Bengaluru engages in soul search

Citizens engage in a dialogue over issues confronting society and discover new avenues of understanding and bonding.

Meta-Culture, a Bangalore-based Relationship and Conflict Management consulting company, organised an event called Bengaluru Speaks on 21st February 2009 at the Ashirvad Community Centre on St. Mark’s Road. Bengaluru Speaks, a community conversation series is one of Meta-Culture’s community-focused initiatives, and had for its eighth theme: “Competing Cultures: Morals, Malls and Marriages”.

The stated goal of the programme was to engage the people of Bengaluru in constructive conversation about critical issues so as to strengthen relationships across the city and create a more secure, cohesive and viable community. The event was organised to facilitate dialogue ‘in times of a rapid change, socially and culturally,’ said Gayatri of Meta-Culture, as she introduced the theme and event.

“What do you think of when you hear ‘Competing Cultures – Morals, Malls, and Marriages?’” was the question the group of 50-plus assembled Bengalureans were asked. The event was open for all and people from various backgrounds were present: IT professionals, college students, activists and writers. As Bengaluru spoke, Gautam Sonti, a local filmmaker, filmed the event for a documentary about change in Bangalore. An initial large-group discussion was launched with a Meta-Culture facilitator asking the participants questions such as: “Why issues of cultural change are important to talk about” and “How have recent events [like the attacks in Mangalore, the controversy around Valentine’s Day] impacted you personally?” The responses of the participants included comments on ‘the ongoing westernisation’ and ‘confusion about culture’ and seeing the Mangalore attacks as ‘attacks against women’ and ‘moral policing’. The necessity of a dialogue was established through this initial response-round.

The facilitators then asked the participants to seek out 4-5 people who they did not know, to make smaller discussion groups and were given a set of ground rules (to speak from personal experience, listen and reflect). One Meta-Culture facilitator was assigned to each group and the participants were challenged to explore their opinions, feelings and even their biases with regard to three different topics: marriage and dating, shopping malls, and pub culture. These discussions threw up diverse opinions that participants in the group engaged with and responded to variously, with agreement, awe, tolerance and occasionally even a sense of shock!

The smaller-group discussions were then directed to a large-group discussion where Beth Fascitelli, a facilitator at Meta-Culture, asked the participants to make a list of the good things about Indian culture that they would seek to protect at all costs. The list contained a rich variety of responses: rangoli, grandmothers’ pickles, festivals, family, unconditional hospitality and saris. Then Beth threw the group an unexpected googly. She said, “If tomorrow you woke up and there was a coup d’état in India, and suddenly I’m the new ruler of the country… and I decide I hate Indian festivals, and so I make a new law banning Indian festivals.” She slashed away at other items of the list that, under her hypothetical rule, she would ban from Indian life and then asked the participants: “What would you do if any of this was taken away?” This evoked strong responses ranging from ‘revolt’ and ‘subversion’ to ‘brutal attack’.

Beth ended by asking, “Could people who disagree with you have feelings as well?” A few of the participants said yes, thus making space for, what was the set goal – a dialogue. So participants who until then were "condemning the attacks" had themselves responded with an "I will attack you". It was quite clear that even those who came across as considerate and reasonable in responding to one party had been blind to the other one, and had failed to see what was necessary for a dialogue.

The attempt at empathizing (by raising a question about feelings) may not exactly have been the intellectual key that some participants said they had come looking for, but Meta-Culture’s attempt was a brave one. However, some of the questions I could not help asking myself were: Was it really true that as Beth said, ‘Dialogue is new in India?’ Could modern-western frameworks already have set the terms for a dialogue? And could attempting dialogue without engaging the themes fully be productive at all? I wish the final discussion of the event had been allotted more time so that Beth’s googly sunk in more fully!

The next Bengaluru Speaks is on Saturday, 4th April, 4:30 PM at Ashirvad Community Centre, St. Mark’s Road.
Theme for the next Bengaluru Speaks is: "The Urban Woman: inspiration, challenge, threat?"

Bengaluru Speaks, I thought represented a much-needed space, wherein the monotonous bashing of any one group or the professing of a pre-decided political position was neither the aim nor the result. A free and formal stint on a thematic of community-interest that ushered in the beginnings of a dialogue was what the evening saw. If you did not stay till the end of the event, you are very likely to have missed the point!

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