April Vignette : Nisha Vickraman - A Woman's Best Friend

When we shot and interviewed our April Vignettes last month in Bangalore, we had no idea how completely everything was about to change, with terms like lockdown, isolation and social distancing becoming a part of our everyday vocabulary. Now, in the midst of this bewildering crisis, however, it is a joy to look back on this edition. We hope it brightens your day and brings a smile to your face as you stay home and stay safe with your family… Meet Nisha Vickraman and her beloved Labrador Simba in Kanakavalli’s April Vignette. In a delightful conversation with Aneesha Bangera of The Kanakavalli Journal, Nisha talks about the unconditional love of a pet, and about Simba’s illustrious career in film. Despite a demanding job as a software engineer, Nisha makes time for a range of creative pursuits—from playing the guitar and painting, to baking for dogs, travelling and reading. She believes that these activities stimulate her imagination, offer her new perspectives, and sharpen her analytical skills. Nisha opens up about being a woman in technology and about the ways in which her mother has inspired her. For Nisha, family and friends are her world, and beauty is being comfortable in your own skin. Taking the time to browse through Kanakavalli’s repertoire of kanjivarams, Nisha curates a selection that reflects her multifaceted personality. Excerpts of the conversation below…

A Woman’s Best Friend

Tell us about your love for animals, and how you found your dog Simba...

Animals have been a big part of my life ever since I was a child. My mother grew up with pets, so she encouraged my brother and me to care for the animals around us. She taught us that if you’re kind to animals, they will be kind to you. We became friends with all the dogs and cats and birds we encountered. Our street dogs, who we fed every day, became our body guards, accompanying us home if we returned late after tuition or basketball practice. We almost always had injured or rescued animals temporarily living with us. We took in squirrels, pigeons, cats, and once even rescued two eagles. We usually nursed and cared for whatever creature needed help, until it could be released again. When we had to say goodbye, my brother and I would cry our hearts out. The desire to have more ‘full-time’ pets was always strong though, so we finally relented and got a pair of cockatoos (because just one would get lonely!). That didn’t last long, because after a week we felt sorry for the poor caged birds and set them free. We’d almost completely given up on having a pet when, in April 2013, our lives changed forever. My mother and I came home from a wedding to find that my brother had adopted an adorable 30-day-old Labrador puppy. And that’s how we met Simba.

Above (clockwise from bottom left): Floppy the husky who was a visitor at Nisha's home; Nisha with Panni the cat on their weekly trip to Cubbon Park; Simba at Cubbon Park; Simba and Angel with their puppies; Feeding a tiger cub in Bangkok was an amazing experience, but Nisha says she is now more aware of how zoos treat their animals to attract tourists.

What is Simba like? How would you define your relationship with him?

Simba is the most adorable and gentle being. He is always sensitive and has a flair for the dramatic. He is a big foodie and is always hungry—no matter how much he has just eaten, he always wants more. Simba loves being around animals and people. Ever since he was a puppy, we’ve taken him everywhere with us and he is very well socialised. This is especially helpful when we are fostering rescued animals—Simba is very accepting of these houseguests. He is exceptionally tolerant of puppies, even when they annoy him, biting his ears and jumping on him. With us he acts like a baby, but with younger dogs he is incredibly mature. He behaves differently with different people, adapting to situations and moods. He can sense when I’ve had a bad day, and will seek me out with a toy to distract me. In our house, Simba is very much a part of the family. I’m referred to as ‘Simba’s sister’ and our house is named ‘Namma Simba Mane’ (our Simba’s house)! We have lived here for 20 years, but our neighbours now only recognise us as members of Simba’s family. He is very popular in the neighbourhood, and he has more fans and friends than any of us. Simba has taught us what it means to love unconditionally. We might have our differences, but we always come together for Simba’s sake. It requires a great deal of effort and commitment to care for him, but he is the glue that holds our family together, and it is worth every moment. Simba is an important part of every festival we celebrate. On Ganesh Chathurthi, my mother makes sugarless kadubu for him. On Christmas, he is always dressed as Santa Claus. When I was planning my wedding last year, the first criterion for our simple temple ceremony was that Simba would be allowed to be there. We finally found a temple that was quite far away, but having Simba was my priority and he was by my side right through the wedding.

Above (Clockwise from bottom left): Simba dressed as Simba the lion for Halloween; Simba's family and fans at the Naanu Mathu Gunda film premier; Nisha dressed in a sari and posing with Simba; Simba all set to tackle Bangalore's monsoon in his rain gear; Simba the chihuahua and Simba the Labrador sharing secrets.

How did Simba become a celebrity? Tell us a little bit about the films he's acted in and what the experience has been like for you?

My brother Varun and his friend Swamy run a pet training institute called K9 Gurukul, and a few years ago they received a call from the Malayalam film director Anjali Menon. She was looking for a Labrador for Bangalore Days. Anjali watched Simba’s audition video, and hired him immediately. Simba is very comfortable with humans, and the actors found it easy to communicate with him. So much so, that what was meant to be a two-day shoot was completed in just four hours. People started calling Simba a ‘one-take artist’! After his first film, Simba made guest appearances in several others—Mr. Airavata with the actor Darshan, Gultoo and Shivaji Surathkal. In his latest film, Naanu Matthu Gunda, Simba plays the lead role of Gunda. This was a very demanding film, because the director expected a range of emotions. All credit goes to my brother Varun, who constantly came up with new tricks. Varun is very good at using positive reinforcement to teach Simba, and is consistent and committed. Simba totally stole the show, and the actors joked that they needed to work harder to match their canine co-star’s performance! In this movie, Simba set a record—it’s the first time a dog has dubbed his own voice in Indian cinema. Thanks to Simba’s shooting schedule, we got to travel to beautiful places all over Karnataka. It was also exciting to see how the film industry works. As a result of this film, I managed to tick off one of the things on my bucket list—watching a movie with Simba at a multiplex cinema. Watching the premier of the film on the big screen with Simba was one of the most overwhelming experiences—I was so proud! Considering the limited time we have with Simba, this film feels like a precious gift to me and my family.

How did you find yourself working in the software industry, and what has been your experience as a woman in tech?

I have always been fascinated by computers and building solutions has been one of my strengths, so software engineering seemed a good fit for me. After I graduated, I got placed in the right organisations, and my career kicked off. I’m the kind of person who likes to explore every angle of a problem, starting from the basics. I was able to progress quite quickly: within the first four years I got to play almost all the roles in a software developer’s life and I was soon leading a team. I am very self-motivated, and I’ve been fortunate to work with some of the most technically proficient people in the industry. I’ve always made a conscious decision to work with companies that resonate with my values. SwissRe, where I currently work, is a very inclusive, equal-opportunity workplace that supports diversity and the LGBTQ community. I’ve always had the influence of very strong-minded women, from my maternal grandmother, to my mother and my aunt. My mother has been and always will be a pillar of strength. She was a homemaker while we were growing up, but while I was in high school she began to teach yoga. She might not have a corporate background, but the way she has dealt with challenges, and the risks she’s taken have inspired me constantly. If I can be even half the woman she is, it will be an achievement. I was raised with the same opportunities and resources as my brother. As a woman, I never expected any special treatment when I started work. I am hardworking and that is the single reason I’ve been able to excel in my roles. I believe that as women we sometimes doubt our abilities and avoid taking on projects if we feel we don’t know enough. I see our male counterparts in the same situation just going for it, hoping to learn what they need to on the job. And this is something I’m trying to teach younger women in tech through mentorship programmes—to take opportunities when they come, and to trust yourself to figure it out. We live in a world where everything is so agile, and things are constantly changing. As women, we need to adapt, take guidance and feedback from others, and have faith in our abilities. I truly believe that when you explore the unknown, you can really work wonders.

Above (clockwise from bottom left): A team outing to Belur; Nisha with her colleagues; Celebrating her birthday at the office; Nisha says she finds support in her friendships with a tribe of successful women

Tell us about some of your creative pastimes and hobbies. As a creative person, how do you approach your work in IT?

I have a varied range of hobbies. I learnt how to play the flute in school and went on to teach myself how to play the keyboard and guitar. I also started drawing and painting without any structured lessons. I love art, and I love colour. I enjoy recycling projects, making the best out of waste. I love giving gifts to people, and they are almost always handmade and recycled. Another hobby of mine is baking, and ever since Simba came along I’ve been baking for dogs. I take orders and use healthy, pet-friendly ingredients. I’m an avid reader, and read across genres—from Enid Blyton to Harry Potter to Stephen King. I think this is why I have a somewhat overactive imagination, which helps in my art projects. The book that inspires me most is Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead—it’s about living life on your own terms and this is something that resonates deeply with me. Travel and exploring new places are important to me. When I turned 30, I started travelling more, and decided that for every birthday I needed to leave Bangalore on a new adventure. My hobbies might seem varied, but they are closely connected to the way I work. They help me clear my mind and improve my concentration. Whether I’m playing a new tune on the guitar or experimenting with a recipe, I have to create something new and am forced to think quickly and on my feet. This has a huge impact on my analytical skills. Art helps me see different perspectives, paying attention to detail.

Above (Clockwise from bottom left): Nisha's first melted crayon experiment; A special cake that Nisha baked for Simba's sixth birthday with chocolate cupcakes for his human friends; A scene featuring Panni the cat and Simba in oil pastels; Nisha with her first guitar, named Henry the 1st; A birthday cake for one of her clients, a Rottweiler named Tyson.

What do family and friendship mean to you?

For me, my family is my world. And I believe that friends are the family we get to choose. I have a set of very close friends, who are always there for me. My family and friends help me stay positive in a world that can be difficult and competitive—through the hard times as well as the good. When I’m with them, I’m the best version of myself. My husband Karthik and I were close friends for years before we decided to get married. We realised that we were very compatible—it was easy being around each other and most importantly, we both loved animals. We decided to take the next step, and had a simple temple ceremony with close friends and family. Incidentally, I wore a Kanakavalli sari!

Above: (top) Nisha and her husband Karthik imitating the scene on their wedding invitation that she designed; (bottom) Nisha and Karthik on their wedding day.

How do you define tradition and beauty?

For me, traditions are the values that are passed down through the generations. These could be simple things like your great grandmother’s recipes, or they could be behaviours and thoughts that you learn from your family about faith and freedom. Traditions need to constantly adapt and evolve as the world changes. I think beauty is being comfortable in your own skin. It encompasses and is a reflection of your values. Beauty is how confidently you can be yourself.

What is the role of the sari, and the kanjivaram in particular, in your life?

I’m not someone who wears saris often, but for special occasions I always choose a sari. Therefore, every sari I own has a story behind it, and for every significant event in my life, I have a sari. The sari is something I share with my mother. She taught me how to drape it and even today, she always adds the finishing touches. I think the kanjivaram is the epitome of elegance. I am intrigued by the effort and skill that goes into its weaving. When I think of the kanjivaram I always think of Kanakavalli, and I have my aunt Viji to thank for that. She was an early customer of Ahalya jewellery, and introduced me to the brand. I was struck by the softness of the silk, and by colours that I had never seen anywhere before. I used to think silk saris would be heavy and stiff, but I find Kanakavalli kanjivarams easy to drape and comfortable.

What's the story behind the sari you've chosen for the Vignettes shoot?

This is the sari I wore for my wedding. When I walked into the Kanakavalli store to find my bridal kanjivaram, this was the first one I saw. I looked at many others, but ended up buying the very first one that caught my eye. On my wedding day, as I was marrying my favourite person, I wanted to wear a sari in my favourite colour—purple—and adorned with my favourite pattern—circles!

(Nisha is wearing a gorgeous ink blue kanjivaram shot with green and dotted with chakaram motifs in rich gold zari. Patterns in gold zari adorn the ink blue border and pallu shot with pink).

- Nisha Vickraman, in conversation with Aneesha Bangera, photography by Raghuram Vedant.

View Nisha's accompanying guest curation here. 

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