Indian-American musician and actress Monica Dogra has made her mark as an independent artist and activist in India over the past few years. Popularly known as Shaa’ir, or the poet, Monica has acted in six feature films and released several independent songs. Popular for hosting one-of-its-kind Indian music-documentary series, The Dewarists, Monica came to the limelight for her performance in director Kiran Rao’s debut film Dhobi Ghat (2010).
However, taking on the spotlight was never a cake-walk for the 37-year old.
In 2016, when Monica was attending the Femina Awards, she got her hair done by a professional, but did not have enough money for a cab. Monica had to take a rickshaw to the red-carpet. “I later read that fashion bloggers and reporters tagged me as the sweaty and messy new-comer,” says Monica, during a conversation with MAKERS India.
Born and brought up in Baltimore, Maryland, moving to India was never a conscious decision for Monica. She wanted to visit the country, write music, and then go back to New York. However, she ended up falling in love with her music partner, Randolph Correia, and the duo formed a band, Shaa’ir+Func, and went on to release five studio albums.
Although Monica was initially interested in slam poetry, Monica soon started being identified as a musician.
An Accidental Rebel
Monica’s family had two narratives of the Partition of India. Her mother was born and brought up in a traditional Brahmin household in Jammu, and her father was born in Delhi, but all his siblings were born in Pakistan. Monica’s was the first generation of Indian-Americans.
Monica’s parents separated when she was a child, and her mother left when Monica was 12; so she was mostly raised by her father.
Once her mother left, Monica’s father was heartbroken and she constantly reminded him of his wife. “He didn’t like me singing at all. By the inheritance of patriarchy, for him, women played a specific role. He did not support me in becoming a musician. But I wanted to please him, be a good girl and make him happy,” Monica recollects.
Being an Indian-American, Monica was expected to do the usual, which equalled studying Medicine or Law, and things that had a proven path to success. But she never wanted to do any of the things that she was ‘expected’ to do.
“Being a little girl, going through puberty, not in touch with my mother and being raised by my father, I had a difficult time growing up,” she says.
Monica practiced ballet for eight-years but was later declared ‘too chubby’ for the dance form. The whole complex, paired with her father’s expectations, created a lot of imbalances in her system and Monica remembers to have started dieting at the age of 12.
During high school, Monica went through depression, stopped attending classes, and failed a semester. It would have been an issue while applying for college; but she explained her journey in the college essay and that worked out in her favour. Monica has a Bachelor's degree in Musical Theatre from New York University.
Making her Own Luck
Although Monica went to NYU, her family was not financially well-off at that time and they had to sell their house. Monica started bartending and waiting at tables to buy herself food and pay college fees; but that did not help much.
She was kicked out of college every 10 days and because she couldn’t pay her fees, her name was scrapped off the system.
Monica borrowed money from friends and had to befriend her professors and the officials who collected the fees, and convince them to put her in the system. “I once borrowed money from my roommate’s parents so that I could attend my graduation. On my way to college, a man grabbed my purse and tried running away. I followed him for three blocks, not caring if he stabbed or shot me, because it was my last opportunity to graduate from college,” she recalls. Of course, Monica got hold of the man and her cheque, and she did graduate from NYU.
She is now a part of NYU’s esteemed alumni list.
Following her Call
After college, Monica moved to India at the age of 22. Monica has been a performer at many firsts in India - including the Sula fest, NH7 Weekender, and Sunburn festival. She had fame but no money to pay her rent.
“I never wanted to be a singer. But when I realised that people were listening to what I had to say, I clarified that I am going to write music and perform it. Once I did that, the right people showed up to give me the next show. I had to be brave enough to take the risk and needed to be okay about upsetting people. The more I examine the history of my heroes, the more I understand that it is the universal story. Someone who has paved the way or broken the momentum of their family tree has been a black sheep and stood against what was expected of them and understood that you may upset people, but your success will make them smile eventually,” Monica says.
Breaking the Silence
Monica wants to leave the world as a little better place. She believes that men should understand that patriarchy is for real and that women should break their silence more often. “We must mindfully interact with each other in the digital space and not get excited about bringing people down,” Monica says.
Monica confesses to have been paid way less than her male counterparts, almost 99 percent of the times, in Bollywood. She believes that we need to create a world that has equal opportunities for all, and feminism, like philosophy, has to be woven into the way we operate.
She believes that homogenisation is a disease and we should diversify until diversity is not a word any more. According to Monica, feminism is about making up for the lost time - for the times when societal and cultural disadvantages in the system have pulled women down. Signing off, she quotes her favourite artist Ani DiFranco:
“Feminism is not about equality, it is about reprieve.”
(Producer & Editor: Urmi Chatterjee)