Art and Culture
This Artist Is Painting the World Big, Queer and Imperfect
Jasjyot Singh Hans is not your regular Instagram doodler. The Delhi-born and now Baltimore-based freelance artist and fashion illustrator stands out in the crowd for myriad reasons. For starters, his work is really top-notch - everyone from the fashion magazines Vogue, Grazia, Elle, Marie Clare to Sabyasachi Couture and Manish Arora Paris to Google and Samsung are his clients.
But that’s not all that sets the 28-year-old apart. It is his personal work that has been creating waves, talking as they do about body image issues, bullying and homosexuality. An out and proud queer Sikh, Hans in his autobiographical comic, To Babes, With Love, portrays a boy’s encounter with a world of toxic masculinity, sexuality and his relationship with his father with familiarity, poignancy and humour.
The work won him the silver MoCCA Award of excellence 2017 from the Society of Illustrators in New York.
Another recurrent element in Hans’ work is his women. Large-bodied, often blemished women, in unwoman-ly positions - sitting and standing any way they like instead of toeing what’s considered to be “feminine”. Hans tags them with #BadaBehtarHai and #BigIsBeautiful on Instagram, thus adding power to the body positivity movement.
In a freewheeling chat with The Quint, Hans talks about his work, freedom of expression and sexuality, and celebrating imperfection. Edited excerpts:
Freedom of speech, freedom of sexuality, religious tolerance are nosediving across the world, but especially in the two countries you have lived and worked - India and the US. As an artist, how do you feel about it? How do you feel it seeps into your work?
It is definitely frustrating, and definitely a turbulent time to be in either of the countries. It’s always been an issue with India, more so with the current political climate. That frustration and helplessness can sometimes manifest itself in work, it’s only natural.
Studying and practising art in Delhi, Ahmedabad and then Baltimore - have these places influenced your ideas and work in any particular way? Or thrown up specific challenges?
Yes. Growing up in Delhi was wonderful! My mother is from Lucknow, so we visited the city quite often as well. There is such a surprising blend of the old and new in both the places. I think that really grounded my work. I remember my mum coming to pick me up after school art competitions, and travelling in DTC buses.
During school holidays, we would go to the NGMA at India Gate to draw. That is where I felt I found some of my biggest influences, that would influence my work more than I could recognise. I would stare at the huge nude paintings of Amrita Sher-Gil and the smooth graphic work of Jamini Roy, even trying to copy it in my little sketchbook squatting in the middle of an exhibit. Ahmedabad was my first time away from home for my undergrad, and I felt like I really came into my own not only in terms of work, but as a person.
However, I was always afraid to do any explicitly queer work in India. That’s where Baltimore came into place. During my time at Maryland Institute College of Art, I would go to local gay bars and just sit in a corner and stare at people. It felt like such a new and liberating environment, but I was always the outsider. Eventually I found a strong sense of community here, and that made me more confident in my voice as an artist.
I was always afraid to do any explicitly queer work in India.Jasjyot Singh Hans, Artist
Why did you start the #BadaBehtarHai series on Instagram? As a fashion illustrator, doesn’t it clash with how the world of fashion in general thinks is the perfect body of a woman? Do you have any clash of ideas around this with your clients?
I’ve always been big, and had body image issues. And to think body image issues are so much more common within the gay community! I wasn’t comfortable with my body, and I knew that I needed to love myself a bit more. So the women I drew became an extension of this thought, and that gave me power. They move about with confidence with or without clothes, aren’t afraid to express what they’re feeling and are in complete control over their mind and body. They are big, bold and gorgeous, and they don’t subscribe to normative ideas of beauty.
#BigIsBeautiful was a way for me to index these drawings on social media. However, it was a pretty commonly used hashtag. That’s how #BadaBehtarHai came along. It was my way to reclaim something used in a completely different context, and turn it into something empowering.
As for client jobs, I almost always end up in an argument/ fight about why the woman needs to look fairer, thinner or ‘delicate’. It is incredibly infuriating, and something I hope to change through my personal work.
Why are most of them sad, angry or rebellious?
For far too long women have been told how to act and behave, and are allowed lesser and lesser agency over their own bodies and navigating their emotions. It happened with most of our grandmothers, mothers and sisters. And I’ve seen it happen, and I think it is unfair. Everyone has the right to express any emotion they feel. The women I draw are my way of reminding people of that, and to realise that they are still beautiful.
As for client jobs (as a fashion illustrator), I almost always end up in an argument/ fight about why the woman needs to look fairer, thinner or ‘delicate’. It is incredibly infuriating...
Your work also talks about homosexuality and being a queer Sikh midst toxic masculinity. As an artist, how easy or difficult is it to channel your personal experience and emotions into your art? Has your work opened up channels of communication at a personal level?
I worked on personal narrative during a few projects as well as my thesis during the course of my MFA (Master of Fine Arts). It has been the most challenging thing I ever took on. I’m still finding my voice as a queer Sikh comic artist, and realise that I have a long, long way to go. I feel like we need more Indian queer comics, especially because there’s still so much stigma towards queerness in India. My thesis project was testing the waters and it opened a lot of doors in terms of where my work could go. My comic To Babes, With Love even got a silver MoCCA Award of excellence 2017, awarded by the Society of Illustrators in New York. I’m excited to work on more content in this direction.
Have you ever faced any backlash for your work?
I have, but I don’t pay it any mind. Nothing in comparison to the support and encouragement I get from so many more people.
We live in a time when people are obsessed about the body, and beauty. Your work on the other hand deliberately highlights the imperfections - what are your thoughts behind it?
I’m a proponent of beauty in all colours, shapes and sizes. In my drawings of women, I often add marks on the body, because I feel that it makes them feel real for me. I seek imperfections in people because it makes them unique, and that is valuable and beautiful. The idea of perfection doesn’t interest me much.
Consent and toxic masculinity go hand in hand, and is a major debate globally today. As an artist, how are you responding to this?
I’m not sure if any of my work directly relates to this. But I strongly believe we need to bring in the concept of consent, and build it in sex education programs (something I didn’t even have in my own school) across India. Parents need to talk more openly about sex and consent to their children, and it needs to be part of an everyday conversation.
I’m a proponent of beauty in all colours, shapes and sizes. In my drawings of women, I often add marks on the body, because I feel that it makes them feel real for me.
What are you working on next?
I’m working on some editorial illustrations and continuing to create some personal work including zine reprints, new prints and an enamel pin (all of which will be shortly available on my online store).