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DAY THREE OF TED INDIA: The Humbling Effect of Wonder

5 November , 2009

November 5th 2009, Official Day One of TED INdia Mysore

India is Shining and she is not afraid to flaunt her progress in the face of a confident world here in Mysore. The speaker line up on the first official day of the TED India conference was almost exclusively Indian, with a couple of notable exceptions, and at times the curves of the day hit frankly (forgive the overused but entirely appropriate adjective here) mind-blowing proportions.  

One of the world’s top inventors

When you are presented with one of the world’s top inventors, a young Indian man by the name of Pranav Mistry, who has devised a device called the Sixth Sense which literally allows digital technology to be accessed by people anywhere and everywhere, using a gadget and a piece of paper to search Google, to check plane tickets or the latest news, or to cut and paste documents without the need for scanners or computers themselves, when you are faced with such extraordinary talent which also is wrapped up in an unassuming humility, mind-blowing is the only appropriate adjective. mind. Pranav stunned the audience with his easy demonstrations showing  how his invention could bring technology  to the masses truly cheaply by overlaying the physical world with digital information.

Ultra affordability

Ultra affordability and creative genius to bring serious social innovation and change for the world’s poorest people has been a driving theme all day. So it’s Not Business As Usual, then. It’s Fast Forward. The sometimes controversial R A Mashelkar whistled the audience through a “more from less for more” philosophy, which he called Gandhian Engineering, drawing on the Tata Nano car, the world’s first car to be sold for exactly $2000, as a means to give the poor some dignity back, exploring the material concept in practical terms as well as its social transformational possibilities in affording the poor a physical space on the social rung. Gasps escaped the audience when he showed the new technology designed in India to bring prosthetic limbs costing just $20 to the poor, adapted to their needs so adeptly that a man who collects coconuts for a living can climb palm trees, jump off the branches, fitted with the prosthetic leg, and then run a kilometre in just over four minutes. Ultra affordability and social innovation designed to conquer an unequal marketplace. Pawan Sinha, too, showed us how the brain can recognise the patterns around us to give blind children the gift of sight when they have been told it is unlikely that they will ever be able to see again. His research in Delhi has developed fascinating  findings concerning the way in which the autistic brain functions through sight, which may provide valuable breakthroughs into this disability which causes so much frustration and difficulty in children, and their parents’ lives. A breakout session this morning had shown us how autism and developmental difficulties are being frequently misdiagnosed, and that ECGs of the brain, used by an Indian neuroscientist, are beginning to change the way in which these developmental conditions are understood, and treated, with medicine targeting brain seizures actually correcting the symptoms which mimic autism. Presented with science and technology combining to produce these pioneering results both for individuals and society, I spent most of my day feeling exceptionally humbled.

The mythology of a corporate culture?

When a giant Indian corporate group, Futures, employs a Chief Beliefs Officer, Devdutt Pattaniak, who stuns a fiercely rational international audience with insightful explorations of Western mythology versus Eastern mythology, drawing on the mythical meeting between Alexander the Great and a Gymnosophist, one who believed in one life and the other who believed in an infinity of lives, when a man of that understanding working at the height of corporate culture in booming India can use mythology to assist two potentially clashing cultures to work together rather than to be exasperated by each other, that too blew me away.

And then, frankly, it’s all about cricket

As if this unparalleled campus was not enough to show the glittering face of Indian progress,  the globe auditorium mirroring Floridas’s Epcot Centre with a stage given over to vintage saris and Indian antique glamour, there was a lighter note to counter the day’s intensity. India’s fortunes in cricket were revealed in cheerleading glory by the celebrity commentator, Harsha Bhogle, as he regaled the audience with stories of  “accidents” that led Indian cricket to win a World Cup, ‘steal’ English ideas of a novel 20/20 game and recently to introduce an American style IPL league in India, declaring the gentleman’s game its unique, Bollywood-toting own. Hard to imagine Frank Lampard or Cristiano Ronaldo dancing on television adverts to popularise football, but Sachin Tendulkar and Harbhajan Singh evidently are far more talented in the shoulder-shaking sport. Shah Rukh Khan hugging a Pakistani cricketer who played for his Calcutta team shows the unifying power of sport, met with a large round of applause by an appreciative crowd.

Music as a unifying force

Music, dance and rhythm also provided an uplifting interlude to the loftiness throughout the day. A haunting musical introduction by the popular  Usha Ulthap was followed before lunch with a multi-lingual rendition. Usha, a renowned singer in India, had the audience singing in Punjabi as she sang in Russian, Swahili, Arabic and Hebrew. It was perhaps a shame that she sang less in Hindi than might have been expected -this crowd certainly would have appreciated it – but she was complemented  by the well known Mallika Sarabhai who uses the arts as an aggressive form of getting across political campaigns of social responsibility. Her style may jar with some, but who knew that a clean cotton sari, folded eight times, through which water then is sieved, dramatically reduces water-borne disease? Communication through dance and music may yet save many thousands of villagers’ lives across Asia. The final duo of the day, Anil Srinivasan and Sikkil Gurucharan, left goose bumps across me, tingling with an extraordinary fusion of classical western piano with classical Tamil vocals.

Food for the soul

Perhaps, though, the most unexpected speaker and effect came from the day’s sole spiritual nourishment, Sadguru Jaggi Vasudev who runs the Isha Foundation in South India. Dressed in the white robes and yellow scarves of a holy man, his light hearted humour and fluent  no-nonsense discussion of how he came to accept his own deep spiritual experiences, which he described as turning him into a giant question mark for years, seemed to infect a conference who one participant yesterday described as akin to a religion for atheists. Watching  this wise and jovial man spinning on the stage like a sufi as Usha Uthup sang in Russian across the stage was an experience that made me contemplate attending one of his retreats, India in one form leading to India in another. It leads me to a series of thoughts about what India is able to give the world if it stays true to all of its multifacted identities, rather than simply accpet what the Western world today confirms as the only possible corporate and social logic. Bu that thought is for another day. for now, i wondered only – What gives this spiritual leader  that easy-hearted  joy? How do we define happiness, the subject of yet another talk today in the context of corporate culture and employee happiness.

No value in homogenous viewpoints or serpents

Of course, I didn’t agree with absolutely everything I heard today – what would be the value in homogeneity? Inevitably innovation and ideas bring controversy and diverse views. One man’s ideas of grand infrastructure in Dubai, for example, may be my idea of environmental disaster, even if it does represent a spectacular feat of engineering. And whilst I understand the whole “When in Rome” business, I dearly wish the subject of venomous snakes would just go away. Yesterday and today, as an environmentalist spoke about his conservation work for the Indian King Cobra in the Western Ghats, which felt uncomfortably close to Mysore at this juncture, I wished I could find compassion and wish him  – and his beasts – well, but as I shrunk back visibly into my seat, narrowly avoiding the humiliation of leaping out of the auditorium on film, all I wished is that he would take the spitting forked tongue out of the projector image that had the twelve foot creature hanging literally right over us.

But the spirit of the day was to absorb a collection  of ideas that stunned, surprised and informed you, and one man’s truth is not every man’s taste. With the exception of the spitting cobra eating the pit viper, every single speaker presented food for thought.

Intensity and humility

Ten hours of lectures and another five hours or talking to healthcare workers, venture capitalists, photojournalists, fashion designers, teachers, artists, architects and social innovators from forty six countries, all so excited by the power and inspiration of change, was enough to exhilarate and exhaust most of us, yet somehow the spirit to absorb, engage and learn has kept many of us on our feet until way past one in the morning, again. Humility, too, has kept my senses keen.

The spectacular Swedish professor of public health, Hans Rosling, who opened the day with an energy-packed eighteen minutes told us that it was “possible, probable, though far from certain,” that India and China would catch up with the West in economic and health terms by the 27th July 2048.

We have about forty years to save the planet but in the meantime, we all need to sleep. Three hours until I need to be awake again, in every sense.

The day starts again with fierce intensity tomorrow. In one day, I feel I have learned more that I ordinarily would have learned in a year, about India today, about the innovation and power in her vibrant civil society, about the world and about ourselves. I probably can recall just a fraction of what has been said, but unlike a day at law school or other conferences, i didn’t fall asleep for even a single minute, jet lagged, sleep-deprived or otherwise.

Last words then to one of the organisers, Lakshmi, who in true Indian style (Goodness Gracious me or My Big Fat Greek Wedding – you choose) told us why TED, famous for its eighteen minute lectures, was really an Indian invention. Eighteen chapters in the Mahabharata, eighteen sections in the Bhagavat Gita, eighteen days in an ancient historical battle, and eighteen minutes to transfer wisdom. TED India.

India shone brightly today, first with sunshine, and now with stars.

  1. Very vivid description. I watched the webcast all day Thursday, but feel closer to the action from your words.

    • SKJ permalink

      Thank you very much, really glad it meant something to you. I will write up Day Four as soon as I can! Enjoy!

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