Maya Varadaraj, artist

Photo Credit: Stephanie Bassos

Photo Credit: Stephanie Bassos

Maya Varadaraj is an interdisciplinary artist who has a point to make. This South India born, NYC living visionary uses her work to address oppressive traditions from her culture, passed on by generations that promote violence against women. Through mixed media and raw honesty, Maya pours her heart into showcasing her craft  with a mission to empower and educate not only the community in India, but raise awareness to all. Curious what she’s fighting for exactly? Read on to see how Maya integrates her creative skill set with protest to take a progressive, important stance.

Maya, why art?

I’ve always enjoyed learning how to produce things and solve problems visually. Growing up I was given the opportunity to explore that quite freely and then I chose to pursue it as a career. I’ve had six years of design education, so I’m still navigating the nuances of the art industry.

But I think that visual problem solving and inquiry is what I’m most interested in – there’s so much visual stimuli that dictates, and enhances the way we live. I think we tend to forget how objects, images, and visuals play a role in our identity and for me exploring the tradition, history, and critical issues within this stimuli is exciting.

Your project Khandayati (in Sanskrit, “to break”) hold a deeper meaning than meets the eye. Can you explain its purpose?

Absolutely. The overarching purpose of Khandayati is to critique oppressive traditions in India and present an empowering message embedded within the same culture. The work does that by specifically looking at glass bangles that women in India wear.

I arrived at working with glass bangles, because I had read this BBC new article about a woman who was gang-raped in Uttar Pradesh in 2015. I was upset and angered by the incident so I researched the surrounding circumstances, and found that Uttar Pradesh has the highest cases of gang rape in the country, and it is also the largest producer of glass bangles.

I thought this was a fascinating connection and starting exploring the object. Growing up, I always new that breaking bangles was taboo, as girls we were cautioned against breaking them and using them carefully. It wasn’t until I did the research that I truly understood why and how deep the tradition runs.

There’s a tradition of wearing glass bangles when a woman gets married, and then for an interim period to ensure her husband’s longevity. Breaking them in this interim period makes her a misfortune for her husband and his family. If a woman is widowed, the glass bangles she wears on a daily basis are broken of off her wrists as a symbol of her continued loyalty to her now deceased husband.

Glass bangles are recognized nationally as a symbol of inferiority, where you have politicians making statements about how “they don’t wear glass bangles” as a way to emphasize their manhood and subsequently their strength. During the national movement, non-supporters were given glass bangles as a form of shaming, while women are required to wear them on a daily basis. What message does that send to society? That’s what I was interested in.

I used household appliances as a way to change the agency of those objects – using the domestic realm as a location of protest rather than oppression.

So I start with the deliberate breaking of bangles and turn it into a Durga chakra, that the goddess uses to counteract ignorance which I thought was fitting but also a link back to the culture. It was important for me to make that connection, because there is so much strength, inclusion, and wisdom in Indian traditions that are sometimes forgotten.

How does the mixed media work relate back to this?

I set up Khandayati in a way that it stimulates other work – it is a central protest process from which other ideas evolve. I was able to explore other materials like the illustrated calendars and they also fit in the domestic arena. In my mind, the illustrated women are the protestors.

This is all so powerful and important. But has this received backlash from traditionalists? Have YOU been threatened by mistreating such scared Indian practices?

The work, unfortunately, has not been shown in India. I’m working towards getting it there. So the answer currently is, no. I have had people suggest that I’m destroying my culture, and not surprisingly that was said by a woman, but I think that’s a matter of perspective.

It is not my intention to get rid of glass bangles, that would be irresponsible as it is a part of an economy, rather facilitate a discussion about violent practices and to create an awareness amongst people.

Many women, even in America, are made to feel like these situations are their own fault. What is your best advice to these women that you could give through all of your research and learnings?

It is never, under any circumstance, the victim’s fault (not just women) is what I can say with most conviction. I’m not in any position to give advice to victims because this kind of violence is so heinous and everyone has a different way of coping with it. That being said, I think it’s important to be kind to yourself, and know that you are not alone.

Through my research, I’ve found that even in some villages in India women come together to protect each other – the Gulabi Gang being one group in particular. A group of women in pink sarees that patrol their community and offer protection to women against any kind of violence and mistreatment.

What about suppressed voices, especially women who do not have the opportunity to speak out against this kind of violence like you do?

These are the women that need to be reached most urgently – it is my intention to bring my work in a more approachable manner to these women. More than imposing my views on them, it is important to have conversations, and get a holistic perspective so that their livelihood and safety are not compromised. This is definitely work in progress that will take a lot of effort and most importantly collaboration.

Maya, what is next for you? Will you continue to showcase your work until this decreases or ends?

Yes, my intention is to continue to make and show work that resonates with a large audience, while collaborating with people and organizations to create platforms and work that reach a more specific audience.

Currently, there is an increase in social movements in India, so it is an encouraging and hopeful space to be in – there are a lot of people doing incredible work and I’m excited to collaborate with them.

To learn more about Maya and her work, please visit her website.

Interviewed by Emily