Behind the Scenes of the “Revolutionary South Asian Woman Project”

BTS Of The Revolutionary South Asian Woman Project
Credit: Priyanca Rao Photography. Photographer: Gopika Sidhu

When I clicked on the landing page introducing her project, I was immediately brought into a sumptuous world of magazine worthy rich blacks and opulent greens. I saw familiar faces, including Narmeen, who had spent a career on TV in New York as well. 

Priyanca Rao is an award winning photographer, but she decided some time ago, that she had something more to say. Each year, both as a nod to her heritage and as a storyteller, this photographer dedicates herself to one special project.

Last year was the essay of a fish monger in Mangalore. 

This year’s project is more “See what you can be.” Indian parents have famously endorsed three professions: Doctor, lawyer, engineer. But as the tectonic plates are slowly shifting, Rao decided to capture the “DJ,” or “Journalist” or “Podcaster.” 

This is where I came in as a nominee for the project.

Joya getting photographed
Credit: Priyanca Rao Photography. Photographer: Gopika Sidhu


“Come dressed in one black outfit,” was the first instructional. No dearth of those in my New York closet. I chose a Reiss sweater dress, with an off-the-shoulder sleeve.

“Then bring an outfit that shows off your personality.”  I thought about this for a long time.  My identity is complex. My mother is from Calcutta. My father is from Myanmar. I was born in Pennsylvania and have made New York City my home for the last 27 years. Who am I?

I finally chose to pair a floor length red satin skirt that was part of an Indian outfit once with a high collar red blouse from Tuckernuck. 

It’s the right blend of East and West. Sabyasachi meets Carolina Herrera.

That’s me.

Joya getting photographed laughing
Credit: Priyanca Rao Photography. Photographer: Gopika Sidhu


What industry do you work in? 

Women’s Leadership Development

Describe yourself in one word.



What’s your story?  

I am a product of a home of domestic violence. Very early, I ingested ideas on what it meant

  • to be a woman (second class citizen)
  • what it meant to be a woman with a voice (hitting)


I’m a product of what my grandmother whispered into my mom’s ear. What my great-grandmother whispered into my grandmother’s ear. What my great-great-grandmother whispered into my great-grandmother’s ear:

Reward for self sacrifice and service. Not having an opinion. Not having a voice.

I grew up, making a conscious decision, to craft a living using my voice I became a news anchor. Today, I don’t have a relationship with the women who came before me, listed above. Call it collateral damage for breaking the cycle

Joya and Priyanca checking photos
Credit: Priyanca Rao Photography. Photographer: Gopika Sidhu

Does your culture influence who you are?  

I have bucked against it rabidly.
I left home at 18. Everything “Indian” had a negative connotation, given my home dynamic. I wanted a shot at normal.
At 30, I bought a plane ticket to Calcutta by myself. I wanted to reframe what it meant to be “Indian,” The version that was spoon fed to me by my parents couldn’t be the only one that existed.  In the City of Gods, I visited art galleries. I visited the fish markets. I walked the bylanes of Kumartolly where the Durga is sculpted for the festival season, only to be put out to sea. I went to the mountains. I went to the desert. I went to the seashore. 

I walked away recognizing that India was as complex as I was.
Joya and Priyanca checking photos on the camera
Credit: Priyanca Rao Photography. Photographer: Gopika Sidhu

What makes you special?  

I can take a “nothing” and turn it into a “spectacular something”
See video.

What is something you are currently working on for yourself?  

Joya posing for the camera
Credit: Priyanca Rao Photography. Photographer: Gopika Sidhu

The Goal

Priyanca will shortlist 15 from all the shoots for a gallery exhibit, so all the incredible participants can meet each other.

She also hopes to print a special edition magazine titled ‘Revolutionary South Asian Women’ with both stories and portraits. She hopes to pitch the project to Photoville as a story on ‘Incredible South Asian Women’.

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