Sangeetha Kowsik’s award-winning brand IhsanIshan Design inspires peace, understanding, and change, and brings the world together by working for religious, cultural, and ethnic unity by connecting across global cultures through design– told through the art of Arabic Calligraphy. We sat down with her to hear more about her art, where she gets her inspiration, and what she hopes people get from it.
First of all, tell us about your business and what it’s all about, in your own words!
IhsanIshan Design is an award-winning fine arts/design studio inspiring peace, understanding, and change, by bringing the world together through timeless, distinctive, unique designs. Products include textiles, accessories, and custom design and commissions, all of which have a meaningful and powerful message/concept behind them that changes one’s thinking, fights negative stereotypes/biases, and makes a difference in one’s life. The brand’s mission is Faith. Fashion. Design. Education. Activism.
The concept/meaning of each design is even printed on the back of the garment! All products are eco friendly, eco conscious, and a part of proceeds of every sale are given to a charity that works with the culture/community the design was inspired by.
You mentioned you are the only person in the world who is a Hindu, Indian, American woman who is an Arabic/Islamic Calligrapher. How did you get into Arabic/Islamic Calligraphy? How did you realize you could make a business out of it?
I was the head product designer for the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the first Indian/Asian/Minority woman to do so); my journey into Arabic Calligraphy began there! Museums tend to be very “white,” and misrepresent South Asian cultures/religions, calling the Islamic galleries “Art of the Arab Lands.” This is wrong because South/East Asians, Moroccans, etc. are not Arabs. For example “Indian Islamic Art” and “Moroccan Islamic Art” look extremely different! The only Islamic art form that ties these cultures together is Arabic Calligraphy! Arabic is the language of Islam, the ONLY form of “Islamic Art” that ties “Islamic Cultures” whether Asian, Arab, African, etc, together. Calligraphy is used across the globe. I studied Arabic Calligraphy at NYU (have a degree in it) to design product for the Met shop.
I’m also one of the very few HINDU chaplains in the world! I’m the Hindu Chaplain/Spiritual Advisor of NYU and Columbia Universities and participate in interfaith initiatives, panels to empower women, LGBTQI and POC communities, and I won the Chaplain of the Year award for my interfaith work in 2018, given to me by Chelsea Clinton.
Horrified by the animosity and negative perceptions that plague South Asian Hindu and Muslim communities as seen in the media, and amplified by social media, I launched IhsanIshan Design to go along with my Arabic Calligraphy art exhibition titled “Allah Swami” (Allah “God” in Arabic, the language of Islam, Swami “God” (an informal endearing name) in Sanskrit, the language of Hinduism). This interfaith art exhibit was shown at NYU to celebrate Islam and Hinduism and its shared traditions, to educate, and bring about peace and understanding.
I’m trained in two forms of Indian Classical Music both North and South Indian traditions, and three forms of Indian Classical dance. Hindus and Muslims have been making music together for thousands of years. I also want to remind the world that India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, parts of Iran were all one landmass before colonization/partition; we share more than differ! So stop fighting!
I’m a Parsons School of Design Graduate, have worked extensively in the world of fashion, beauty, luxury skateboarding, streetwear, and museums. I’m an established gallery artist and interfaith chaplain. Combining all these distinct unique experiences, I’ve applied luxury aesthetics and education to create my designs. My brand has never been done before. I’ve made fashion inclusive and won awards for my designs. I’ve created custom Arabic Calligraphy designs for world music albums. I’ve participated in panels, podcasts, etc. to explain my concepts to bring about peace and understanding in this world. I’ve given lectures on the beauty/importance of Arabic Calligraphy. My work is about making an impact, a difference, educating the world, and bringing together diverse communities. All my unique life experiences inspired me to start my own business.
Incredible. We definitely need more of that in the world! So how do you come up with the unique designs for individual pieces you create?
There is a very powerful and important message behind every single one of my pieces. I thoroughly research, discover new, interesting, interconnected stories that bring the world together which inspires me to create a very unique piece of art/design!
For example, why would I write “Subhanallah” or “God is perfect” on a pair of Indian drums, the Tabla? Because the Tabla is a shared instrument. When they are constructed in India, Hindus are responsible for the inner black core while Muslims construct the leather aspects on the outer part of the instrument.
The word “tabla” likely came from “tabl,” the Persian and Arabic word for drum. Tabla is a shared instrument played by both Hindus and Muslims for Bhajans (devotional songs of Hindus) and Qawwali (devotional music of Sufi Islam). All forms of music, especially Hindustani, have always been a source of inspiration to me. And coincidentally, my name, “Sangeetha” translates to “music” in Sanskrit/Hindi/Urdu. Out of all of the Hindu deities, Lord Ganesha (my favorite) is the only one who is depicted playing the tabla.
I have been privileged to watch performances of players from India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka as well as many folks from the West.
Do people still get a lot from your art even if they can’t read it? Or do you tend to attract people who know Arabic?
IhsanIshan Design’s mission is very personal: to engage all people/communities interested in knowing about the diversity of this world. Our art is meant to educate, start conversations, fight negative stereotypes, celebrate global cultures, showcase unique stories, and create appreciation and understanding. My customers and audience have grown tremendously over the past couple of years. What I’ve learned is that my brand is unique, appeals to diverse audiences, and is hard to “define.” For example, I created two custom Arabic Calligraphy graphics for world music label Pink Turban’s albums. The musicians are “white” but play Indian Classical music. I had a popup shop at Brooklyn Museum. My customers included elderly Japanese folk, young Latin men, African Americans, LGBTQI+ community, hipsters, Hindus, Muslims, Arabs, Turkish families, and many more! I’m pleasantly surprised my work appeals to a wide range of people. I believe that art and design are the way to bring together diverse communities. It is a way to heal past traumas, phobias, fight stereotypes, etc. I believe in amplifying positive interconnected stories between global cultures.
I have been interviewed by numerous Muslim museums, publications, and participated in Muslim exhibitions though I am Hindu. We live in challenging times with Islamophobia, racism, and sexism on the rise. Some people find my background odd, some interesting that a Non-Muslim Non-Arab is showcasing their culture in a positive light! My black lives matter design has received multiple awards for interfaith, social justice, and activism. I hope to continue to bring my message of peace, understanding, and education through art and design to diverse audiences. Folks are interested and inspired by my unique background. Everyone wants to meet the Hindu doing Islamic Art!
To go against “traditional” beauty standards of the fashion world, I used models from minority communities. An aspect of the company is to give back to smaller communities, so I use small business printing houses and minority owned factories. A portion of proceeds from sales is given to various charities. IhsanIshan Design aims to have universal appeal and be a global brand being accessible to all with affordable price points. The brand’s mission is to create awareness, and inspire open mindedness, which leads to positive change.
Why were you drawn to using Arabic specifically?
I studied typography at Parsons School of Design. I have always loved type/typography. I’m a “religious” Hindu which is RARE in the United States– most people are “cultural” Hindus. My father built three Hindu temples in the US; I was raised in the faith and live by the principle of “Ekam Sat” or all is one, meaning “All faiths lead to the Same Divine.”
For me all religious traditions lead to the same almighty divine. That is why I am naturally drawn to “religious” art/design. Arabic Calligraphy is used to decorate mosques and illustrate the Holy Quran. I love the divine; that is what inspires my work. Arabic language typeface is extremely beautiful and there is a lot to learn, be inspired by, and it’s a joy to create!
What does it mean to be head designer for the Metropolitan Museum of Art? Tell us more about how that contributed to your business?
I was the first woman of color, Asian, minority, female, Indian, person to ever lead the design department of the Met. I also established the internship/mentorship program at the Met to help female students across the globe get internships who otherwise would have never have had the opportunity to work for one of the most well known museums in the world! I had a chance to work with 17 different curatorial departments expanding my knowledge and understanding of art traditions from cultures around the globe. By gaining this knowledge I was able to apply it to my business. My work is about educating and making a difference.
What’s it like day-to-day to run an artistic business? Are you creating all the time, or spending more time on behind the scenes business tasks?
It is very busy and one has to be very organized and alert. I would love to create all the time but it is not possible; in this day and age of the digital world much time is spent on social media, email marketing, answering emails, making sure vendor samples are in on time, etc. A lot of behind the scenes tasks, but I do create; my designs require a lot of research in addition to creativity so there is that aspect too!
Do you ever not feel creative and not feel like creating?
NEVER! Creativity is my life, I live and breathe it!
That is amazing– I can’t imagine feeling creative all the time! What do you most hope people get out of your art?
I hope to make a difference. I hope for folks to open their hearts and minds, and fight the negative stereotypes/biases they have been exposed to growing up. I hope for folks to see my art and learn something new and appreciate the diversity of this world!
Do you have any daily routines that help make you successful?
PUJA! (Hindu prayer rituals, every day, different deities for different days) and the gym, I get a workout in everyday! Keeping your mind and body strong, full of compassion, gratitude, and kindness are keys to success!
Any future plans for the business that you can share?
I’ve launched a new collection with my best friend, award-winning designer/artist Shauna Ericson. Combining her fashion expertise, my graphic design/illustration/educational background, we are about to launch a new collection of apparel and accessories with luxe fabrications!