October 11, 2017

Spotlight: Anjali Shenai

Anjali Shenai explores her Indian culture through magical illustrations and paintings.

Anjali Shenai paints and illustrates colorful pieces that depict folklore, mythology, and tales of her Indian culture. Growing up in the United States, Anjali has worked to explore her Indian culture through art. She cites Jasmine from Aladdin as the only cartoon that she felt even remotely connected to as a young Indian girl, and Jasmine has a lot of flaws, to say the least. Anjali's paintings and illustrations work to inspire young Indian women so that they have characters and art to connect with. I had the pleasure of speaking with Anjali on a hot September day in Brooklyn, where we talked about her visits to India and how she began working with traditional paints and mediums.

The Le Sigh: How did you get into illustration, and have you studied it in a formal setting?
Anjali Shenai: I have been drawing ever since I was a kid – I think I have my first sketchbook from somewhere around 2002 when I was six, but I’ve been drawing ever since I can remember. There’s definitely a stereotype about South Asians and South Asian parents regarding the heavy favour for the STEM fields, but it never was present in my family which I’m thankful for. It was definitely a challenge to look for art schools after high school, though, since my parents nor my guidance counselor weren’t familiar with what to look for.

TLS: What types of mediums do you work with?

Anjali: I mostly work in traditional media–ink, watercolour/gouache/oil–and occasionally in digital media. I like to be hands-on with my work in the sense that I like to touch what I’m making and be able to manipulate it physically. With digital programs and drawing tablets, sometimes it’s harder for me to express what effect I want since I have to work with the program’s tools, but I do enjoy adding colour to a scanned pencil sketch digitally. To be fair, I did get a tablet later and did not have the programs initially to fully develop a skill set for it, but it’s something I’m looking to build on. 

Fasateen, a gouache piece inspired by the paintings of Manjit Bawa depicting the Hindu deities Shiva, and the only female avatar of the god Vishnu, Mohini

TLS: Can you talk a little about your work and how you highlight Indian and Hindu culture? Cultural appropriation is discussed a lot these days--how does the concept of non-Indians appropriating Indian culture influence your work?

Anjali: Before college I didn’t think it was possible that I could present a character or piece of work that was culturally influenced without alienating a non South Asian audience. Once I got to college, where we learn a largely Eurocentric/West centric version of art history, I really wanted to explore my own culture’s art so I could learn from that as well and draw from it (no pun intended). I think it’s important not to get caught up in emulating Indian art since I want to still maintain a personal style and narrative that is also inclusive of my upbringing in the States. I’m also interested in how to incorporate more personal elements such as queerness and gender into my work and how it relates to how I’ve experienced femininity in a South Asian context. It’s important to realise that queerness and gender isn’t a “Western” topic nor an effect of living in the West, which is something I had trouble with understanding myself, but hopefully I can explore and better articulate that with my work.

Cultural appropriation is a hot topic nowadays, for good reason, but I find that I don’t often have the patience to deal with bindi appropriation or mehendi (henna) appropriation unless the attitude of the person that’s using them is overtly orientalising. I feel that there are larger issues like anti-blackness, casteism, sexism, etc. that South Asian spaces could address instead that need more intensive and nuanced conversation, and bindi/henna appropriation, while irritating, doesn’t seem like a priority for me. I would rather focus my efforts on creating media for kids that I didn’t have as a child–I really only had Princess Jasmine from Disney’s Aladdin, which isn’t saying much since she’s ethnically ambiguous and hypersexualised.

I think it’s great that non-Indian people want to include Indian people and culture into their work, but a major part of that is research and actual interaction with Indian people regarding the work, and I feel that a lot of times people don’t do either which results in work that feels stereotypical or orientalising.
PreModern Fuckboy (Shiva and Parvati)

TLS: You mentioned that you travel to India to see family quite a bit. How has visiting and being exposed to Indian art informed your work?

Anjali: We try to go back and visit India (specifically Bangalore and Bombay) every two years or so--and yes, largely to visit family, but in the last trip I made it a point to see an art show at Srishti School of Design. I feel that I never see as many contemporary Indian artists’ work because that’s not what we learn about in school nor do many exhibitions like that come to the area, to my knowledge...so it was great to see art being made by people my age instead of relying on the very ancient art history of South Asia that we learn in school. 

Blue Jackal, a gouache painting depicting the Blue Jackal, the titular subject of a popular Panchatantra folktale from India in which an ordinary jackal is revered by all after accidentally falling into a vat of blue dye

TLS: Can you talk a little about your Premodern Fuckboy comic series?

Anjali: It was an assignment for a class where I had to create a triptych or trilogy of whatever I wanted, so I took the very pagan route and decided to expose these three gods--Shiva, Krishna, Rama--who we often look up to and praise for their less than godly behaviour. It was never intended to be a “feminist” read on them, but rather just to emphasise what kind of nonsense their consorts had to deal with. It’s funny to me because all of the situations in the comics are based on the real stories that I’ve grown up hearing--and how their behaviour mirrors the modern fuckboy who just doesn’t know how to quit being subpar (to put it lightly) to women. The comics are done in the style of Amar Chitra Katha, a series of popular Indian comics that cover a lot of Hindu mythology, Indian folktales, and history in a way that is accessible and entertaining for children. I grew up reading those and my understanding of a lot of the Hindu deities was through them rather than through any religious texts so I felt it fitting for recontextualising their stories.
PreModern FuckBoy (Radha and Krishna)

TLS: Who and what are some of your inspirations?

Anjali: Sanjay Patel is a big influence, especially with his Pixar short Sanjay’s Super Team (2015) that deals with being raised with both Hindu and American culture quite concisely and effectively. My goal is basically to make my cultural upbringing accessible to myself and other kids like me since I feel like oftentimes it can get quite confusing. That’s the kind of content I wish I had as a kid. For painting, I love Rekha Rodwittiya and Manjit Bawa–they are inspirations for their use of bold colour and open space. For illustration–I love Roald Dahl’s novels, and as a kid I wasn’t thrilled with Quentin Blake’s illustrations but now I find myself doing a lot of work with just pen and ink that isn’t focussed on attaining perfect realism. A more contemporary artist that I love is Moshtari Hilal, who has beautiful penwork and I find that she incorporates cultural and personal elements into her work very elegantly. 
PreModern FuckBoy (Rama and Sita)

View more of Anjali's work on her website and follow her Instagram @anjalishenai.

Written by Hayley Cranberry