To infinity and beyond With Parmesh Shahani

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Head of the fluid experimental space Godrej India Culture Lab, Parmesh Shahani wears many hats with aplomb. A self-confessed curator of ideas and dot-connector, he is the Editor-at-large of Verve Magazine and a published author. A TED Senior Fellow (2017), a Yale World Fellow (2014) and a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader (2014), he doesn’t just explore what it means to be Modern and Indian, but also shapes these very ideas. Excerpts from an exclusive interview with AF Magazine India Nepal :

Could you please tell us a bit about yourself and how you define all that you do? 

I primarily think of myself in three ways – one would be as a curator but also as someone who redefines this role. People often use the term with reference to art. But in today’s world – in which art, science and society intersect in so many different ways – a curator becomes very broadly a curator of ideas. So that is one way in which I think of myself.

Parmesh Shahani

Parmesh Shahani

Secondly, given that things are so complicated in today’s world, I think people need individuals who can contextualise these times and draw parallels, connections and linkages between different ideas. So I also think of myself as a dot-connector between ideas.

The third way would be as a catalyst for the city and for change in our incredible country. By change, I mean progressive, liberal and scientific change with its incumbent values of equality, inclusivity etc. Everything that I do, whether in my personal capacity or with the Lab, aims at bringing about this change. At he Lab, we try to do this through the conversations that we empower.

You head the Godrej India Culture Lab – an award-winning experimental ideas space. Out of all the possibilities available, are there any particular reasons that the Lab chose to explore what it means to be Indian and Modern?

There were not that many different possibilities to be honest. The Lab was an idea that came to me in 2009 when I was sittting at my first TED conference. I had been selected as a TED fellow back then and I really liked the brain massage – the juxtaposition of science, philosophy, design, performance etc. – that it offered. I asked myself what if we could create something like this for dealing with contemporary India – something which took place on an ongoing basis and not just as a conference for three days a year. That was the first genesis of this idea.

The second genesis came with the realisation that a lot of my friends – across academia, the creative industries and business – were trying to understand these changing times. All of them were grappling with this in different ways – much like the parable of the blind men and the elephant; each of whom see different aspects of the elephant but not the entire animal. I thought that it would be interesting to create an ongoing conversation about the same.

Godrej India Culture Lab's Feminist Adda with Mona Eltahawy, Bishakha Datta, Geeta Patel and Paromita Vohra

Godrej India Culture Lab’s Feminist Adda with Mona Eltahawy, Bishakha Datta, Geeta Patel and Paromita Vohra

Further impetus came in terms of what the country needed – we have so much happening but very few people are studying the here and now. There are enough centers in India and the world on history, geography etc. But very little is being done about what’s happening in contemporary society. The idea was to create an ongoing conversation which was informed by academia but not restricted to it – to build linkages between academicians and practitioners in a way that has not been done in India before. Hence, a more public-facing Lab and not a Centre.

The word Lab was also used because it stands for experiments. Everything that we do – including our conferences – is exploration in a sense. For example, when we do a talk on censorship via a University of Chicago professor (William Mazzarella), can we have the comedian Anuvab Pal with him in conversation? We play with things like that – that’s the funda behind it.

You often emphasize that the Lab is a space dedicated to cross-pollination – of ideas, people etc. France uses a similar approach by using the various Alliances Françaises around the world to promote its language and culture. What kind of dialogues does the Lab hope to create through its unique brand of cross-pollination?

First of all, I’m deeply appreciative of Alliance Française. In today’s world of insularity, something like the Alliance – which is basically a cultural diplomacy effort – is so vital to understand the other through culture, values and shared beliefs. When you encounter the other through culture, you demystify it and are able to find commonalities. I wish more countries, including our own, would ramp up their cultural diplomacy efforts globally so that we could all learn how different we are and how similar we are. Alliance has been doing this for many years and, being in the cultural field myself, I know how hard it is to sustain this kind of effort.

Filmmaker Philippe Borrel at the screening of The Invisible (R)evolutions in collaboration with Alliance Française de Bombay

Filmmaker Philippe Borrel at the screening of The Invisible (R)evolutions at the Lab in collaboration with Alliance Française de Bombay

At the Lab, we have been very happy to collaborate with AF Bombay whenever there has been synergy. We love the people that have come and the conversations that have happened. In today’s world, simplistic linkages and hyphenations like “France-India”, “here-there” are over. It is a multi-polar world and worldviews are inherently fractal. The challenges for an Alliance – and even others like the British Council – are things like “how can we be valid in a multipolar world?”, “how can we think of cultural diplomacy as beyond just here and there?” or “how can we inject French ideas to India or Indian ideas to another country?”. It will be meaningful for Alliance to engage with the conversation of how it can create a two-way flow of genuine collaboration and general learning.

In many ways, that’s what the Lab hopes to achieve as well – to create an environment where people can connect. Our success is measured through the connections that we empower. Our aim is to help people connect across the silos they create for themselves. It might be meaningful for Alliance to think about what that would mean for its own self, given its history and the times in which we operate. How can Alliance be a space for dialogue? How can it be a node for understanding both cultures? What can France learn from India through these spaces? How can you empower – whether through grants, visits etc. – connections and collaborations between people? These are things that might be useful for Alliance to think about as it reimagines its own relevance in today’s world.

You are a strong proponent of inclusivity – especially LGBTIQA inclusivity – at the workplace. How was this implemented at an institutional level at Godrej and how has it benefitted the organisation?

We started around five years ago in 2012 and it came about very organically. After I joined, I said that I wanted to work for an LGBT-friendly company. We happened to review our policies and realised that our non-discrimation clause was not wide enough to include non-discrimation against sexuality. We decided to change this and it started simply with trying to create very inclusive policy.

Ellen Page and Ian Daniel, who were in India to shoot the desi episode of Gaycation. They spoke to Parmesh about the legacies of colonialism, Section 377, and the vibrant gay community in Mumbai

Ellen Page and Ian Daniel, who were in India to shoot the desi episode of Gaycation. They spoke to Parmesh about the legacies of colonialism, Section 377, and the vibrant gay community in Mumbai

Over the years, it has grown into a much more multi-pronged approach. Policies are the base – we have some of the most progressive policies for Indian companies in terms of same-sex partner benefits. We also have a strong focus on creating a culture and that is top-down. So whether it is the International Day Against Homophobia or any regular day throughout the year, we constantly have senior management communicating that Godrej is LGBT-friendly. Through the Culture Lab, we regularly have conversations about LGBT issues. We are also moving towards sponsorship. This year, we are very excited to be the principal sponsor for the Kashish Film Festival. We host LGBT events on our campus all the time including Mingle (the LGBT Youth Summit) and several others.

We are very committed to being part of the conversation towards equality. But we do it from a place of “We are a Company. This is new to us and we want to learn from the community.” This attitude and the work we’ve done has got us tremendous love from the LGBT community and from within Godrej as well. I recruit for Godrej and am the face of our College Outreach Program at MBA colleges. Every place we go to, both LGBT and straight people tell us that they are so happy and proud that Godrej is LGBT friendly – that they want to work for such a company.

It’s amazing in many different ways. There has been no backlash and it makes me think that tomorrow’s India is very inclusive. We don’t want to discriminate against our employees on any basis – I mean how silly would it be to discriminate against someone on the basis of who they love. As a company, we want to create a space where everyone is comfortable being their whole self. It has been immensely satisfying to be a part of this journey and the love we have gotten makes us feel very happy. This is just the beginning, we still have a long way to go. For instance, at Godrej we just hired our first transgender employee. These are baby steps – we still have lots more to do.

Godrej and Alliance Française de Bombay have strong linkages – Mr. Nadir Godrej is the President of the Managing Committee of AF Bombay. The Lab has also worked with Alliance in the past for a screening and talk on the French documentary La guerre des graines. In your opinion, how important is it for cultural organisations across Mumbai to support and collaborate with each other?

I think it’s vital. We recently hosted a small thinkathon at Godrej wherein we invited 25 cultural spaces from across the city to come together and discuss strategies for collaboration. We have to create an ecosystem where we can help each other. Our country is so under-served in terms of cultural nourishment that we need hundreds of organisations to start. The ones that already exist need to collaborate more, help each other more and amplify each other’s efforts more. They need to see what other organisations need – space, money, skills etc.

A performance by the Merasi musicians of Rajasthan at the Godrej India Culture Lab

A performance by the Merasi musicians of Rajasthan at the Godrej India Culture Lab

At the Lab, we have worked on two initiatives so far – we have created a virtual map of all the cultural spaces in the city and have also created a white paper for cultural organisations. People told us that funding was a critical concern. Hence, the paper highlights how cultural organisations can pitch themselves when they want to raise funds. Both resources are free and available to everyone. We are trying our best to widen this ecosystem and the next couple of years are going to be about this kind of alliance building.

The Embassy of France in India is currently working on the 2017-18 edition of Bonjour India. A series of events will be organised across the subcontinent from November 2017 to February 2018 through Institut Français (India) and in collaboration with the network of Alliances Françaises in India and Nepal.  The motto of the current edition of Bonjour India is Innovation. Creativity. Partnership and the initiative is meant to serve as a platform for the incubation of dreams, ideas and projects. In your opinion, how important is it to participate in such events and to create international linkages which foster technological, social and environmental innovations?

I think Bonjour India is excellent and loved the previous edition! I’m really hoping that this edition of Bonjour India is about genuine exchange – about how we can learn from each other. Otherwise, it just becomes a didactic talking down from both sides – this is the glory of Indian culture vs. this is the glory of French culture. In my opinion, the era of cultural diplomacy as injecting French culture into India is over. Cultural diplomacy has to be about engagement, collaboration and a two-way flow. Furthermore, I think that in today’s world, the term “international” is a bit redundant. Everything is international simply by nature of the way the world is right now. Of course, the distinctions are significant but they are being breached more and more. People are connecting across Facebook, Instagram etc. Some of my colleagues are part of global K-pop fandoms. I was in Vancouver last week and there were so many international people supporting Shahrukh Khan. I hope that all these engagements are about a deeper kind of collaboration. So I can’t wait for this year’s edition – I’m looking forward to seeing it and I’m sure it’s going to be very exciting!

The list of your achievements is almost overwhelmingly long. What’s next for someone who seems to have achieved it all?

Peace of mind and quietness! I’m very happy with the way the Lab has taken off. I think now, personally, my goals are to be quieter, to build more linkages between what we do and others and to focus on my physical, emotional and spiritual health. Post turning 40, I’ve decided that I need to slow down a bit but it’s just not happening. I’m trying to savour things but life just keeps pulling me into its whirlwind. My attempt is to do things more slowly and build more connections.

Professionally, I’m very happy – we’re in the middle of a transformation in Vikhroli. Five years go, when the Culture Lab started, Vikhroli was at the beginning of its developmental journey. We started the hashtag #VivaVikhroli some years back and people in the city and the country asked what is Vikhroli? Now, they don’t ask that anymore because the Lab has established the area as one of the city’s cool cultural destinations.

Godrej India Culture Lab's Subcultures to Sab-Culture Adda in progress at Vikhroli

Godrej India Culture Lab’s Subcultures to Sab-Culture Adda in progress at Vikhroli

Vikhroli is after all Godrej’s home, where our headquarters have been. We are in the middle of a very exciting transformation wherein cultural spaces, hotels and public spaces are coming up all around us. The scale of what is happening is similar to the areas around the High Line in New York or on the South Bank or the Tate Modern in London. These urban regeneration projects and urban reimagination projects are very exciting.

Being part of this Vikhroli story – creating this narrative of Vikhroli as a art and culture destination is something which is going to be very important to me. Exciting times!

Siddharth Bhatt

Rédaction, AF Magazine Inde-Népal

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Directeur de publication : Délégation Générale de la Fondation Alliance Française en Inde et au Népal

Rédacteur en chef : Laurent Elisio Bordier

Rédacteur/Coordinateur national : Siddharth Bhatt

Rédacteurs, contributeurs : Guillaume, Abhirami, Alexandre, Chintan, Cléa, David, Eleonore, Elie, Kanika, Karine, Nita, Thomas, Malvika, Marie-Joëlle, Meera, Mayuri, Mitushi, Alice, Prutha, Romain, Ritika, Manas, Supriya ...