Kul Bhushan reports from New Delhi about the Inkpot India Conclave on Indian culture, with emphasis on gender equality.
Inkpot India Conclave’s aim was to re-ink, rebrand and reassert Indian culture. This was amply successful on this one-day event in New Delhi on 18 November 2019. A galaxy of India’s cultural leaders, thinkers, activists in literature, dance, fashion, media, architecture, beauty, nutrition and other fields converged to discuss, analyse and deliberate on key issues confronting Indian society today.
A vibrant festival of Indian ethos
The guiding light of the festival, Mrs. Ratan Kaul, who brought in four decades of experience in organizing such events, said, “The concept of Inkpot India Conclave is novel and distinctive as it affirms our identity and values as Indians. Through Inkpot, we’ve brought together minds who have popularised and taken pride on their ‘Indianness’.
Supported by the festival curator, 22-year old Stanford graduate, Simar Malhotra, who left her job in the USA to return to her roots for preserving and promoting Indian culture under attack from massive Western influence, the conclave lived up vibrantly to its promise. Festival directors Ratan Kaul and Benu Malhotra managed to attract national leaders, VIPs and celebrities to an overflowing hall on a Monday morning. Almost all the speakers turned up for the different sessions; and the moderators were well prepared with juicy observations and pointed questions to ensure stimulating narrative.
“I’m not a feminist,” declared well-known author Neelima Dalmia Adhar in her first sentence to shake up the audience, conditioned to listen about gender equality all through the event.
More than a hundred listeners got a jolt towards the end of the conclave with this statement because most of them were rooting aggressively for gender equality. Calmly, Adhar went on to assert the unique attributes of a woman which made her superior if not equal to men.
Her bestselling books, Father Dearest: The Life and Times of R. K. Dalmia followed by Merchants of Death and finally The Secret Diary of Kasturba … all made waves. She talked about her father who married six young confident women and fathered 18 children. In addition to establishing a huge business group, he delved in public affairs. She enthralled everyone with her stories from her life and her books. She ended her contribution by reciting a couple of stanzas from a famous 70-year old Urdu poem on women by famous poet Kaifi Azmi, “Rise my love, you have to walk with me.”
Cavalcade of speakers
The speakers included Jaipur Lit-Fest director Sanjoy Roy, Cosmopolitan editor Nandini Bhalla, beauty and aroma expert Dr. Blossom Kocchar; interior designer Riddhima Kapoor; nutritionist Shikha Sharma; nutritionist and author Kavita Devgan, and the list goes on and on. Sufi singer Sonam Kalra wowed the audience with her two numbers to sustained applause; Ruma Devi from Barma in Rajasthan spellbound all with her success story of empowering 22,000 women in the rural areas of Rajasthan.
Another shocker was a surprisingly frank session on relaxation of laws on LGBT; communications consultant Sharif D. Rangnekar and author Raga Olga D’silva related their personal challenges of facing the traumas of same-sex relationships. “The only change I see,” remarked Sharif, “is that we can now talk about it openly on a panel. But the society at large still has a long way to go in terms of accepting the LGBT community.”
Being an openly gay mother of two, Raga’s journey is a testimony of this. “To this day, when I come out as a lesbian who is in a same-sex relationship and raising two children, I receive repulsive reactions,” she said.
Male belly dancer
Eshan Hilal, young male belly dancer, wafer thin and bearded, initially stunned everyone with his high heels and skirts as he walked into the auditorium. But when he performed on stage, he wowed them all with his feisty belly dancing.
After mastering traditional Kathak dance, he moved into belly dancing. He performs in many Indian cities and conducts workshops. As part of Meher Malik’s dance troupe he also tours countries like Russia and China. “Belly dancing is an accepted art form,” he said, “and men as well as women can enjoy and benefit from it.”
Respect and revenue
“Crafts are not dying,” declared Jaya Jaitley who established Dilli Haat [open-air bazaar cum food plaza]. “Crafts people are successful, dynamic, and respected. When we buy their products, we respect their skills; thus, we play our role and they develop traditional designs.” She added, “They need two things: revenue and more importantly, respect. We need to respect and understand it before monetising on it.”
She highlighted the Google Art and Culture Section that started with 25 different stories of excellence of Indian crafts and now has 52; India has the biggest presence globally. A craftsman in Kerala creates handmade parrots from natural materials like paper, banana skins and leaves. They are used as daily offerings to temples and also sold to the public; he has a waiting list until 2022! A group of university students were invited to make ‘Gandhi’ spectacles from wire and they did it so well that the specs were in demand from many on the campus. Indian crafts are a part of life; not a show-off patronage, declared Jaitly.
Addressing a session on media, author Shobhaa De said, “If you can’t face the heat, you need to step out of the kitchen. One can’t afford to have thin skin in the media. I have been viciously trolled for some of my most innocuous tweets. But I didn’t run for cover. I faced them.” She gave another two examples – the issue of cow slaughter and a new law forcing cinemas to show Marathi films at prime time. About the first issue an irate crowd turned up at her residence which she faced and fought; about the second issue she went to the Supreme Court and won.
A former TV anchor, turned politician, Shazia Ilmi made a spirited case for religious freedom, women’s rights and gender equality. Religious rules are discriminatory and Uniform Civil Code is the only way to move forward in a country like India. Uniform Civil Code is the next goal to work towards. Pakistan and Jordan are theocratic countries. India is not like that. She asked, “In a country like India, why should there be different laws of succession and divorce for different communities?”
Design, art, and dance mold our cultural identity, declared both Shovana Narayan and architect Sunita Kohli; fashion designer Ritu Kumar, who emphasized millennial culture said, “Indian culture has set up norms for almost every discipline in the modern world. The millennials draw from this culture, refine it and take it forward.”
The panel concluded that although there is a growing tilt to western culture, our Indian roots are still strong and vibrant.
Hard and soft power
While the military is the hard aspect of any foreign policy, culture is the soft one, said author and politician Shashi Tharoor in the closing address. “Our culture includes our cuisine, music, movies, drama, fashion, art, sculpture and every aspect of our lives. Our culture is what attracts the West to us. It is our biggest foreign policy asset, but we underestimate this,” asserted Tharoor. He quoted Mahatma Gandhi’s advice to keep our doors and windows open to let in winds from everywhere but to keep our pillars strong and not to be swayed by them.
Indian culture was certainly reasserted by this Inkpot.
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