Sangeetha Kowsik is a calligraphy artist and designer, the Hindu Chaplin of New York University (NYU) and the founder of IhsanIshan Designs. Urban Asian spoke to Sangeetha about her initiative in starting IhsanIshan Designs, a luxury fine arts and design studio at the forefront of promoting unity between Hindu and Muslim cultures. Learn more about her identity, vision, and role as a female entrepreneur in spearheading this one-of-a-kind design studio!
This story is part of Urban Asian’s Women’s History Month series, highlighting female South Asian artists and creators who are making history now! This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What inspired you to become an entrepreneur?
I have worked for numerous companies and gained immense working experience and knowledge. Therefore, using my creativity and business skills, I aspired to build a brand that would showcase lesser known facts that are not shown in the media. I wanted to create dialogue, peace, and understanding.
What was the inspiration behind creating IhsanIshan Designs?
I am Hindu, Indian-American and I am an Arabic/Islamic Calligrapher. I had my first solo Arabic Calligraphy Art Exhibition at NYU last year. I serve as the Hindu Chaplin of NYU and the Imam of NYU is one of my closest friends. I launched my brand to go with my exhibition. My designs educate this world about unknown stories, peoples, and languages. It brings together diverse groups of people and creates understanding, peace, and unity. I combined my working experiences in museums, the world of fashion and beauty, and faith. Faith inspires and guides my work.
Why do you believe it is important to encourage unity of cultures and religious understanding in the community? More specifically, how do you think IhsanIshan Designs promotes unity between Hindu and Muslim religions?
In today’s divisive and rather uninspiring culture, it is important to have conversations and remember that we [South Asians] all share more in culture, history, heritage than differences. The world tends to forget that India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, parts of Iran were all one land before colonization.
My designs educate and spotlight the same ideas/concepts/shared cultures between Hinduism and Islam. It is important to educate one another to fight negative stereotypes and foster appreciation and understanding for religious faiths!
Subhanallah Tabla The inspiration behind this T-shirt was that the Tabla is a shared instrument – played in both Hindu and Muslim communities. When constructed in India, the instrument’s black middle is worked on by Hindus and the leather outer is constructed by Muslims. People in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Nepal, Iran all play this instrument!
Subhanallah Finger The concept behind this T-shirt is that both Qawwali (Devotional Music of Islam) & Bhajan (Devotional Songs of Hinduism) singers, extend their pointer finger up in the air. It symbolizes: God is One, From Heaven to your Heart God is there!
What is your definition of unity? Describe some ideas or experiences where you have witnessed unity (e.g. music, art, etc.)?
My definition of Unity is to accept others who are different than you (whether its religion, upbringing, work, lifestyle, walk of life, etc.) with love and respect. In South Asian classical music, especially Hindustani, many Hindu and Muslim musicians perform together. Some of the greatest include Ustad Ali Akbar Khan (Sarod), Ustad Zakir Hussain (Tabla), Pandit Swapan Chaudri (Tabla), Pandit Ravi Shankar (Sitar). Ustad Ali Akbar Khan performed the ground breaking ceremony in 1984 at the Shiva Vishnu Temple (the temple my father and his friends built) in Livermore, California. I had the pleasure of visiting the Ali Akbar Khan College of Music, their logo is the Hindu Goddess Saraswati – goddess of music, knowledge, fine arts. Music is worship and knows no religion! Coincidentally, my name Sangeetha means music in Sanskrit!
What is your educational background? Did you always see yourself becoming an entrepreneur?
Do you consider yourself a social impact entrepreneur? If so, how are you transforming today’s culture?
Yes, I do consider myself a social impact entrepreneur. IhsanIshan‘s art and design aims to foster dialogue and s bring together diverse communities through the art of calligraphy. Thereby, I am promoting peace, unity, understanding, and friendship.
I am transforming today’s culture by teaching folks that each IhsanIshan piece has a story and the design concept behind it aims to educate the world about the unique richness of ancient traditions and cultures.
What is the most important thing you have learned from establishing IhsanIshan Designs?
That the world has more similarities than differences. If we truly sit still and listen really listen and watch we can learn from each other. God only gave us one mouth, but two eyes, two ears, two hands to watch, hear, and create! Also it is important to spread joy and positivity, when the world is enveloped in darkness!
What is your favorite type of music? Type of art?
I love all types of music. My favorite bands are Smashing Pumpkins, Beastie Boys, Soundgarden, Rage Against the Machine. I also love devotional/classical Hindustani and Carnatic Music. My favorite singers are Lakshmi Shankar, M.S. Subhalakshmi, Rahul Vellal. I love Qawwali, Nusarat Fateh Ali Khan being my favorite. I love Bollywood songs.
I love all forms of art. I had the honor of working for one of the greatest art museums in the world, the Metropolitan Museum of Art – where walking into work everyday was a dream!! I enjoy painting, sculpture, jewelry, and textile art in all its forms from all over the world. I love architecture, especially houses of worship. Some of my favorite places are the Blue Mosque in Turkey, Brihadeeswara Temple in India, Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. Houses of worship are incredible because not only do you see the physical art on the wall in space but also feel the immense love the artists felt creating for the divine!
Where do you see IhsanIshan Designs in 10 years?
I see it as a well established design house continuing to produce designs that showcase the beauty of this world inspired by various cultures, religions, and unique stories.
What is your advice for entrepreneurs starting a business?
Do your research and stay positive. There will be setbacks and challenges, but surround yourself with folks who uplift you, stand by your side at your darkest moments, and inspire you! Get advice from others but listen to your own heart and make your own decisions. It’s your business, your company, your life at the end of the day. Do what makes you happy and uplifts you!