Why I Went to India…

I spent five weeks in India this summer. During that time, I delivered more than 20 talks and met with some of the country’s leading thinkers about new media, culture, education, politics, and journalism. My wife, Cynthia, and I visited a range of cities in the North, South, East, and West of the country, though our core base of operation was in Mumbai/Bombay.

This was my first trip to India, though I have imagined visiting this country since I was 12 when I became utterly fascinated with the Disney animated version of The Jungle Book. How many layers deep into the colonialist imagination is that — a Disney version of a Rudyard Kipling novel — but it planted a seed for me which grew over time, leading me to explore and engage with many different aspects of Indian culture, food, cinema, music and political philosophy, over the subsequent decades, and led to me standing in front of one audience after another across the subcontinent. As I told these audiences, I no more thought of them as Mowgli than I hoped they would think of me as Rambo; our popular mythology distorts how we see each other in so many ways, but it can also open us up to new experiences and perspectives and inspire curiosity about people we might never encounter otherwise, and that’s how it was for me in India.

But what brought me to India was not The Jungle Book, or the Apu Trilogy, or the various Bollywood films I have watched through the years. I had worked closely with one great student from South Asia after another through the years — both graduate and undergraduate, both at MIT and now at USC.  Their work exposed me to so many significant developments in the country’s media landscape and I wanted to see what was happening there with my own eyes. I wanted to come to India to pay tribute to those students. And I wanted to expand the conversations within my classroom to engage with more thinkers and do-ers in this remarkable country.

In short, I came to India to learn (though, of course, being an academic, the way you finance such a trip is to agree to give a series of talks.) Off and on, across the fall, I plan to share some of the things I learned and some of the amazing people I met during my trip through India. I hope to share some excerpts from my travel journal, some of the photographs my wife took, but I also want to dig deep into the country’s contemporary popular culture (especially the culture around comics). Keep in mind that I am not an expert on Indian culture and politics. I am sure to make some mistakes here, so please be patient with me, but also, if you know more about India than I do, do not let these errors slide. I’d love to hear from you.

Parmesh and the Jenkinses

The person who made this trip possible was Parmesh Shahani. Parmesh had been a Master’s Student in the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program. Parmesh was one of those people who arrived on campus and already seemed to be at the center of a vast network of contacts. As a graduate student, he wrote a remarkable thesis which became a groundbreaking book — Gay Bombay: Globalization, Love and (Be)Longing in Contemporary India. He was perfectly situated to capture a moment of change in terms of how India thought about sexual politics, and his book combined a personal memoir with ethnographic accounts of the emerging activist movement there. You can read here the interview I did with Parmesh for my blog at the time the book first appeared. (Part Two is here.)

In the years since, Parmesh has become an iconic figure in the GLBT struggle in India — an outspoken activist who has fostered change by working within some of the country’s largest companies. You can get a sense of Parmesh from this video, produced by the INK conference.

Parmesh’s talk is powerful and personal, including some discussion of his time at MIT, when he was my student, and the efforts he has made since returning to Mumbai to be an activist for gay rights within the business community. He has been responsible for getting his company, Godrej,  to embrace what remains one of the most enlightened policies for employees in the country. It’s interesting in this talk to watch the ways he is able to link gay rights back to classical traditions in India’s history, while depicting homophobia as imposed on India by the Victorians.

While he was at MIT, Parmesh had been key in developing and launching the Convergence Culture Consortium, a think tank which brought together leading scholars on media consumption, fandom, and participatory culture, in conversation with leading media companies and brands.  Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Society, which I co-authored with Sam Ford and Joshua Green, was perhaps the most visible outgrowth of that initiative.

Parmesh now runs the India Culture Lab at Godrej, which he developed to serve a similar function in his home country. The Lab’s home page characterizes it as: “a fluid experimental space that cross-pollinates ideas and people to explore what it means to be modern and Indian. We are based in Vikhroli, Mumbai, at the Godrej headquarters. The Lab was launched in January 2011 as an attempt to create an alternative intellectual hub in Mumbai city that would serve as a catalyst for conversations about contemporary India, by brokering interactions between academia, the creative industries, the corporate world and the not-for-profit sector…We measure our success by the connections we empower and by the quality of conversations we facilitate; to us, success is a process of discovery and not some endpoint. We also see ourselves contributing to the larger design thinking process around innovation at the Godrej group. Through the Lab, we are creating a certain kind of atmosphere that encourages new ideas and opportunities. Agendas for innovation need not just be procedures and methodologies but also an underlying philosophy of creating a work environment conducive to a culture of thinking. A note on how we think of ‘culture’ at the Lab. To us, ‘culture’ is a term that extends beyond the visual, performing or fine arts, but rather addresses broader questions related to aspects of living, demographics, gender relations, urbanism, and communication technologies, to list just a few.”

I was able to attend several of the lab’s public events and came to see it as one of the most generative spaces I’ve ever encountered. The events, which are diverse in format and theme, attract a community of people — filmmakers, musicians, poets, scholars, journalists, business leaders — who return week after week to participate in conversations that push them outside of their own comfort zones and encourage them to reflect on the diversity of the culture around them. I came to know and value each member of his remarkable team, including Dianne Tauro, Ojas Kolvankar, Kevin Lobo, and Jeff Roy.

Attending Talk

One of the highlights of my visit with the Culture Lab team was an event organized by Nitika Khaitan, a Yale undergraduate intern, who spent her summer researching performance poetry in Mumbai. For this event, she  brought together a mix of poets, representing many different traditions. The following is an excerpt of my travel diary about the event:

“Part of the emphasis here is on differences in language, so we heard works read in six or seven different languages from all over the country: it was interesting to hear so many of the regional languages side by side and listen for the differences in sound and cadence. There was also an enormous range of different modes of poetic performance, from Preeti Vangani reading feminist poetry in English to a group of South Bombay hip hop artists performing in Tamil and English (South Dandies Swaraj).

By far, the most compelling performer was Sambhaji Bhagat, who is apparently a living legend: his story was translated into a movie last year, Court.

And here is a video of the actual poet performing

He is a barrel chested man with shoulder length hair and a big bushy mustache who sings his poems in a big, booming voice: we did not understand a word he said, but there’s something jaunty and subversive about the ways he presented the material. He was clearly playing with the audience, getting them singing and clapping along, as he pushes his themes deeper and deeper into an anti-government direction. Best we can tell, he sang about corruption and scandal in the current regime, as well as speaking about the struggle in Kashmir. Parmesh told me the poet has already been jailed multiple times for his critiques of the government (free speech is far from guaranteed here and the current government is particularly prone to turn its critics into political prisoners.)

All in all, the night called attention to the multi-lingual nature of Indian culture. Ask yourself, if each American state had a different local language, which languages would you learn and why. Having grown up in Georgia, would I also speak the languages of the neighboring states? Could I have gone to graduate school without learning to speak the languages of Iowa and Wisconsin? Would I have been able to move as easily between jobs at MIT and USC? Many people here speak fluently in 3-4 or more of these languages and the audience, in general, seems to understand much if not all of what is being said, leaving me feeling inadequate about living a society where most of us speak one language and not that well.”

Parmesh’s work with the Culture Lab is informed by a range of other networks in which he also participates. He’s editor-at-large of Verve, a leading fashion magazine, where he writes a monthly column. While we were on our visit, he had to go for a photo shoot because Vogue India was showcasing him as one of the coolest people in the country. He is a Yale World Fellow, A World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, and a TED Fellow. In short, our Parmesh is quite a fellow! He was willing and able to tap many of these networks as he took me on what amounted to a five week guided tour of his country and its culture. My student had surely become my teacher over the time we were in India together.

I wrote in my diary on the second day: “He seems to know everyone in the city – people of all classes and backgrounds. He can call together the top educators for a meeting today but he also knows the cooks and cleaning staff at the corporate dining hall, knows the wait staff at the places where we eat, knows the proprietors of all of the shops he takes us.” and I quickly discovered that he maintains this same set of connections in every other city we visited across India.

Car Picture

The India Culture Lab hosted a large public lecture, and I will be sharing videos of that event in a few more days, but I was also there to deliver a series of “master classes” designed to help MBA students across India develop a deeper understanding of how media and cultural change is impacting the environments within which they will be working. Here’s how I described the core mission of the event in my travel diary:

“Godrej is recruiting new talent at top MBA programs across India and it has done this in an original way through its LOUD program: LOUD stands for Living Out Ur Dreams. Participants at the workshop will be sharing their dreams, personal and professional, and a certain number of applicants will be selected and funded. The recruits will then be expected to live out their dreams before starting to work for the company and to share with the world what happened. Last year, they produced an entire reality series based on the process and had rock bands perform on each campus to draw people in. This year, I am supposed to be the star attraction, telling my own story of pursuing my dreams, and also giving these students, who have had an incredibly focused education without any humanities classes, why culture should matter in the ways they do business in the future. No pressure here at all. :-)”

Teams of students were also proposing projects to improve their campus and the company would fund the best project to emerge from this nation-wide recruitment process. Each presentation, then, included an introduction by Parmesh, my master class presentation, and an inspirational and informative talk from a top executive from the company (with a shifting cast of characters in this slot across the trip).

And here’s a description I wrote shortly after the first of the events:

“It is hard to describe the tone of the event: Parmesh has a unique ability to connect with Indian audiences; his humor is bawdy, his tone is raucous, he shows no shame, and he invites the students to question what they have been taught and to actively participate in the conversation.  All of these break to some degree with the tone of most academic presentations here, and indeed, the pep rally like atmosphere he created would be odd on an American college campus also. He brought in tons of gifts – shampoos, umbrellas, books, gift bags – all branded by the company and has a range of different stunts throughout the program to give away the gifts, typically by encouraging the students to shout our questions or responses to questions. The climax comes when he takes the hat he’s been wearing through the session and offers it to the person who asks the most Hat-Ke question. Hat-Ke, apart from being a pun on hat in this context, is a word which literally means different, but in vernacular speech, means something closer to “queer.” So there’s something really amazing about seeing these straight-laced, disciplined,  Indian students fighting over who can ask the most queer question of the day, and Parmesh flirts shamelessly with the winner of the competition.  The audience laughs at every suggestive one-liner and double entendre which he throws out there, part of his ongoing project to liberate the next generation of Indians from the repressive structures of the past.

Henry's Talk

My talk seemed to be well received. I started by congratulating the audience on the discipline and hard work that they had demonstrated to get to this point in their careers and talked about how proud their parents and teachers must be of them. But then I suggested that I was going to give them advice they may never have heard from someone in a position of authority before – I wanted them to go out and play video games, read comics, watch television, and otherwise follow their passions, and then the talk describes my own journey – how things that my parents thought got in the way of my studies had paved the way for new insights – and share some advice on how to think beyond the narrow confines of a discipline. A highpoint in my leadership advice is a slide where I describe the lessons they might take from Jon Snow in Game of Thrones – this gets the best response of the whole talk. The second part lays out some key ideas about participatory culture and its impact, including examples from both American and Indian popular media. Another high point came when I referenced the Supreme Court decision on marriage equality and unpacked the history of the rainbow flag and why it was chosen as a filter on Facebook. There was such honest excitement about the decision here, such joy, and there was also great interest in knowing the history of this symbol and how it emerged from the connections between the gay community and Judy Garland/Wizard of Oz

….Afterwards, I was mobbed on stage. At one point, there were probably a hundred students, swarming around, all wanting to take a selfie with “Yoda” or “Professor Henry.”

Henry Selfies

Group Selfie

Across the five weeks, I participated in LOUD rallies at National Institute of Industrial Engineering, Mumbai; Xavier Institute of Management, Bhubaneswar;  Indian Institute of Management, Lucknow; Jain Institute of Management, Mumbai; Symbiosis Institute of Business Management, Pune; India Institute of Management-Kozihikode, Kozihikode; Management Development Institute, Gurgaon;  Faculty of Management Studies, Delhi, and Indian Institute of Foreign Trade, Delhi.

Each stop drew slightly different responses, though for the most part, the students responded with intensity — pounding tables, shouting yes to rhetorical questions, applauding wildly, and laughing at every outrageous statement. And through the LOUD competitions, we got a sense of their hopes for their campuses, for themselves, and for their country.

Sometimes, our interactions were unintentionally comic: one young man stood up to explain his dream, “I want to go to a war-torn country and shoot something.” It took Parmesh gently probing to get him to explain that he wanted to shoot a documentary, though I am not sure the young man ever really grasped why what he had said might cause confusion.

Sometimes, the encounters were poignant. A young man told me about the pressure he sometimes felt to abandon his dreams and personal passions, recounting how he had been bullied by other students about his interest in model airplanes, with people telling him he did not come to a top business school to spend time playing with toys. It is clear the enormous stress that the testing regime here places on these young people to conform to fairly narrow definitions of what knowledge matters and thus the pleasure they take in hearing someone like me talk about what they can learn by engaging more closely with popular media.

And sometimes, they helped me to see things that were right under my nose the whole time. Here’s a part of my travel diary notes about our visit in Gurgaon: “There was an eye opening moment during the Campus Dream competition. The winning team basically proposed making their campus one of the first in India that was handicapped accessible. And it clicked. All trip, I had been struggling with grossly uneven surfaces, with oddly placed steps, small steps down for no good reason, massive steps up also without visible rationale, and often, both in getting from point a to point b. It is one of the many reasons why I feel constantly off-balance here, but somehow it had not sunk in that part of what we are dealing with is a world which had not passed legislation requiring public facilities to be handicapped accessible. Doh!” The issue of handicapped access resurfaced at several other campus visits, forcing all of us to recognize how urgent this struggle is in contemporary India.

In the weeks to come, I will be sharing more of my experiences in India — a mixture of travel writing and media analysis, which I hope will spark more awareness of some of the incredible work going on down there. So, buckle your seatbelts, folks.