Breaking traditional boundaries through Indian and Hip Hop Culture // KALAKARI

sanj.k January 19, 2013 art, the latest Comments

Back in August 2012, our friend, Robin Sukhadia reported on a multimedia exhibition called WORD TO YOUR MOTHERLAND where we first saw NISHA K. SEMBI‘s art on display. Based in the Bay Area of San Francisco, she endeavours to bring into culmination innovative and vibrant styles of art whose outcome will be a manifestation of her. Nisha’s main focus of work is directed towards bringing awareness to the emerging hip-hop movement that is currently sweeping India.

Nisha set out to bring two elements that really influence her and by merging the two she has created her own conduit, a new style called Kalakari …

We caught up with Nisha to find out more about her work, influences and the philosophy of Kalakari.


How would you best describe your work?

When I bring into fruition any form of art, I always delve into it with the idea that my resulting piece will be a reflection of who I am. With any art, my goal is to produce something that sheds light on the different elements that I embody. By combining Indian culture with hip-hop culture, I have channeled a new style called Kalakari (“Artistry”) through which I have been crafting acrylic paintings and street murals that break through traditional boundaries and defy the limits of our society through a process of decolonization. With my art, I hope to empower those that are struggling and to bring to light the issues that matter the most.

What gave you the idea of merging together hip hop art with Indian influences? And how does music inspire your art?

Growing up, I was always painting and drawing. Initially my professional art career started as a Mendhi (henna) artist. I remember being fascinated by Indian patterns and decoration at a young age and eventually started getting better and better with applying mendhi with a cone. Eventually, I was being hired to do mendhi at weddings and festivals professionally. Though Mendhi kept me connected to my culture through art, I was hungry to work with new mediums and soon discovered graffiti Having been raised in California, I was constantly surrounded by hip-hop culture and street art. I became a hip-hop head at a young age and started meeting other writers. I thought graffiti was so dope, but I never thought I had any sort of capacity to do it since I was just a little Indian girl with no real artist role models.

I used to tag up my notebooks and experiment with letters, but I never dared to write on the wall…after all I had no idea what the process behind it was or where to even buy spray paint. Then one day, I found myself at a family party, where I snuck into my uncle’s room and found that the place was bombed from top to bottom stickers, tags, and blackbook sketches. I realized that my own uncle was coincidentally a graffiti writer who wrote HERO back in the 90s. I showed my uncle my sketches and even though they were complete garbage in the beginning, my uncle saw something in me and started to mentor me; showing me how to harness my craft and develop my style. Since then, I’ve been painting walls that have classic funk-style graffiti elements along with cultural influences from my Punjabi Indian background. Most of my spray paint work has some kind of Indian/henna motif weaved in there somewhere. It’s how I illustrate pride in my culture and my people and how I stand apart from the rest of the pieces you see.

My most recent project includes taking some of my art and applying it to apparel design, launching my very own clothing line called Kalakari ( last winter. I’ve always had an interest in fashion and street wear and designing and producing my own clothing line allows me to reach out to people through a different medium and create clothing that I’ve always wanted to wear. Kalakari clothing caters to everybody that ever wanted to rock a dope t-shirt with some Indian flavor and a hip-hop twist. 


How have people reacted to your art work?

For the most part, I’d have to say that people have had positive reactions to my fine art work. Usually people see my art and are extremely receptive because they’ve never seen anything like it and can sometimes identify with it. During my first solo art show, Word to Your Motherland: An Exhibit Showcasing Hip-hop in India, lots of South Asian folks approached me with excitement and enthusiasm – saying that my work was inspirational and empowering. The work that I create has a specific intention behind it, to create something innovative, to break down boundaries, and reach out to our generation of South Asian Americans that are hungry to discover art that resonates with them. With my graffiti/mural work, however, I get a mix of reactions. For the most part, people are shocked or confused by the fact that an Indian girl is painting a graffiti style piece with spray cans on a public wall, since that is something that has never really been done by before in the US. People see a giant wall-sized graffiti piece and have a hard time connecting my face to it. I get a lot of folks asking, “YOU painted..THAT?” It feels good to shake things up from time to time.

Did you ever feel your inspiration was running out at some point? What kept you going eventually?

After I graduated with a degree in graphic design, I spent months looking for work with absolutely no work since the economy was in shambles. My inspiration and motivation was at an all time low. I had promised myself that I would take a trip to India after I graduated and since I wasn’t working, I decided to visit the motherland. When I got there, I discovered that the Hip-Hop scene was just starting to flourish and it was the most beautiful thing to experience. Some parts of New Delhi and Bombay looked just like the Bronx, NY in the 70’s when Hip-Hop was new and growing. I saw kids break dancing barefoot in old concrete forts, and met graffiti writers that were bombing walls with liquid paint since they didn’t have access to spray paint. Seeing my own people dedicating themselves to this movement with so much passion and little to no resources was the ultimate inspiration. Whenever I find myself lacking motivation, I think of those kids in India that continue to push forward despite endless obstacles and hold it down for all of us in our motherland. I like to think that all the bboys, bgirls, and graffiti writers in India communicate to me through their art and send me the energy to keep me growing, producing, and repping hard.

KALAKARI_writing_ Odell Hussey Photography

Is there a process or ritual you go through before you begin creating? And if so, what is it?

Any piece of art I create has a certain process behind it. It all starts with a dope concept that I’ll spend time sketching out and building until its ready for the canvas or wall.

Are you ever satisfied with your work? If you have [are], how do you know when you are done? If not, how do you let go of a piece of art?

I am the type of person that is never satisfied with my art. I always feel that there is room for improvement for each piece and I’m highly critical with my own work. I have learned to finish a piece and become satisfied with it, but there’s always something I hope to improve on for the next piece of art I create. Coming from a graffiti background, I’ve learned to become less attached to my work. There has been times where I’ve spent countless hours painstakingly painting my best walls, only to see them get buffed (painted over) the next day. That just comes with the territory. It’s experiences like that which make it easier for me to part with my work. Sometimes, however, if I grow really fond of a particular piece, parting with it is difficult- it’s like giving away your kid or something.

Kalakari_WTYML_Odell Hussey Photography

Do you feel as if your art work reaches out to people?

It’s very important to me that I push my art as hard as I can and reach out to people through my work. That’s one of the reasons why I chose to paint walls in public spaces, so that I can put up my art and my message where it will get a lot of visibility and will force people to look at it. To me, graffiti is one of the last known forms of free speech, and in a society where we get bombarded with advertisements 24/7 it’s important for me to put your own message out there to show that I am here and I am alive and contributing to society with my art. I also take efforts to incorporate certain political messages or even cultural influences in my work in hopes that (brown) folks will see my work and understand who painted it and why. It is also really important for me to reach out to people in India as well, which is why I painted walls in New Delhi while I was visiting. It was a dream of mine to paint in my motherland and take my art back to my roots. Last year, I was fortunate enough to do a graffiti piece in my native language Punjabi for the first time in India. I chose to paint my name in Punjabi in an effort to decolonize my art and message, and so that I could specially reach out to the people there. That being said, I believe that my work reaches out to people all over the world, whether visibly or spiritually.

Which movements have you been influenced by?

I’ve been influenced by the global Hip-Hop movement, Different Arts movements such as the Black Arts Movement that took place in the 1960s, and various political movements that brought about social revolution such as the Civil Rights Movement, The TWLF and the Movement towards Ethnic Studies, and The Free Speech movement that took place in my hometown of Berkeley, CA as well as the Gadar party and and any and all movements dedicated towards decolonization and social justice.

What challenges have you found in your work?

Being the first known South Asian female on the American graffiti scene is a constant challenge because graffiti and art are not very well accepted in my culture, and there is the pressure and responsibility that comes with breaking through barriers and paving the way to a certain degree. Growing up, I didn’t really have much encouragement from my family to pursue my art and I didn’t have any South Asian female role models to look up to.

Additionally, being a female graffiti artist is challenging because it is such a male-dominated culture and I’ve had to work twice as hard to get any sort of recognition or credibility. I find that being a female writer can work for or against you in some cases. For example, I’ve been totally dismissed and disrespected at times but I also have the advantage of being a bit more inconspicuous. At the end of the day, however, I believe that it’s your skills, creativity, and innovation that really matter and set you apart- regardless of if you’re a male or female.

ofrendas Nisha

Lastly, any words of advice for aspiring designers/artists?

Be original and stay humble. Learn about your history and let that inform the intention behind your art. Have a meaningful purpose and keep innovating. Study the originators of your art form and have respect for the people that paved the way for you. Don’t get discouraged when your work isn’t recognized or appreciated in the beginning.. Everybody has to pay their dues :)

Photo credit:  Odell Hussey Photography and puzzl3peac

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About The Author

Founder and Editor of NADA BRAHMA, Sanj.K is an Investment Banker with a sense of humor. Born and brought up in the UK, he has an ongoing love affair with music, martial arts and masala chai and in his spare time perfects the deadly art of watching old skool kung-fu movies. Sanj loves bringing a fresh outlook on ‘left field’, Asian, electronica and classical music from across the globe, but hates the music they play in supermarkets.