DESI EROS: An arts-based phenomenological research project

DESI EROS is an arts-based phenomenological research project facilitated by Dr. Nisha Gupta, who explored the research question: “What is the lived experience of reclaiming erotic power among Desi women, in light of our cultural contexts and ancestral histories?” Phenomenology is a research method that produces knowledge about human experience by exploring how people live through certain phenomena, experientially and directly. Phenomenology collects people’s detailed descriptions of their personal lived experiences, in order to discover deep insights about the phenomenon under inquiry.

RESEARCH PROCESS: Nisha collected 6 diasporic Desi women’s descriptions of reclaiming erotic power–Shafina Ahmed, Roo Zine, Seema Reza, Mary Ann Mohanraj, and Samra Habib, and her own story. All participants are writers and artists whose work is devoted to exploring issues of sexual and gender empowerment among South Asian women. The writers’ identities are diverse in religiosity, ethnicity, nationality, and sexuality, with ancestry from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. Nisha engaged in a hermeneutic phenomenological data interpretation of each writer’s narrative to unearth core thematic meanings of reclaiming erotic power, as guided by Van Manen’s (1990) approach to phenomenological research. Then, she expressed these thematic meanings in the form of surrealist folk art paintings in the style of Frida Kahlo, with South Asian cultural symbols embedded in each painting. Nisha experienced a psychic decolonization of her South Asian American consciousness while creating this artwork: the symbolic images emerged by a transpersonal process of being intuitively led by Divine Imagination, which awakened deeper understandings of indigenous, pre-colonial South Asian cultures that she did not know before. This transpersonal research process can be considered a mystical route to knowledge production when framed through Hinduism’s epistemological notions of Atman and Brahman.  After finishing each painting, Nisha conducted research about the cultural symbols of each image and wrote essays that explicate these cultural symbols and the meaning of “erotic power” in indigenous South Asian cultures.

RESEARCH FINDINGS: The final artwork and essays aim to liberate and decolonize the meanings of reclaiming South Asian erotic power—many of which have been obscured by our history of being colonized by the British, whose traumatic legacy can distort our understandings of our own cultures, spiritualities, and sexualities. The study’s research findings demonstrate that reclaiming erotic power as Desi women means recovering the historical knowledge of our South Asian feminist ancestors, whose bold activism has battled for decades to end gender and sexual violence. It means reclaiming our spiritual embrace of reincarnation and resurrection, which gives us permission to constantly rebirth what it means to have worth as Desi women.  It means reclaiming the eroticism of our religions and spiritualities, allowing our faith to co-exist alongside our sexualities. It means reclaiming the power of deep feminine wisdom and knowledge, so obscured by patriarchal and colonial violence. And it means reclaiming the greater tolerance for diversity that existed in pre-colonial South Asia, particularly across our intersectional queer and religious identities.

CONTACT: Much community activism has been launched as a result of this project, using the DESI EROS artwork to facilitate community dialogue through workshops in collaboration with Desi and queer organizations in India and across the Diaspora. For questions, comments, or collaborations reach out to Dr. Nisha Gupta at ngupta@westga.edu or view her work at nishagupta.org

DESI EROS in the Media:

NPR-affiliate podcast “The Academic Minute”: “Art and Social Advocacy”

UWG News: “Psychology Professor Discusses Empowerment from Sexual Oppression”

Brown Taboo Project podcast: “S3E2: Reclaiming and Decolonizing the Erotic with Dr. Nisha Gupta”


Therapeutic Art Workshops

I am available to facilitate workshops in which I share the DESI EROS research findings and guide people to use arts-based phenomenology as a method of therapeutic art making around their own experiences of erotic power. Please contact me at ngupta@westga.edu for inquiries to facilitate an art workshop for your organization.