By Kavita Ramdas
Never having been to a TED conference, I was not quite sure what to expect from the TED India gathering that just concluded last Saturday. Like other friends and colleagues in California, which was the original home of the Technology, Entertainment and Design gathering, I had watched a few of the famous 18 minute TED talks online. TED India was the first time that this conference had been hosted in a non-western country. It was held on the 330 acre Infosys campus – a place where each year thousands of India’s best engineers, many of them women, are trained and oriented to power the advancement of one of India’s most successful software companies. The campus is a most curious collection of buildings in more architectural styles than you had dreamed possible….as one amused American friend said to me, “It feels like we are in Vegas!”Interestingly, however, once the TED program began, it too was an eclectic and somewhat fascinating blend of stories and tales that did not merge seamlessly into one style – so perhaps the campus mirrored the diversity of TED presentations and was, after all, a fitting choice.
What I loved – no panels, interesting stories, a strong presence of Indian writers/thinkers/artistes and entrepreneurs and the chance to hear a diverse set of perspectives on everything from cricket tosnakes to human rights and film production. Also, the strong presence of many young people – identified as TED fellows who were from different parts of India and included 8 Pakistanis and a few Bangladeshis. Among my favourite speakers were Babar Ali, a 16 year old Bengali speaking student who has started his own school in rural Bengal; Usha Uttup, an energetic, sari-clad vocalist belting out songs in Russian/Arabic and Kiswahili to get the gathering going; Pranav Mistry, a young MIT student who has a vision that blends cyber and real worlds; Ryan Lobo who captured Indian policewomen keeping the peace in Liberia in his stunning photographs; and a bring-down-the-house performance by Drums Sivamani, the percussion genius, who demonstrated that everyday household items from a suitcase to a cooking pot can make music.
What bewildered me: After being told in no uncertain terms that “there could be no pitching of causes at any time” by TED staff, we watched a powerful presentation on human trafficking followed by what felt uncomfortably like an auction ….people offering to make monetary contributions to the cause –awkward -- given that Prajwala was just one of many social justice organizations represented by speakers at TED. Also, the occasionally strained interactions between the strong and active Indian speaker contingent and a significant group of TEDizens, most of whom were from the United States. Lastly, my feminist sensibilities were stressed by the term “TED virgins” used to describe those of us attending our first conference!
Kudos to Lakshmi Pratury, TED India co-host and TED founder, Chris Anderson for pulling together something uniquely Indian and very creatively TED in a new space. Things to look forward to: TEDx events organized by interested individuals and groups around the globe – coming soon to a community near you!
Kavita Ramdas is the President and CEO of the Global Fund for Women.