Natasha Sumant radiates an air of quiet confidence that those who’re on the top of their game can achieve. An art-director based in New York with an impressive clientele that includes Soko Glam and Pat McGrath Labs, she’s a petite woman with large dark eyes, poker straight black hair and impeccable style.
Her self-assurance has been hard earned. In Bengaluru, where she’s spent most her life, her darker skin tone was considered undesirable. Like most Indians, Sumant grew up assaulted by ads that featured pale Bollywood heroines endorsing skin-whitening fairness creams. In 2010, she moved to New York to study design at Parsons where she experienced another kind of discrimination, assumptions made about her and women who looked like her—any woman with brown skin was stereotyped as bashful, conservative and traditional. “They were surprised that ‘we’ would drink, or were comfortable talking about sex,” says Sumant.
Working full time in New York, Sumant dipped into the world of social activism in 2016 with her now defunct group, Orientation Collective, where they challenged stereotypes through art and design. That’s when she embroidered on a single black patch the word ‘GUNDI’ in gold zardozi, subsequently stitching it onto a vintage jacket. She selected the word, which translates to “thug” in the feminine in Hindi, as a way of celebrating assertive Indian women.
Sumant got great feedback to a slew of bold and provocative images she posted on Instagram that explored sexuality and stereotypes. The conceptual series was dedicated to female tropes in Bollywood—the “gundi”, the “item”, the “sati-saavitri”, and the “vamp”—all meant to represent how Indian women have been pigeonholed into hackneyed categories. She alluded to the fear of female sexuality and outspokenness by placing the ‘gundi’ patch over her mouth, crotch and breasts as a self-imposed black censorship bar.
Sumant is careful about every element of the aesthetic. Take the use of zardozi, normally associated with musty saris lying in a metal trunk beneath your grandmother’s bed. “…when women wear something like zardozi, they’re associated with the demure Indian stereotype. I wanted to take those elements, which sometimes feel oppressive, and turn them into something modern by combining them with streetwear.” The final product is an amalgamation of Sumant’s bi-culturalism, mixing traditional Indian wear with fashion-forward athleisure.
Gundi grew from a jacket to upcycled vintage beanies, trousers and sweatshirts designed to mimic New York’s tough urban street culture. Today it features pieces like the ‘Azaadi Dress’, a chic, minimalist sheath made of khadi, and the ‘Suffragette Sweatshirt’ created with buttery green velvet with the brand’s signature zardozi emblem.
Sumant’s careful not to reduce feminism to a meaningless marketing tool. “I want women involved at every level,” she asserts. “I’m anti fast-fashion and hope that people are willing to buy from a homegrown brand.” The Gundi website is a part of an inclusive dialogue, a “space that celebrates outspoken South Asian women”.
So why ‘Gundi’? “I used to be called a gundi in school,” she says. “And I wanted to reclaim it as a symbol of empowerment.” It was the most apt word to describe one of the most significantly absent figures in pop-culture—the brash, bold modern Indian woman.
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