Chila Kumari Burman on South Asian representation and challenging stereotypes

·4-min read

Artist Chila Kumari Burman has spoken about the importance of South Asian representation and challenging stereotypes about Indian women that still exist in popular culture.

The mixed media creative, whose neon installation inspired by childhood visits to the Blackpool illuminations currently adorns the outside of the Tate Britain, said she was inspired by her father for her latest work.

Burman, who has previously transformed a tuk tuk and an ice cream van with embellishments, has turned her attention to an SUV car for her latest project, to coincide with the launch of the Netflix film The White Tiger.


The film, an adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s Booker Prize-winning novel about the cultural tensions of modern-day India, stars Adarsh Goura as Balram Halwai, a poor villager who rises to be a wealthy entrepreneur after he lands a job as a driver for a wealthy couple, played by Rajkummar Rao and Priyanka Chopra Jonas.

It arrived on Netflix on January 22 and Chopra Jonas has said it has since become the streaming platform’s number one film in 64 countries and is set to be watched by 27 million households in its first four weeks.

The car is covered with decorative vinyl and adorned with Burman’s signature neon, including a large white tiger on the roof, and the artist told the PA news agency: “When I saw the film I was just blown away.

“I had similar experiences with my own dad, he never went to school, lived in villages and he went from Calcutta Dunlop to Dunlop in Liverpool because he was fed up of the way the bosses were ordering him about.

“Like Balram he wanted to become an entrepreneur and he met a guy in a pub who had an ice cream van and he introduced my dad to the ice cream trade so my dad became an ice cream man and bought his own van with a tiger on top.

“In a way there is a parallel running through of experience so I loved it.”

She added: “Balram is kind of like a philosopher, he’s very bright, and I’ve always thought that about my dad, I used to think if he had been given more opportunities to travel the world he probably would have done it and he’s set me free because he wanted me to feel that I wasn’t encased in anything and for an Indian girl to be set free and not have to become a doctor or a lawyer or anything like that…a lot of these are similarities.”

Chila Kumari Burman with Inkquisitive, who has also created a car installation (Ian West/PA)
Chila Kumari Burman with Inkquisitive, who has also created a car installation (Ian West/PA)

Chopra Jonas has previously discussed the film’s importance in helping drive forward representation for South Asian people in global cinema, and Burman said: “That is why this movie is brilliant because it’s really reaching out to a broader Asian diaspora, the south Asian diaspora, more than any other film I feel.

“Bollywood films are still not doing as much as could be done, but this has got a global representation of South Asian people, even TV and films in Britain there is still a lack of representation of south Asian people, and in international films, but I think this is balancing it a bit more,

“Priyanka in it has a feminist aspect to her, challenging Ashok’s dad and brother and exactly what us women, even in India and everywhere, that is what we are doing now, especially with the Me Too movement and things like that.


“So I feel like it’s brought that up in front, to see that women are not going to take any more crap.

“All my work, especially my self-portraits is about challenging stereotypes and assumptions of Asian women, I’ve been doing that since I was at art school since the 70s and 80s.

“I’ve always been concerned about challenging stereotypes and there still are stereotypes the fight is not over yet, there are still lots of inequalities between men and women and that is all women, all of us are stereotyped as women.”

The White Tiger is streaming on Netflix now.

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