Polyglot, culture vulture and head of the experimental think tank Godrej India Culture Lab, Parmesh Shahani, believes in the power of cross-pollination and collaboration to help us rethink and reimagine a different, perhaps better, future.
In 2009, a strange confluence of things took place. I had been working at Mahindra & Mahindra [in new media, venture capital and innovation], while simultaneously editing [the women’s fashion magazine] Verve and my book Gay Bombay had come out, too. It was around this time, I decided to do a PhD at the University of Pennsylvania, and after I joined in August 2009, I was selected as a TED fellow, a worldwide ideas-sharing non-profit organization. The experience of attending my first TED was eye-opening and I returned thinking I didn’t want to spend the next five years digging into an academic question; I wanted to see if I could go wide, instead, and build a similar ecosystem for India.
At the time, I felt as if no one was looking at the changes that were taking place in contemporary India through anything but a political and economic lens. The idea of cross-pollination came to me because I’d been privileged enough to work in technology [Shahani founded the youth website Fresh Lime Soda], fashion, corporate and news business. And I had noticed and was surprised that friends in business were not reading academic books, that friends in film did not realize there was theory behind their work, that friends in fashion were not aware they were selling clothes because of consumption behaviours that came from economic processes created before and after liberalisation. I realised it would be beneficial for each of these streams to recognize that there were people in parallel worlds working towards the same goals. I decided that was the pivot around which I wanted to curate, across themes that were vital to contemporary India—like gender, sexuality, modernity, urbanization, digitalization. I wanted to build a consortium of companies asking these questions.
So I dropped out of my PhD and came back to pitch this super ambiguous idea. A friend introduced me to Nisa Godrej who said, “This is a completely crazy idea and I don’t think you fully understand what you’re trying to do, but let’s do this.” She offered to let me work out of Godrej Headquarters in Vikhroli (a Mumbai suburb). And then I spent several months travelling across India, talking to other companies, but no one else bit. They just didn’t get the point; they were not interested in abstract exploration. So we decided to go it alone and began the Godrej India Culture Lab in 2011.
We’ve had many highlights. The Museum of Memories, our first pop-up in 2012, was magical. Lots and lots of people came and there was live art, alternate reality games, fashion shows, food, theatre and much more set up for one day only, in a 60,000 sq feet factory that was demolished the next day. It was deeply poetic. Another highlight was hosting Japanese architect Tadao Ando, who spoke about architecture and its capacity to surprise and amuse and so many high profile came from all across the country and abroad.
Over the years, our LGBT programming has been very strong, too. Every pride month, we’ll do an event. We recently did a mangrove safari where we took LGBT participants on a private tour. So the community really considers us their adda—we’re a safe and preferred LGBT space. Our programming has also impacted Godrej’s HR policies. We have helped the company ‘come out’ as one of India’s leading LGBT friendly companies.
But one of the things I’m most proud of is that in merely five years, we’ve put Vikhroli firmly on the cultural map. Our location, far away from South Bombay, which was considered the cultural hub of the city, was a major challenge. But who lays claim to the idea of culture? Who says culture can only come out of NCPA, Bombay Gym and NGMA [all hallowed art and cultural institutions in South Bombay]? This colonial hegemony still existed five years ago and we wanted to challenge it. At first people scoffed, then they began to admire us from a distance and now they very happily take that train or expressway to come here. We have 300 to 400 people coming to our events, which is more than I’ve ever seen at fuddy-duddy events in So Boring SoBo!
We have since served as a catalyst for the alternative. We recently hosted a salon of 25 conference spaces—small, indie establishments like Harkat Studio, Antisocial, (artists) Shreyas and Hemali Bhuta’s Cona, Sitara studio and Junoon, that have all sprouted in the last five years and none of them were located in south Bombay.
What’s next? Now that we have done cross-pollination and place-making, we want to do coalition-building and collaboration. We want to join hands with people who share our vision and see how we can help one another. To that end, we’ve done two things this year—we’ve created a beta version of a map that lists all the cultural spaces in the city. It’s like a living-breathing repository of information and we ask people to send us their discoveries, so we can keep adding to it. We’ve also prepared a paper that corporations and cultural spaces can use as a tool to dialogue with each other—so cultural spaces can speak a corporate language to communicate the importance of funding and why they deserve to exist. And finally, we are revamping our archive of more than 100 videos so far to become even more relevant, so that in future, even if our lab transforms and exists in some other format, we will have proof of a moment in time where we paused and looked at our world.
As the lab matures, we want to go smaller, deeper and more collaborative. It’s also important for me that we curate for hope. This year, for example, we looked at women’s day through the lens of sport. We screened short films on two places in Maharashtra where young girls have collectivized and started playing football, because it is important to tell these micro-narratives of success, especially when it comes to gender. We want to talk about desire, agency, happiness, success—enough of focusing on problems and issues, let’s shine the light on how the resistance happens beautifully and happily.
I’m very interested in examining different iterations of modernity, too. For example, a political narrative says demonetization and smart cities is modernization. So is a modern mindset really a traditional mindset that just uses the iPhone to document the horrible things we do to each other? Or is a modern mindset one that is about openness, tolerance, inclusivity? How do we frame modernity and how do we overlay these multiple ideas of modernity onto what it means to be Indian right now. It is vital we ask these questions, so we can reimagine different futures for ourselves—whether it’s our approach to climate change, caste, gender and sexuality. Reframing leads to re-imagination, which leads to change, whatever that change might be.
As told to Cheryl-Ann Couto, exclusively for Parisera.