Choosing instinct, passion and compassion over the ease of conformity, eight trailblazers tell us how they chose to live free.
What does freedom mean to you?
Hyderabad-based Nishat Fatima, 41, knew she wanted to be a photographer ever since she picked up an SLR in college. In July 2015, she quit her top job at a national magazine and took up photography full-time. She’s also written two books, the uproarious Seriously Sitara? (Hachette, 2013), and Suneet Varma (Niyogi, 2013), which traces the designer’s journey through photos and interviews. “Nobody has the road map to your freedom. For me, it used to be the courage to follow my dreams. But now, I think it might be the ability to rise above my fears”
Shilo Shiv Suleman has been in the news as much for her stirring art as she has for her distinct sense of style. She refuses to be tied down, both in life and in her practice. Suleman, 29, based in Bengaluru, currently runs the organisation Fearless Collective, where she paints with marginalised and underrepresented communities around the world—from transgenders in Pakistan to refugees in Beirut. “Freedom means returning to our source, to our origin and flow. It isn’t an untethering as much as it is a union. I try to live outwards from my heart, stay fearless and love more. To live free is to live your most potent dream.”
Few figures have polarized Indian pop culture over the last few years as drastically as Sunny Leone (born Karenjit Kaur). From her adult film past, to that infamous 2016 interview with Bhupendra Chaubey, to Bollywood, and now a web series, titled Karenjit Kaur – The Untold Story Of Sunny Leone; her metamorphosis is inspiring and unfettered by boxes. In July 2017, Leone, 37, and her husband, Daniel Weber, adopted a baby girl from Latur, and named her Nisha Kaur Weber. In March 2018, they welcomed their twin boys— Asher Singh Weber and Noah Singh Weber—via surrogacy. “The chance to express myself in whatever way I feel is correct in that moment, as long as I’m not hurting someone or cheating them—is freedom. It is also the ability to make my dreams a reality.”
Nature is one of Sahar Mansoor’s great childhood loves. The other, her father, passed away when she was young. Being as close to nature as she could (her family vacations, when she was little, always involved the outdoors) became her way of maintaining her connection to him. In 2016, the self-confessed environmentalist started Bare Necessities, her zero-waste lifestyle company that makes everything from compostable bamboo toothbrushes to stainless steel straws and even all-natural detergent. For Mansoor, 27, it’s all about encouraging an earth-friendly way of life. “Being authentic to yourself and living a lifestyle that’s congruent to values you care about.”
Photograph: Neel Bhupathi
Once a runway regular at fashion weeks, Tamara Moss, 30, left it all behind and moved to Jaisalmer in 2015, where she runs Sunflower Learning Centre, a school for the children of the Kalakar Colony basti, and Kalakari Project, which seeds women’s self-help groups and nurtures entrepreneurs. Both ventures aim to provide those with lesser means (especially women) access to literacy and a chance at all-round development. “Truth is freedom. When you are ready for the truth, know that it will set you free and help you discover yourself. That’s what it did to me. It is a revelation and revaluation on what humanity and love is”
Currently at School Of Visual Arts, New York, where she’s doing her BFA in illustration, Tara Anand has used her artworks to become an Insta-star. Her colourful reinterpretations of some of Indian history’s most badass women, like Nagamma and Rani Velu Nachiyar, eventually saw Anand, 19, collaborate with writer Aparna Jain on her latest book, Like A Girl: Real Stories For Tough Kids (Westland; on stands), where she created the visuals for the chapters on Razia Sultana (Delhi’s only female monarch), Dalit feminist Tamilian writer Bama, and boxer Mary Kom. “It is the power to make choices without being hindered by external or internal forces; of having agency and being able to triumph over circumstance.”
Ignatius Camilo, 40, left the cacophony of Delhi and Mumbai for Goa in 2009. Since then, he founded the nightclub Cirrus (where he still performs), runs a commune that focuses on organic living, owns a record label (Gandu Records) and even has a kitted-out mobile sound machine called Vinyl Ambulance that allows DJs to tour and play in various locations across Goa. If there was ever a poster child for eschewing the mainstream, Camilo is it. “To be able to be myself and live how I want—without fear; that is freedom.”