He’s the friend with the Beyonce-style work ethic; he’s made several films and will have published 3 books within the last four years. There’s also somehow been songwriting and singing projects. AND helping a certain heartbeat mend once or twice (awwww).
Vivek Shraya has been a part of this blog since day one. He was my first feature and still takes all the pictures of me for this site. He not only believes, but will gently remind/ask “when are we taking pictures?” I know he’s looking out and making sure this space doesn’t become another project I neglect. I need that kind of support and encouragement sometimes, all the time; I think we all do, I wish we all would. Being creative is one thing but turning around and showing it to the world is a whole other deal. I admire his courage to do just that—growing and learning and trying always. With plenty of love to share with the rest of us.
When Vivek came back from India last year with a whole new wardrobe, I knew I wanted to do a new photoshoot. It would also gives us a chance to talk about his recent projects, including Holy Mother My Mother (watch below) and She of the Mountains (to be released in the fall of 2014).
You’ve visited India on a few occasions since we’ve been friends and you had never really engaged with the more traditional clothing in the same way on previous trips–what was different about this time?
For most of my twenties, I stopped wearing colour as a safety measure, a way to blend in, to adhere to a stupid, misogynist idea of masculinity.
It’s largely my rekindled love affair with bright colour and likely my overall comfortability with being brown that resulted in my interest in Indian clothes this trip.
When I was a teenager I would wear white kurtas all the time. I don’t recall why I stopped but I am sure it’s connected to some form of internalized racism because wearing Indian clothing again does feel like a reclamation.
On my way to meet you for this shoot, I felt like Aladdin in my clothes, like an Indian caricature in a western context. This feeling was confirmed by general public staring and particularly when the streetcar driver complimented us with, Nice costumes!
Any attire that isn’t pants or a dress or a shirt in North America is a “costume” or essentially, not real clothing.
I recently did another shoot in Indian clothes and the photographer mentioned that some of the photos could work in a New Age/spiritual magazine layout, which another example of how Indian fashion and aesthetic has been co-opted, redefined and commercialized by white people to the point that when I, an Indian man, wear the clothing, it doesn’t feel like my own. But I am pushing hard against that.
This trip was with your mother and brother (more on that later). How did they react to your interest in clothes this time around?
My brother kept calling me “Raj” or “Sultan” LOL! My mother seemed a bit surprised with some of my more ostentatious choices, which is funny because my dad is the King of Shiny Sheer Shirts.
We tend to think of Toronto as a pretty diverse city but even during this shoot, the fabrics and colours really made both of us stand out. In general, you seem to not be shying away from standing out. I would use the introduction of leggings this winter as an example. How did we get here?
Honestly, a big factor in getting here has been turning 30. To use a different example, I have been adamantly anti-shorts for most of my adulthood, partially because I hadn’t been exposed to ~fashion shorts~ but largely because of feeling uncomfortable exposing so much of my skin.
After turning 30, I’m increasingly aware that I only get one body. I don’t want to hide it and be ashamed of it forever, as I have been for most of my life.
I think this newfound, work-in-progress confidence has extended to feeling excited about pushing gender lines with leggings, nail polish, jewelry etc. in ways that are similar to how I used to in my childhood and early teenage years but stopped because of homo/genderphobia. I feel like I can finally be the person I always wanted to be, and express myself however I desire, at least here in Toronto.
Back to mom: you did a movie about her. What was the intent of this project?
Originally, the idea behind Holy Mother My Mother was to make a documentary about the nine-day Goddess festival, Navaratri. I was curious how one festival might be celebrated differently in different parts of India. A friend suggested I bring my mom along, and I immediately realized that my mom was the missing link. The end result is a portrait of motherhood, as depicted by my mother, juxtaposed with footage from various Navaratri celebrations in India last fall.
The short is one of my works that I am most proudest of not just because it’s so personal and tender and about my mom. As an artist committed to figuring how to realize an intention through art, it was freeing to start with a particular focus and end up somewhere different. This is the kind of art I want to make more of in the future.
Vivek and his mother at the film launch, May 2014
How did she feel about the project and what was her reaction after watching it?
When I called her to tell her about the project and invite her, she paused and I was expecting an emphatic, No thank you, as she is an incredibly private person. Instead, she responded: I am so touched.
When she was in Toronto for the launch, I asked her what made her say yes, and she said: I didn’t realize you were going to film me so much. Whoops! That said, she was such a great sport about having a camera in her face every night, practicing bhajans in her room and even singing on demand in the middle of a highway. Mostly, I think she was just happy to be in her homeland with her sons.
She has seen the film twice and both times she has cried and told me: You did a good job. But she is a quiet and intense person, so I am not sure I fully know how she feels about it.
Either way, I truly feel like she gave me a gift to film her and am grateful to have shared this experience together.
Watch the film now!
Will you take me to india one day?
After you take me to El Salvador!
So you’re releasing another book this year. Plus, this film. What’s next? Sleep?
Yes, my first novel, She of the Mountains, is being published by Arsenal Pulp Press this fall and I am hoping to collaborate more with my brother, who scored Holy Mother My Mother, for his upcoming record. Aside from that, I am trying to use this time to dream and consider ideas outside of my artistic comfort zones.