“Tell me the inspiration behind your work”, I said to Debasmita (Smita) Dasgupta .
She looked at me and smiled. Her eyes lit up as she began.
“I love my father.”
I waited for her to carry on. She excused herself for a while and came back with a large bunch of photographs of her and her father. She laid them gently on the table, her lively eyes softening as she raised each picture.
“I was seven in that picture… this was my first experience in snow… oh this was a funny one…”
I was looking to find out about the heroine in front of me. The story began with the hero in the picture.
Mr Dasgupta, a theatre actor and director, is a man who dares to swim against the tide. He encouraged his daughter to live boldly, he made sure she had academic training in school and education in life. He showed her what it was to love your family completely.
While she did well in school, her father wanted her to develop fully as a human. Young Smita enjoyed drawing and rather than pressure her to stop drawing and prepare for examinations in the highly competitive college entrance exams in India, he inspired her to continue doodling. “He never asked me to join the rat race. He just wants me to be human and walk on the side of truth.”
He is her rock, her hero.
She still uses her paintbrush today.
And her sketches have made her a heroine.
In a world that conflates destructive machismo with productive masculinity, not every child can claim to have a hero of a father. In the case of daughters the story is even more depressing in developing countries. “I have met people driving Ferraris, insisting that a girls place is in the kitchen, uneducated,” Smita told me her voice betraying a sense of righteous anger.
“Money can open many doors but not the mind.”
But her father’s humanity taught her this – stereotypes don’t tell the whole story. “A lot of fathers [even in Haryana and Punjab] want to go against [such demeaning treatment of their daughters] but there is so much social pressure on them to conform.”
“They need to be encouraged, to know that they aren’t alone in wanting to do good for their daughters.”
Her words caught me, my mind flashbacked to my schoolboy days when social pressure told us that the loud, brash, arrogant, nonchalant guy was what all boys should be to be a ‘real man’.
Individual experiences may be different but the common experience of social pressure does not change.
So when Smita came across an Afghan lady’s story of an extraordinarily brave father, she picked up her pencil and made some sketches.
That lady was Shabana Basij-Rasikh, and her father stood up to the Taleban to fight for his daughter to be educated.
Smita told Basij-Rasikh’s story through a comic strip and soon she received an avalanche of testaments from daughters all over the world sharing their stories of their heroic fathers, stories that have been immortalised in her sketchbooks.
“Why fathers and daughter though?”
She looked at me and smiled. That’s a question she gets a lot. “Because there aren’t enough people talking about fathers across the globe fighting to protect the rights of their daughters.”
In contrast, father-daughter stories are more often negative.
Smita wanted to celebrate authentic fatherhood, the father who works hard for his family, the father who builds his children up and protects his children, “I am trying to do my bit to give them a voice.”
It was this deluge of positive fatherhood stories that convinced Smita of the work of Fathers for Daughters. “Fathers are also victims of societal pressure, we need to give them hope,” that they can do right by their children.
She works on her illustrations every day. Sketches on a pencil get drawn over with a pen, scanned into a computer and further processed into their end product.
A piece takes weeks to produce.
The process seems tedious, “but I really enjoy it,” she said matter of factly as she continued on her computer.
There is something very beautiful in a genuine smile that radiates joyfulness into your soul.
I felt joy as I looked at that smile.
Her passion has seen her produce storybooks, mobile-apps and toolkits for children. She has also developed a father-daughter activity “Doodle with Dad” in Mumbai and the Netherlands with a Singapore event taking place this month.
The story of this heroine is also story of a father’s legacy.
Of what society needs fathers to be.
Because when men are allowed to differentiate masculinity from machismo and become the fathers they want to be, they leave the world a better place.
And Smita will continue encouraging them, one father at a time.
You can check out about My Father Illustrations on Facebook here.