We’ve all encountered them in our lives; tried to dodge their questions about our impending marriages and their determined attempts at pinching our cheeks, but with no luck. They’re on Facebook approving our profile pictures and on instant messaging trying to fill us in on the latest gossip or stuff our faces with sweets when we visit their homes. They’re the omnipresent aunties we come across on our streets, at family functions and even while grocery shopping. Toronto-based Meera Sethi has been documenting them through a Tumblr project called Upping The Aunty.
It all started when Meera Sethi was having dinner with two Indian women. “We began talking in ‘aunty-speak’ (using words and expressions that our aunties use) at which I made a pun that we were ‘upping the aunty!’ That’s where the idea began,” she says. While she was growing up, Meera was surrounded by her aunties: at family parties, dinners, pujas and weddings. “They were a constant and important presence in my life. My aunties were there with endless, inappropriate jokes, teachings on tradition, the occasional admonition or intrusive question, and of course, plenty of food! Upping the Aunty is inspired by my own aunties and their fabulousness.”
To the uninitiated, who is an aunty? The term brings to mind a sari, salwar or even a kurta-jeans clad woman who is roughly around our mother’s age. “Aunty is a strong cultural motif for South Asians where any woman at least a generation older becomes an aunty. There is a trend in street fashion photography to capture (stylish) folk out and about in their everyday wear. I began this project as a way of challenging how we understand street fashion and, through this, honouring the role of our aunties, particularly in the South Asian diaspora,” she explains.
Her Tumblr, Upping The Aunty, celebrates the elders in South Asian communities, and their role in passing on social and cultural knowledge. It acknowledges aunties in their colourful cotton saris, wearing oversized retro sunglasses, and carrying tiny handbags on their daily routine. It also showcases those in richly embroidered saris, decked up with jewellery for a wedding, showing off mehendi patterns till their elbows. In short, Meera pays homage to them.
“With this project,” the 38-year-old says, “I am curious to know what motivates the clothing choices our aunties make, and how this shifts across borders and life histories. I carry my camera with me and shoot if I see someone I find interesting.”
Does she scout for particular locations? “I did a lot of this in Mumbai, particularly at the Gateway of India on Sunday afternoons, where aunties would come all dressed up for a day out. Mumbai being a cosmopolitan and busy city, there were aunties from all over India; both travellers and locals. I am currently in the process of photographing aunties in Toronto.”
A full-time visual artist, Meera migrated to Toronto from New Delhi when she was two years old. She makes it a point to carry her camera wherever she goes and plans to look for aunties in the cities she visits. One of her most memorable encounters with aunties was at family weddings where they would dress in drag (as men) and perform songs. While her life as a professional artist began unexpectedly, Meera says that she is drawn to the cultural, political and spiritual lives of diasporic South Asians “and the hybridity of our identities as expressed through what we wear. It is a curiosity about my own life history that extends outwards.”