Successful art director, multimedia artist and content creator talks about living a colourful life
Tanya Gupta was a NASA aerospace engineer, a childhood dream for so many of us and Tanya made it happen. She worked on a prototype aircraft, which now sits at the Smithsonian, and she also owns a software patent with Kennedy Space Centre.
Born in the UK, she and her family moved to the US and spent some time in India too, all of which informs her work.
These days, Tanya calls herself a New York based art director, multimedia artist and content creator. In 2021, Tanya became the first Indian American to join the Adobe Creative residency, after which she directed social campaigns for Tom Ford beauty, Disney, Toyota, and more. In 2022, Tanya was honoured on the Forbes 30 under 30 list. Her work has also been featured in Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and Teen Vogue. Tanya lives life in the fullest, brightest colours you can imagine. And that’s just brilliant.
Tanya’s key points on this podcast episode
- It’s all about confidence: Tanya talks about the importance of carrying yourself with the confidence of a “cis straight white man”, which might sound funny but is so key, especially for brown women. This can change how the world perceives you and how you perceive yourself.
- Success involves a lot of struggle: Tanya opens up about the self-doubt and imposter syndrome that often plague creatives, particularly brown women. She stresses that it’s essential to fight these feelings and focus on one’s achievements.
- The importance of community validation: Tanya and I discuss the importance of community validation, especially in the South Asian context. She feels that her achievements are not just her own but also a reflection of her parents and community.
- Diversity and Representation. News flash, it’s still important: Tanya calls for more diversity among South Asian women, stating that they are not a monolith. She talks about the increasing representation in entertainment but insists there’s more work to be done.
- The Pandemic as a Catalyst: The pandemic served as a silver lining for Tanya, giving her the space to really explore her creative pursuits and changed the trajectory of her life.
- Follow Your Dreams: It might sound obvious but Tanya’s advice to listeners is straightforward—follow your dreams and listen to your gut. Surround yourself with people who uplift you and run away from negativity.
Why Listen to This Episode?
This episode is a no-holds-barred conversation that will make you rethink your approach to life, career, and personal growth. Tanya Gupta doesn’t just share her journey; she lays down a roadmap for anyone—especially brown women—looking to break barriers and shatter those still present glass ceilings. Listen in for an unfiltered take on what it takes to truly own your space in this world.
S5 Ep 8 Tanya Gupta: Art director on living life in explosive colours
Tanya Gupta 0:00
I always try and encourage people, especially brown women, to carry themselves with the confidence of a cis straight white man in any room that you walk into. It sounds silly, I know but you do it once and you will feel on top of the world. If you are not believing in yourself completely and you don’t have the faith in yourself to do the things that you want to accomplish, then nobody else is going to do that for you. The way you’re presenting to the world. The world starts seeing you that way and then you become that person.
Sangeeta Pillai 0:48
I’m Sangeeta Pillai and this is the Masala podcast. This multi-award winning feminist podcast for and by South Asian women is all about cultural taboos, from sex, sexuality, mental health, menopause, to nipple hair, and more. This season is a US Special, and it took me by surprise. You see, I interviewed these incredible South Asian American women. I expected to hear some angst around identity and belonging. Instead, they told me how comfortable they were with both their South Asian and American identity. I confess, this is not the podcast season I set out to record. It’s so much more powerful. I had the most joyous conversation with Tanya Gupta. Tanya is a New York based art director, multimedia artist and content creator. Born in the UK, she and her family moved to the US and spent some time in India too, all of which informs her work. I was super excited to hear that Tanya used to be a NASA aerospace engineer. Yes, NASA, a childhood dream for so many of us and Tanya made it happen. She worked on a prototype aircraft, which now sits at the Smithsonian, and she also owns a software patent with Kennedy Space Centre. How amazing! In 2021, Tanya became the first Indian American to join the Adobe Creative residency, after which she directed social campaigns for Tom Ford beauty, Disney, Toyota, and more. In 2022, Tanya was honoured on the Forbes 30 under 30 list. Her work has also been featured in Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and Teen Vogue. What I love about Tanya is how she lives life in the fullest, brightest colours you can imagine.
Tanya Gupta 3:02
So, I always like to tell people the story about the first time I went to Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas. I must have been about nine or 10 years old, and I had family in Houston. I visited for the first time and I saw my first astronaut spacesuit and model of the shuttle, and just absolutely fell in love with it. Ultimately, space scares me, and that was the reason why I wanted to pursue it because I always want to learn more about things that scare me. NASA is a name that everyone knows, and I think on paper, it sounds very glamorous and exciting, but the way that I ended up getting there was quite difficult because I went through my entire undergraduate experience without any internship experience or job experience. It was my second term senior year that I was offered this position to fly out to California and be an engineer and intern, but ultimately an operations engineer at NASA. So, I’m very lucky that I got to do that but I did have to make quite a few sacrifices as well. I didn’t get to graduate on time or with my friends, I had to extend my undergraduate experience by a year, but I would not trade that for the world. It was a dream come true. I got to work in the middle of the Mojave Desert for one rotation and then for the other, I was right at Cape Canaveral watching rocket launches at Kennedy Space Centre and helping patent a software tool. So, I got to do a lot of really incredible things during my time there, that’s for sure.
Sangeeta Pillai 4:35
So, how do you transition from designing spacecraft to creating these, what I consider, quite beautiful and surreal works of art in the commissions you do? It seems like they’re very different worlds, isn’t it?
Tanya Gupta 4:52
They may seem like different worlds on the surface, but the reality is that they’re quite similar. When I was at Canaveral Space Centre, I helped patent this 3D modelling software tool that converts polygon-based models to mesh-based models. That’s just a fancy way of saying that when you have a 3D model that you dissect in sections, you can see all of the internal makeup – all the screws, nuts, and bolts. When you’re creating something like a video game or a virtual experience for VR, you don’t need to represent everything inside, you just need a surface area representation so that you can see the object from far away. Up until that point, in 2018, there was no such tool that could efficiently make this conversion. NASA had this enormous repository of 3D models, so that’s what I was helping them create. I didn’t know it at the time, but ultimately, it ended up helping me a lot as an artist as well. I do a lot of 3D rendering now for different purposes. I came in with a polygon-based 3D modelling background as an engineer and learned about mesh-based modelling. Now, as an artist, I primarily focus on mesh-based modelling. Having an understanding of how these different types of models work and the inner workings of the software has served me well. I approach Photoshop in much the same way, as it’s my primary tool of choice.
Sangeeta Pillai 6:20
What was your family’s reaction when you transitioned from what could be considered a rather prominent South Asian STEM career to expressing a desire to become a freelance designer?
Tanya Gupta 6:36
I actually didn’t really know what the next step was. I didn’t say, ‘I want to be a designer’ or ‘I want to be an artist’. At the time, I had no idea what that was going to look like. What I did know was that I was working at IBM. After college, I took a full-time role with IBM as a hardware engineer, that’s what I was doing when the lockdown happened. I had been looking into the Adobe Creative Residency program for a while. It’s a year-long incubator for artists hosted and sponsored by Adobe. They provide a salary and benefits, and also fund your portfolio projects based on your pitch to them. So, I had these wild ideas. I wanted to create a coffee table book that you could interact with in augmented reality, I had some fashion editorials I wanted to pitch to magazines, and a series of other smaller projects involving Photoshop and self-portraiture. I threw caution to the wind, sent in an application, and told my parents about it. Of course, it was only once I was given the offer that my mom and dad were like, ‘Oh, okay, so this is really happening. You’re going to be leaving engineering behind. What is this going to mean? What is this going to look like?’ You know, we’re a family of planners, and I’ve always had a 5, 10, 15-year plan. This was one of the first times in my adult life that suddenly that plan was going out the window, but the plan that replaced it ended up being what I ultimately wanted, so it all worked out. There were some growing pains initially, but I took it in my stride and tried not to think too much about the future, at least while I was in the year-long residency. I just took it from there.
Sangeeta Pillai 8:34
So I guess the pandemic really helped, in a sense. It gave you the space to try something that was unusual. It almost gave you that pause to experiment and see if this was for you. Is that right?
Tanya Gupta 8:50
That’s absolutely right, yes. It was a silver lining to come out of a very, very dark time. I also moved back home with my family, as many people did. That was just the perfect concoction of reasons to start delving into myself and what fulfils me, and what am I looking for in my life going forward? You know, I always make the joke that my prefrontal cortex finally developed, it was done cooking, and I could actually see my future and visualise it, and be a little bit more critical about my life choices. But also, at the same time, I didn’t start out thinking that I was going to pivot my career and completely change the trajectory of my life. When I started playing around in Photoshop, I was taking my friends and followers’ smartphone selfie submissions. Every day, I would choose one randomly and use it to practise in Photoshop, and just started sharing my work online. I started sharing it on Instagram, sharing it on TikTok, and then my platform grew and grew and grew, and I started getting job opportunities from it. So, it was a domino effect, but it wasn’t initially something that I was really striving for and planning to turn into something bigger than just a hobby. But I’m very happy that it turned out the way that it did, because I wouldn’t be where I am right now if it wasn’t for that.
Sangeeta Pillai 10:09
You were the first Indian American Adobe Creative resident. Is that right?
Tanya Gupta 10:14
That’s right. That’s correct. Yes.
Sangeeta Pillai 10:15
That’s massive. It’s a significant accolade for a creative or someone who’s thinking, ‘Oh, I’m just going to dabble in Photoshop and see where it takes me.’ It’s absolutely massive.
Tanya Gupta 10:26
Thank you. Yes, it is. It’s quite a cool achievement. As happy as I am that I got to be the first, I hope that there will be many, many more.
Sangeeta Pillai 10:40
I hope so too. How did that feel? Did it feel like, “Hey, I’m being validated here”?
Tanya Gupta 10:47
Yes, absolutely. There is a sense of validation that comes from being recognised by the company that produces the tool you use as an artist. Especially since at that point, I had only really been using Photoshop for about a year and a half. So, it was very validating but I do want to emphasise that I want to use my platform and my accolades as a jumping-off point for other Desi women. They see people in general, they see creatives, yes but particularly, they see women. Sometimes it can be really difficult as brown girls, brown women, to not only blindly pursue the thing that truly fulfils you, but especially when that thing is creative. We come from a culture that prioritises these noble professions, rightfully so, but there’s so much beauty that comes out of creativity and art and music and writing that is equally, if not more, important at times. I think we’re finally coming to a precipice where those things are becoming acknowledged and coming into the forefront. We’re seeing a lot more representation on the screen, representation in writing. Even this podcast is a great example of that. I think it’s our responsibility as people who come up in this industry to also uplift others, and make sure that we’re not just focusing on ourselves initially. I think that that’s what I did. It’s natural to, especially when you’re young, but the older I get, the more I recognise the importance of highlighting other people’s achievements as well.
Sangeeta Pillai 12:30
Absolutely. And I think that what you mentioned there, I think comes from, like a survival mechanism. Almost like, you know, a poverty mindset is what I think of. There’s only this much and that’s, I think, a result of colonialism and kind of capitalism and things like that. There’s only this much. So if there’s one brand person, there’s one brand woman, she’s the only one that can be there. So let me make sure that no one else gets in here. Whereas the truth is, there’s enough and more space for every single one of us, doing whatever we want to do in the world today. And like you rightly said, this, I feel like this is a really crucial moment for us. In a sudden, especially in the States, I think, you know, there’s…we’re on TV, we’re in film, we’re in music, we’re everywhere, like, suddenly, this is the moment of South Asian women, you know, kind of totally coming into, you know, take over the world. I really, really feel that, it feels like a real energy behind it and I think, therefore, it’s important, like you say, to then allow space or give support as much as it’s possible to other women, to lift them up because they might not have the opportunities that we have at this moment, right.
I think the other important point to make is, maybe when parents now see you being successful, see Mindy Kaling on screen, see, you know, a bunch of other South Asian women being successful and not necessarily being the starving artists, which is what we’re told, right? It’s like, ‘Oh, my God, if you were an artist, you’ll never make any money,’ right? ‘And you’ve got to get a real job, i.e., a STEM job.’ You can see that’s not true anymore. Parents can see that, so hopefully, that will allow them to relax as well because I don’t think it comes from a bad place. It just comes from, like, them thinking, ‘Right, I’ve got to make sure my child has a really good chance in the world so I’m going to push them in this direction.’ Absolutely. It’s well-meaning, but I don’t think we need to do that anymore. So I really feel like this is such a good time in so many ways.
Tanya Gupta 14:32
I agree, the representation is just skyrocketing and I also hope that it’s only up from here.
Sangeeta Pillai 14:37
What about you? Were you supported? I know you mentioned your parents are hugely supportive, which is great. And obviously, you’ve had a company like Adobe support you. Have you had an extensive network of people who’ve supported you and pushed you up?
Tanya Gupta 14:50
I’ve been really lucky to build a fantastic community of people in New York City. I’ve also engaged in some informal mentorships, where either I am a mentor to someone or I’m a mentee. I think that’s also really important because I want to have other brown women that I look up to, who are doing something similar to what I can envision for myself in the future, especially older women. I think that’s something that a lot of people in their 20s overlook – the importance of having people around them who are older in their careers and just in life in general, to help them visualise things. Otherwise, you’re not getting any reference for what your life could look like 10, 15, 20 years from now. Likewise, I think back to how I was when I was in college, where I didn’t have a lot of mentorship opportunities, and how much I would have benefited from having someone in my orbit. So, for that reason, I also am extending myself as a mentor to a number of younger women and that is also very fulfilling to me personally, because I know that I’m also able to pass along my wisdom, whatever that may be, whatever little wisdom I may have, to someone else.
Sangeeta Pillai 16:12
That’s really wonderful to hear, really, really good. Let’s talk about your personal style, which I love. By the way, huge thank you. Something tells me you’re not into very subtle, muted kinds of tones.
Tanya Gupta 16:27
Not at all, yeah. I always say that my neutrals are pink, blue, and yellow, but I hardly ever wear nudes. I hardly ever wear black or white. But yes, my personal style and my artistic style are intrinsically related. I make the joke that my entire life has a colour scheme and that is truly unintentional. It’s an unconscious thing, I should say because colour is the most important aspect of my art, and just my experience living life. I’m very, very sensitive to colour. If I’m around colours I don’t like, I get cranky, it really is like I have a visceral reaction to colour. For that reason, my bedroom has the same colours as my closet, has the same colours as my artwork, and has the same colours as my entire apartment. So I try to keep my home as my little safe haven that’s only my safe colours but I think that’s also a little bit of a benefit because there is consistency among my artwork as well. Even if the themes are completely different, you can kind of take a look at my work and be like, ‘I think that looks like Tanya’s work.’
Sangeeta Pillai 17:41
And I also love your style, especially with what you wear. I love the boldness of it – the big sunglasses, the striking earrings, the bags that look like art pieces. Yes, I love that. I think it says so much about our confidence as women because I know in my 20s, I wouldn’t have dared to wear half the things I wear now. But now, I don’t give a care, you know? I wear the bling, the earrings you can find from miles away. Like, on my birthday, I was literally shining from head to toe.
Tanya Gupta 18:11
Sangeeta Pillai 18:17
When I was younger, I used to worry about wearing the right clothes, about not being too bold, too bright, too much. The world has conditioned women to live within strict rules of what is acceptable and what is not. Even now, I see women around me worrying about fitting in. Dressing up seems to be about wearing the right clothes, rather than wearing what makes you happy. As I’ve grown older, I no longer care. I choose prints that clash, that make my heart happy. I wear styles that I’m told are a bit young, but who gets to decide what is young and what is old? I rock up at events in the brightest colours I can find. I no longer care for the rules of appropriate clothing imposed on women. The next time someone says to me about being too much, I want to turn around and say, ‘I live for too much. I’d rather be too much than too little.’
Tanya Gupta 19:26
I think there’s a lot of joy in just wearing whatever you want and abandoning other people’s opinions. And yeah, you know, sometimes my friends will ask for fashion advice and say, ‘Oh, this pattern doesn’t go with this,’ and, ‘This colour doesn’t quite work with this.’ I’m like, who made those rules up? You could just not do that. You can just choose to wear whatever you want. One of my friends made a really funny comment the other day. He was like, ‘You kind of look like what I imagined an eight-year-old girl would want to look like when she’s 26.’ And I was like, ‘That is truly the nicest thing that anyone’s ever said to me.’ Because it’s so true. I think that I’ve really cultivated this style that does look very much like what I envisioned for myself when I was a little kid, you know? And not to keep bringing everything back to the pandemic, but that moment of reckoning that happened then and moving back home to my childhood bedroom, it was this moment of almost regression that I leaned into fully. It’s also why I draw so much inspiration from things like Barbie and Polly Pocket. My artwork was in this style way before the Barbie movie was even a topic of conversation. I understand that we all always go through life in phases, and especially artists go through phases with their style and their work. I fully recognise that I may not always be this way. It would be great if I was, but consistency is not always guaranteed. If I can just fully embrace this moment for myself right now, and relish in the colour and the boldness and the bigness, the loudness. That’s all I really care about. It’s all about today and right now and the present. If I’m happy, walking out the door looking the way that I do, then I’m doing something right.
Sangeeta Pillai 21:21
Hey, I wanted to pause this episode for a minute to share something that I’m really excited about. Podcasting changed my life. I went from typing into Google, “what is a podcast?” Yes, I did that, to creating the multi-award winning Masala podcast. And now I’d like to share some of my knowledge with you. I’m starting podcasting master classes on my website, and one of them’s been created, especially for women. podcasters. Just go to my website, soulsutras.co.uk and look under courses, or email me at podcasting at soul sutras.co.uk and I’ll share details with you. I look forward to helping you on your podcasting journey. Now, let’s get back to our guest for this episode.
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Sangeeta Pillai 22:39
You talked about the joy of being a child and having whatever that sparks joy, right? As an eight-year-old, what’s exciting are colours, patterns, and things like that. And that is pure joy, I truly believe it’s before the world has got to our heads. You know what makes you happy as a child. You don’t have to think about it. You love it or you hate it, but as we grow older, we’ve lost that because we’ve, I think, absorbed a lot of the crap that’s being fed to us by the world and you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m not sure what I feel anymore.’ Children know exactly what they feel. So I think if any style or colour makes you feel like that, I think it’s amazing. Absolutely amazing.
The other thing I wanted to touch upon was colour. I think bold colours, bright colours, think of our culture. Think of the Holi festival, think of the saris we wear, think of the turbans we wear, everything is big and bold and loud. Think of Bollywood costumes. You know, what we wear in our weddings, everything is big. We’re these big, bold, loud, happy people, right? And I think then what happens is we move, maybe, to other worlds that don’t necessarily have that same aesthetic and I think we learn to tone it down. It was very much my experience. I haven’t grown up in the UK, but I live here now. I’ve lived here for 18 years. I remember moving here and then thinking, ‘Oh my god, I can’t wear a lot of the stuff that I wear.’ Because everyone around me was grey and black and beige and brown. I remember having to, like, ‘Oh my god, I can’t wear this thing now.’ You know, it was a moment and I think I internalised some of it. I’m now coming back into kind of bright. I love this and I’m doing it. But I think the point I’m making is if you are a diaspora, if you’re not from that original culture and you kind of grew up there or born there or whatever, you learn to turn down who you are and I think colour is who we are as South Asians, I believe. I don’t know any South Asian community that doesn’t love colour. We do, in whatever shape or form. It’s almost like going back to me, it’s like going back to the roots of who we are. What do you think?
Tanya Gupta 24:46
Yeah, I agree with that. I do. What you’re saying is just reminding me of this one conversation I had, I think it must have been sixth or seventh grade, and I was with my girlfriends. We were all hanging out at the lunch table. They’re all white, I’m the only person of colour at the table, and we’re all talking about what we want our wedding dresses to look like. Yeah, and they’re all describing these gorgeous white gowns, you know, and the differences between them are really like a sweetheart neckline versus strapless but ultimately, they’re looking for white dresses. I used that as an opportunity to explain to them that in our culture, white is not the colour you wear to your wedding. In fact, white is what we wear to funerals, and that it’s encouraged for everyone to dress very colourfully at the wedding. I remember one of the girls saying, ‘Aren’t you worried that someone’s going to upstage you?’ And I was like, ‘What does that even mean? Like, that’s encouraged. If anything, I want you to share and show out. I mean, I want everyone to treat my wedding like their Met Gala.’ I understand why they didn’t also see it that way. Anyway, yes, I can, I can understand that. That sense of wanting to tone down the colour and just your style in order to fit in. You know, I have grown up outside of India my whole life but when I moved to New York City, particularly I remember I went through this moment of like, ‘I’m gonna fit in, and I’m gonna do the whole wearing all black kind of grungy thing.’ I did it for like a year and a half, and then discovered the colour pink again, and realised how much joy I had been missing out on for that year and a half that I was only wearing black. So yeah, it is so much easier said than done to ignore the haters, and just ignore those invisible voices that tell you you should or shouldn’t look a certain way and it’s always going to be a learning curve. Nobody’s perfect but once you can start tuning that voice out, it really changes things.
Sangeeta Pillai 26:52
It’s beautiful, really…also colour is like happy, isn’t it? You look at a bright colour and I’m sure the serotonin levels in your brain increase, I’m sure, totally.
Tanya Gupta 27:03
I’m sure they do. Especially in my case where I have such a visceral reaction to colour. I’m sure there’s some serious brain chemistry going on there. Yeah.
Sangeeta Pillai 27:12
I think that would happen for a lot of people. I know for me, definitely. Like when I want to feel buzzy or excited, I wear bright colours. Bright pinks, I love fuchsia. I’m a huge fan. I have a lot of fuchsia in my wardrobe, or blues or greens. You know, like, the brightest saris. Like, they are beautiful. You know, the parrot green, can’t even, I’m sorry? Yes. Oh, my God. It’s just stunning. Gorgeous.
Talking of colour, I really wanted to talk about the shoot you did for Toyota, the Holi colours. Yes, I absolutely loved that. And I wanted to know, how did that come about? Like, were you kind of tapping into your heritage when you came up with the idea? Or did it just evolve? Like, how did that happen?
Tanya Gupta 27:58
Yeah, it was such a cool opportunity. Thankfully, it actually kind of landed in my lap, I did not seek it out. I was reached out to by this primarily API content creating firm that was working with Toyota at the time and they wanted to do a Holi themed shoot. So they came in with the concept that we’re going to be doing this for Holi, we have this new car coming out we’d like to feature, and so it came at perfect timing for me because I took a trip to India in February, I went to visit my family in New Delhi. And that was around the timeframe that we were ideating and getting ready to produce this content. So I was flown out to Dallas, where the Toyota headquarters are and provided the car and a crew on behalf of that studio that Toyota was working with and we kind of, together, came up with this joint concept, which really focused on my photo compositions, my photo manipulation and the colour scheme of my work in general, but highlighting the car while at the same time also bringing in different elements of Holi. The holiday, the mythology of it, just generally the vibe of Holi. Right. Like I feel like this is another example of this crucial moment we’re at right now where our culture is being celebrated because I’ve lived here almost my whole life and I’ve never heard in the mainstream a company as big as Toyota, making an ad for Holi. You will see things for Christmas, you’ll see things for Hanukkah, you’ll see things for Easter, everything in between. This was the first time that I was seeing something for us and it was so special to get to be a part of that and to be kind of a part of history. Not to make it grander than it is, but it feels to me like that’s a very historical thing. It is and most of all, fortunately, it was just really exciting to bring my personal style and my colour and my aesthetic into something that could touch so many people. And that could be relatable for so many people, so many of our people who may be seeing these advertisements and going, ‘Hey, that’s me.’ You know?
Sangeeta Pillai 30:19
I feel seen, right? So Tanya, you’ve been named on the Forbes under 30 List. That is amazing, congratulations.
Tanya Gupta 30:28
Thank you. Thank you so much. It feels great. It feels really, really good. It is something that I had been hoping to achieve for years, since I was in college. I think it was something that I strived for, but didn’t really know how it would happen. Especially since I was pursuing this career in STEM, I thought that I was going to go the route of working in engineering for however many years, going back and getting my MBA, turning C-suite somewhere, and then revolutionising Apple or Google or something of the sort and although that didn’t end up happening, I surprised myself.
So I was nominated by a fellow colleague from Adobe, actually and I was nominated for the art and style category. So that’s the category that I actually made the list for, which is so wild, because the list came out in December of 2022 and I incorporated my company, my studio Katanya Studios in July. So I had only really been full-time, my own boss, and running my own studio in New York City for about six months when I made it onto the list. So I was going through this moment of doubt and lack of clarity, because the residency had just ended and I was going into the world as an artist and having to call myself that. And then this happened and as much as I don’t want to base my value and worth on an accolade, I feel like I’ve done that for most of my life. A lot of brown people do that for most of their life, I would be lying if I said that it didn’t completely change the way that I see myself and instil a great deal of confidence in me that I’m to this day, I’m facing the effects of that.
Sangeeta Pillai 32:18
So, if someone were following your work on social media and looking at all the amazing projects you do, a lot of people would think that it’s all happening effortlessly. And you know, Tanya is up there doing this and that and Forbes in LA, but it’s not that simple is it, as a creative person? Can you talk a little bit about the struggle and what happens behind that glossy, Instagram reel?
Tanya Gupta 32:44
Oh, my gosh, yeah, the struggle is real. There’s so much self-doubt that comes in with being a creative person. Art is so subjective and as an artist, you have complete and total say over the final product, no matter whether it’s a commission, whether you’re doing it for yourself, whether you’re putting the work out into the world, whatever it may be, this is your thing and you have to have confidence in yourself that you know what you’re doing, and not be too marred by other people’s judgments or opinions. That alone is very difficult. And I know it may seem to an outsider that everything’s falling into place, and it’s just one thing after another after another but there are so many of these moments in between those things that are really difficult. It can be so isolating, being a creative, especially if you don’t have a creative circle in your immediate vicinity in your network. I’m very lucky that my roommate is also creative and I think that has helped me so much because if I didn’t have a sounding board in my physical space, encouraging me, I don’t know what I would do. But yeah, self-doubt creeps in and you just have to fight the imposter syndrome and remind yourself of all the things that you’ve achieved up until now that have gotten you to where you are, accolades are not. And my goal every day when I wake up is just to be happy. I know that’s so cheesy and I have a lot of people say that, a lot of creative people say that, a lot of successful people say that, which is why sometimes I take it with a grain of salt and think, of course you want to be happy, your life seems great, right? But it never is what it seems on the outside and it’s always a highlight reel on social media, and you never really know what somebody is going through and it can be so much more challenging than people realise.
Sangeeta Pillai 34:37
Absolutely. And I think, therefore, it’s important to hear from people who seem successful, that there’s a lot that goes behind that Instagram reel. What would you say to brown women in particular? Because I know a lot of us, creatives in general, have huge imposter syndrome and if you’re a brown woman who’s trying to make it in a particular space, that’s even harder. How do you work with it? What do you do?
Tanya Gupta 35:05
Some people might say that I can be aggressive or bossy. Those typical words that…
Sangeeta Pillai 35:14
Absolutely. I’ve been dealing with that my entire life since I was very little. I always try and encourage people, especially brown women, to carry themselves with the confidence of a cis straight white man in any room that you walk into and it sounds silly, I know. But you do it once, and you will feel on top of the world. It is so much easier to be delusional than you think, and if you’re delusional for long enough, you actually start making things happen. I mean, I’m half joking, but I do firmly believe in manifestation and visualisation. If you are not believing in yourself completely, and you don’t have the faith in yourself to do the things that you want to accomplish, then nobody else is going to do that for you. It has to come from within, and it sometimes might feel like a lie, it might feel like you’re just faking it but that’s the point. It’s fake it, till you make it because before you know it, the way you’re presenting to the world, the world starts seeing you that way, and then you become that person. So carry yourself with utmost confidence and if people call you aggressive and bossy, ignore them because as long as you are a kind person, and you are not being mean or rude to other people, as long as you are not causing harm to another individual, you are well within your right to ask for what you want, and put your foot down and make your voice heard.
Tanya Gupta 36:47
I’ve always thought that only certain people are allowed a voice in the world. I remember when I used to work at this big marketing job. Every time we had a meeting, this one guy would walk into the room and speak the loudest. He had the right accent. He had been to the right sort of schools. So he always walked into the room like he owned it. Every time he spoke, his ideas would get picked up. I probably had an idea that was even better but because I spoke quietly, my ideas never got picked up. So I learned to speak less and less at meetings because I felt like what was the point? Really? I wonder sometimes if that’s the reason I started a podcast. So I could speak, you know, really speak, have a loud and proud voice? Say what I thought and say exactly how I liked it. You know, I didn’t have a voice in those marketing meetings but I definitely have a voice now. What about the inner work? What about how do we as brown women, brown women creatives, whatever you’re doing in the world, build that kind of resilience or inner validation? Because this external validation is great, yeah, but the inner work is really, really critical to how we do that?
Sangeeta Pillai 38:20
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the impact of my mom in all of this. My mother comes from a long, long line of extremely educated and fierce women. My nanny was a professor and her mother and her mother’s mother were also in the education professions at times of colonialism where girls were not encouraged to get an education at all. In fact, I think it was my mom’s grandmother who was the principal of a school at a time where the school didn’t even take girls as students. And then also, my nanny was a single parent because my mother’s dad passed away when she was very, very young. So my nanny raised three kids, two of them girls, all on her own while working full time in New Delhi in the previous century, you know? So my mom’s perspective on feminism hugely impacted my view of myself, and therefore also my view of other women. I come from a family that never has put pressure on me about getting married or even having a relationship. It’s always been to focus on your career, focus on your financial freedom, focus on yourself, on your health and your wellness and your friendships, cultivate those. My mother is my rock and the only reason that I am where I am today and anytime that I have those self-doubts that I need to seek out the inner validation that you’re mentioning, I quite literally hear her voice in my head. I speak to her every day, and she is my biggest confidant and the one advisor that I always will listen to no matter what. I’m so, so lucky that I have her and I just wish that everyone would have a figure like her in their life. She’s amazing. Love you, Mom.
Tanya Gupta 40:08
That’s beautiful. I wish I had…in my life. That’s beautiful, it really is. It feels like the world is changing now, especially in the western part of the world where we kind of live, as Asian people and women are getting more of a voice now than they did before. Do you see a shift from say, when you were a child to now?
Sangeeta Pillai 40:27
I absolutely think that there has been a shift, especially in entertainment, right? I believe entertainment is a reflection of what’s happening in larger society as a whole. The fact that we have so many TV shows about people like us, that in itself tells me everything I need to know. I run in circles in New York City that have all these really incredible South Asian women creators who are doing amazing things. So I kind of feel like I get locked into a bubble sometimes, where I’m surrounded by so much South Asian excellence that I almost feel like it’s just everywhere. So it’s a little bit hard for me to see what the larger landscape looks like, maybe across the rest of the States or even beyond. But as far as I can tell, if I were a young girl right now, I think my image of myself and my spatial awareness of who I am in this culture would look so, so different. I’m so happy that I get to be a part of that, though, right? Like, I don’t want to sit here and say, ‘I wish I had it.’ Of course, I wish I had it. But if anything, I’m just thankful that I get to contribute to that now.
Sangeeta Pillai 41:43
And almost live in it.
Tanya Gupta 41:46
Right. Relish it? Yeah…
Sangeeta Pillai 41:48
I really like that. What have been some of the responses from other South Asian women to say your work? Have any younger women come up to you? What do they say to you?
Tanya Gupta 41:58
Their responses are widely ranging. From younger women, it’s a lot of ‘I admire what you do, how can I do something like what you did? How can I pivot my career?’ Or, you know, I feel like ‘pivot’ isn’t even the right way of saying it. It’s a lot of people asking me how they can do both. ‘How can I pursue STEM and also be creative? Or how can I be an engineer and also be an artist? Or I like to DJ on the side? But I’m a neuroscience major, like, can I actually do both of those things?’ The answer is yes, but it’s hard when you don’t have anyone in your life telling you that, right?
From older women, it’s a very different story. From women that are around my mom’s age, they are so kind, they’re so sweet and they are so excited that somebody this young is doing these sorts of things. I think that there’s just a lot of excitement and rooting for me. Like, ‘you really did all of that, and you’re still doing this. And that’s so great. And we’re just really proud of you,’ you know? Having a community in the brown world is so important, and it’s going to be there regardless. Like the aunties and uncles are gonna be around. So it’s always nice when they also provide you with that validation because, you know, I think that also reflects really well on my parents and as an Indian person, as a child of immigrants, that is very important to me. It’s not the like, ‘look at me’ vibe, it’s more like, I know that my work and my career, or just my life, in general, is a reflection of my parents. And although I’m very proud of myself in my own right, I’m even more proud that they get to say that I did these things, right? Because it all comes back to them. I can’t take all the credit for where I am today without them and it’s nice to hear from the people in my community that they also recognize that.
Sangeeta Pillai 43:58
What do you think is something that brown women, creatives, or just brown women in general, would like more of in the world? What do we need that we don’t have?
Tanya Gupta 44:12
Diversity. We are not a monolith. I mean, our Indian people, South Asian people are not a monolith, but particularly women. Right? Because even now, yes, it’s very progressive, and things are changing but, you know, let’s bring it back to entertainment for a moment, right? I’m so, so happy that there’s so much representation for us and I’m especially happy that so much of it has to do with Mindy Kaling. I mean, she is a pioneer in what she does today and no matter what people say about her, I feel like we have to give credit where credit is due and she has paved the way for so many people. And this is not just a Mindy Kaling problem, but I do find a lot of the times that these roles that are written for brown women tend to feel kind of similar. So a lot of the feeding into the insert parody of being a brown woman in America or abroad and then, you know, having like the white love interest, and then having the pain points of like cultural differences. And those stories are important because they are real, and they are reflective of real people’s experiences but that’s not everyone’s experience and I think the biggest topic right now is that the people who are speaking out against these things don’t relate to those stories, and they have their own stories, we have our own stories. So, you know, it’s an upwards curve. I think we have gotten past the threshold and now we’re at a point where I think that there is space for these very diverse types of stories, it’s up to us as brown Women in the Arts to bring those stories to light.
Sangeeta Pillai 45:48
Absolutely agree. And I think what we shouldn’t do is adhere to the old cliche of what an Indian woman was supposed to be like, right? Now, there’s another sort of specific narrative of like, this is what a South Asian American woman does, or feels, or whatever and the diversity of experience that you are talking about is what we need to see reflected so that a lot more people can see themselves in the entertainment on TV, in magazines, and in whatever media they’re consuming. otherwise, we risk losing this momentum. I think this is almost like an expansion outwards. Here’s where we are now, and we continue to broaden to include a lot more people in this conversation. I mean, we haven’t even touched on the conversation of like queer representation or non binary representation. I mean, it goes far, far beyond what we’re doing right now but we are on the right path. I think we are paving the way and it is on the horizon. It’s in our future, but we have to prioritise it.
Sangeeta Pillai 46:49
What is your connection to South Asian culture? Like, if you were to describe it, what is that feeling for you? What does it feel like or taste like, or smell like? What is it for you personally?
Tanya Gupta 47:01
The feeling is not tangible. It doesn’t feel like a separation or a part of my life, it’s just simply who I am and I have always said that I feel like I kind of ride this wave of being in a third culture. Having grown up abroad, whether that’s the UK or the US, while still maintaining really close ties to my family in India, speaking the language fluently, cooking the food, wearing the outfits, watching the movies, listening to the music, you know, the things that most people will say, keeps them attached to the culture. But more importantly, especially in my adulthood, it’s been this really interesting ride of understanding my parents differently, too, because being the child of immigrants, really changes the way you see the world because in a lot of ways, you don’t see the world the same way that your parents do and there’s no way you can change that. There’s so many things that they will never understand about me, because I’m American, and so many things about them, I’ll never understand because they’re Indian. Even though they’ve been abroad for so long, we still carry a lot of these things that I just have never had to deal with. And so in adulthood, I think it’s just been interesting, a learning curve for both me and my parents, just coming to the understanding that there are things that we won’t agree on, but we can still live in the same space in the same world and be a part of the same culture, but just in different ways.
Sangeeta Pillai 48:35
So if five year old Tanya was sitting here with us today, what would you say to her?
Tanya Gupta 48:43
I’m so proud of you. I wouldn’t say anything that could possibly change the trajectory of five-year-old Tanya’s life. I would give support, probably play Barbies with her a little bit and then I would walk away, because there truly is nothing that I would change about my upbringing, my life, my story, to get to where I am right now. It’s like the butterfly effect, you know. God forbid that I go back and say something to her that makes her, you know, never choose to work at NASA or never choose to become an artist. But, you know, I do think about that sometimes. When you speak to your inner child, is that child proud of you? Is that child happy to see that you’re doing what you’re doing? And I think that she is. I think that she’s watching me right now and she’s elated that I get to live this life.
Sangeeta Pillai 49:50
I think she is as well. Finally, would you have any words or advice for listeners of Masala Podcast? As you know, it’s full of mostly brown women, brown South Asian women. I think 99% of my audience. Is there anything you’d like to say to them?
Tanya Gupta 50:32
Cheesy as it is, follow your dreams. Genuinely. Just follow your dreams, follow your passions. Listen to your heart. Listen to your gut. Surround yourself with people who uplift you. If you sense any ‘nazar’, you abandon it, you run in the opposite direction. Only surround yourself with positivity and say yes. Take risks, say yes to things, especially when you’re young. Don’t lean into the imposter syndrome and carry yourself like you’re a straight white guy.
Sangeeta Pillai 50:27
That’s gonna be my top take out from here. What would a straight white man do?
Tanya Gupta 50:32
Sangeeta Pillai 50:33
Good words. Thank you so much. Tanya Gupta, it’s been an absolute joy and pleasure to chat with you. Thank you so much for opening up your world and your life to me and talking about all of the things that you talked about today. Thank you for being on the Masala Podcast.
Tanya Gupta 50:50
Likewise, thank you so much for having me on here. I love what you’re doing. It’s so important to uplift the voices of people like us, and I genuinely appreciate you allowing me to come on here and talk my shit
Sangeeta Pillai 51:11
Thank you for listening to the Masala podcast. Masala podcast is part of my platform, Soul Sutras, dedicated to celebrating and supporting South Asian women. This is a space for all of us bad betties who don’t do as we’re told. This is where we get to celebrate our culture our way and be exactly who we want to be. I’d love to hear from you. Get in touch via email at soul sutras.co.uk or my website soul sutras.co.uk, I’m also on Instagram and Twitter. Just look for Soul Sutras. Masala podcast was created and presented by me, Sangeeta Pillai produced by Anushka Tate, opening music by Sonny Robertson.
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