Creatives like filmmaker Krishan Sharda, musician Priya Ragu, and record label owner Naina Sethi are breaking from tradition to become the inspiration they didn’t have growing up
For many kids growing up in South Asian households, ‘success’ went hand-in-hand with academia. Often, the only route to acceptance within Asian families and communities started with good grades in school, and ended with a prosperous career as a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. Near enough anything else was at best questioned, and at worst, frowned upon entirely – especially when it came to art and creativity.
Societal and familial pressures still continue to this day. Creative minds feel pressured to study subjects at university they have little to no interest in, and apply for jobs they don’t want, all to keep their families happy. “When are you going to get a real job,” is a question heard way too often when people break from the norm. And then there’s the marginalisation which underpins the creative industries. Excluding the IT sector, just 6.5 per cent of creative and cultural industry workers are non-white.
However, there is a growing community of Asian trailblazers rising up right now, who are carving out a space for themselves and others within the creative industries, and in the process providing so many young Asian people to break free from convention and the pressures they face from older generations. “Traditions are really powerful and important, but they also do not control or navigate your models or life,” says Krishan Sharda, a filmmaker who became intent on going his own way after seeing films like Apocalypse Now as a kid.
Here, we speak to a number of Asian creatives doing things their own way, and understand how they deal with familial and societal pressures – with Always Protected Publicity CEO Aarti Popat, who looks after clients including Unknown T, M Huncho, and Nafe Smallz, to Feather Pendants founder, jewellery designer Kush Shah, and DJ, broadcaster, and record label founder Naina Sethi among them.
KRISHAN SHARDA, FILMMAKER
“My dad showed me Apocalypse Now and [introduced me to] The Clash before I was even a teenager, which were the early seeds to my creative mind. A lot of my journey is half me and half my dad. He was an Indian immigrant growing up in England during the 1970s digesting the punk, rock, reggae, and filmmaking movement of the time.
Even though it probably wasn't the smartest financial or academic decision, I left school at 17 to pursue work as an assistant on film sets, and my parents were always super encouraging. Traditions are really powerful and important, but also do not control or navigate your morals or life. When I stepped into the film industry, I was the only person in the room with my face, culture, and accent. Anytime I met someone from a fellow minority, we always banded together and knew more faces like ours would enter the game.
It’s already a very male dominated industry so to have Brown & Black peers, especially female ones, is always really empowering. A lot of companies pretend to be diverse on the front but still have zero equality behind closed doors. I make sure with all my work and projects behind the scenes and on camera we are diverse, unique, and powerful. I feel the times are changing fast and hope by the time I’m making my own feature films, the crew will be diverse in race, gender, and identity.”
ISHA SHAH, FREELANCE PHOTOGRAPHER AND LECTURER
“My biggest motivation is myself and my family. Do what you want to do not just to prove them wrong, but also prove yourself right. It can be hard to understand that your family is coming from a ‘what's best for you’ mindset, but showing them that what you're doing is what’s best for you is the biggest glow-up. Invite them to your shows, send them links to your exhibitions – only then will they see the value in your investment in yourself.
Even after three years of being freelance full-time, I was getting ‘Have you got a real job yet?’ – it was a lot to hear constantly. As a freelancer my family may not see what I'm doing in the creative industry. I am changing it by creating opportunities for myself and others. I am here to BUILD a legacy and leave it for other South Asians to take over. Working in a white dominated space, I’m always going to stick out and it’s not to do with my fashion choices! I always get so gassed when I see another Brown person on set and in reality it’s sad to think that’s something to be excited about because it’s so rare. It would be ignorant to ignore that base fact that racism is dominant in the industry, I face some form of it at nearly every job I do.”
“Staying true to myself has not come easily – you cannot change your circumstances but you can take back your power. We are taught to put everybody’s needs before our own; to keep up appearances but you can and should prioritise your own happiness” – Zain Shah
ZAIN SHAH, CONTENT CREATOR
“I never told my family [I wanted to pursue] a career in the creative field. I know what it’s like to have parents that have a vision for their child and can’t see past it. Part of my growth has been about taking accountability for my choices without feeling the need to seek out validation from my family. Staying true to myself has not come easily – you cannot change your circumstances but you can take back your power. We are taught to put everybody’s needs before our own; to keep up appearances but you can and should prioritise your own happiness.
One thing we don’t discuss enough within Asian households is mental health. If you feel the pressure of upholding traditions at the risk of your own well-being, the best advice I can give you is to talk about it. You have to be your biggest hype person. You offer something that no one else can. It’s easy to sit and ponder what you could achieve but the only way to uncover your potential is to start creating. Take a chance on yourself.
Many of us have to work twice as hard to breakthrough, due to the lack of opportunities and tokenistic attitudes towards diversity. True inclusion does not yet exist and so most of the time I find myself to be the only Asian person in creative spaces. Whenever I’m on set I typically ask to bring along my team of creatives because I feel so much more comfortable around queer – or queer-friendly – Brown and Black creatives that understand how common racism, micro-aggressions, and misgendering can be.”
POOJA POPAT, CREATIVE AND DIGITAL MARKETER
“I was always scared to take the ‘non-traditional’ route and pursue a job in the creative field – no one in my family had ever done it, so it was a big step. I feel very blessed that my family has always been super supportive of my passions. My mum especially always goes above & beyond for us. When I was 16, I wanted to get into photography but never owned a camera – my mum went into her own savings and bought me my first camera. If it wasn’t for that moment, I wouldn’t be here doing what I do.
Our comfort zones limit us and when you have a true passion, trust it and let it drive you. Connect with other South Asians in the industry and don’t be afraid to ask for help. It’s so important to network across the board and learn from each other. Also remember that what’s yours will never pass, it’s a beautiful time to be a South Asian in the creative industry. It makes me so happy to say that there are now so many South Asian Creatives I look to for inspiration.”
NAINA SETHI, DJ, PRESENTER, BROADCASTER, AND RECORD LABEL OWNER
“I know a lot of people will have received backlash from their families. For me, it was different. I feel like my parents had learnt from my older sister, who took a more academic route, and decided to give me complete freedom [when it came to] what I wanted to do with my life. My parents have backed me the whole way, and even to this day – my mum is my biggest fan. She has always told me to follow my dreams because life is way too short. The best things in life come from the big risks you take.
For a long time I've been the minority within creative spaces. You get used to it, but that doesn't mean it's OK and should be accepted as the norm. I remember when I started at Reprezent, which gave me my first proper opportunity in radio, and I was really happy to see how diverse the pool of talent was there – more places need to be like that. There's certain instances where I have felt like I am there to tick a diversity box which is wild. I’m really good at what I do. Credit me for that, not to make your own company or platform look culturally diverse.
If I don't use my presence and the platforms I'm on to bring through new Asian creatives then what kind of example am I leaving for the next gen? We didn't have enough of that when I was entering the industry – I want the next gen to see examples of Brown people killing it in this scene, and have real role models. I have recently experienced other Brown creatives in the scene, coming up to me at a club or a rave and telling me how this recent shift has made them feel proud of their heritage. On one hand this is powerful and amazing, but it also shows the root issue that has long existed in the industry.”
“My creative career became a topic of a big extended family debate. It was actually a split with 3/4 of my grandparents, aunts, and uncles voting for me to go to university, get a normal nine-to-five job, and do what was expected of me. The other 1/4 of my family were all for risk-taking, coming from a background of starting their own business and realising that times are changing” – Kush Shah
KUSH SHAH, JEWELLERY DESIGNER AND FEATHER PENDANTS FOUNDER
“My creative career became a topic of a big extended family debate. It was actually a split with 3/4 of my grandparents, aunts and uncles voting for me to go to university, get a normal nine-to-five job, and do what was expected of me. The other 1/4 of my family were all for risk-taking, coming from a background of starting their own business and realising that times are changing and the ‘traditional’ path is not the only path you can take on your journey through life. If traditions are keeping you from being happy and exploring something that you desire then they should be broken. People may get worried or upset but trust me, eventually, they'll get over it. The best thing to do is to talk to people and explain your point of view. You'll learn more about yourself in the process.
In the creative industry especially, I feel like everybody was hiding and they're popping out now as it is the right time to do so. Brown is excellent and people are realising that more and more. If you're South Asian and doing bits I rate you! Including South Asian creatives in my work is something that I need to do more. I have a project planned this year that will be my chance to give back to my culture and shine a much-needed light on fellow South Asian creatives. I’ve never been made to feel uncomfortable – it's actually more outside of the creative industry where I've been made to feel such a way. I think it's because it's always been the fashion, music, and creativity that binds us together no matter who you are and what walk of life you're from.”
KIRAN GIDDA, PHOTOGRAPHER AND KILLA STUDIOS FOUNDER
“You have to do something that makes YOU happy and that YOU are passionate about as you’ll be the one doing it every day, not your family. At first my parents were sceptical, as photography wasn’t academic and just seemed like I was running away from studying. Once I started earning money, they warmed up to it and now are my number one supporters. There have been times where I have felt like I've been excluded, but I try to find myself working with other people of colour as much as possible.”
PRIYA RAGU, MUSICIAN
“I feel like I’ve created my own little circle of South Asian creatives. There are a lot of upcoming talented artists from the diaspora, like the lead singer from Norwegian band Karpe, and Raveena and Cartel Madras, who are all making noise alongside me and rising at the same time. I love working with South Asian designers, too, and would love to work with more South Asian dancers.
I did experience backlash [about going into music] from my parents. But there was a point when I just decided to stop telling them what I was doing until I got to a certain level, and then the music just spoke for itself.”
AARTI POPAT, CEO OF ALWAYS PROTECTED PUBLICITY
“I’ve been really blessed with a great support system in my family. Our parents grew up in an era where one path or job role was the norm and pushed on them but if you actually take the time to explain, a lot of them will understand.
I think it’s really important for us to shine a light on South Asians in the industry, because it really is the best way to get more of us in the mix. We are slowly building a community of creatives and it’s really positive and nice to see. There are so many of us coming together! Everyone in this shoot firstly, my sisters; Pooja & Janki Popat. Sureeta Nayyar, who is an incredible and under-appreciated A&R. Nikita Chauhan who has been killing it for years. Parissa and Tilly Parmar, Navi Alhuwalia at Hypebae, Puja Patel, who’s the editor-in-chief of Pitchfork, and so many more.”
"I think it’s really important for us to shine a light on South Asians in the industry, because it really is the best way to get more of us in the mix" – Aarti Popat
CREDITS: Creative direction and photography Karan Teli, Styling Sophie Cherrett, Make-up Sofia Paradis using KVD Beauty and Milk, Make-up for Zain Shah only Harriet Kabe, Photography assistants Ekene Aja, Goncalo Pedro, Styling assistants Gabrielle Brainard, Cindy Ni, Set assistants Khiszer Butt, Brandon Subanney