Sunday, September 21, 2014. Not a soul stirred on that cold morning, especially at BITS Pilani, Hyderabad. This was the one day that people wouldn’t berate the students for being ‘self-taught’. Yet, there was an incessant buzz around the auditorium building, what with people moving about in black tees carrying a strangely satisfied look on their face <insert snide remarks about elitism here>. Ah yes, TEDx BITS Hyderabad was here.
Agreed, it was a little pricey, more importantly pricier than the last time. But this second edition of TEDx BITS Hyderabad, to use the organisers’ favourite word was now ‘international’. This was because after the success of the first edition, there was a need felt to experiment with things at a larger scale. I daresay this event was a success, but you can be the judge of that.
For those of you TED-virgins (God save you), TED stands for (this article should have come out before Soapbox, could’ve been useful) ‘Technology Entertainment Design’ – three elegant ways to realise beauty. They say that when your intellectual circle becomes one with your social circle, you never have to work a day again. And TED seeks to give precisely that experience as a not-for-profit organisation based out of Vancouver. It is a versatile platform for rigorous exchange of ideas. Why! Their own description is ‘Ideas worth sharing’!
Passionate men and women who have made a difference are invited to deliver an 18 minute talk, which encompasses the essence of their research and work. This event is recorded against hallmark TED backdrop and uploaded on ted.com, a place for muggles and wizards alike. TEDx (‘x’ for E’x’tension) is a daughter initiative and is independently organized, tied up with a University, say, and gathers individuals within a more modest radius to do the same.
TEDxBITSHyderabad ’14 had in its kitty 5 such passionate speakers invited from round the country and one speaker from South Korea (achievement unlocked: International!) who gave talks on their perception of ‘The Goodness of Life’, the theme of this conference. This event also screened, by usual format popular TED talks which made up 25% of the total number.
The red curtains faded and a passionate silhouette grasping a violin materialized on stage. It was Abhijit Gurjale’s opening act. He introduced his piece as fervently as a man in love with his wife would introduce her. With the tones manifesting art itself, the musical escapade put the audience’s curious expectations to rest and the event began on a good note. (Hah! I finally figured out where this phrase came from!)
“A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.”
― John Lennon
The first speaker was Vicky Roy who started off his storytelling in Hindi. “There was always a dream to fly”, he said. Vicky’s story is a typical rags-to-riches tale, but somehow something was different about it. I think it is his raw, open personality with the now gained refined attitude that gives off that flavour. He had been a runaway as a child and had spent his earliest years in a railway station in Delhi. Now he had spiralled up to such a transcending point that he had had tea (I think it means lunch when the Brits say it) with Prince Edward at the Buckingham Palace. As some casual opportunity wavered in front of him, he held it tight and grabbed it. He then returned to chiselling the journey of his childhood and captured images of kids not unlike himself. He would extract the intrinsic nature of these street boys and in a way encapsulate his own past into his photograph. His notable trophies include coverage of reconstruction of the World Trade Centre, initiation of the concept of an Open Library, participation in National Geographic’s ‘Mission Cover-shot’, and release of ‘Home. Street. Home’ book with all his featured works. Upon being asked what enabled him to achieve all that he has, he modestly attributed it all to his mentor, saying that he knew he had something to break his fall, with a special mention to ‘hard work’. Also, now he has 300 boarding cards with him. Is this cool or what?
When Upasana Makati walked elegantly onto the stage, just one thing ran through my mind: “She is beautiful”. And that’s when she quoted Rumi: “Whoever you are, whatever you do, be in love”. She had her epiphany when on a Sunday afternoon, immersed in a book she thought what the visually impaired would do with their leisure. Might they never enjoy the thrill of plodding through the crisp pages of a freshly printed book? As a faithful reader, this was something she couldn’t live with. True, books are a portal to a person’s definitive identity and she believed that blindness shouldn’t stop a person from being given an opportunity to sketch his or hers. And give an opportunity is exactly what she did in the form of ‘White Print’, which would take fame as India’s first English Lifestyle Magazine in Braille: A 64-page sanctuary for the visually impaired audience offering insights on Music, Dance, Art, Technology, Short Stories, and even Bollywood, and she found that this was something more than a book to her readers—it became their window to the world. I recall a quote about teaching a man to fish when I think of this.
Session 2: Endurance
“When you get to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on.”
― Franklin D. Roosevelt
Sey Min from South Korea was introduced as the ‘Data Visualization Rockstar’. She says “I got inspired by the Matrix trilogy”. And there she had me hooked. With all this around us, she preaches that in today’s world there is a dire need for people to think. Data in its raw form must be extrapolated to reveal answers, and data visualization aids exactly that. This is different from infographics, which is what most of know as graphs, pie charts and such in the sense that we do not know what we are looking for when we visualise data, and visualisation communicates what you want the viewer to see, whereas infographics leaves scope for interpretation. Her ‘Rockstar’ streak includes visualisation of water purification systems, approximation of apartment sizes versus its energy usage, real-time projects such as knitting machines powered by the amount of energy spent on searching data on the internet and the data consumption of the city of Seoul. I think she was referring to that guy who sits all day looking at a screen filled with binary sequences in green and says he can see things.
Next was Babar Ali, acclaimed as the ‘Youngest Headmaster’ in the world. Hailing from Murshidabad’s minority community, this is the story of how Ali meandered through the poverty and ignorance to endorse the only weapon of empowerment he knew: Education. Having observed other young boys working as rag-pickers and young girls as maids, he felt like this was not a life they deserved and he decided to take up carrying the beam that would guide all of them away from darkness. From then he has been teaching them in the afternoons, whilst being a student himself. And now his school has over 800 students with 60% girls and 40% boys. What say 6:1 boy-girl ratio BITSians?
Session 3: Blind optimism
“ ‘What day is it?’
‘It’s today,’ squeaked Piglet.
‘My favorite day,’ said Pooh.”
― A.A. Milne
Mani Shankar, a director, engineer and an inventor had a well-founded topic, ‘The Technology of Emotions’. To me he seemed to be the personification of ‘Goodness of life’. His talk was centred on Bharatha’s Natya Shastra which had expounded upon the neurochemistry of the mind. Bharata says the mind can be categorized into wet and dry: anything rational, logical and seemingly cold was labelled as dry and anything closely related to feelings was labelled as wet. He also argued that anything that comprised the wet space was immensely powerful. He classified these feelings using the navarasas, 33 sub-rasas, etc and said that these were the alphabets of emotion, and explained what an actor needs to do to entirely become someone else on screen. He has to empty his own self lest he keep colliding with himself. The actor has to become a zero, literally a vessel waiting to be filled by someone’s projection. His talk aggregated the idea of cherishing the sap of life by allowing the right triggers to play the right emotions. He powerfully opined that this was the ultimate benediction.
Gitanjali Sarangan, our last speaker, chose a delicate subject as her topic. She has been working closely with people with special needs. She believes that everyone has emotional, social or physical discrepancies in one way or the other, meaning that they are just as normal as any others. She recalls an incident where she took such a child to her school and asked her students if they were uncomfortable with her presence, to which a child replied “Why? I have a learning disability too when it comes to Hindi! We’re all disabled that way!” .And she suggests that they learn in ways different from others, and that lack of initiative is no justification for social exclusion. She reveals her idea of incorporating art as a method of teaching them, as a tool to communicate, and feels that art is a definition which bypasses the mind. Her message is strong and clear. Collecting her abstractly exquisite idea, she weaves them into an appeal to the audience and the rest of the world, in her activities at the Sneha Dhara Foundation.
Epilogue: Black Swan
TEDx offers the stage for attendees who would like to resonate to the world their own ideas with ‘Share an idea with TEDx’. Three attendees who had tried to make a difference were invited to make mini-TEDx talks. One of them, Rashida Taskin is a student at Manipal Institute of Technology who was inspired to make an automatic feeding device by seeing instances of Cerebral Palsy in her own siblings. She now plans to make this as small as a tiffin box, and hopes that her technology can make lives just a little easier.
The trouble with being in love is that it is hard to let go. Rumi missed out on that, I suppose. But that’s what happened to me when the conference ended—such a magnificent set of speakers, such passionate attendees, not to mention the great food! But it all made sense at the end: Epiphanies need to be invested upon with endurance, giving way to passion. When you feel that surging through you, you find your calling—and you are obsessed with it, blindly optimistic that this will lead you to your destination, knowing not what the journey is. Do all this, and your success but will be a Black Swan to the rest of the world, like a magic trick knowing not the painstaking sleight of hand that went behind it. And isn’t that what the goodness of life about? A neat magic trick?