2023 ‘American Girl’ Kavi Sharma


Indian-Americans enhance popular culture with Mattel’s “2023 Girl of the Year”  

Kavi Sharma hero image. Photo: courtesy corporate.mattel.com

There is Bollywood and bhangra, the bindi, and big fat Indian weddings that symbolize the popularity of things Indian in America.

But when the toymaker Mattel introduced its latest ‘American Girl’ as New Jersey’s home grown Kavi Sharma, that’s a whole other level of fast-tracking assimilation into pop culture and the American consciousness – a consciousness that actually could begin at a very young age!

This is not the first time that Mattel has sought to feature an Indian-American – in 2019, Nalini Nadkarni, an ecologist at University of Utah, who helps design the Mattel line of scientist Barbie’s, got a doll in her own image, complete with her curly shoulder-length hair, custom accessories representative of her career, including a climbing rope, binoculars, boots, notebook and a helmet.

But the high-end ‘American Girl’ brand is coveted in a different way by children and parents alike – a keeper for generations to come.

I remember getting my daughter her first American Girl doll from the wondrous building in New York City’s iconic Rockefeller Plaza, when she was less than 10 years old. And it felt great to find a ‘brown-ish’ skinned one even though the hair was lighter than what a brown Indian girl would actually have.

The American Girl is a cornerstone in the Mattel (NASDAQ: MAT) portfolio of “purposeful brands” as the Wisconsin-based toy manufacturing giant says in its press release.

Rina Shah, founder of AUM Dance Creations, told Desi Talk she worked with American Girl for the last 14 months creating their first-ever South Asian Girl of the Year doll which launched on Good Morning America on Dec. 29.

“I was an advisor on this project and helped to bring this doll to life!” Shah said. “I’m so proud to say that our South Asian girls now have a doll like them. One that happens to live in NJ, loves Bollywood dance, loves Broadway, and gracefully balances her two worlds.”

Students from Rina Shah’s AUM Dance Creations, a dance school in New Jersey, performing at the launch of ‘Girl of the Year 2023’ Kavi Sharma, Dec. 29, 2022, on the Good Morning America show. Photo: courtesy Rina Shah

Kavi Sharma joins the company’s long line of contemporary characters, introduced more than 20 years ago, that represent a wide range of backgrounds “to reflect what it means to be an American girl today” the company says.

And there is a meticulously crafted story behind every American Girl. So, as much as she is a stereotype, Kavi Sharma is also representative of qualities expected to be part of an Indian-American girl’s life.

New York Times Bestselling Author Varsha Bajaj. Photo: Twitter @varshabajaj

To create Kavi’s story, American Girl worked with New York Times bestselling author Varsha Bajaj (Thirst and Count Me In).

“Kavi Sharma, the first South Asian American Girl Doll of the Year is here! Shine on Kavi!!! #RepresentationMatters #SouthAsian,” tweeted Bajaj on Dec. 29, 2022, with the Good Morning America link, garnering more than 20,000 hits.

However, as Today.com noted, while Kavi is the first Indian/South Asian Girl of the Year 2023 for Mattel, there was an Indian girl, Sonali Mathews, who was the companion doll to the 2009 American Girl of the Year Chrissa Maxwell.

Kavi’s Story

Living in a close-knit Indian American family in New Jersey, Kavi Sharma is only a short train ride from her two favorite places in the world: New York City and Broadway! – so the story goes, and a book to help you know her. And it took more than a year to develop that story.

American Girl’s ‘Girl of the Year 2023’ Kavi Sharma in her Bollywood dress. Photo: provided by Rina Shah

Rina Shah recalls that American Girl got in touch with her as far back as Nov. 1, 2021. “It was incredible working with them to try to create the perfect representation. For me it was incredible because these are the girls in my studio, and I am working with these children daily — its a girl living in a family in New Jersey. She has a younger brother, a grandmother who she calls Dadi… And she balances Broadway, schoolwork, dancing, friendships, family responsibilities,” aspects that Shah sees in her own students.

“Through Kavi, young readers will learn the importance of finding a healthy rhythm in life and feel inspired to pursue their own unique talents and reach for their dreams,” they add about the “purposeful” doll, Mattel says in its press release.

Mattel’s Indian American doll Kavi Sharma and her Songwriting accessories from Mattel. Photo: corporate.mattel.com

“It’s fabulous,” says Anju Bhargava, an ordained priest and former long-time resident of New Jersey, about the Kavi Sharma 2023 Girl of the Year. “To me this spells the integration of Indians in America, a real integration. You don’t have to strip your identity to be an American.”

Rina Shah, founder of AUM Dance Creations, with Mattel’s American Girl of the year 2023, Kavi Sharma, at the Dec. 29, 2022 launch on the Good Morning America show. Photo: courtesy Rina Shah

“As we ring in a new year, we’re excited to have Kavi Sharma take center stage in our popular Girl of the Year lineup,” says Jamie Cygielman, General Manager of American Girl. “Just like all our beloved characters, Kavi’s culturally relevant and aspirational stories help inspire kids to shine bright in their own way and be proud of who they are.”

And the market for this ‘GOTY’ is vast and mainstream. It is the doll everyone is waiting in anticipation for the whole year.

“I actually went to the store this past weekend (after the launch), and there were people from all backgrounds, waiting in line holding Kavi Sharma, holding the package with the Bollywood ensemble that I helped create,” Rina Shah told Desi Talk. The Bollywood dress with its details, were something that Shah says she was able to provide the makers with because all the parts of her dance costumes for the girls are made with fabric and adhered to the requirements, including the elaborate jewelry that hands on Kavi’s forehead, met the safety requirements.

Even after two decades, Bhargava remembers the words of a 5 year-old white girlfriend said to her daughter — “You are so lucky. You can wear so many kinds of clothes.”

That affirmation of Indian culture may be memorable for Bhargava but was a rarity in the 1980s popular culture.  But it was one of many ideas that prompted her to start organizing Indian childrens’ contingents in traditional Indian clothes to participate in Livingstone, N.J. town’s Memorial Day parades. “Hey, I am Indian. Accept me for who I am,” was the idea behind that initiative.

Just as an aside, two months ago, on the YouTube channel Rainbowunicorncat1 American Girl Doll Channel – where the narrator is surely a young girl, there was speculation about Kavi Sharma being the 2023 ‘GOTY’ as the website shows. “That would actually be pretty great for representation,” the young commentator says. She drew that conclusion from researching that Mattel/American Girl had trademarked the name Kavika Sharma and later changed the first name to Kavi.

Since those 1980s, Indian-Americans have become more visible than their population size indicates. Not only are they your doctor or engineer, they are your stand-up comedian, your astronaut, and Broadway players, they are presidential advisors, and now — a Vice President- Kamala Harris.

Kavi’s story is shared in both an illustrated paperback journal that comes with the doll and a hardcover novel, It’s Showtime, Kavi, debuting later in 2023.

According to Bajaj, “Kavi’s story is important to all the young readers who will see parts of their lives represented. I took immense delight in showcasing slivers of Indian culture, including dance, yoga traditions, food, clothing, and magical festivals like Diwali and Holi.”

In addition to Bajaj, a team of advisers also helped with Kavi’s development, providing real-world insights and weighing in on key product and story themes to ensure authenticity and accuracy, Mattel said.

The 18-inch Kavi™ doll, features brown eyes, medium skin tone, and layered dark-brown hair styled in a half ponytail.

Like all the other American Girl dolls, Kavi is not inexpensive, nor is her wardrobe or other accessories that outfits and accessories a fusion of her signature outfit complete with a multicolored cropped mesh top, silver joggers, and pink tennis shoes, to the ornate Indian lehenga choli supposedly signifying Bollywood, with sequins and jewelry to die for.

Kavi’s Backstage Set. Seen on the hangars is a peep of the Bollywood ensemble that comes with the package. Photo: corporate.mattel.com

Other items include: Kavi’s Songwriting Accessories, featuring a mini keyboard that plays six different tones; Backstage Set with folding stage, rolling wardrobe, and a vanity with working lights that plays five songs; Kavi’s vibrant Bollywood Dance Costume; and, a plush of her lovable dog, Scamper.

To further celebrate Kavi’s debut, fans can participate in numerous Kavi-specific activities through January and beyond; tune in to her videos on YouTube; a six-episode Kavi animated series, plus a music video, and other Kavi-inspired digital and social content throughout the year; Read about Why Kavi Matters, including a Q&A with author Varsha Bajaj. And more.

“So if I’m a little girl, I may have an Indian friend, and now I can also be wearing different clothes, and dressing my doll in those clothes,” Bhargava says.

Rina Shah excitedly awaits the animated series of Kavi which she said will be out in a couple of weeks, and for which she helped with the animation.

The possibilities are endless.




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