Sangeetha Kowsik may not have set out to change the perception of South Asian and Middle Eastern cultures when she entered the world of design. But that’s precisely what she’s been doing ever since.
Originally from California, Sangeetha graduated from Parsons School of Design. Despite her own Indian American, Hindu heritage, she’s a celebrated Islamic/Arabic calligrapher. She’s worked with non-profits and startups, luxury brands, publishing houses, museums, and cultural institutions, combining calligraphy with a variety of other designs and styles in unique works.
In 2011, Sangeetha was the head designer for The Metropolitan Museum of Art when the Islamic Galleries were set to reopen. Unfortunately, the joy of the release of that exhibit was overshadowed by the prevalence of false stereotypes, even in this highly prestigious museum.
“Museums tend to be very “white” and tend to misrepresent a lot of South Asian cultures and religions,” said Kowsik. “They were calling the galleries “Art of the Arab Lands.” That is wrong because Indians, Pakistanis, Afghans, and Moroccans are not Arabs.”
On a mission to find new ways to tie together these unique cultures, Sangeetha began searching for common ties within all Islamic Art. What she found was Arabic calligraphy. She began studying the art form to aid in her designs for the Met, but was soon inspired to launch her own product design line. After a decade of studying Arabic calligraphy, she has since expanded her expertise into writing in Urdu, Persian, and even Tamazight, the language of the Amazigh people of North Africa.
After becoming the Hindu Chaplin for NYU in 2017, Sangeetha met Imam Khalid, the Executive Director of the Islamic Center of NYU. They quickly found that they shared a cultural background, facing many of the same stigmas towards their religions and cultures throughout their lives. But Sangeetha was shocked to learn about the Islamaphobia that was running rampant in South Asian Communities. Inspired to take a stand against the racism she witnessed, she held her very own interfaith Arabic calligraphy exhibition, titled “Allah Swami.” The exhibit is still on display at NYU. That exhibit soon inspired her to continue her mission, launching her design studio, Ihsanishan Design.
Speaking about her work and style, Sangeetha said, “My art is rooted in tradition but with a modern, luxe flair. Each piece has a strong concept and story behind it, which aims to educate the world about the unique richness of our ancient cultures and traditions and to showcase stories that are not necessarily mainstream, through the art of Arabic Calligraphy. I call it the American Silk Road, a cross-cultural education told through calligraphy. It is important to understand and experience each other’s cultures in order to truly appreciate them. My mission is this: to engage all people and communities interested in knowing about the diversity of this world. My designs aim to educate, start conversations, fight negative stereotypes, celebrate global cultures, showcase unique stories, and hopefully create appreciation and understanding which leads to a more unified, harmonious, compassionate, beautiful world.”
Her work is about more than fighting stereotypes about the Muslim religion. One of her design studio’s most popular items is the Sri Ganesha Arabic Shirt. “The main inspiration for the Sri Ganesha Arabic Shirt is to educate the world that Hindus are not idol worshippers!” said Kowsik. In Sanskrit, “Jai Shri Ganesha” means victory to, hail, praise or admiration for Lord Ganesha, the first deity of Hinduism. The design is meant to fight back against stereotypes surrounding the Hindu religion.
Whether she’s designing a t-shirt or learning to write beautiful script in a new language, Sangeetha remains focused on educating the world about the many things that make various cultures unique, as well as what brings them together.
“The world tends to forget that India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and parts of Iran were all one landmass and nation before colonization,” said Kowsik. “We share more in history, traditions, culture, and religion than differences.”
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