Letter from New Delhi
By Kul Bhushan
“I’m not a feminist,” declared well-known author Neelima Dalmia Adhar in her first sentence to shake up the audience conditioned to listening about gender equality all through the event, Inkpot India Conclave, held in New Delhi recently.
More than a hundred listeners got a jolt towards the end of this 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’ have 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 well-known 70-year old Urdu poem on women written by famous poet Kaifi Azmi, “Rise my love, you have to walk with me.’
A vibrant festival of Indian ethos, Inkpot India Conclave’s aim to re-ink, rebrand and reassert Indian culture was amply successful after 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.
The brain child of 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.
Guiding Simar were two committed women activists, Mrs Ratan Kaul and Mrs Benu Malhotra as Festival Directors. They 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 a stimulating narrative.
Inaugurating the event, the Minister of State Ministry of Culture, Prahlad Singh Patel, complimented the organisers for this initiative. This session was attended by BJP national vice president Shyam Jaju, the Director General of Indian Council for Cultural Relations, Akhilesh Mishra, and other dignitaries.
Cavalcade of Speakers
The cavalcade of speakers included Jaipur Lit-Fest director Sanjoy Roy and Padma Shri Shobhaa De for literature; Sunita Kohli, Shovana Narayan, and Ritu Kumar for design; Jaya Jaitley for crafts; women leader Ruma Devi from Barmer, Rajasthan; author Neelima Dalmia Adhar, editor Nandini Bhalla, social activist Shazia Ilmi, architect Padma Shri Sunita Kohli; 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 kept all spellbound with her success story of empowering 22,000 women in the rural areas of Rajasthan.
Same Sex Relationships
Another shocker was a surprisingly frank session on relaxation of laws on LGBT. Sharif D Rangnekar and Raga Olga D’silva related their personal challenges of facing the traumas of same sex relationships. “The only change I see,” remarked Sharif Rangnekar, “is that we can now talk about it openly on a panel. But 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 the same. “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
A young male belly dancer, wafer thin and bearded, Eshan Hilal, 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 and learnt it in Egypt and China. He performs in many Indian cities and conducts workshops. “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 Jaitly who established Dilli Haat, “Crafts people are successful, dynamic, and respected. When we buy their products, we respect their skills. Thus, play our role. They develop traditional designs.” She added, “They need two things: revenue and more importantly, respect. We need to respect and understand it before monetising it.”
She highlighted 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. These are offerred to the temple every day. They are then sold to the public and 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 these were in demand from many on the campus. Indian crafts are a part of life; not a show-off patronage, said 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 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 two examples. One on beef eating and another on screening Marathi films during prime time. An irate crowd turned up at her residence and she faced it and fought; for 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, Jordan are theocratic countries. India is not like that. “In a country like India, why should there be different laws of succession, divorce for different communities?” she asked.
Design, art, and dance mould our cultural identity, according to Sunita Kohli, Shovana Narayan, and Ritu Kumar. Emphasizing millennial culture, fashion designer Ritu Kumar 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.” Although there is a growing lilt to western culture, our Indian roots are still strong and vibrant, concluded the panel.
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 life. 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 keep our pillars strong and not to be swayed by them.
Indian culture was certainly reasserted by this Inkpot.
Kul Bhushan worked as a newspaper Editor in Nairobi for over three decades and now lives in New Delhi
* Published in print edition on 29 November 2019