Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani: An In-Depth Look At a Misnomer

cover

I have been hesitant to write this, even though it’s been a while since I read the book. After all, Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani answers the call for diverse books. For so many American Indian kids, it is exciting to see themselves and parts of what seems to be an authentic India in a graphic novel. The book has done so very well that it is being made into a movie by Netflix. I am happy for the success that has come to its creator Nidhi Chanani.

Pashmina, is a graphic novel about, Priyanka, a teenage girl whose mother emigrated from India years ago, leaving her father behind. Priyanka is eager to learn about her father and her Indian heritage, but her mother refuses to discuss it. When Pri’ finds an old “pashmina”, she is magically transported to the India of her dreams whenever she dons it, and the shawl takes on the role of a sootradhaar (a person or object that is integral to the holding the narrative thread), as she finds out more about her mother and India while tracing the history of the shawl.

Even though I know that I am taking a pretty big risk by critiquing a very successful graphic novel, I feel compelled to stay true to the culture and the people the book and the shawl ought to and seeks to represent. Firstly, I feel deeply disappointed by the many inaccuracies in the book, especially since it’s written by an Indian American. I also feel disappointed by the lack of due diligence on the part of her agent, publisher and reviewers, not a single one of whom checked the book for authenticity. I find the lack of research rather perplexing in an age when a whole universe of information is no further away than a few taps of a keyboard. From the diversity panels I have attended, and posts by organizations such as We Need Diverse Books, I was under the impression that the tide was turning towards representing minority cultures in the US with greater accuracy, but that still seems quite a ways away.

In our desperate call for diverse books, let’s not forget the enormous responsibility we bear to finally change the misconceptions we seem to accept when it comes to non-eurocentric cultures, and truly speak for the silent populations implied in those books. Some of the visual representations of the places that Pri visits in India are also inaccurate. I am writing this because I feel obliged to transmit truths about India to my daughter and others Indian Americans like her, starting with why this book should never have been called Pashmina in the first place.

The bright red shawl unfurled on the cover is as far away from the exquisite and painstakingly made Pashmina as America is from India. Pashmina is accorded a GI (Geographical Indication) which is the equivalent of the appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC). Now, imagine this egregious error in a coming of age graphic novel called Champagne, where a French American girl is tracing her roots and finds that the grapes for Champagne are picked in Britanny, processed in Burgundy, and bottled in Paris. Would that pass muster? So why do we not accord the same respect and scrutiny to cultures of color?

Pashmina: GI.

The GI on a Pashmina

Livemint reports that “Pashmina, a very delicate cashmere wool from the pashmina goat found in the higher regions of Kashmir, has become a much exploited word”. Pashmina comes from the Persian word, “made from wool”. The wool comes from the same breed of goat that gives us cashmere. The soft underfur is seasonally shed and traditionally collected by local villagers in Kashmir – a conflict ridden state nestled in the high mountains of northern India. It is harvested by combing as opposed to shearing. All steps from combing (removing impurities and guard hair, and aligning fibres) and spinning, to weaving and finishing, are traditionally carried out by hand by highly specialized craftsmen and women based in and around Srinagar, Kashmir. Pashmina fibres are finer and thinner than cashmere and the quality and price of the finished shawl is dependent on the fineness of the fiber and the skill with which it is woven.

weaver

A Pasmina weaver and his traditional loom.

The US FTC doesn’t recognize the labeling term “Pashmina”. However, it does encourage manufacturers and sellers of products to explain what they mean by the term. I wish the author had also felt responsible to do so, given that it is an extremely prized and endangered product produced by highly skilled, underpaid, craftsmen who continue to create magic on their looms, despite often having lost family members in the conflict. Just Google/Wikipedia “Pashmina”. The wealth of information on why this product is not a synonym for any shawl will become more than apparent. 

I understand that setting a story for children against a highly complex decades old conflict was not the author’s intention. So, why name the story after a shawl that it just isn’t? Why take the reader through a long-winded tour of places that this shawl would, at best, be sold at? 

Not only does a story around a shawl that is a Pashmina completely ignore Kashmir, we run into further set of misrepresentations starting with Pri’s aunt saying that the Pashmina might be made of Sualkuchi silk. Sualkuchi is a town in Assam in the northeastern part of India. It is a center for manufacturing different types of Assamese silks (muga, pat and eri) that are eventually woven into gorgeous Mekhela-Chadors (for women) and Gamosas (for men). The patterns woven into them evoke the history and geography of Assam, which is pretty much the case with most Indian motifs. These silks, too, bear a GI.

 

 

However, in the book the Sualkuchi factory is in Nagpur in central India, and the shawl is still called a Pashmina.

 

In the book we travel from Nagpur to Warangal (known for its carpets) in Telangana in southern India (nearly 2500 kms away from where Pashminas are actually made) where the shawl is embroidered by Rohini Mitra, (a Bengali), who could (in the real India) potentially be a weaver of Taants, Jaamdaanis and Baluchuris in specific areas of Bengal or Bangladesh, but never of a Pashmina! These sarees, too, bear GIs.

The moment we start using proper nouns, not just in India, but my guess is any ancient culture, we need to start being specific, just as the moment Indians hear the last name  Mitra, they will know that he or she is Bengali.

Even the UNCTAD, WTO and UNESCO have argued that the crafts form a substantial part of a country’s cultural heritage and the skills related to the crafts affiliated to a community must be protected in the areas of their origin.

Map of places labels

The location of Pashmina production vs. the places the author assigns Pashmina to.

Outside of this primary misrepresentation, there are many others, such as women not being allowed to drive cars, the slums of Jadavpur, the visual depiction of New Market and more. Jadavpur is a middle to upper middle class neighborhood and home to a reputed university. One doesn’t have to go to Jadavpur to search for poverty in India. It hits you smack in the face the second you step out of the confines of your middle-class or affluent gated community.

There are American Indians, like Jhumpa Lahiri and Sanjay Patel, whose attention to detail and authenticity are truly remarkable. The Interpreter of Maladies takes me right back to summers spent at my grandma’s, and Sanjay Patel’s jaw-droppingly accurate depiction of the pitted stone statue in Sanjay’s Super Team looks like it’s been transported right out of a temple in India. In the Google documentary, Pedaling for Peace, producer Fhay Arceo, ensured that the edited version of the film was accurately subtitled by hiring a native Hindi speaker, even though the entire raw footage had been professionally subtitled. She even made sure that the Hindi script one can barely see as it floats around at lightning speed is accurate.

Why then did Nidhi Chanani (nor her agent or publisher or reviewers) not follow suit in starting with perhaps questioning the accuracy of shawl she depicts and whose name the book bears? 

Are we so desperately hungry that the creative pipeline and their gatekeepers feel justified in feeding us anything that simply confirms and reinforces the Indian stereotypes and familiarities of elephants, peacocks, samosas, paisley motifs, disenfranchised women and a few Indian Hindi words scattered throughout a book? Yes, we do need diverse books, but we also we need them to be true, so that children, like my daughter, don’t have to grow up with misinformation about their heritage.

 

“It takes a very long time to become young.” ~ Picasso

Reposting with a new image. This post is from 2014

Aditi Raychoudhury. My father readied for cremation as I bid my last goodbye. 2019 . Watercolors and Goauche.
Aditi Raychoudhury. My father readied for cremation as I bid my last goodbye. 2019 . Watercolors and Goauche.

When my father died last summer, so did my childhood. Pouf! Just like that!  UNEXPECTEDLY, in that very moment as I stared at the slowly forming words, ” Your father passed away”. To this, and, with this one person in the world, I was, and, could always be, a child – not just middle-aged progeny, whose achievements (or lack there of) one could gloat or bemoan about. And his very last birthday wish to me said just as much.

Last message from Baba. March 20, 2013.
Last birthday wish from Baba via Skype. March 20, 2013. (A rasgulla is a spherical Bengali dessert)

It recalled an incident from nearly forty years ago. I was around 2 years old, hovering around my brother, who had just started kindergarten, struggling to write his lower case ‘a’ in cursive. Fluttering about him, I boasted that it was so easy that even I could do it. Surprised, my parents asked, “How so?” “An ‘a’ is nothing (Yes, kids can be insensitive!). During my last birthday, this incident was still fresh in his mind.

And, just like that 2-year-old, who hadn’t transcended the plasticity of time inside his mind, I continued to make demands long after I had left home. In the US, it was for the things that were almost impossible to find outside of Bengal – Gobindo Bhog Chaal (an incredibly fine-grained fragrant rice), Shona Moongeyr Daal (fine grained gold colored mung bean lentils), Moori (Bengali puffed rice), Mukhorochok (a sweet, salty, and sour snack mix) and Mokaibari tea. I knew that despite his failing health, and limited mobility, he would never fail me. And, sure as ever, he would arrive, with these common Bengali treats, packed in (and sometimes, disastrously strewn all over) his suitcase. Along with them, would also arrive a few banal trinkets that weren’t special to anybody, but me.

When he died last year, 16 years after my mother did, not only did I become a middle-aged orphan – but, I also lost that last refuge where I could always be a child.

That child who led a simple life, in a simple town, in a simpler time. That child who spent most of her afternoons reading, drawing, chasing butterflies, climbing trees, eating guavas, and, running around the neighborhood sucking nectar out of wild flowers. That child, who stared, with wondrous rapture at the birds flying across a bright fuschia sky, and, knew that it was time to wander her way back home from the hills behind her house, where she had just whiled away many happy hours. That child whose heart burnt just as brightly as that spotless evening sky.

As a parent to a pre-schooler, I know that it may be many years before I can shrug-off the self-generated urge to stress over school, organize my space to mimic an IKEA display, and make my meals look like they had just jumped out of the pages of Vegetarian Times, and release my heart instead, to long afternoons amidst the wild flowers of California, and, sink my feet into the wet ocean sand.

On the other hand, as a parent to a pre-schooler, it might just be more possible than ever to relive those childhood wonders of peering through grass, looking for snails, squeezing my eyes as the ocean surf hits my face, and dissolving into laughter at the first lick of ice-cream on a hot day.

While I no longer draw with the passion and freedom that I did as a child, my daughter’s free forms lead me to where I want to be.

Here are some of the things she drew when she was a little over two years old.

Inika Moni RayMukerji. Plane. 2013. Crayons on Paper
Inika Moni RayMukerji. Plane. 2013. Crayons on Paper
Inika Moni RayMukerji. Whale. January 2013. Crayons on Paper
Inika Moni RayMukerji. Whale. January 2013. Crayons on Paper
Inika Moni RayMukerji. Pig. 2013. Crayons on Paper
Inika Moni RayMukerji. Pig. 2013. Crayons on Paper
Inika Moni RayMukerji. Pig. 2013. Crayons on Paper
Inika Moni RayMukerji. Pig. 2013. Crayons on Paper
Inika Moni RayMukerji. Helicopter. 2013. Crayons on Paper
Inika Moni RayMukerji. Helicopter. 2013. Crayons on Paper

Picasso had said, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” May be by the time she is my age,  I will learn to draw and laugh like her again. 

 

 

 

Women’s March. January 20, 2018

First, we marched. Now, are you ready to run? Print this 11 x 14 image of  The United Faces of America for Women’s March 2018  and print it off your printer. Take it to the streets and claim Justice and Equality for All ! Please spread the word. Thank you!

Aditi Raychoudhury. The United Faces of America (Color). 2017.
Aditi Raychoudhury. The United Faces of America (Color). 2017.

 

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Agitprop – Part Deux

The United Faces of America. 2017. Image for 3-color screenprint.
The United Faces of America. 2017. Image for 3-color screenprint.
The United Faces of America. 2017. Image for 3-color screenprint.

Reduced the original image

Aditi Raychoudhury. Resist. 2016. Adobe Illustrator.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Resist. 2016. Adobe Illustrator.

 

for a 3-color screenprint that I will be making 100 copies of as part of the Agitprop residency sponsored by the Compound Gallery.

The Compound Gallery is funding this Residency out of its own funding to help artist create art with traditional printmaking techniques (e.g., letterpress, silkscreen, etching, relief, photopolymer plates) and building a bridge between printmaking’s historic relationship to generating social/cultural/political awareness and contemporary social media/online forums. If you want to support what they do by either donating ink, paper, supplies, or monetary funds, you can do so by clicking HERE.  They are fiscally sponsored via Fractured Atlas, a 501(c)(3) public charity. Contributions for the purposes of The Compound Gallery are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law.

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Grateful for the Agitprop Residency at the Compound Gallery

Aditi Raychoudhury. Resist. 2016. Adobe Illustrator.

I am grateful to the Compound Gallery for offering me a spot in their Agitprop Residency program 

What is Agitprop? Its Printing for a cause. Thinking. Making. Disseminating. 1 individual, 1 month, 100 Prints.

I will be printing the United Faces of America as a 3-color screenprint over the next month.

 

Aditi Raychoudhury. Resist. 2016. Adobe Illustrator.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Resist. 2016. Adobe Illustrator.

 

 

The Compound Gallery is funding this Residency out of its own funding to help artist create art with traditional printmaking techniques (e.g., letterpress, silkscreen, etching, relief, photopolymer plates) and building a bridge between printmaking’s historic relationship to generating social/cultural/political awareness and contemporary social media/online forums. If you want to support what they do by either donating ink, paper, supplies, or monetary funds, you can do so by clicking HERE.  They are fiscally sponsored via Fractured Atlas, a 501(c)(3) public charity. Contributions for the purposes of The Compound Gallery are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law.

Day of Remembrance: Ben Sakugochi

 

Ben Sakugochi. Post Cards from Camp: White Man's Neighbourhood. 16
Ben Sakugochi. Post Cards from Camp: White Man’s Neighbourhood. 16″ x 11″. Acrylic on Canvas.

I was in Los Angeles for the President’s Day weekend and was fortunate enough to catch the last day of Drawing the Line at the Japanese American National Museum, in Los Angeles, California. Drawing the Line was part of Pacific Standard Time – an unprecedented collaboration, initiated by the Getty, to bring together more than sixty cultural institutions from across Southern California for six months from October – April 2011 to tell the story of the birth of the L.A. art scene. Los Angeles, can be pretty cool that way. The exhibition was a selection of the dynamic and diverse Japanese American contributions to the visual landscape of L.A. in the period following World War II. 

Two of my favorite artists were Ben Sakugochi and Qris Yamashita.

Ben Sakoguchi was born in 1938, in San Bernardino California.  During World War II, his family was incarcerated by the United States government because of their Japanese ancestry, so he spent his early childhood in an internment camp at Poston, Arizona.

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My poster at the same show with art by Lawrence Ferlinghetti sold for 350$. Double Gulp!

My screen-printed poster the was up for auction at the Art Auction With Impact along with work by Lawrence Ferlinghetti show this past Saturday (22nd October, 2016) in San Francisco sold for 350$. You can have it for 30$ 🙂 (plus shipping). I can give you a shipping discount if you are local.

Aditi Raychoudhury. Tree of Life. 2014. Limited Edition Screenprint.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Tree of Life. 2014. Limited Edition Screenprint.

 

My poster at the same show with art by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Gulp!

I have a little limited edition screen-printed poster up for auction along with work by Lawrence Ferlinghetti at the Art Auction With Impact show this Saturday (22nd October, 2016) in San Francisco. If you can’t afford work by Ferlinghetti, you will definitely be able to afford work by me. Check it out! Respond via Facebook. Buy tickets via Eventbrite.

 

Aditi Raychoudhury. Tree of Life. 2014. Limited Edition Screenprint.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Tree of Life. 2014. Limited Edition Screenprint.

Inching Towards Watercolors

Aditi Raychoudhury. Thank you for the NibMor love. Clearly the way to my curmudgeonly heart is through More Nib Mor. 2016. Watercolor on paper.
Aditi Raychoudhury. More Nib Mor Please. 2016. Watercolor on paper.

I have been watching with much admiration Lisa Brown posting a watercolor sketch every single day. I was so inspired to learn that she has committed to making one every single day since 2014 that I made a gingerly stroke, and then another and another.. here is the result. I have a long way to go.. but its a start.

Aditi Raychoudhury. Thank you for the NibMor love. Clearly the way to my curmudgeonly heart is through More Nib Mor. 2016. Pencil Sketch.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Thank you for the NibMor. Clearly the way to my curmudgeonly heart is through More Nib Mor. 2016. Pencil Sketch.