A Cultural Think Tank Seeks To Connect the Dots
A few weeks ago, a group of about 100 gathered in a conference room at the Taj Lands End in Bandra to hear a talk by the founder of cult Japanese design brand Muji. With help of a sparsely rendered PowerPoint presentation, Kenya Hara was able to illustrate the rather elegant Japanese philosophy of discovering creativity in emptiness. He walked the audience through an ambitious art project where cars could frown to express their displeasure and pristine white sofas moulded to take on human body shape. Muji, he said, was about simplicity and sophistication, and while it won’t enter into India for at least a couple of years, he was looking for collaborators in the local art space.
Hara’s presence in India was very much due to the efforts of the Godrej-India Culture Lab, a cultural think tank started in 2010 by author, academic and editor Parmesh Shahani. “I felt there was no place in Bombay, certainly very few places in India, where you could cross-pollinate ideas of what it meant to be Indian and modern,” says Shahani, 35, who also serves as the editor-at-large of fashion magazine Verve. After doing a masters in comparative media studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, he enrolled in a PhD program at the University of Pennsylvania only to return six months later with the intent of following through with his vision of “connecting dots” in various fields. It was only after he met the suits at Godrej that he was able to chart out what eventually would become a loosely-defined space where people in various fields could gather, discuss and exchange thoughts on Indian culture and society. In a sense, it was a highly localised version of TED, of which Shahani, not coincidentally, is a Fellow.
Unlike TED, however, which tends to follow a strict format, the Godrej Culture Lab diversifies its activities into small, closed-door salons; larger one-day conferences; and collaborative projects with external partners, like for instance the Hara talk where they partnered with the Taj. They’ve brought in people from the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, and thrown together folks like Santosh Ostwal of Nano Ganesh (he pioneered a water management system for rural areas) with Vishal Gondal of Indiagames, which creates mobile and web game applications. “We take a theme and see who are the best minds in India and the world to explore [that] theme,” Shahani says. Last year, they helped organise a TEDx in Bandra with the American School, and helped curate the Names Not Numbers conference. They’ve held talks on digital progress and the changing face of beauty, matching practitioners with academics and theorists, who often get into heated debates about various topics. “People doing the work more often than not don’t have conversations with each other,” says Shahani. “My business friends don’t talk to my academic friends who don’t talk to my designer friends.” Shahani encourages audience members to sit with unfamiliar faces and forge connections with both each other and the speakers who hang around post-talk to network.
This year, Shahani says, they will focus on smaller format events like the salons, launch their website and hopefully enlist their first intern. Though many of the events are invite-only, some like their Friday Fundas talks are open to the public. To get onto their mailing lists or attend their talks, email Shahani at email@example.com.Tags: Godrej Culture Lab, Kenya Hara, Parmesh Shahani