“An aunty is….
someone who: teaches you how to tie a sari, speaks her mind, asks when you are getting married, comments on your weight, takes care of business, fills you in on all the gossip, wears her sneakers with salwars and teams her hoodies with a sari, rocks a tattoo, makes your favourite food without a recipe, loves a good cup of chai!”
Toronto-based visual artist Meera Sethi went aunty-hunting as a part of her one-month artist residency in Mumbai, to reactions from said aunties ranging from indulgent and flattered to downright suspicious. The fact that this ‘aunty’ may or may not be a biological relation is an unsaid understanding in this part of the world. She tell us about how she was intrigued by how, regardless of whether she is a family friend or a stranger, if she’s old enough to be your mother’s friend - she is accorded the status of ‘aunty’; able to oscillate between trusted confidante and gatekeeper of social decorum with unblinking poise.
With her ‘Upping the Aunty’ series, she pays homage to the fabulousness of aunty-style and the importance of their role as transmitters of social and cultural knowledge and practices. Interested in changing the game on fashion, Meera wanted to explore how we determine what style is, and who creates ‘cool’.
“South Asian aunties rock to their own beat,” she says. “They bring the tradition in fresh ways and are deeply interested in personal expression through clothing. aunties also hold a special place in our hearts, particularly in the global South Asian diaspora.”
Meera Sethi tells Homegrown a little bit more about the phenomenon of the South Asian aunty and her quaint & rather endearing project centred on them. And yes, she did ask for permission before taking these pictures, lest she get a nice whack from them.
I. Tell us a little about how the idea for the ‘Upping the Aunty’ project came about and what it is that you want to showcase through it?
There is a trend towards street fashion photography, to capture (stylish) folk out and about in their everyday wear. I began this project as a way of challenging how we understand street fashion and, through this, honouring the role of our auntys, particularly in the South Asian diaspora. I am interested in the way fashion is translated by those who are not the “cool and sexy” subjects of this kind of street photography.
At the same time, my project is about celebrating the elders in our communities, and their role in passing on social and cultural knowledge.
With this project, I am curious to know what motivates the clothing choices our auntys make, and how this shifts across borders and life histories. I carry my camera with me and shoot if I see someone I find interesting. On occasion, I will go out to a location specifically looking for auntys to photograph. I did a lot of this in Mumbai, particularly at the Gateway of India on Sunday afternoons, where auntys would come all dressed up for a day out. Mumbai being such a cosmopolitan and busy city, there were auntys from all over India, both travellers or locals. I am currently in the process of photographing aunties in Toronto.
II. What’s the story behind the name?
I was having dinner with two Indian women and we began talking in “aunty-speak” (using words and expressions that our auntys use) at which I made a pun that we were “upping the aunty!”. That dinner is where the idea began. “Aunty” is a strong cultural motif for South Asians where any woman at least a generation older becomes an “aunty”. Along with this name reference comes a relationship that becomes a conduit for cultural knowledge.
III. 3 adjectives that best describe India’s aunty culture?
Fierce. Traditional. Everywhere.
IV. How many of the aunties are people you personally know?
I know a handful of the auntys from Toronto as they are my auntys whom I grew up with!
V. How many contributions have you gotten which are now a part of the project and that have inspired artwork?
I’ve received a few contributions. The project blog is still open for submissions. I have not yet selected images for the paintings that will follow.
VI. Who is your personal favourite aunty of the lot and why?
Oh that’s a tough decision! I love so many of them for different reasons. Ramvati Aunty from Mumbai really stood out for me for her sense of badass fashion and her strong posture. She had on a great combination of colours with a two-toned blue sari wrapped tight with coordinated bangles, bright marigold flowers around her bun, a deep red sindoor, a bindi, gold earrings and toe rings seen through chappals, with some dark shades to complete the look!
VII. If a reasonably friendly aunty were to offer to make you dinner, what would you ask her to make?
(laughs) Definitely a delicious South Indian fish curry with rice!
VIII. Tell us a little about some of the other projects you’re working on?
I am in the process of working on a few different projects. The most immediate is a new series of acrylic paintings on canvas called “On the Margins of the Divine” that look to Mughal miniature albums as a starting point. Next, is an international, collaborative performance art piece called “Unstitched” that takes a sari and creates a line of community and continuity among 108 people.
[If you liked this photo series on aunties, you should definitely check out Aparna Jayakumar’s ‘Babumoshai’ series documenting typical Bengali babus here.]