Never imagined that I would find Mary Wollstonecraft on a TEDxDelhi stage. Wollstonecraft was the mother of feminism, grandmother of Frankenstein, this muh I knew but that she was also an adventure seeker, a single mum with a baby tucked in, chasing the high seas looking for her boyfriend’s lost silver, I wouldn’t have known if I didn’t attend the brilliant talk by journalist and author Bee Rowlatt at TEDxDelhi.
Obsessed by Wollstonecraft, the original ‘nasty woman’, Rowlatt followed her journey and wrote a travelogue, In Search of Mary: The Mother of All Journeys. I was delighted to hear Rowlatt speak on TEDx stage about feminism, Wollstonecraft, her double death, the backlash she faced, her thoughts on cultivating reason etc all in a simple language peppered with beautiful humour. I always thought talking about feminism on a TED stage where the audience is largely young male techies is a challenge but Rowlatt was so brilliant, her talk touched a chord with the male audience as evident from Twitter updates.
The latest TEDxDelhi brought together several such women speakers which broke the predictable pattern. The male female speaker ratio is mostly imbalanced. Even when we have female speakers, they mostly belong to ‘feminine’ category like entertainment, fashion, home based entrepreneurship making cup cakes and pickles, social services in development sector, teachers etc. But to have speakers like Sana Iqbal, a female biker who took her bike to hit the roads hoping she would die in an accident and then battled her depression and biked across India to talk about depression with others; and Kanika Tekriwal, a Cancer survivor who faced gender bias throughout her growing up days and went on to be an entrepreneur in the aviation business and be featured in Forbes list of under 30 within five years of starting up, was truly a delightful experience.
I loved how both Sana and Kanika shared their personal stories without inhibitions. Sana spoke about her love loss, marriage, divorce and how these affected her. Her confession that she felt more devastated losing her husband’s love and almost felt no motherly love towards her new born son was truly heart warming.
Kanika’s confession that cancer was probably the best thing that happened to her, that at the age of 22 when she was diagnosed with cancer she felt relived that it has bought her time otherwise she would have been forced to get married, is a violent reminder of what little freedom of choice women has at even the most privileged class or caste. Even Cancer seems a better idea than marriage. If, before her cancer people worried who will marry her if she studied too much, during chemotherapy they worried now who will marry her (because who wants a damage product?). Her story is the story of a ambitious woman perhaps another ‘nasty woman’ who was told woman shouldn’t have too much brain.
Not to mean that only the women speakers were inspirational, the male speakers shared equally incredible stories. Particularly, the ones who stood out for me were the 17 year old twin brothers Yashraj and Yuvraj Bhardwaj, Vipul Singh and Joey Ellis.
The Bharadwaj brothers started out to be cricketers but ended up being scientists with 7 patents, 22 projects all without even a college degree yet. Their witty wordplay addressing the education system where exams are “mugging championships” was worth nothing.
The traveling solo performer Vipul Singh aka Ghumantu Kalakar, was hilarious when he shared the story of meeting midnight thieves who wanted to mug him and he said, “Wait let me note down the contact numbers from my cell and then you can take all I have, this 30-40 rupees and this kurta and mobile.” So he sat down to note numbers while the thieves sat around him sharing their stories. They touched each others chord and rest of the story is of true humanity. Humanity is something anybody can cultivate. You don’t necessarily have to be part of an NGO or some other big project. Any individual is capable of humanity. Vipul travels on a budget, sleeps at railway platforms and performs street theaters on various issues.
American stop motion artist and sculptor Joey Ellis premiered a music video made by him using surreal .GIFs but before he could get to that point, he had to bravely face the technical glitches that completely ruined his presentation and it was his presence of mind used to fill in the bizarre gaps with quick witty anecdotes that won everybody’s admiration. Albeit technical glitches, Joey’s philosophy on how GIFs blur the lines that divide us, because they have no beginning and ending and its the middle that is all, was not lost on the audience.
The event also saw beautiful musical performances by Delhi based singer Kamakshi Khanna and who also spoke about the importance of imperfect perfection in music and lamented the commercialization of music. “There are no bad musician only sensational and legendary musicians, sensational are those whose memories fades away, legends are immortal.” She said. Beat boxer Julias Mitchel from Sri Lanka won every heart with his unreal talent and the impromptu jamming session was an added bonus.
The TEDxDelhi 2016 concluded on Sunday, 11th December at IHC. The event was organized by TEDx Amabassador Gaurav Gupta who has previously organized TEDxWalledCity. It was sponsored by brands like NDTV’s Mojarto and Infosys. I had previously attended TEDxDelhi in 2010, which was the first in Delhi. Concepts of TED Fellows and TEDx was still new at that time. In last 6 years TEDx events have become big and popular in India, perhaps bigger than TED itself because most people who attend a TEDx event don’t really know TED and certainly don’t know how TEDx is different from TED.
There are two issues I continue to feel need to be addressed. TEDx speaker should use gender neutral language. One of the speaker started his talk with, “Imagine you are running late for work…you have to quickly take bath…put on your shirt as if you are caught by your girlfriend’s father.” The habit of randomly using women in relational terms (mother / girlfriend / sister) as mere props in conversation between men which carries a narrative signifying power and authority of another man (girlfriend’s father) should end. A male TEDx speaker must learn to stop assuming that his audience is exclusively men, that ‘sex with girlfriend’ by default means it is a matter of concern to the father, that all men are straight and therefore worried about being caught by girlfriend’s father and not boyfriend’s father or mother or whatever. They should use human instead of man, he or she instead of blanket masculine terms. Responsible communicators all over the world are increasingly avoiding gendered language. TEDx speaker should take the cue.
Secondly, I feel speakers should be part of the event from the start to finish and not behave like VIPs who only come for their talk and leave soon. Bollywood star, Tisca Chopra for example gave a cameo appearance to promote her short film and nobody could see her before and after that. While the likes of Shekhar Kapur and Usha Uthup at TED India had breakfast with us. The essence of TED is to be able to connect to the speaker.