For this month’s artivist feature, Brown boy spoke with Sam Madhu, a self-identified “Jack of all trades, master of none” artist who borrows visual elements from Hindu mythologies and reimagines them in cyberpunk worlds.
Drawing from the legacy of Afrofuturism, Sam initially categorized her collection of work under the label of #Indofuturism. Scroll through to trace her journey of growth towards becoming India’s leading dystopian artist.
I think the entire world has been constructed in the image of a white man.
Everything we know is because of white-male-patriarchy. It’s just been controlling everything for so long. Futurism—for people of color—and all of the cyberpunk is so white and male-oriented. So Afrofuturism is a big, huge deal for someone like me.
Unfortunately, because of white, male patriarchy, we do have these boundaries in South Asia.
And I think the kind of futurism that will exist in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka is very different from India—in the near future or far future even. It’s actually more utopian because they are managing their affairs better. Bangladesh and Sri Lanka…they’ve done differently. It’s not like exploiting people, which I think is happening here.
Here in India, It’s a very difficult thing to be born as a middle or lower-middle class, or poor person. Your life is a constant struggle. It’s waiting in line for a system—a queue—that is endless. India is now a major economic power. But if you actually look at the people, there is poverty everywhere. So it’s such a paradox.
I’m not able to make an accurate prediction about Pakistan. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I did go to this—I went to the border—and they had this flag ceremony between India and Pakistan and like, yeah, it was cool. I mean, it’s just cool to see. Each side was screaming. Indians were playing Bollywood music super loud and Pakistan was playing their music super loud. They were competing. So they’re both still similar, you know? But I don’t know much about Pakistan.
And it sucks. I have friends who have Pakistani parents who want to visit India and they can’t because of these crazy passport laws. These laws are archaic and they need to go. You have a mother who was born in Pakistan so because of that you can’t come to India…? It’s super crazy stuff.
See…I don’t know. I find that this is a tricky question because what Pakistan and India have in common is they’re both motivated by religion at the end of the day. And I think that when any society is motivated by religion, it’s walking on a thin line. So I don’t know. And also being in India, I don’t know what happens in Pakistan because that information is so restricted to us.
Even me talking about this right now, it’s giving me a little anxiety because there are so many drastic changes happening in this country that…I don’t know.
It’s very unclear what will happen. I’m sorry if I didn’t answer your question perfectly.
It’s just, I’m also confused as to what the answers are. Because we’re going to a place where constant surveillance is a reality, and freedom of speech, as we know it…I don’t know how long that’s going to exist. It’s probably nearing its end. But I know that there’s a lot of people here who are super committed to saying exactly what they want. And that’s amazing.
I do think my work—especially my work showing the cityscapes with the giant gods and the giant figurines and governing statues—I think those are actually already happening in India. They are constructing these massive god statues and I think they will continue to do that as symbols of power and symbols of surveillance.
For it to actually come true is not the best thing, but I think it will come true. And I make that work because it’s not really a future everyone wants to see, but the images I make in a fantasy world could be something beautiful—but in reality, maybe they’re not. I think my work is super open to interpretation.
For me, dystopias are not necessarily negative. It’s just reality. We’re living in an overpopulated world where we have strong men trying to control governments.
That, to me, is reality. It’s not actually cynicism or pessimism.
Dystopia to me is more realistic than a utopia…if that makes sense.
Utopia would be possible in a country like the Netherlands where there are fewer people, and everything is easy to control, and people stand in lines. In a country like India, that’s not very possible. We have a different kind of utopia here and a different kind of happiness here.
People find happiness here in small things. A lot of people feel like they might have difficult lives, but they are just so used to it that they have this inner strength that is, I think, a sign of strength you can only find in countries like India. Just the strength to keep going and to keep fighting and to keep living another day.
I don’t think of my work as exclusive or having boundaries at all, because I don’t believe in those things. I think of myself more as—and I hate this [term], but—a global citizen. I’m just a little molecule. I don’t think of myself as a country or whatever. My work is making a shift from being very rooted in Indian-ism to more about living in the world and having some Indian elements. Before my work used to be about being in India. Now it’s not so much about that.
I think all of us are deconstructing just what it means to be a Hindu right now because there’s a lot of politics involved with it.
And that sucks because it has a lot of beautiful symbols, but there’s a lot of ugliness associated with history and the future. So in that sense, I completely understand that some of my work just might not be for a lot of Indians and that [response] is necessary.
All the symbols I use in my artwork, that look Indian or Hindu, are a direct product of nostalgia because I don’t see those things now…I see them in my memory, you know?
Like, everything I make is probably from something I remember. Because—even now, as India is more westernized—we see less and less of these traditional symbols. So definitely I think a lot of it comes from just past learning and nostalgia. I think I, and a lot of Indians when we look at Hinduism, see it as something to cherish from nostalgia because we grew up with all these symbols. But a lot of those symbols are painful to a lot of people who have been oppressed and whose families have been oppressed because of Hinduism.
With everything that’s happening here, such as with nationalism, I don’t want to be dependent on religion anymore to make my visuals. I’m trying to create a visual style that is not specifically Hindu, per se. But it’s difficult for me, too, because I’m in the process of discovering all these things. And I think a lot of Indian stuff is very psychedelic and looks psychedelic, and I think all of us have those genes we’ve inherited that have a certain kind of Kamasutra-type of psychedelic thing going on.
It’s easy to take a picture of a goddess and be like, “This is feminism.” But that’s the thing; it’s not anymore because a lot of Hinduism is rooted in casteism and a lot of symbols that we love and cherish could be harmful to other people. So I’m actually in the process of unlearning right now and trying to understand things that I probably never thought of before.
In the beginning, when I just took off and my work was on BuzzFeed and all those kinds of things, I thought then, Oh, I’m doing something different because it was all these kinds of younger women, like 18 to 24, that was really into the art. And they were like they were seeing it as symbols of Indian feminism and all those things, which back then made me feel like, Oh, this is empowering. But now, after spending time in India, I’m realizing there are so many layers to feminism here and empowerment. Mainstream Indian feminism has in many ways appropriated Dalit feminism. My entire perception of feminism has changed. And I don’t know if my work is empowering in that sense anymore.
Now my work is more about sci-fi, so in that sense, I don’t see too many Indian artists in the mainstream cyberpunk futuristic world. I think I am one of the few ones. So in that way, I feel good bringing my narrative to that genre. But in terms of empowerment and social activism stuff, I think my work is kind of taking a step back because I, myself—as an individual—am processing what empowerment even means now, because being in a country like this, where there are so many layers of discrimination, you have to really rethink those things.
I am someone who teaches myself a lot of different things, like video editing, VFX, Illustration, and 3D but I’m not a super master at any of them. I just like to spread my wings and have more knowledge rather than focus on one thing. I just kind of like to do everything! Yeah, so I consider myself like Jack of all trades, master of none, because of course all my work is digital, but it’s hard to classify myself as an illustrator or graphic designer.
All of us are creatives doing different things. ‘Project Asura’ is just all of us kind of coming together for projects. It’s just like a cloud studio, I like to call it. We become an agency when required, otherwise, we’re all living our lives. But if we get a project that needs all of us, we—kind of like the Power Rangers—come together.
Asura is a demon from South Indian mythology. So I just thought it would be cool to use that because I’m from South India. ‘Sur’ means ‘good,’ and ‘asur’ means ‘not good.’ But it doesn’t mean you have to be evil. It’s tricky because it’s like ‘Asura’—it’s not good or bad. It just what it is. You can be neutral but still have subjective views of different things. Because what is good-ness, right?
An exclusive standing-room-only crowd, dressed in dazzling colors and shimmer, packed SONA — an upscale South Asian restaurant in Manhattan — in February to celebrate queer love and allyship in the desi community.
The event, ‘Pyar is Pyar’ (which translates to “Love is Love”), recognized the landmark bipartisan legislation that President Biden signed into law in December: the Respect for Marriage Act. The event raised $168,000 to support Desi Rainbow Parents & Allies, an international nonprofit that provides peer support and resources to LGBTQ+ South Asians and their families.
Maneesh Goyal, founder and partner of SONA, organized the event with Shamina Singh, the founder and president of Mastercard’s Center for Inclusive Growth. Both Goyal and Singh are openly queer South Asian leaders and thanked the crowd that evening for their support of other LGBTQ+ desis.
Opal Vadhan and Gautam Raghavan from the Biden/Harris Administration read a letter from President Biden to commemorate the event.
“Jill and I — and Kamala and Doug — hope you have a wonderful night celebrating our nation at our best,” Biden wrote. “May we all carry forth that American promise of freedom together. May we also know that love is love — and pyar is pyar.”
“The work that you do to become visible and powerful, to form narratives, to change minds, and to make people feel something about a cause for equality — that is incredibly important,” Raghavan added, before introducing Vaibhav Jain and Parag Mehta, a same-sex Indian couple that got married in 2019 in Texas.
“They denied us because we are a same-sex couple,” said Jain, who grew up in New Delhi. “This is a violation of the Indian constitution, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex; so we filed suit.”
“Parag and I are hopeful for a positive verdict. If our case wins, it would bring marriage equality to nearly 1.4 billion people across India,” he continued. “Just to put that in perspective, the total number of people today who live in a country with marriage equality is about 1.4 billion. That means our cases together could double the global population of places who live in a place with marriage equality.”
“We need a mechanism to help build allies in our community and to help provide the support that LGBTQ people need,” Mehta added, encouraging people to donate to Desi Rainbow.
Rayman Kaur Mathoda, Desi Rainbow’s board chair, challenged allies to put their dollars behind their vocal support. Her family announced a $50,000 donation to the organization’s ongoing work.
Founded and led by Aruna Rao, a straight cisgender mother of a transgender adult, the nonprofit has served more than 2,000 LGBTQ+ South Asians and their families since 2020. The goal is to serve 10,000 in three years; a million in the next 10 years.
Mathoda, a wife and mother of four, recalled how painful the lack of family and community support can be.
“For most of us who come out in the desi community…coming out is still a negative experience,” she said. “It is not a moment of pride. It is a moment of shame.”
Mathoda thanked all allies in particular for making the road easier for queer South Asians. To find the love and acceptance they want and need.
“Take what you want//Take everything” reflects on a time with my partner and our cat, Layla. It’s a retelling of the chaotic night I adopted her. I didn’t know why Layla hid from me. When I chased her around, it scared her more. “Take what you want//Take everything” juxtaposes our first night, filled with misunderstanding, with the rest of the time we spent together. My fond memories call back to the loving moments Layla and I shared.
Such memories defined us; they reverberated in my partnership. I wonder if my partner, like Layla, only remembers her fear of me, over our shared moments of love. The title, a Kanye West lyric, is an acknowledgment that their happiness together–without me–destroyed my sense of self. When I see their photos, I wonder if I can see myself reflected in their eyes. I wonder if they still keep kind moments of our time together.
I remember when she would look at me from behind a laundry basket.
A small simple cat with green owl eyes. She was afraid of her new home and its owner. Shit, I remember the night I got her, she hid under my bed, in the middle just out of my reach for maybe 6 hours, watching me. She didn’t eat anything the entire day. When the night fell I was afraid she’d starve or come out and attack me. I was just scared. I didn’t have a childhood pet, I’m not white, I didn’t know what to do. I picked up the whole bed and yelled that she needed to move. I chased her into the closet with a vacuum cleaner. When she ran in, I called my lover and yelled to her that she wasn’t helping enough, she needed to be there to help me. That was our first day together, me and that cat. No one will ever have that memory but me and maybe her.
It was during Ramadan, my first year fasting.
Our problems had already begun by then. Enough so that I decided to fast and show retribution. I’d try to change into a more patient and understanding self. Like the Prophet (SAW) I guess. To become someone that my lover could feel safe around. Somehow, getting a cat felt like it fit into that picture. I’d be a cat dad, you know, gentle. We’d raise her. I’d fast and become New Again. Maybe I’d wrap an inked tasbih around myself and show I’m a man of God.
I don’t know how a cat remembers fear any more than I know how a lover does.
I know her body stored it. My cat’s must have stored it too. That first night, I wish I could tell her that I was afraid too. It doesn’t make sense that I was afraid really — I’m bigger, more threatening. We don’t speak the same language anyway, so how could I ever tell her? She learned to trust me though, in her own way. Her small bean paws would press on my chest in the mornings. She’d meow to berate me for locking her out some nights, or when I was away from home too long.
She lives with my lover now. They share photos with me, they’re happy together.
I saw my lover once, it was on 55th and 7th, Broadway shined blue performance lights over us. She wore a red sacral dress. She said her mental health has never been better. I think she was trying to tell me that she’s doing well, because she knows I care for her. I don’t think she was trying to say she’s happier without me. We don’t speak the same language. I actually think they are happier with just each other. And I loved them both, so it hurts. Sometimes, not all the time. And it doesn’t always hurt that bad. Other times it does get pretty bad, though. I probably owe it to myself to say that.
I look back at the photos, the ones of our life together, and the ones of their new life.
Two green owl eyes, and two brown moonlit eyes. I look for myself in them.
Passion is something many claim to have, but few truly possess. Whether it’s hobbies, professions or romances, it’s the secret ingredient we all crave but is quite difficult to come by. But on meeting Chef Devan Rajkumar — aka Chef Dev — it takes just a few moments to understand true passion. For the Indo Guyanese chef from Toronto, passion has always been food and its power to connect, nourish, excite and represent.
Whatever the outlet, Rajkumar feeds his mission to bean ambassador for modern, West and East Indian cuisine. I recently sat down with him to talk about this and the experience of bringing Indo Caribbean flavors to South Asia and beyond.
Feeding a passion for food
“The sights, the sounds, the aromatics. The excitement of the kitchen has just always appealed to me,” he began. “Food moves me in a certain way. I want to nurture and nourish. I’ve just always wanted to do for others.”
As he sat back in a ‘Guyana vs. the world’ tank top, Rajkumar’s energy was palpable.
“I’ve always lived and breathed food, all day, all night. Like I’m talking about food right now. I’m constantly talking about food.”
To Rajkumar, food is education — one of the best (and most enjoyable) ways to learn, teach and explore the world — and he credits his older brother Jai for inspiring this mindset. Jai was the first to introduce him to different cuisines, teach him to be curious about the world and show him how to challenge the norms of a “typical brown kid.”
Despite this encouragement, however, a culinary career wasn’t Rajkumar’s first instinct. The son of a businessman, he initially jumped around universities and career paths. He also struggled with substance abuse and grief after Jai’s passing. Through all the challenges, food remained a constant, and the sense of community it created was a powerful draw.
“At a very young age, I recognized how food made me feel if I was in a bad mood and how it made others feel,” he shared.
He’s always looked forward to sitting around a table with friends and family, enjoying a nice meal, and how everybody could share their stories or just forget their troubles.
“Food is a very powerful vehicle for transporting someone.”
In 2009, Rajkumar finally followed his passion and joined a culinary school. He realized he had a knack for creating this experience for others.
“I realized I had the power and the gift to nourish and nurture someone else in this way,” and it became irresistible.
A cook with no boundaries, Rajkumar didn’t want to limit the number of people he reached to just those in Canada.
For many, success in the culinary world is having a thriving restaurant, but after spending six months opening one with The Food Dudes in 2015, Rajkumar realized this route wasn’t for him.
“I wanted more culture,” he explained. “I wanted to learn and not so much get my ass kicked, but to be a sponge. I knew I needed to travel to broaden my horizons.”
So he did. Rajkumar spent months cooking in India, London, Peru and Dubai. He shared his experiences on social media and people back home took note.
“When I returned to Toronto,” he continued, “that trip had established me as a cook who had no boundaries. As someone who wasn’t afraid to explore and get out of their comfort zone.”
And get out of his comfort zone he did.
“From catering to a pop-up abroad to filming ‘Cityline’ and speaking engagements, every day is different,” he explained. “I’ve had my bouts with imposter syndrome, but ultimately, I’ve gotten to make more of an impact than just opening a restaurant.”
That impact has especially been prominent in South Asia.
Rajkumar embraces not only his Caribbean culture, but his South Asian roots as well.
The temple he grew up in was a blend of Guyanese and East Indians, so he knew foods from a typical Guyanese household like alu curry and saijan but also East Indian favorites like dhokla and malai kofta.
“Ultimately, we came from India,” he declared. “I embrace the culture and I am very comfortable leaning back and forth into it. It’s in me. It’s who I am.”
In fact, Rajkumar noted his career became much more defined and successful when he really began to identify as not just a chef, but as an Indo Guyanese Canadian chef.
Hearing this, it was no surprise that Guyana, India and Pakistan stand out as some of his favorite destinations.
“Guyana is hugely impactful for me,” he shared, having visited his parents’ homeland frequently. “As soon as that door opens [at the airport], you smell Guyana. You smell the sugarcane burning from rum factories. I have all these wonderful sights, sounds, smells and flavors from those trips.”
His sentiments for India are similar.
“Incredible India is incredible India,” he referred to the country’s tourism slogan. “Every 100-200 kilometers, the menus can change completely. I can live in India for the rest of my life and never see it all.”
Rajkumar’s first trip in 2020 was only nine days long, but its impact stayed with him.
He couldn’t have been more excited to return for a month, earlier this year, and host what his friends there dubbed the “Mad Love Pop-Up,” after one of his signature sayings.
He filled the menu for the 18-day event with global dishes like ceviche and scotch eggs but infused them with West and East Indian flavors like masala, jerk and cassareep — a rich extract of the bitter cassava native to Guyana. Before he left, he even prepared Guyana’s national dish of pepper pot, a hearty meat stew, for the staff meal.
“My whole thought process was ‘let me give these people — my family there — an experience they’ve never had before,” he detailed. “Any time I give someone pepper pot or cassareep, they’re just so shocked. It’s so unique.”
Rajkumar is always excited to share the flavors and culture of Guyana with new people, but with his roots in South Asia, bringing them to Pakistan was that much more profound.
“In India, maybe it’s different, but in Lahore, most people don’t know about Guyana or where it is. That’s another reason why I did this. That’s why I do all the things I do. That’s why I’m wearing this tank top — to raise awareness about my culture and how beautiful it is,” he said.
Time in South Asia has also helped Rajkumar gain a deeper appreciation for the origins of many Indo Caribbean dishes and reinforced his love for them.
“Guyanese cuisine doesn’t just have Indian influence, but so many dishes in some way, shape, or form come from there. Like when I’m eating sada roti, I can tie it back to which type of flatbread it came from in India. I feel like a better-equipped chef at the end of the day. I’m more connected to my Guyanese roots and to the culture overall.”
Rajkumar wants to foster a deeper understanding and relationship between both heritages. He wants his food to build connections, not disparity.
Bringing the world back home
Rajkumar has visited over 20 countries, but Pakistan remains one place he’ll cherish his entire life. He is grateful not only for the opportunities he’s had there, but also for the chance to offer a fresh, alternative view of the country from what is often shown by the media.
“When people saw me posting content from Lahore, they were like, ‘Oh my God, this is Pakistan?’ This is not what we expected. This is not what we thought we’d see.’ They were shocked at how beautiful, kind, and welcoming everyone was.”
Reactions like these are Rajkumar’s ultimate goal.
A cookbook is due next year. He has aspirations of launching merchandise and cookware, traveling to South East Asia, and continuing his pop-ups, but ultimately, he concludes,
“I just want to stand for something. I want to continue to learn, remain humble, represent my Western and Eastern cultures and spread mad love. I want to be an ambassador to that world and be someone who’s dedicated to his craft, bettering himself and those around him.”
“I just want to continue to grow as a person,” he added with sincerity as he touched on his sobriety and what it’s taught him about achieving your goals.
“That might sound cliche, but it’s new to me. I’ve spent the last two years learning about myself and being vulnerable about how I feel, my healing journey and what I’m going through. If I excel and continue to invest time and discipline in that arena, everything else around me will flourish. I believe that goes for anyone.”
Rajkumar is going far literally and figuratively, but no matter where he lands, you can be sure he’ll bring something back for his supporters, whether it be a new view of the world or a concoction like a ceviche pani puri on one of his menus.
“That’s my travels to India, Pakistan and Peru all in one bite!” he exclaimed.
Chef Dev’s journey has not always been an easy one, but it’s a powerful example of the success one can taste with hard work, embracing authenticity and following true passion.