Chronic documentation, pictured proof of every ‘momentous’ occasion, strangers as friends, friends as strangers. What are the themes of a world that can almost entirely be distilled down to individuals’ digital footprints? The answer might be up for debate, but in an era where all our lives seem mapped out—past, present and future—there’s something to be said for unpredictability. Even more for young, Indians who’ve built identities out of constant reinvention and flouting expectations.
“Change has no age,” asserts Priyanka Paul with more than a hint of irreverence. At 18, the undoubtedly talented artist and poet has one of the most interesting instagram accounts in the country—unafraid of challenging the status quo through vibrant art and raw, honest captions. The sheer variety of people that find solace in it prove that age has no place in appreciation either. There’s no need to challenge her confidence either because her approach to life is exactly why she’s here in the first place. Here being a motley crew of Indians we’ve gathered together in an effort to document the many faces of reinvention in the country today.
From 18-year-old Paul to a 26-year-old designer who dismantled his own (highly successful) business just to start afresh to a 32-year-old fashion influencer who walked away from a partnership at its peak of success and fame because she didn’t feel accurately depicted, all eight of the individuals we hand-picked had an incredible ability to shed skin and step into a new version of themselves when the time was ripe. The ability to go out and do something you’d never expect.
Some chose to burn everything they’d built to the ground, others switched careers entirely, and some found a way to make any opportunity or look work for them, without losing their stamp of individuality. That’s exactly why they fit right into the Nike Cortez mould. When the Cortez first hit shelves in the ‘70s as a performance shoe, it wasn’t long before the streets staked their claim and they pioneered a sneaker culture that allowed people to pair sneakers with their own unique sense of style.
By all accounts, the people we chose are ‘public figures’ in a modern sense. They present (parts of) their work, identities, opinions, personal style and so much more in the public eye via mediums that didn’t even exist two decades ago. So when they go about moving things around like it ain’t no thing, it’s enough to make you question their better sense.
But after photographing and interviewing them together, one thing becomes abundantly clear. Reinvention is much less about success than it is about a pursuit of personal freedom. Fearlessness is available to anyone who has the stomach for it.
Scroll on to learn a little bit more about what reinvention means to these renegades. Interviewees are presented alphabetically, and in no particular order of preference.
All Photography by Ishaan Nair.
I. ANANT AHUJA
“I don’t like being irrelevant,” Ahuja, a 26-year-old illustrator and typographer who’s currently working with Taxi Fabric as a strategist and partner. The statement easily sums up everything the young designer and his work have come to stand for. As early as 22, and somewhat against the current of what was expected of him, Ahuja established his own boutique design agency, inchworks. Within months, they were doing exceptionally well even with a left-of-field approach and minimal work experience prior to this agency. In fact, they were the first agency to work with AirBNB India.
Then, three years in, he dismantled the whole damn thing at its peak of success almost entirely to challenge himself and test new waters. Whatever it is that fuels his work, we can be sure it isn’t comfort.
1. What enables you to keep reinventing yourself both in life and with work?
Compartmentalising and prioritising things. There’s always the ‘need of the hour’ and flip-side—the ‘wishful ideal world’. Routine kills but it also helps you put things in boxes and when the box is full, you make a new routine. For me, it’s setting goals, smashing them and moving on. I think one should love themselves enough to hate stagnation of self.
2. How do sneakers fit into your personal style?
I don’t even remember how long I’ve been at it now – and why not. Like everybody has a vice or two, sneakers are mine. Personally speaking, nothing apart from sneakers represent versatility when it comes to footwear. A perfect shoe should be a good mix of comfort and aesthetics and if it’s not, it’s not doing its job right. I can pretty much pair my sneakers with whatever outfit I feel like, be it a casual or a formal one. I’ve literally taken the stage, attended family affairs, clubbing my sneakers with Indian clothing and gotten compliments and how. It’s all about being comfortable in the Sole and yes you can literally outrun a zombie apocalypse too, try doing that in your brogues(nothing against them).
Cortez is a shoe which has literally paved the way for all the other lifestyle sneakers out there. If it wasn’t for the powerful punch it packed back in the 70’s, there wouldn’t have been a sneaker culture. Well it did start out as a performance shoe and in no-time made it to the street because of its comfort, performance and design. The simplicity of its design is what attracts me the most. It’s so minimal, elegant, light and durable.
Follow Anant here to see more of his work.
II. ANUSHKA NADIA MENON
Over a decade ago, Anushka asserted herself as one of the youngest and most talented photographers in Indian fashion at a time it was almost entirely male-dominated. Flash forward to the present and even as she further cements her reputation as one of the best in the industry, she continues to dabble in acroyoga, dance, training and more even as her DJ moniker alongside Smita Singh—Anu$hka and Agent—is pushing music they love to newer audiences.
1. Working in an industry where ‘trends’ are fickle, how do you maintain an individualistic stamp on your work even while constantly reinventing the wheel to keep up?
I consider myself a chameleon. I can easily adapt to new situations, I’m forever changing as a person and evolving as an artist and since I don’t only work in one profession but have explored my other passions like music, dance and training I understand the importance of being versatile but to be honest, it comes naturally.
When the opportunity arises to learn more and to try new things and I find it Interesting and easy enough to do, I tend to take it on as a stepping stone.
In all the fields I currently pursue, I always feel there is room for improvement, which I take upon myself as a challenge to better my skills. However I do know what works for me, my aesthetics and what I’m capable of and I use that as a base and then I keep reinventing what I already know in order to create something new yet very true to my style.
In order to be consistent and to progress you have to be able to take criticism—that’s another key ingredient to successful growth.
III. CAROL HUMTSOE
Carol started modelling in high school and it wasn’t long before she walked for Lakme Fashion Week and India Couture Week among others, and she became the first Naga to sign a contract with Elite Model Management becoming one of the key faces repping a tragically under-represented section of India—the North East.
Still, none of this was nearly enough to cut her teeth on. Today, Carol is also a fashion entrepreneur and owner of her own boutique (Carol’s Shop) that’s become a go-to for vintage fashion lovers and she manages both careers with a grace that’s sometimes difficult to comprehend.
1. As a vintage fashion boutique owner and a model in an industry where youth is revered, what does relevance mean to you? And how important is it to reinvent yourself?
To be relevant is to adapt and still be original. I believe we never stop changing or learning. The more we learn, the more we evolve and that is essential to feel alive, refreshed and also inspire. I believe having a multi-dimensional aspect to oneself just makes you more exciting.
IV. KAYAAN CONTRACTOR
For many years, Kayaan’s public image as a fashion blogger seemed infinitely entwined with that of her partner’s, with whom she had built one of India’s most successful blogs—LoveAndOtherBugs. Yet, as impossible as it was to imagine, at the height of their success, she gracefully bowed out of every brand deal, every opportunity and excused herself, so to speak, to take a breather and start over. “I just wanted to tell a different set of stories, my way,” she admits.
Within months, Kayaan had Shapeshifter—her own private vehicle for self-expression—set up and it’s already clear as day that from the separation was born an entity the Indian fashion landscape desperately needed. Still, it couldn’t have been easy to leave it all behind and start over?
1. What enabled you to reinvent yourself so drastically?
Shapeshifter had been a long time coming, and the timing was never right till I actually gave it a shot! I’ve had to re-think my options. “What if I didn’t make it as big as before? What does leaving everything behind mean? How will I figure it all out?” These were the main questions on my mind. I told myself at one point, that I HAD to do it, ‘balls-in’, no matter how it plays out, because my end goal was to be happy. I took that leap of faith, and decided to start Shapeshifter, ‘balls-in’! It wasn’t till I started, that I realised I could handle it all on my own, because now, I was finally hit with a shit-tonne of fulfilment and most of all, I was happy finally getting my chance to tell my stories like I wanted, and to collaborate with amazing people
Loveandotherbugs will always be the first place I started my career, so to speak! We had a lot of success, agreed, and it was definitely a great journey and learning process of what I was eventually going to choose as a career path, and for that I am truly grateful! But, somewhere along the way, I wanted to tell a different set of stories, and decided to do it my way. I was, it still is difficult for me to grasp the vastness that is the ‘blogging world’, for lack of a better term, but all in all, I am happy creating things from my own mind and inspirations.
Yes, I did have one very rational fear, and that was monetising. But, I told myself I have to show for my work all over again, and that it was not entirely about making money - I thought to myself “just keep your head down, and keep working and creating, and the money will find its way to you when its time” - I never looked back, and here I am!
2. Do sneakers allow for versatility in your personal style?
Sneakers definitely give a look its own charm. Wearing the exact outfit with a pair or sneakers vs. wearing it with a different style of shoes gives two different meanings to an outfit. The Nike Cortez has been one of my favourite classics— everything about the design and shape is so neat and streamline. My personal style is typically androgynous with hints of girly (or not), I’d like to say. I’ve always been a sneaker head, and I don’t think that part of me would ever change
V. KSHITIJ KANKARIA
Few people have left as indelible a mark on our burgeoning fashion industry as 25-year-old stylist and designer, Kshitij Kankaria. Even fewer have done it as young, and entirely on their own terms. An NIFT alumni, he moved to Mumbai immediately after to launch his athleisure label Soak, however, his styling work caught wind so fast, he had to shut his label down to keep up with all the styling opportunities. But even as his name gains more and more recognition as an editorial stylist to reckon with, it’s the integrity he brings to the field that’s cementing his reputation as one of the greats. Not to mention, his ability to retain a sense of self that comes through in all his work, even as he adapts to the brief of the hour.
1. Working in an industry where fickle ‘trends’ tend to rule, how do you maintain an individualistic stamp on your work?
I try to find myself in different life circumstances. Aspects, conditions and emotions will vary, but my reaction to those is what makes me who I am. I try and translate that into the work I do and I’m far FAR away from trends. In fact, I think in this trendy world of fashion my individuality and not following trends creates a space for me which is different from others. Hard work is the key and being kind and having a purpose with what I do keeps me satisfied. When you are growing, many people who care try to tell you what you should do next but I always understood that everyone Is different from each other and that I got so far by keeping my gut and heart my first voice.
2. Would you say your personal style wears this ethos too?
My personal style is quite classic and very versatile. Sneaker culture has made life much easier too. Especially when you travel as much as I do, one pair of sneakers sort of go with everything from a tracksuit to a well cut formal suit. I think Nike Cortez is a particularly classic piece which went through so many changes and trends over so many decades and got paired with just about every look of the era. My head can rest when my feet are in Cortez.
Follow Kshitij on instagram to see more of his work.
VI. MRIGAKSHI JAISWAL
As a dancer and choreographer with over 10 years of teaching experience, a background in Hip-hop and jazz from the Broadway Dance Centre in New York, and a founding member of the Split Sole Dance Academy in India, few people with an interest in dance are unaware of Mrigakshi’s prowess in the field. But as the pioneer of Hip Hop Heels in India, a style that’s as technically demanding as it is less understood in India, Mrigakshi’s true championing of versatility and reinvention comes through. As she puts it best, “Heels dancing is all about confidence, breaking norms , gender stereotypes, feeling good about yourself.”
1. What enables you to keep reinventing, even when it means going against the current?
Bollywood music and dancing is still by far the norm in India, however the current generation is very aware of what’s happening all over the world because of social media. But most don’t have the means to travel/ bring teachers from abroad to learn. What prompted me to bring Street STILETTOS to the country was the simple idea that our youth is simply imitating the movement they see on YouTube. They don’t have first-hand knowledge or experience of the dance itself. A few of us who have been privileged to go abroad and educate ourselves and train with the best faculty in India and all over the world, have a duty to impart it to others.
Heels dancing is all about confidence, breaking norms , gender stereotypes, feeling good about yourself. I’m very happy and grateful to have Pioneered this in India. My style is unique to me. Every individual who is interested in dance needs to intensively train and find their individuality.
VII. PRIYANKA PAUL
18-year-old Paul is the instagram artist-cum-poet du jour, most often for those who share her hybrid love for giving social issues a vibrant, unforgettable face in art. It was her unique reimagination of Hindu goddesses as icons of feminist liberation with modern undertones that had half the world and its publications sit up and take notice. She states simply, “If my work makes you think, ponder and look back on something traditionally perceived as normal, but actually isn’t, then I believe my art has achieved its purpose.” But the fact that each new work and each new poem refuses to become stale even in this age of digital regurgitation stands testament to the freshness she brings into each individual result of her output.
1. How do you keep yourself and your art relevant?
With my art, I hope to convey the need to analyse the accepted and re-enforced social systems and norms and to re-evaluate all the wrong in society, that we never really even consider as wrong. I hope my art questions the status quo and provides a voice to the unheard. I want to talk about the issues no else is talking about, that mainstream media needs to bring into focus. A lot of issues are ‘relevant’, but not many of them are spoken about.
If my art makes you feel like to need to learn more about the hidden nuances of everything that happens, about society, gender constructs, class conflicts, power struggles, then I believe my art is playing a part in bringing about awareness. My art is a very strong part of me and my self-expression, and I make it a point that my art is not merely eye candy, it doesn’t just exist for the sake of #aesthetic. My strongest hope for my art for is it to inform, educate and if it can, to empower. These are the things that I as a person, too stand for.
It’s also important to be versatile. I’m a completely untrained artist and I’m constantly evolving and changing when it comes to my art style as well as the narratives that I choose to explore through my art. My art to me, is a route to self discovery. So as I change and as I learn more, so does my art. It would kill me to do the same things again and again or to stick to just one style or for my work to revolve around just one subject or topic. Expect the unexpected.
2. Would you describe your art as versatile?
I’d definitely call my art versatile.I’m a completely untrained artist and I’m constantly evolving and changing when it comes to my art style as well as the narratives that I choose to explore through my art. My art to me, is a route to self discovery. So as I change and as I learn more, so does my art. It would kill me to do the same things again and again or to stick to just one style or for my work to revolve around just one subject or topic. Expect the unexpected.
VIII. TOSHADA UMA
1.What do you feel keeps you relevant?
I have always been highly passionate about fashion and wanted to work in the field. As a petite person, modelling was not the first thing that came to my mind as a profession choice, you barely see a woman that’s below 5 feet tall and does glamorous photoshoots or walks the runway . But as soon as I started putting up pictures of myself online, photographers and brands started noticing them and getting in touch and I decided to give modelling a shot. It soon became my full time profession.
Although the industry made an exception and decided to look beyond my height and size tag, I really think there is a lack of representation of petite people as models. I think my work keeps me relevant not only to the industry but also other petite individuals.
2. What does versatility mean to you?
Versatility means a lot to me. It is being able to take anything and everything that I’m working with and making it my own. It is blending into the scenario, yet standing out as an individual. It is having the ability to change my form as and when I wish to.
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