‘Daddy’s girl’, a badge daughters of doting fathers wear with pride. In parenthood, fathers usually don’t take the limelight, but a child knows, when their father plopped them on his shoulders it gives the child the courage to see the world.
Debasmita Dasgupta, an illustrator by passion, brings father–daughter stories to the world.
Debasmita is a mass communication graduate, who specialised in communications for non-profits. She’s worked for prestigious international bodies like Oxfam and the United Nations. She’s now based in Singapore, where she works with the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF).
In 2010, she came across Katha, a publisher based in Delhi, and luckily enough, got to know the founder of Katha, Geeta Dharmarajan. 2010 was incidentally the 150th birth anniversary for Rabindranath Tagore. Geeta wanted to come up with a series of books to mark his birth anniversary; the idea was to show how contemporary Tagore’s writing were. Debasmita says, “Geeta asked me – Why don’t you illustrate for one of those books? I told her that I would love to do it and I did it! You know, you work with so many organisations and you always are looking out for an opportunity to contribute from something of your own.”
After that one time, Debasmita then continued to illustrate as a freelance illustrator for many organisations, and she continues to do that for many non-profit organisations even today, despite a full time job.
“But something happened in 2013,” Debasmita says with a smile.
It was a TED Talk by an Afghani woman, Shabana Basij. Shabana grew up in Afghanistan during the Taliban regime. In the TED talk, Shabana talks about how girls were not allowed to go school during that regime. But it was Shabana’s father who gave her the support and courage to continue with school. He told Shabana, “The Taliban can take everything from you, but not your knowledge.” Shabana went on to complete her schooling, pursued her master’s degree from America and now she’s back in Kabul, where she runs a school for Afghan girls. Had it not been for her father, Shabana would have never been able to tread the path she finally chose.
The talk struck a chord with Debasmita, who is very close to her father too.
“2013 was the time when the heinous crimes against women like the Delhi gang rape were in the news. Subsequently, there were women empowerment groups that were formed. Working in the development sector for so long, I felt that why not involve men in that positive dialogue? There are positive stories like that of Shabana that also need to be told. I’ve also worked in the media, so I know that most of the time negative news does ‘better’ for media. I thought, I should do something about it. I illustrated Shabana’s story and posted it on Facebook. It was an impulsive reaction. I found Shabana’s contact details and shared the illustration with her. Shabana was so touched that she forwarded it to her students, and then I started getting emails from a lot of other Afghan men! The emails were note of thanks and said this was the first time someone was trying to showcase Afghan men in a positive light.”
Debasmita was flooded with request for illustration from Afghanistan and she thought to herself, “If there are so many positive father–daughter stories in Afghanistan, just imagine the positive stories across the world?” Debasmita, now on a mission, began looking for stories. And stories started looking for her too, “You know, getting a story in your inbox from a stranger, a story that is close to someone’s heart and they want to share it with you, it’s a different and magical feeling all together.” Thus, My Father Illustrations was born.
We immediately ask her about her father, and the daddy’s girl says, “I draw inspiration from him. He’s a simple man and I come from a middle class family. He had a government job and he was also into theatre. He’s retired from his job, and even at this age, he’s taken up theatre completely. When I was a child, he always told me that these ‘rat races’ in life are not important, it doesn’t matter what if you come first or not. He used to be a sportsman and he used to tell me, when you run as an athlete, the most important part is actually complete the race even if you don’t come first. No athlete ever stops running even when he knows he’s not going to win it, else they would be disqualified. For you also, life is like that, you must complete everything you start.” As a young child, Debasmita absorbed these lessons from her father like a sponge and now realises the positive impact it has had on her.
Started in 2013, ‘My Father Illustrations’ is all about bringing these positive father–daughter stories to the world. There is another reason that motivates her. Thought this project, she wants to encourage fathers to fight for the rights for the girl child. Even though she is flooded with requests, some from fathers, and some stories that she hears through a lot of non-profits she works with, she never says no to a story. She adds, “Every story is special and needs to be told. I look for ordinary people with stories to tell because celebrity stories are still available for people to find, but these ordinary stories are more important. I always look for stories from villages and underprivileged backgrounds.”
Debasmita has told over 150 stories from 36 countries through these illustrations! “I didn’t want to focus on just one region. These stories are universal and need to be told to everyone.”
With the understanding that the online audience is limited to a certain extent are with the desire to reach the masses, ‘Doodle with Dad’ came about. Debasmita explains, “You have to reach out to community and ask – What are your stories?”
Doodle with Dad are sessions that Debasmita facilitates physically, where fathers and daughters come together to create a part of their story together. She adds, “It’s not just about bringing fathers and daughters together, but using art as a medium of communication.” NGOs and NPOs such as Magic Bus and Leher in Mumbai have helped Debasmita carry out two Doodle with Dad sessions successfully, reaching out to these fathers and daughters who are not a part of the online reach.
At the very beginning, Debasmita had her reservations about the success of the initiative. “I was a stranger, I was asking them about their stories, and would they even want to tell me? And over that I was calling them on a Sunday!” But the programme was a roaring success. “I was amazed. These fathers have so much love and respect for their daughters. They want their daughters to get educated, march ahead in life, and want to stand strong as a pillar for their daughters,” she says.
When Debasmita encouraged fathers to draw with their daughters, she laughs and tells us. “I said once, it shouldn’t be that just the daughters are drawing, you (fathers) have to do it as well. And then you literally see them taking over from the daughter!”
We ask her about a father–daughter story that is extra special to her. She tells us that all of them are equally special. We prod her a little more and she says, “Well, all are. But this one is so different, also because my work with international bodies exposed me to this truth. This girl, was trafficked from a village in West Bengal to Mumbai. When I was working in India, I worked a lot with the survivors of human trafficking. One of the main issues is that once the child is rescued, even then, the family doesn’t take her back because of societal pressures and taboos. I always wondered if there would be a father who would take their child back because it wasn’t even the child’s fault. This girl who was trafficked to Mumbai, her father fought hard to find her, he left his village and went to Mumbai, worked with the Police, and was finally reunited with his daughter. But the father isn’t going to rest. The father said – my daughter had a beautiful smile, and till the time the people responsible for the trafficking are not put behind the bars, I won’t rest. I know it will bring that smile back on my daughter’s face.”
Debasmita plans to tell father–daughter stories through illustrations all her life. “When I illustrate, I smile with these father and daughters. I focus on the facial expressions to bring these stories out.”
If you have a story to tell, reach out to her on the My Father Illustrations Facebook page. Cheers to the fathers who are their daughter’s first heroes!