‘What did you pack him for his lunch?’


A series of interviews, begun on International Working Women's Day, with women teachers, journalists, musicians, students, lawyers, startup employees – all young, established, or retired professionals in their fields – discussing gendered aspects of their work and working life. We hope you like these heartfelt discussions. Stay tuned for more!


Extract from Black Panther and Little Fish / shoilikanungo.com


Shoili Kanungo
Graphic artist  |  Delhi

I don’t think consciously about gender when I am planning or creating a work. Although my picture stories have always had a woman in the lead. Siren Calls is based on a rather terrifying dream I had of someone trying to escape a claustrophobic situation. Black Panther and Little Fish was made at a time when the walls were shrinking in around me. Another story, A Clutter of Perceptions, is about the unintentional loss of objects. I suppose my work relies heavily on my feelings and reactions to situations – both internal and external. But I am uncertain about their gender uniqueness. Sometimes, it is possible that we all move in and out of largely the same set of feelings – even if they originate from different experiences – so in that sense I think these stories are un-gendered.



Sumana Chandrashekar
Musician ; India Foundation for the Arts  |  Bangalore

Carnatic music is very gendered, at many levels. Sometimes it is even difficult to fathom the extent to which notions of gender have crystallised. In teaching and learning contexts, in artists’ minds, in our interactions with each other, in the lyrics of compositions, on stage, in organisers’ choices, audience responses, music reviews – it's everywhere.

When it comes to women and percussion, I think gender ideas are further accentuated. Even now, male musicians refusing to perform with female percussionists are a common story. But I must say, it is not just the men. Female artists too have been carriers of such patriarchy.

‘Being a woman artist, she played so well’, is a line that most women percussionists would hear about themselves in concerts. This is exoticising and patronising, at the same time. Sometimes the speaker might go a little further and say something like ‘she would not have been able to achieve this but for the generosity of her husband…’ That happened to me at a recent concert. Suddenly the speaker realised that among the women artists who performed that day, I was the only one who was single, and he did not know who to attribute my success to! And certainly, none of this is said of male performers.

So at every stage, one is constantly boxed in. But for me the bigger concern is that all this is normalised. Women artists almost never talk about the bias they constantly encounter. Sometimes these things also amuse me. I am aware that from my own position as a ghatam player, I do challenge conventional perceptions of gender. And that is a good thing.

At the India Foundation for the Arts, women outnumber men. I work with an amazing team of men and women who are sensitive and empathetic to such concerns in the arts. Within the organisation, as well as with the projects we support, we always seek to critically examine and challenge established conventions in the field, including those about gender. I am glad I am able to do that within my own practice too.

To survive as an artist is certainly challenging for anyone. But I do think that for women artists, it is even tougher. I have closely known the challenges and struggles of my teacher from the time, 45 years ago, that she broke the male bastion and picked up the ghatam. Unfortunately, today the situation is not much different. The challenges continue for her as well as for other, younger women percussionists, however small their numbers. Arguably, women percussionists have more performance opportunities today than they had some years ago. But they still perform for the male gaze.  

We must start talking about these concerns, and at least begin to acknowledge them. Sadly, a culture of fear and silence has been ingrained in the field. It is important for us to come together as artists – and not male or female artists – and create these spaces for open conversations and dialogue. Only with these kinds of spaces will we be able to build a robust ecology for Carnatic music to flourish.

And more importantly, I would really encourage more and more women to take up percussion rigorously. Not because it earns exotic tags; but because percussion is truly great fun.



Aparna Wahi
Global Consumer Experience Manager, Adidas  |  Herzogenaurach, Milan, Delhi


I started my career after a master's degree in fashion business. The industry is driven by female consumers and hence a large number of the workforce is also women. But when you notice who is leading an organisation, oddly most companies have men at the top, validating and perpetuating gender inequality. This, however, is changing given the changes in the skill set, education and experience of women in the field. The profession in itself is undergoing a major transformation, and is slowly entering the mainstream; it is increasingly considered as a career choice which earlier was not the case in India. Jobs that were previously thought of as no-brainers or ones where management skills were not required, such as leading a fashion company, heading the retail landscape in fashion, brand management or marketing luxury goods, driving the financial aspects and profitability of a fashion company, are now giving rise to specialised degrees and courses, enabling a new generation of female managers in the field to excel in these areas.

In my previous role, I was managing communications and marketing in Europe at an Italian fashion brand, where my teams was largely women and gay men, which validated stereotypical notions of the fashion workforce. This frustrated me not only because of an unbalanced representation of the opposite gender's point of view in our discussions, and perhaps sometimes the lack of a rational management style, but also the gender bias in choosing candidates for a role within the team.

I recently changed jobs from a fashion company – which mainly comprised female employees catering to female customers – to a leading sports company where men dominate the workforce, in top positions and in sports in general. Being a part of a large organisation, I realised that while the awareness is definitely high that women are not represented in senior management roles, any action plan to bring them in is far away from achieving the desired success. Of course, the discussion is growing, and more and more female employees are being promoted to positions for which they would not have been considered before. But it makes me wonder if it is only neutralising gender inequality in terms of numbers, instead of changing the mindset that women are not capable of quality work, or deserving and qualified for senior roles in the first place.



Fashion business  |  Delhi


While we see a rise in the "feminist  movement", certain things are becoming glaringly obvious. From ads targeting dishwashing liquids at women, or using female protagonists for washing detergents, or even offering women easy cooking solutions to satisfy their kids' insatiable appetites – read Maggi etc – I constantly find myself questioning why these roles are still the dominant representations of women's position in society. You know, the 'homemaker', the 'housewife', the 'caring, know it all mom', the 'obedient daughter in law'… the caregiver… the one who ensures that the bread brought home by her breadwinner husband dressed in suit and tie is well cooked and served when he gets home from work…

What I would give to see a man fulfilling all these roles! And while I may daydream about that change happening in the advertising world, my bubble is constantly popped by these very things in my daily life. After all, ads are only a reflection of general trends in society.

Ever since I got married, there is this constant need to 'be home when my husband is back from work', or 'figure out dinner', or answer questions like 'What did you pack him for his lunch?' As the wife and daughter-in-law, I am responsible for maintaining relations with everyone in the family, being responsible for household chores, doing the laundry on time, helping out with food, etc. It doesn't help either that I am ridden with guilt if I wake up late somedays and feel too lethargic all day to do the laundry etc.

Where does this guilt come from though? Such gender-defined roles are so engraved in our society, no wonder the men are allowed to watch sports all evening because they've been at work all day, while women are expected to come home from work and still continue working.

What makes it worse is the fact that at present I'm out of work, and I guilt myself into thinking and feeling that if my husband is the one making money and bringing home the bread, the least i can do is cook that bread well and take care of him! I hate that I find myself thinking like this!! And I keep wondering why is the thought even there?!

Recently I found myself at a crossroads in my career. I had lost my mom to a year-long battle with cancer. It drained me mentally and emotionally. I was lost. Still am somehow. So I looked for someone to guide me with my next move. Some sort of career counseling.

Across the family spectrum (the already established employees and business people) only one thing seemed to resonate unequivocally… Think practically! Think carefully! Think about the fact that you will be starting a family soon!

I am part of the fashion industry and I kept going back and forth regarding a future in merchandising. I found a career counsellor. She's pretty well known and I was optimistic about getting some direction in terms of my career. How wrong I was! It seemed that my age of 29 and my biological clock ticking away caused her greater concern than the career shift I was considering. It couldn't be a bigger cliche than this. But the whole session was clouded by this urgency and desperate need to pay attention to the fact that I may have kids in the next two to three years, so I have to keep that in mind first while choosing a new direction for my career.

Why? Because I can't start something new and in a year's time take a break to start rearing my kids. I will have to start from scratch again if I ever want to revive my career after having babies. Firstly: I want a career first and a family later at this point in my life. Secondly: how can I afford to bring kids into the world if I don't have a paycheque? And thirdly, who the hell said I was planning to start a family in the next five years?! Can we shut up about kids and talk work?!

Ok, let's talk work then. Merchandising you said? Well, here are the the cons of being a woman in the clothing production business. I have to keep in mind the area where the factory is set up. Is it in a safe location? Well lit? How long is the commute? Are the roads safe enough to travel evenings or in case I get late at night? How many other women are working in the factory? What are the work conditions like? What are the hours? Is it too much because that will make my personal life (marriage) suffer… Will you have to deal with labourers? Remember it's a dirty business dealing with labourers… the language, management, daily interactions etc… Don't get into the production side!

So that's that. Don't join a factory. Think of something else. And once you are done thinking and day dreaming… go figure out what needs to be made for dinner! The way to a man's heart is through his stomach.

One thing's for sure. If and when I have kids, and especially if I have boys, they aren't just gonna be handed just a plate full of food… They're gonna be given the tools to provide food for themselves and maybe even their girlfriends and wives… And once they're done they can wash the dishes themselves too.

Forget being a feminist. It's an overused term. I'm an equalist.

Equal roles and equal rights.



An ICF series of interviews begun on International Working Women's Day:

PART 1  Baby Halder  PART 2  Sumana Chandrashekar, Vidushi Sukkanya Ramgopal, Soni Sori, Essar Batool, Nayantara Sahgal, Abha Dev Habib  PART 3  Gayeti Singh, Saba Hasan, Samina, Usha Kumar, Jyoti Bhalla, Megha Patnaik  PART 4  Francine Kay, Reena Devi Harnot, Nargis Vasundhara  PART 5  Anamika, Prerna Shrimali, Kusum Ansal, Mrinal Pande  PART 6  Maya Ghosh  PART 7  Lara Bhalla, Arundhathi Subramaniam, Neha Kumar, Madhur Kumar, Shweta Jain  PART 8  Mridula Koshy  PART 9  Shoili Kanungo, Sumana Chandrashekar, Aparna Wahi, Nandita  PART 10  Mirai Chatterjee, Rolee Srinath, Saba Sharma, Radhika, Shaminaj Khan  PART 11  Dalip Kaur Tiwana  PART 12  Shashi Deshpande