I’m back in Delhi after a wonderful week in Jaipur at The INK Conference. It was truly one of the most inspiring experiences of my life to meet so many incredible visionaries and listen to them speak about their innovative and revolutionary approaches to their work and their lives.
The conference spanned over four days, with twelve sessions of about 4-6 speakers in each session. Some of the speakers were famous and well-established in their fields: director Julie Taymor, bharatanatyam dancer Rajika Puri, composer Elliot Goldenthal, bollywood star Abhay Deol. Others were previously unsung heroes, working within their own communities to bring about the change they wanted to see in the world, such as Babar Ali, who, at age sixteen, became the headmaster of a school he started in his backyard for the children in his community who didn’t have the money to attend regular school. Each speaker had something unique and beautiful to share, and it made me think about how rich and varied the human experience is, and how these incredible, unheard stories must lay hidden deep within every single person in this world.
For me, particularly, it was wonderful to see music so well represented, and to come in contact with a handful of other musicians whose thoughts were along similar lines as mine. Itay Talgam gave a beautiful lecture about conductors, and how their conception of their role as a conductor shaped the relationship with the musicians and resultant sound of their orchestras. An organization called Drumjam set up a huge 300-piece drum circle that allowed everyone at INK the opportunity to make music together. Suman Sridhar was the other musician INK Fellow with the opposite training I had: she is a singer/songwriter who comes from a family of Indian musicians, and is interested in moving further into western music. Talavya is a group of four tabla players who perform as a wildly energetic and colorful tabla quartet (tabla is never played in a homogenous ensemble in standard Hindustani music — it’s more rare than an ensemble of ten oboes in western classical music). And Shantanu Moitra‘s project, Folksome, that allows people to call a number and record and upload indigenous folk music from the remotest corners of the world is helping to preserve and provide universal access to local folk music traditions.
Perhaps the most interesting musical meeting for me, though, was with Los Angeles Philharmonic violinist, Robert Gupta. Robert and I have an uncannily similar history: We both attended the Yale School of Music and Juilliard at different times. He grew up in New York and then moved to LA when he was 19. I grew up in Los Angeles and then moved to New York when I was 18. We are both first generation Indian-Americans and we both chose to be western classical musicians. And recently, we both began to explore Hindustani classical music more deeply. So it’s funny that it took us this long to meet one another, and that of all places, it was at a non-musical event Jaipur. Robert is an incredible musician, and an even more incredible human being — his knowledge is so vast, and his commitment to his beliefs is unflagging, whether to the music itself or to the people who listen to it. On the other hand, he’s also just an awesome, fun guy, and I had a great time geeking out on all sorts of random musical topics with him.
In addition to the musicians, I enjoyed seeing such a variety of amazing performing and creative artists. They were all at different stages of development in their artform, but each had such integrity about their work: Charles Ma, an explosively brilliant bharatnatyam dancer turned heads as perhaps the only Chinese performer of a traditionally south indian art form. Julie Taymor’s designs for The Lion King finally made sense to me as she told us about how four years in Indonesia affected her sense of aesthetic in her conception of theater. I found Californian sculptor John Frame‘s work impossible to describe in words, yet completely direct in aesthetic purpose. Rajika Puri captivated the audience by illuminating her traditional dances with spoken word and modern percussion. Rob Cook, who worked as an animator for Pixar, took us through the amazing process of animation, and showed us four different versions of the same scene from Finding Nemo, from storyboard to final cut. French perfumer Yann Vasnier broke down a scent for us, and allowed us to smell each of six steps toward the composite fragrance on tester cards as he described them. And John and Elora Hardy‘s stunning work in Bali, building homes and a school entirely out of bamboo combined sustainability, economy, and breathtaking beauty.
And it wasn’t just artists. There were people in so many different fields — science, technology, banking — who presented on amazing innovations in their fields. Anand Agarawala, the inventor of BumpTop, showed us a new app for iPad that allowed for simple, accessible 3D drawing in real space. Alexander Tsiaras released a new website called visualMD that far exceeded the effectiveness of WebMD in allowing people to truly understand their diagnoses, not only through clear charts, but through a series of informative and relatable videos. Ayesha Khanna talked about embedding the values of our culture into the technological innovations in our growing cities. Vineet Singal reframed the idea of bone marrow donation through the 100K Cheeks Campaign, the most successful bone marrow donor signup in history. Deepak Ravindran talked about a platform he created called SMS Gyan, that allows anyone with the simplest model of phone to perform an internet search, linking people in the remotest locations and with the most limited resources to the latest information available.
I was part of a group of 21 INK Fellows from all over the world, who were all about my age and at the beginning of very interesting journeys in their lives and careers. The energy among the Fellows was palpable as we met one another and uncovered each other’s diverse and multi-faceted stories. Madhumita Halder, from Bangalore created Aksharit, the first Indian language word game that makes building and using vocabulary in a variety of Indian languages fun for children. Selene Biffi, from Italy, used her experiences in Afghanistan to create comic books to educate children. At 20 years old, Krushnaa Patil was the youngest Indian woman to climb Mount Everest, and has since successfully scaled the tallest peaks in six out of the seven continents. Kalyan Varma‘s belief in accessibility has allowed thousands of people to appreciate and use his beautiful work as a photographer of rare wildlife. Twenty-year-old Nikhilesh Das, from Assam, created a system of oil removal and reuse using organic materials that won him a presidential award from the Indian government. Dina Buchbinder Auron created an organization that uses sports to teach children all over Mexico about important social values from health issues to fair treatment of women. I was fascinated by each Fellow and their story. Up until this point, I really never had colleagues from many of these countries or regions, and getting to know people of this caliber and with such unbound energy made me feel so positive and excited about the direction of the world.
The thing that sruck me the most about these talks was that more than people’s accomplishments or innovations, they spoke about the parts of their journey that were significant to them. Sometimes we look only from the outside at the results people have achieved, and while reading their bio is always impressive, it also creates a distance between the actual person and the work they do. Their accomplishments seem unattainable, and sometimes they even seem inhuman after reading a long list of awards and honors. But listening to their stories, told through their own eyes, I identified with every one of them. There were common themes that ran through everyone’s journey, regardless of the topic or the level of visibility of their accomplishments. There were universally applicable observations and lessons about the path to a fulfilling human experience.
It was interesting to me that each speaker had started out in a circumstance that many other people in the world share: there are many people who are blind, who come from poor communities, who come from a lineage of industry moguls, whose husbands have thrown acid on their faces and disfigured them, who come from families who share their career path or don’t, who had constant encouragement or who got endlessly beaten down, who were NRIs that moved back to India or Indians who moved abroad, who climbed a ladder within a certain field and then realized upon reaching the top, that the career no longer spoke to them.
Their circumstance is not what is special. It is only that each of these people chose to see their circumstance through the lens of possibility. And it was with that mindset that great change, innovation, and progress was brought about in their lives and the lives of those around them, one small step at a time.
One of my favorite talks was the very last one, by Sheena Iyengar, the author of The Art of Choosing. She felt that we could tell our story three ways: through the lenses of fate, chance, or choice. The elements of fate and chance may put us in certain circumstances, but it is choice that allows us to take charge of those circumstances and put ourselves in a position to pioneer our own destiny.
PS: All the talks given at INK 2011 (including mine) should be up on their website (inktalks.com) eventually. I will link to them as they appear.