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Desi Making Waves

By Rohina Phadnis

SENsational Tania Sen: From Durga to Dumbo and Back Again

Sen depicts the multi-faceted nature of the Hindu goddess in the work "Dilemma of Durga"

Brilliant colors smolder on a jet black canvas. A towering goddess Durga captivates those who walk by as they gaze up at the fiery figure. Portrait-sized figures of the omnipresent Ganesha turn the divine into the earthly – an innocent, playful child’s toy – and challenges viewers to reconsider how they view the celestial. Such creations are among the many that flow from the mind of Tania Sen.

With a charming smile and affable demeanor, Sen is an artist who draws on South Asian symbols and mythology to fashion amazing works of art. Her recent body of work challenges notions of symbolism and icons in Hinduism and explores different interpretations and sides to common views of deities. She is currently showing her work at an exhibit titled “Icons” at the Somerset Art Association in Bedminster, N.J. The show runs until June 1st.

Art and creativity have been the threads running through her life, both here and abroad. In India, she studied at the Birla Academy in Calcutta, where she had her first exhibit. The first painting she ever sold was to the daughter of the prominent Birla family. In the late 1980s, she made her way to the United States via the Manjushree Khaitan Foundation Scholarship. She earned her Master’s in Communication Arts and M.B.A. from New York Institute of Technology. She got her start in the Fashion District of New York, working on sketches, display pieces and samples. This was also the place where she honed her skills to make it in the Big Apple art scene.

Sen has found a way to blend her passion for visual designs with a balanced life at home. The married mother of two young daughters sneaks away time to create in her studio, converted from part of the family garage in their Central New Jersey home. From designing marketing materials for local performing arts studios to painting fairy tale-like murals for organizations, Sen shares her artistic talents with the community. Along with painting, she teaches autistic children at the Morris Union Jointure Commission in New Jersey.

How does she balance it all? On a sunny spring day, she stopped by the gallery to tell us how and share some tips for young artists trying to make rent.

What first sparked your interest in art?
I’ve always painted, ever since I was little. I was misdiagnosed with diphtheria. I was in a hospital, and my dad got me some colors and picture books and I started. Ever since then, I’ve drawn and painted.

What images or ideas currently inspire your works?
Symbolism is very rich in Indian culture—so much so that it's misinterpreted. Most people think it [Hinduism] has many gods, but it has many symbols. You can go beyond the tangible and procure the meaning. Religion is one thing that does tend to bring in fragmentation. Only when it is represented as unthreatening [do] people relate to it and try to understand the meaning of the symbol. These creations are very rich and haven’t been harnessed. My idea is that these symbols are so rich. I want to share it with everyone and not just keep it in a temple. In all of these paintings, I’ve tried to explore these symbols outside of context. We always dehumanize a symbol by putting it in a box…. [Goddess Durga] has her vulnerabilities as well—along with the strength, there’s vulnerability. It’s also to show Durga in a different light. My painting was not to limit the symbol as a [depiction] of strength.

This painting "Shiv Durga I (Oil on Canvas)" by Sen plays on the different notions of divine beings

Did you ever confront obstacles while pursuing a profession that is different from the “typical” South Asian ones?
You know, I’ve always gone forward expecting obstacles and been surprised by meeting very supportive people and a lot of very strong South Asian people as well. Essentially, if there’s anything that sabotages, it’s oneself. If you go in with a fear of sorts, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Do you pursue art full time or do you have another job as well?
To make it profitable, I do a lot of work for dance theaters…. I’m trying to get a feel for what they are looking for. I had this drawing of Coney Island [for the Somerset Hills YMCA in N.J.] and I incorporated what other people said, like to add Dumbo and the Little Mermaid. I work with the client and I come up with the idea. South Asian stuff, I do for myself. Being South Asian, I do yoga paintings…. It varies [in] themes. I teach autistic children, and I do the murals—one a year is what I’m aiming for—and I teach at Raritan Valley Community College, desktop publishing. The steady stream is from teaching.

What is your typical work schedule like for painting?
It’s very important to have a schedule. When I started, when the kids were younger, I used to wake up at 4 a.m. because that was my only personal time. It’s a continuous process. Sometimes, the thinking of the painting takes more time than the actual execution.

“Nataraaj” heats up the gallery with its fiery colors as part of Sen’s “Icons” collection

What type of people do you find purchasing your work? Do you get support from the South Asian community?
It’s actually no South Asian clients. It’s all mainstream clients. I think there’s a market there. I just haven’t gotten there. I’ve gotten a lot of positive reaction. Essentially, it could be anyone…. I had in mind an audience who would relate to the symbol.

What advice would you have for young artists looking to carve out careers for themselves?
Networking is probably 75 percent of the job. It would depend on where they’re coming from. If they don’t have to pay rent, I would say go with your heart. It’s an economic issue. You have to do what you have to do to keep yourself together. Make your living experience real. It takes courage to do that, but it makes your living experience more real.

More information on the show is available at

Rohina Phadnis is a graduate of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. She had written for a number of publications, including The Star-Leder in New Jersey. Most recently, she worked for the Salzburg Global Seminar in Austria.

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