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Let politics not be a dirty word anymore! #youth #passion #empathy

Morning conversations while dropping kids off at the bus stop sometimes linger through the day. This morning, we spoke about the need to convey to kids the importance of passion. Personally, I think in demanding all round excellence from children, we fail to recognise and feed their interests and passion.

Now, as I read several editorials that celebrate Nelson Mandela’s 95th birthday, I wonder what drove great leaders like him to sacrifice their personal ambitions, face extreme difficulties and overcome enormous obstacles in order to achieve greater good? I am struck by the idea that great leaders are not just driven by passion, but have the rare gift of empathy and an ability to connect with fellow humans on a very basic level. Madiba and Bapu both had that and there is a reason why millions followed these men in a surge of passion with the belief that they were being led towards betterment and emancipation.

Are we a more cynical bunch of people today, us citizens of India who are quick to criticise but lazy to act even in matters of our self-interest? Or is it that leaders today are too far removed from our hearts? It is hard to believe that Rahul Gandhi, for instance, could truly empathise with the experiences of an ordinary citizen. Perhaps Modi’s non-dynastic humbler origins are what give so many Indians a level of comfort because they believe he may understand their daily struggle and genuinely seek to uplift them. Be that as it may, I cannot think of a single political leader today who I may believe to be selfless and exemplary.

Then there is the aspect of new leadership. We expect a generation of elite youth disconnected from the realities of how most of our countrymen and women live, burdened by the privilege of their education to step into the lead-heavy shoes of leadership? Why would they when the pursuit of self-interest is easier?

Perhaps if we’re to permit passion to drive young people without constantly judging them and assessing their ‘performance’, we might see emerge into politics young people with drive, with inherent qualities of empathy and leadership. When you look around you and see the enormous energies trapped inside young people, wasting or being misdirected, you just have to find a different approach to harnessing it. Politics must stop being a dirty word in our minds if we are to change the future world that our children inhabit. And, like many great people have said, we could begin the change from our own communities and neighbourhoods. I have a plan brewing in my head as I write this.. Will keep you posted!

Resolution score card: Looking back at 2012

As the year draws to an end, and the winter gets into full swing, I do tend to go into a more contemplative mood. Much as I dislike the idea of making resolutions I do not keep, I think it’s exciting to go through the process of making them nevertheless.

So tonight, I’m going to look back at the resolutions I made last year and create a little score card for myself. The disadvantages of putting this sort of stuff on record!

#1 Lose weight, be fitter- Score 3/10. Did not lose much weight, but chased away the joint aches and increased stamina. Certainly fitter, but the 2013 resolutions on fitness will be more specific!

#2 Blog everyday- Score 9/10. This was a dream run. A lot of fun, a lot of learning. I did miss a few days here and there, but then I blogged twice a day or even more sometimes!

#3 Work on my arts side- Score 8/10. Have had so much fun working on my kathak and restarting music this year. It’s been fulfilling, frustrating and engaging at the same time. Am lucky to have found two gurus willing to work with me and take this forward!

#4 Be more adventurous about work- Score 10/10. Did start teaching, did make many more work contacts, did try my had at new roles at work. Started my own independent research and got funded for it! I can say I am well over target her!

#5 Read 3 books a month- Score 5/10. Three was hard! Most months It’s been a couple of books, but yea, I did try harder than I did before. Will write a post on the best books I’ve read this year, separately!

#6 Be more patient, creative with people, relationships- Score 6/10. I’m not unhappy in this department either. There have been moments of anger and frustration, but on the whole I am spending a lot more energy on friends and family. And getting a whole lot of positive energy in return! Thanks everyone who has supported me, loved me, smiled at me this year!

#7 Be more adventurous, carve my space- Score 7/10. I did two trips this year without my family, to Punjab and to Goa. Rahul and me took off to Istanbul for a week without the kids, a first for us since we’ve had them! I squeezed in a lot of adventure on work travel. I befriended people I met on the Metro, and I’m daring to dream bigger and bigger.

All in all, 2012 has been a very eventful year for me. Am patting myself on the back right now. The next week will be about setting the next set of targets, I think….

An evening of kathak in baithak format, a profound experience: ‘Milestones’ by Aakriti Foundation, Gurgaon

Mastering a classical art form is not for the faint hearted. That was amply demonstrated during Saturday evening’s baithak at the home of my kathak guru Jayashree Acharya and her husband Shiv Shankar Ray, who is an accomplished and well known tabla exponent.

Before a mixed audience of rasiks, curious neighbors and parents of children who were already under the tutelage of one of the several accomplished gurus present, Aakriti Foundation had laid out ‘Milestones’, a clever program designed to seduce, educate and enthrall. The foundation is driven by three artists passionate about the power of the arts, the duo of Jayashreeji and Shiv Shankarji as well as danseuse Sushmita Ghosh.

A beautiful invocation to the Gods performed in kathak and Odissi set the tone for an evening that was educational and enthralling at the same time

A beautiful invocation to the Gods performed in Kathak (by Anandi Ray) and Odissi (by Lahari Nanda) set the tone for an evening that was educational and enthralling at the same time

Anchored by Sushmitaji, the program attempted to unravel the complexity and beauty involved in the apparent effortlessness that the audience sees in a performance of kathak. Through a demonstration by beginner-level students, little adorable children, she set out the basic pattern of the dance, the ta-thei-thei-tat aa-thei-thei-tat footwork based on the 16-beat teen taal rhythm. With the help of Anandi, a more senior student, Sushmitaji demonstrated how this simple pattern can attain more complex variations and how the dancer can improvise within the confines of the beat cycle. Making the audience count along with her and a small demonstration by Shiv Shankarji on the tabla helped cement the lesson and bond us onlookers deeper with the art form!

The self assurance of the little ones was so endearing!

The self assurance of the little ones was so endearing!

An impromptu demonstration by my guru Jayashree Acharya

An impromptu demonstration by my guru Jayashree Acharya

What followed was an impressive recital by Mahika Nair, a young disciple of Jayashreeji who has been under her tutelage for a little over four years. Not yet a teenager, Mahika’s poise and confidence combined with her technical prowess and abhinaya showed a maturity far beyond her years. Through her performance, I could see not just the talent but also the sheer hard work of her and her guru yield fruit on stage. Their closeness and shared sense of excitement was evident and added an extra flavor to the show.

Mahika's confidence and technical prowess belied her youth. Impressive!

Mahika’s confidence and technical prowess belied her youth. Impressive!

The guest artist for the evening Shikha Khare is an exponent of the Lucknow gharana of kathak and a guru at the Kathak Kendra, New Delhi. I felt a twinge of regret for those few who had left the program before Shikhaji came on, for they had surely missed a treat! Eloquently, Shikhaji’s excitement at the opportunity to perform in the baithak format was obvious. Before she started, she explained the benefits of viewing a performance in this ‘mehfil’ style of performing that was prevalent during the time of the royal patrons, how you can see the minute details, relate closely with the dance form, really internalize many trivial aspects that can otherwise be missed in a stage show and how the artist and the audience can enjoy an interactive session this way. Her short performance exemplified all these aspects. I particularly enjoyed watching her eyes and expressions, which kept us all absolutely glued!

I’ve been learning kathak from Jayashreeji for a year now and I am intrigued by how much individuality the dancer brings to the her art. I am aware, of course, that a lot of that stylization comes from the taleem that a dancer receives from her guru, or gurus. And here too, Shikhaji’s performance was an education as she was able to pinpoint what aspects of her dance were imbibed from which of her gurus. Once again, it struck me that beyond talent, it is the dedication and complete submission to one’s guru that makes for true classical artist, in the Indian tradition.

Shikha Khare enthralled us with her knowledge, her distinct style and her range of effortless expressions!

Shikha Khare enthralled us with her knowledge, her distinct style and her range of effortless expressions!

Shikhaji's performance was interactive. The stories she told, the context she set were as vital as the performance itself.

Shikhaji’s performance was interactive. The stories she told, the context she set were as vital as the performance itself.

I made it a point to take both my kids, Udai and Aadyaa to see the show. For Aadyaa, the highlight was when Shikhaji assumed the role of Radha and pleaded with Kanha to let her go home. My little one is a Krishna Bhakt, and she absolutely loved that piece. Udai was captivated by the jugalbandi between Shikhaji and the tabla. Both of them were reciting snatches of bols and whirling around the carpet for a long time after we got home! That, after all, is the entire point of the baithak format, in which art is not far away but accessible; not seen, but imbibed; not enjoyed but savored. The evening had a profound impact on me, and my children. These are the experiences that make life more meaningful, beautiful; that motivate me to be a better artist myself and dream the dreams I have for my children!

Let’s be honest, blogging is about getting the pats on the back! Reflections after talking at a Techmoms event- Sep 26, 2012

When I started writing my blog, a part of me craved recognition through it. After all, I was in the middle of changing careers and achievements seemed far away within the folds of my career path. Also, I was heartily sick of donning the journo hat, covering events, writing about what other people (many of whom I thought were complete idiots, even though they headed companies their fathers and grandfathers had started!) said or thought and even ghost writing articles for others. I wanted to be written about, talked about, discussed, admired, looked up to.

Of course, once I started blogging regularly, I put all of that ambition on the back burner and got into the business of making the blog work. For me first and then for my readers. Its taken a lot of sincerity and discipline to blog daily and certainly, it’s helped me grow as a writer and as a person. Simultaneously, my return to urban planning as a career worked out beautifully and I get immense satisfaction from what I do at mHS as well. I must appreciate the enabling and flexible environment mHS has provided to me to be able to work and write and do a million other things at the same time and the trust vested in me to go ahead and tackle projects, presentations and situations for mHS on my own.

But to get back to the issue of recognition… It felt really good to be on a public forum talking about my journey as a blogger today. Thanks to Fleximoms and Intel, who sponsored the Techmoms seminar today in Delhi.

It’s the passion that makes a blog(ger) tick!

It struck me that bloggers come from diverse backgrounds and come to blogging from very different places. Yet, there seem a few things in common. Honesty, a true desire to explore one’s own feelings and experience, a need to share. Blogging induces in a person a certain quality of self-reflection that we otherwise tend to miss in our daily lives. In that sense, it is like writing a diary. Even though it might be about a specific subject, a blog is usually about something the blogger is passionate about and so it works as a medium to express a suppressed or alternate or emerging personality. It was fascinating to hear from other women, and men too, how career choices change depending on the stage of life you are in. Because you want different things at different points.

Dealing with an overly connected world

And yes, it is indeed magical that technology and a changing world that offers multiple possibilities, allows us to make those changes in our careers. Reinvent ourselves. Grow.

Growing up, I watched my mother struggle to balance her numerous interests and passions with work. I couldn’t help admire her for being able to pursue so many of her hobbies, even if one at a time, with a demanding career (she’s a doc) and family demands. For our parents’ generation, a professional education was a highly respected thing and it demanded that you respect its boundaries as well. Security of employment was paramount and work and hobby were two distinct zones in your life.

For me, everything is intertwined and inter-related. It’s a world of busy chaos, where I sift through the rubble of my mind, picking up one piece of stone on one day and another relic on the other hand. At times, it all comes together in a clear, orchestrated set of activities that make connections with each other. At other times, things fly in opposing directions and I watch amused and exasperated, or frustrated and angry!

But that’s life! Through the activity of blogging and the clarity I need in my head to write about what I experience and feel everyday, I now see that the ups and downs have to be lived through. Knowing does not make it easier when you are low, but the blog gives me that small thing to look forward to, that tiny push that I need to haul myself out and put the smile back on my face again.

The hardest bit is being true to oneself, always

Another thing I heard at the event was that the world of social networking is an intrusive one. Definitions of privacy are changing and it’s hard to understand and manage our online lives. Often our personal experiences and actions are questioned unnecessarily and we are expected to be politically correct all the time. That can be tiring and plain unreal. Blogging allows us to be what we are and it’s something bloggers should never ever compromise on.

Ultimately its about what you want from your blog…

I don’t really know where I am going with my blog. I do know that once 2012 is over, I will have to reduce my frequency of blogging and go into a more reflective mode. I cannot sustain this intensity. But I also know that clear themes are emerging on this blog that can be explored separately or one by one. On the blog or off of it. It depends on how much of my life I want to devote to writing I suppose.

Other bloggers on the forum were heading for being published, writing books and other forms of recognition through their writing and knowledge. For me, I’m not yet sure what the next steps are.

But I do know that as long as I enjoy writing, I will do so. I cannot thank enough the people who read my blog and even though I didn’t believe in this sort of stuff before, I do sense the energies flowing in from the good wishes and critical appreciation of my readers. Every now and then, someone unexpected from my extended world of acquaintances pops up with a reference to my blog and it makes it that much more exciting to be a blogger! In the end I guess, despite the high brow fundas about self-improvement and personal journeys, it’s all about the pats on the back 🙂 At least for me, let me be honest, it always has been…

Self-reflection day: Whither am I going? Aug 5, 2012

There are some days when I have an acute sense of incompleteness. Abstract questions torment me. What is the purpose of my life? At what point am I right now? Where am I going from here?

Today is one of those days and while I know this isn’t exactly something to blog about…seeing as precious few read my blog on a weekend, I’m going ahead anyway.

I always grew up with a sense (misplaced, perhaps) that I am special, that I would go on to do big things, achieve greatness of some sort. My parents were instrumental, in part, in giving me that idea. They always appreciated my efforts at whatever I did and genuinely believed I was talented.

Unfortunately, my adult life has not followed through in that way. At some point, my confidence sagged (probably in that hallowed institution called SPA), I have spent precious energy exploring possibilities and today I have become some sort to Jack of many trades and Master of none at all.

Today, this was brought home to me by a discussion at my kathak guru’s home. A fellow student was describing the long arduous process of getting her son a music guru, and she was ecstatic about her success, profusely thanking our dance guru for her advise and assistance. Now the same music guru had been recommended to me as well months ago, but something, part lack of confidence, part doubts about how much time I would be able to devote, had stopped from acting on the mission. The short conversation sent me into a deeply reflective mode. Why did I not call him? Why do I not seek to devote my energies to stuff that I am good at, am interested in? I know I have an immensely emotional connection with music, to the point that it scares me. What stops me from facing that challenge head on and why do I keep procrastinating, pushing forward the day I will have to take the inevitable call to commit my time to music?

It says a lot, this set of questions I have described above, about my peculiar and utterly disappointing trait of running away from important stuff. This and my supreme lack of focus are responsible for my sense of underachievement, even as I live a happy, reasonably fulfilled life. As I inch towards my 40s and many other things in life fall in place, this self-journey is starting to take center-stage in my head. I see this happening to others around me as well, the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle slowly fitting together. I cannot run away from my needs for very long and I will have to find ways to do all of the things I passionately want to do. I cannot push the pursuit of music to another day, another week, another time. I need to do it now, in the proper way, with the right guidance, or remain guilty of its neglect.

I know that now and I am trying to resolve to address this soon. This piece isn’t about seeking attention or soliciting advice, but it is about sharing the kind of crazy reflective processes the mind can be grappling with, even as you trawl a mall on a Sunday afternoon, watch your kid eat ice cream and have completely inane, though delightful, conversations with friends!

Small steps, big changes: We need to harness the passion and talent of youth positively- July 30, 2012

Four days in Goa, with family, life centered around tradition, rituals, family bonding and the sheer experience of taking in Goa with its unique flavors, sights, sounds and feel. Coming back home is a brutal return to reality and the unpleasant aspects of life. I knew the power grid failure had happened (it was in the news), but I came back to actually meet people who have spent two days in the heat and darkness. I knew Team Anna was kicking some butt out there, but I’m reading the media coverage and wondering where all this bile and vitriol is taking us.

We sure are a bunch of disgruntled citizens and we need an outlet for our frustrations. Anna’s bunch are as good a cause to support as any! And hence the turnout at Jantar Mantar. Yet, when Kejriwal denounces the BJP and the Congress in equal (ahem ahem) measure, what does that mean politically? I am at a loss to understand where this is going? I wish I knew. Not that my opinion would matter, but I would sleep easier!

Personally, I feel corruption is one among several large issues that need to be addressed. Yet, it is an issue that really hurts us bad. I realized this when interacting with a group of final year architecture students last week. I am their advisor for a research project on the role of architects in serving low-income populations. I floated the topic with a set of ideas in mind, hoping to steer them towards finding innovative means of engagement between professionals and low-income families. As it often happens, they had processed the scenario in their own unique way. And they appeared most perplexed by the ugliness and inevitability of corruption. They felt that, whichever way they looked, it was corruption in the system of approvals, of urban planning and governance, that created imbalances in the supply of and access to housing. They wondered if this was ever going to improve and were rather disheartened about the topic of research. They said they felt like they were banging their heads against an unbreakable wall.

Of course, I encouraged them to express this, but also to set the subject of corruption aside and see how interventions could be effective within the bounds of the current ‘system’. However, their reactions gave me an interesting peak into the world of the youth. Young, educated Indians (especially those with a creative bent of mind) clearly, are not happy living with the system. They demand change, they are idealistic enough to believe change can happen, yet they are frustrated by the fact that no one (not even Team Anna) truly believes that change can happen or has a clear picture of what the change could look like. Worse, they are frustrated that the big picture remains fuzzy and uninspiring. They understand that small innovations appear to be the only way forward right now, but are unable to see how the small improvements will add up to make significant impact.

Is there some way we could harness this latent energy and frustration, this burning desire for change in a positive way? I do believe activism is a vital ingredient because ultimately political will is key, but there are other missing elements as well. I’m thinking it’s important to document and disseminate information on positive action across various fields, interventions that have changed people’s lives for the better, so that gifted and driven young people can be shown some hope and encouraged to pursue what they believe in and not waste their talents doing what anyone else can.

 

Of talent and ‘junoon’: Nostalgic about the Piyush Mishra days!- July 2, 2012

Some days leave me amazed at the sheer number of immensely talented people I know, who have struggled and worked relentlessly to
doing what they love. Piyush Mishra is a classic example. Back when we were in SPA, Piyush was a large presence in our lives. Us, the theater walas, were members of a group called Spandan, the naatak company of our college, SPA. And certainly, for us, Spandan was the heartbeat (that’s what spandan means) of our student life.

Piyush, a product of the National School of Drama, and a hardcore Mandi house product (anyone who has hung around that place would know what I mean) had a special connection with SPA. His wife Priya was our senior. And so, we had the privilege of him directing some of our productions and composing music for others.

I never acted in any of the productions he directed, but I was a part of the initial build up, the script reading sessions, the improvization sessions and so on and so forth. The manic activity back stage and the riotous joy after the performances can still send most of us on a high. Piyush was a hard taskmaster. A buddy we were all a little scared of. Someone unafraid to speak his mind, capable of immense affection and immense rage, all in the span of a few minutes.

I did, however, act in a production titled “Accidental Death of an Anarchist”. A Dario Fo script, we were directed by Arvind Gaur, who is now a well-established personality in the theater world. Many members of his group Asmita, performed with us, lending their presence to the songs and crowd scenes in the play- some of them Manu Rishi, Deepak Dobriyal are making their place in the meaningful side of the Hindi film industry now.

Notably though, Piyush wrote lyrics and composed music for this intensely political script. I distinctly remember the day of the performance at the Air Force Auditorium at Subroto Park (we were being paid to perform, it was beyond our imagination at that time!). Piyush was making us rehearse the songs and we were all tired and nervous. A few things weren’t coming together as we wanted and there was tension in the air. In the middle of the rehearsal, Piyush screamed at me. “Tum to gaayak ho Mukta, tum besura kyon gaa rahi ho!” – You are a singer, why are you singing off tune. The disappointment and anger directed towards me shook me to my core. I didn’t dare cry or react…the only choice ahead was to improve.

I see that kind of single minded focus, especially towards his lyrics and music in Piyush’s work today. I enjoyed his lyrics in Aaja Nachle, but his work in Anurag Kashyap’s Gulaal (acting, lyrics, music) really seemed like an extension of that passionate man I saw in action back in college. And now, this piece from Gangs of Wasseypur haunts me, taunts me to go back to my music again.

Strong women, meaningful work- How Padma Shri awardees Laila Tyabji and Geeta Dharmarajan inspire me- Jan 25, 2012

I scrolled down the list of Padma awardees and of course, there are several I know of and several others who don’t mean much to me. But two of them are people I happen to have met recently and been very impressed by. Laila Tyabji, founder Dastkar is easily one of the most graceful women I have met and Geeta Dharmarajan of Katha disarmed me by her complete humility. My interactions with both reiterated my belief in passion being the driving force for change!

I meet Lailaji in the context of the India Urban Conference that I had been involved with in the latter half of 2011. I was helping a friend put together the ‘City in Public Culture’ theme and we had involved Ms Tyabji to speak at a session focused on the link between arts & crafts and development. She presented her case entirely from the point of view of the artisan, outlining clearly the linkages between livelihood, poverty and dignity; elaborating their struggles in the context of rapid urbanization, industrialization and socio-economic changes that have both created a market for the crafts and devalued them at the same time. Positioning the arts & crafts in India as not a dying industry, but one that is resilient and adaptive, Lailaji rued that India’s development agenda gave more credence to growth in sheer numbers than to skills and long-term growth agendas. Her empathy with the communities she works with, her clarity in her understanding of the political agenda and her commitment to offering the craftspeople a platform comes from an inner conviction that arts & crafts are linked with identity and dignity, two themes that lie at the very core of our existence as a society and will determine the legacy India is giving the world.

Having recently interacted with a community of leather workers, embroiderers and jewelry makers and seen first-hand the tremendous importance their skills played in their local economy and social fabric and indeed their self-image (especially in the case of women), I was able to internalize and appreciate further the content of Lailaji’s discourse.

I met Geeta Dharmarajan in context of the same project, when the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation called a meeting of the state and city-level nodal officers for the Rajiv Awas Yojna (RAY) with a selection of community-based organizations at HUDCO a few months ago. The meeting was unique in having the objective of building a platform for government officials at state and municipal levels to understand issues from a community perspective, in the hope that innovative approaches would evolve to implement the slum-free agenda of RAY.

Geetaji made a strong case for the role youth can play in implementing development interventions in low-income communities. She shared many examples of how youth empowerment and training had provided communities with the agile, skilled workforce that assisted local businesses to become more efficient. She spoke about how young people with a sense of purpose were changing perceptions in their families and larger communities. Later, she attended a follow up meeting specific to Delhi where she further urged the Ministry to consider a project for mobilizing youth to conduct government surveys, thereby collecting richer, more valuable, community-centric information that could be used for effective redevelopment designs for slums. Her focus and belief in youth was impressive; so was her ability to speak up for her cause in a much larger context and force audiences to pay attention through her simplicity and conviction. Speaking to her later, I was extended a warm invitation to visit their field areas and experience their initiatives first hand.

We don’t need to quantify the good work Dastkar and Katha have done. What strikes me most is that these organization work with, not for the communities they engage with. Just feeling the force of the personalities of these two women, the tremendous involvement in their work and the sheer respect they command is sufficient to know that they, through their organizations, are making significant impacts on the section of society that most needs our innovation, empathy and passion, not mere charity!

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