Sangita Jogi has a dream. It’s a simple one: she wants to be many different women. Currently she’s young, she lives in a village in rural Rajasthan, is a mother of two children, she’s the youngest daughter-in-law in a family of manual labourers. She cooks, cleans, feeds the family and, when her elder sisters-in-law go out to work in the fields, she looks after their children and her own. As the youngest in the hierarchy, this is her responsibility.
Her day is full, often overfull, and there’s little time for leisure. But the burden of work cannot stop the untrammelled journeys of the mind. So, no matter how busy she is, Sangeeta holds her dreams in her heart and with them, the mind journeys far and wide and the dreams take her where reality cannot manage to go.
It’s not that when she allows the mind to roam free, Sangita slacks off her work (women are often told, and indeed sometimes they believe it too, that dreams are not for them as they take attention away from their work), or that she is filled with resentment at what she does not have (for example the freedom the women in her dreams have).
There’s a wisdom and grace with which Sangita receives that which is her lot – early marriage, economic hardship, heavy workloads, barely any leisure, increasing responsibilities – and a joy and longing with which she cherishes her dreams. And the two – the real and the imagined – cohabit, as they do in the lives of so many women, embracing complexity and contradiction.
If Sangita cannot actually live her dreams, she does the next best thing: she draws them. Whenever she can find the time, the dreams take form and shape on paper, the imagination soaring in free quirky lines, amazing detail and constant activity. You can almost hear her thinking, and as the reader engages with her wonderful book The Women I Could Be (Tara Books, 2021) they cannot but be affected by the delight and relish in the way she articulates her thoughts on paper.
I imagine her drawing and thinking “oh, this one, let me give her a fan and a gown with a train, then here’s one who needs to wear tight shorts and high heels, perhaps the pilot lady needs a bomber jacket”. Sangita’s imagination conjures up many different women – for her, these women are different, they’re free, they’re modern, and they’re women she would like to be. She says:
“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
A woman who won’t get married unless she has a sense of self-fulfilment.”
For Sangita, the modern woman is all this and more, and if her own life hasn’t taken her in this direction, she wants to make sure her daughter’s will. “I know,” she says, “this won’t be easy. In my husband’s community they think that if a girl is educated, she’ll leave home. As the youngest bride in the family, I’m expected to be mindful of family honour. So let’s see how I do this.”
Her inspiration comes from her parents – in particular her mother, who encouraged her to draw, to develop her own style and who gave Sangita the space to fill her world with pictures of edgy, fun, funny, feisty women. The mother-daughter pact continues: “When my daughter grows up, I’ll teach her painting. I want to pass on everything I know to her. Maybe she’ll take it ahead.”
Among modern women Sangita counts beauty queens, women who walk the ramp, those who are behind the camera, women who travel, singly and together, others who fly planes and surf on choppy waters. And then there are American women, among whom the Statue of Liberty – also a modern woman – stands tall.
Sangita dreams of going to America, she doesn’t know why, but it’s a place that draws her and so she imagines it and then gives shape to it in her drawing. “When I’m painting, I don’t think about anything else. Even if there are a thousand chores waiting for me, I keep pushing them away, trying to squeeze a bit more time to draw.”
Sangita’s parents were wandering singers – they’d go from village to village, singing and earning their keep. Later, they switched to becoming folk painters. She learnt to draw by watching them, copying what they did, and blossomed. And now, it’s her mother who continues to encourage her – it’s when she visits her that Sangita feels really free to paint. “I find enough time for art only in one place. And that is my mother’s house….She understands that I need to draw.” This understanding of drawing as a need – not a luxury but a necessity – is the gift of the mother to the daughter.
Talking about her mother, Sangita muses on the meaning of being modern. She likes the way modern women talk, the way they walk. But then she wonders, who is a modern woman really? “Someone once asked me,” she says, “if I thought a woman could be forward in her thinking without having to dress fashionably. At first, I thought how can something be modern if it’s only in the mind and doesn’t show?”
She asks herself, is a woman modern only if she looks modern? “Then I thought about a person like my mother. She looks traditional, but she’s modern in her views. She does the work she enjoys, she supports her family and she wants women to be educated. I’ll have to think more about that...” Appearances may count, but they’re not everything, real modernity lies deep, beneath the surface, and once again, this lesson comes to Sangita from her mother.
Produced with the care and attention to detail that characterises so many of Tara’s books, Sangita’s stunning book of drawings is rich in wisdom and insight, and is a pleasure to hold. Each page is carefully composed, each drawing filled with love and often humour.
Dressed in her flowing robes, the Statue of Liberty joins the ranks of American women who Sangita would like to be, there are Miss Indias who sport whimsical, almost Japanese looks, complete with handbag, fan, stylish hairdos; there are women in motorboats, in planes, on cycles who are seeing the world, something that Sangita aspires to, even as she muses, “Maybe if I start moving, I’ll never stop” (inadvertently echoing the fear most people have about allowing women the freedom of movement in the public world).
What must the life of a modern woman be like? Sangita speculates:
“She’s not going to just do housework and nothing else. Of course she’ll take on what needs to be done in the household, she’s a responsible person. She listens to her family but she doesn’t necessarily accept or agree with everything they say…even if she can’t say that out loud sometimes.”
And then she draws “all the things they’re free to do and be.”
Sangita’s book is more than just a beautiful object. In a discussion on Tara’s particular kind of publishing, V Geetha, the publishing director, talks of Tara’s understanding that “book-making is essentially a collaborative activity” in which author, illustrator, designer and producer come together, and that “words and visuals are integrally linked in the illustrated book”, either forming parallel texts that can be “read” separately or together, or with one illustrating the other.
In this kind of book-making, designers are communicators, printers and paper makers give form and shape to the book, and the final product combines in it all of these different threads, already imbued with an intermesh of stories that we, as readers, can read, internalise, expand with our own stories, and often even “feel” in a tactile way on the paper and in the visuals.
Sangita’s story is something like this. The pictures she draws are exuberant, lush, filled with joy and fun and often they almost “explode” on the page (the addition of colour was a suggestion of her publishers, the transformation wrought by this a delight for the author). By contrast, her text is spare, almost spartan, and yet it is nuanced, thoughtful, sometimes speculative – it has the quality not of settled thought, but of loud thinking and questioning.
That this thinking, questioning, seeking is taking place in the minds of so many young, often rural, women, and that it comes, not necessarily from participation in a “movement” but from a felt and internalised quest, a search for answers, possibilities, justice, is truly remarkable. It is also this that strikes fear in the minds and hearts of our self-appointed guardians of morality, who increasingly seek to represent women as those who can be easily manipulated (as in situations when women choose to marry outside caste or community or religion).
Sangita’s dreams are nothing if not subversive. They not only bring art out of the ivory tower and place it, vibrant and alive, squarely in the hands and hearts of people on the ground, but they are also a mirror of what young Indian women like Sangita are thinking today.