languages. Click here to discover Tara Books she has authored.

2 Comments
  • CR Romeo
    Posted at 06:09h, 30 October Reply

    What an inspiring story and stunning book created with love and imagination from an artist soul. I am waiting patiently to receive my copy , thank you for sharing ♥

  • rakshna.natarajan
    Posted at 18:42h, 06 November Reply

    This is beautiful! I’ve ordered my copy. Kudos to Tara for encouraging Ms. Sangita’s creative pursuits.

Post A Comment
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.