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Collective Power
Published: Volume 19, Issue 6, June, 2011

When people get together and collaborate, powerful ideas emerge, says Parmesh Shahani

Most of what you will read in the rest of this magazine is about individual power. Power as a synonym for leadership. Power as a person’s capacity to make things happen or to change the course of things. Power as a sense of achievement attained through excellence or sometimes, through circumstance. Power as something that should be crowned and celebrated.

However, in the time between the last Verve ‘Power Issue’ and this one, the world has changed dramatically. While individual power continues to be important, there has simultaneously been a tremendous surge of collective power all over the world and this people power is literally changing the course of history. I’m writing this column after the euphoric Mamta-Jayalalitha election victories, which were less about their individual personalities and more about a collective disgust amongst the electorate with the status quo. This capacity of collective power to overturn governments through elections is in fact, the bedrock of modern democracy. Sometimes the regime change is violent, as with this year’s Jasmine revolution in the Middle East. Dictators wielding individual power often try to crush collective power, as the rulers of Syria, Bahrain and Libya have all been doing, but it’s only a matter of time until the collective wins.

Often, collective power brings people together Rang De Basanti style, as with Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement, or with the protestors in Cairo’s Tahrir square. But then the scripts play out differently. With Egypt, Mubarak was ejected, but the real victory will come when the country transitions to a more just government and society over the next few years. With the Hazare-inspired protests, it may seem that the movement has fizzled out. However, Hazare’s tactics have led to a revitalised and activist judiciary that has the public will on its side to carry out what would have seemed unthinkable even two years ago – an extra-ordinary prosecution of corrupt politicians and businesspeople.

Collective power asserts itself beyond politics in many different spheres. The very idea of microfinance itself, despite the recent spate of bad publicity, is about harnessing collective power to raise the standard of living among the world’s poorest communities. Filmmaker Onir crowd-funded his latest film I Am and released it to commercial success in India and abroad. Tech companies globally are all moving towards cloud computing – where individuals or companies don’t really own the software or invest in expensive hardware – everything resides on collective servers that are shared, and accessed whenever needed. Jennifer Aaker offers a compelling case study of collective power in her book The Dragonfly Effect – more than 24,000 bone marrow donors were registered in 11 weeks by using simple social media and this drive changed the lives of 266 leukemia patients.

Most collective power movements start small. In this column, I want to spotlight two special collective power experiments that, according to me, are changing India’s cultural landscape. The first is Jaaga, which I first heard of at TED India in 2009, but only managed to see last month. Jaaga (which means ‘place’ in Kannada and ‘awaken’ in Hindi) is difficult to describe. It is an intellectual ideal, an experiment in living, a community and also, very much a physical space and it is this physicality that overwhelms me when I see it first-hand, because, well, I’ve never seen anything like it before.

I am on Rheinus Street in Langford Town, just opposite the city’s hockey stadium, and staring up at a building that took 15 hours to build. (No, that’s not a printing error; you indeed did just read 15 hours.) The entire building is modular. The skeleton is made of low-cost pallet-rack shelving. The floors are plywood and wire mesh and the ceiling is tarp. There are solar panels that power the building’s lighting and wireless Internet needs. The roof and external walls of the building are built as horizontal and vertical gardens, that use rainwater harvesting and drip irrigation. Worms are used to generate compost out of organic waste. Jaaga is a phenomenal experiment in building a living, low-cost, mobile and eco-friendly urban structure, and the beauty is that it can be replicated anywhere.

As I enter – actually there’s no real door to enter, you just walk in from the street – Berlin, the excited Jaaga dog runs up to me and licks vigorously. Berlin is rather fond of destroying things with his fangs. While he devours what looks like the remnants of a pillow, Archana Prasad, Jaaga’s co-founder, offers me a hug and a packet of chips. Freeman Murray, Jaaga’s other co-founder, and Sean Blagsvelt, Jaaga’s advisor-at-large (who also happens to be the founder of the Babajobs.com website and Archana’s husband), are working on motion detection installations among a tangle of wires. I climb up a staircase to see a photo exhibit on level one. On the level above, red wine is being poured into paper cups while a motley crew of white and brown faces is stretched out on beanbags. There included fellows in residence, volunteers, and passers-by. Everywhere, there is a jumble of plants, computers, wires, bags and all kinds of strange tools, yet, nothing seems out of place. It feels like an utopian college dorm mashed up with a high-end design lab.

The NID-trained Archana used to be a design researcher for Microsoft until she chucked it up to pursue a full-time arts journey as a painter, poet, video artist and band member of the Manjunauts. Before Jaaga, Archana created the collaborative artist-run space Samuha with Suresh Kumar, also in Bengaluru. She conceived Jaaga with technologist Freeman Murray, who when he’s not building fabulous DIY structures as an architect, funds companies in Silicon Valley and India. (Freeman also helped run iAccelerator, the start-up incubator at IIM Ahmedabad.) Bangalore needed affordable creative community spaces and it also had several unused plots of land. What if these two factors could be combined to create a shared community space that could be assembled, dissembled and re-assembled? This was the idea behind Jaaga, and the structure was built almost overnight by a team of volunteers in 2009, on a plot of land donated by architect Naresh Narasimhan.

The Jaaga I visit contains workspaces, a café, dorm facilities and multi-level spaces for screenings, workshops, lectures and performances. There are media and electronic labs that offer training and partnership potential. There are residential fellowships for people from out of Bengaluru. Anyone can apply to have an event here. The only condition is that the event is open to all and has some social, political, environmental or artistic value.?So, in the past two years, they’ve held Facebook developers groups, photo exhibitions, brinjal cooking contests, experimental film festivals, dances, and activist sessions on Indian microfinance. The most important bit about the experiment is that it is open and collaborative, involving the local community and several volunteers. While Archana and Freeman have founded it, the direction in which it will go depends completely on its users. Collective power in full flow.

The impact that Jaaga has made within the short space of two years on Bangalore’s art scene has been momentous. Actually, by the time you read this, they will be in the midst of moving to a different location. All through the first few weeks of June, the Jaaga team are packing up from Langford Town and re-building the structure on a new plot, this time on Lalbagh Double Road. So go see Jaaga version 2.0 if you’re ever in the area.

Meanwhile, I come back to Mumbai, and am navigating through the leafy by-lanes of Carter Road in Bandra on a hot Sunday afternoon in May, trying to locate the wetheppl house. I had heard of wetheppl from Cara Eastcott, the Candian poet and performer who I’d invited to perform at TEDx Mumbai last year. She had then told me she was a part of an experiment where a group of Indian origin artists, thinkers, musicians, designers and filmmakers had come together from different parts of the world, including Kuwait, Toronto and Mexico, and were living in one big house, creating and selling work together. Collective power in action once again! It is finally time to check it out.

Cara is out of the country but I establish contact with Mriga, another group member, and am invited to visit. As I climb up the staircase, the Sunday brunch smells of cheese quesadillas, egg frittatas, mango salsa and freshly brewed coffee wafts down the stairwell, along with the sounds of vintage jazz. Wetheppl are either sprawled over their three-storey terrace apartment smoking contentedly, or cooking collectively in the kitchen. Their three-storey workshop in Chuim village (how do they manage to find such awesome digs in Mumbai?), which I visit after stuffing myself silly, has a similar vibe, with its Michael Jackson entrance shrine, DIY chandelier, gold lame curtains and a show room full of their edgy clothes labels – NorBlack NorWhite and the Camiz Project as well as their accessories like the Unt backpack, and the Postman wallet. “That’s Cleopatra, our resident cat,” says Mriga to me, as Cleo looks away disinterestedly. “She likes to have her babies in our office.”

Mriga and the wetheppl folks ask me not to include their faces in the photographs accompanying this column. “We experiment as a family, with our space and our spirit being the heart of our creation,” they declare. Rent is shared, as is, presumably, any profit that arises. Many members of the collective have assumed names like Doctor Saab or Engineer Bhai, and this commitment to the collective spirit is infused in everything they do. Their assorted projects have included websites, music videos, documentaries, disco parties under the banner of Grime Riot Disco and a posterzine (which includes, among others, hilarious Salman Khan suryanamsaskars). They also organise a regular vegetarian supper club called Umami on their Chuim workshop terrace and a weekend bazaar called Boom Pop a Shop. The two different clothing labels are sold at stores like Le Mill and Attic in Mumbai, UPC in Toronto and Adam et Rope in Japan.

I am quite impressed by the two NorBlack NorWhite collections that I see in their workshop. The first came about after a visit to Kutch and through a process of collaborating with the artisans at Kala Raksha. The craft in these garments is impeccable and the style is global. I can totally visualise these clothes being worn by fashion-forward women all around the world. The second collection that uses Benaras brocades, zardozi and chikan is equally funky. More than the clothes though, it is the beauty of what they are trying to achieve as a collective that is so special to me. Wetheppl is a multi-disciplinary global creative enterprise, and it seems to be a model for not just creativity, but also sustainable living for the future, much in the same way that Jaaga is. Jai ho for collective power!

SUMMER READING: HIT YA MYTH?

It’s summer time and when I’m not dancing in front of the mirror to Chaliya from Tashan (pretending to be Kareena in that hot lime bikini), I’m more often than not, curled up with a book on my lazyboy, with the AC on full blast. There are two new books out this month that I’ve had a chance to preview. The first is The Exiles by my friend Ghalib Dhalla, who’s cheekily named one of his characters after me! (To find out which one, you’ll just have to buy the book, darlings, I’m not telling so easily.) Ghalib is himself quite a character as he zooms around the world, banker by day, magazine editor by evening, and author and film-maker by night.

I loved the rawness of his first book Ode to Lata when I first read it in 2002. In it, Ali, a young gay Muslim man in Los Angeles, sought love in all the wrong places while he came to terms with his own complicated family history and geography. The songs of Lata Mangeshkar constantly play at the back of Ali’s head as the soundtrack to his life, just as they’re always playing in Ghalib’s Santa Monica pad whenever I’ve visited him, and the book was very closely inspired by his own life. The Exiles is his second novel and it’s released in India this month through Harper Collins. It’s a love triangle in which a Hindu woman discovers that her husband of 20 years, who she followed to America and has a grown son with, is now having an affair with a man, who happens to be a young Muslim illegal immigrant. Naturally, worlds clash and lives are destroyed.

Ghalib told me that he wrote this book because he wanted to expose the catastrophes people create when they lie to themselves as well as the people they love. It’s pretty sad that women being married to gay men and then feeling undesired and unloved is as universal a theme as the resultant destructive infidelity, even in 2011. Ghalib peppers his story with full-on drama and the book describes both the city of LA and the lives of its desi immigrants extremely evocatively.

If at all I do roll out of bed on these hot days, it is for book readings. (Not my own, my second book has yet to be written.) I do it for others, like Alice Albinia, whose delicious debut Empires of the Indus has whetted global appetites for her follow up, a piece of fiction, simply titled Leela’s Book out on shelves now via Random House India. I helped launch the book in Mumbai with a Q&A and book reading session at the Kemps Corner Crossword that was very well attended, despite the IPL match competing for attention, it being a national holiday.

Leela’s Book throbs with Delhi: the heated academic and political discussions, the chilly nights, the peculiar entwined relationships of power and intimacy. It is masala summer reading and good time pass. Shiva Prasad Sharma, the Hindu supremacist, Hari, the NRI returning home for his roots, and Leela herself, the mysterious, enigmatic Leela, are all engaging characters. To me though, the travel descriptions are the strongest. The way Alice sends off her characters to Shantiniketan or to Mumbai to find a qazi, or the way she describes Delhi itself, the divide between the post part of Nizamuddin and its basti… I would say, read the book just for these.

Incidentally, both these books deal with Hindu myths. Trending topic this month, it seems! In Alice’s case, she invokes Ganesh, Ved Vyas and the Mahabharata itself as the backdrop to her contemporary story, while Ghalib delves into both Sufism as well as the Puranas to discuss the life of lord Krishna. In fact the international title of The Exiles is The Two Krishnas.

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