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The India Culture Lab: A curious cultural cauldron in Mumbai
Ushamrita Choudhury  4th Jul 2015

little off Mumbai's Eastern Express Highway is the Godrej industrial campus, lush with flora and stippled with flat-roofed short buildings. One would expect the Godrej India Culture Lab to be housed in a similarly boxy structure, with high walls and floor-to-ceiling windows. However, unlike its moniker, the Lab isn't a concept bound by brick-and mortar; it's a pliable, non-representational space — an experiment in progress, and a cultural resource-cum-reference centre under development.

With a focus on experimentation in the areas of academia, industry and not-for-profit, the India Culture Lab is in the process of identifying topics of critical contemporary value. It then utilises mediums such as talks, screenings, musical shows, performances, book readings and more to create a platform wherein multiple viewpoints can meet, greet, and metamorphose into an idea and drive change.

"The belief is in being an open source for the welcoming of new thoughts. Everything here is available for free public consumption," says Parmesh Shahani, who heads the India Culture Lab, which was established in 2011. Formerly a Yale World Fellow (2014), the Lab head believes in the potential of conversations to address issues. "When you take the initiative to talk, boundaries are broken. The Lab is an initiator of such talks. We've had plenty of occasions where completely unrelated people have met through one of our sessions, and this has resulted in wonderful alliances, something none of us thought could happen," Shahani adds. Along the same lines, Mumbai-based cultural theorist, poet and curator Ranjit Hoskote adds, "The lab has the potential to transform the consciousness of people by enabling them to engage with artistic practice as well as public urgencies such as social equity, gender equality and sexual orientation or preference."

To consolidate its efforts in creating and facilitating engagements relevant to contemporary lifestyles, the Lab will soon begin research activities covering an array of subjects with art and related discourses at the forefront. The resultant white papers will be published publicly, and the stakeholders hope the papers will serve as the cultural blueprint of Mumbai, and eventually, the country.

Terming the Lab "an important initiative", Hoskote believes it aids in the "expansion of intellectual inquiry and cultural production that extends beyond the classical institutions such as the academy, gallery, museum."

Hindol Sengupta, author of Recasting India and four other books, has been a guest at the Lab, where he conducted a discussion on the socio-economic and political status of the country. Echoing Shahani's take, Sengupta states, "Democracy is, if you think about it at its root, a conversation, and Shahani does a great job of curating people, too."

“When you take the initiative to talk, boundaries are broken. The Lab is an initiator of such talks. We’ve had plenty of occasions where completely unrelated people have met through one of our sessions, and this has resulted in wonderful alliances, something none of us thought could happen.”

There's also a club housed at the Lab that hosts regular book readings and film screenings. "These events provide compelling alternatives to the mall culture that has lots of metropolitan youth in its thrall," says Hoskote. Sonali Gupta, a clinical psychologist from Mumbai and a regular at the Lab, "absolutely loved the events as they are intellectually very stimulating, inspiring and a value for the time spent". She appreciates the timely information of future events shared by way of mail and on social media; she's also all praise for the content of the programmes.

This marriage, of the philosophy of creation and the strategy of collaboration, stirs the cauldron of concepts at the Lab. "The thought is to become a place of knowledge. Not just for our internal guests, but also for the public at large. The more we share, the more we open up our senses. There's only goodness to achieve this way," says Shahani. The return on such intellectual investments is slow to materialise, he agrees, and change — in whatever form, be it increased tolerance towards transgenders or sounder understanding of media agendas — is not evident at the surface. The returns are in the form of deep, unhurried alterations of the partakers, who're already layered with dogma, perceptions and comprehensions. As is with all things creative, the reimagining of what is can happen only in conflict with what can be.

"The talks and workshops on cutting edge disciplines make the Lab a prime, global resource for research. There is something for everyone here," chips in Jeff Roy, a Fulbright Fellow and doctoral student from the USA, in India to research on traditional and contemporary LGBT and queer music and dance. He feels the research assets available at the Lab are unparalleled to those offered across the country. Even for those not acquainted with Shahani's brainchild yet, being a Lab participant enables the catalysis of curiosity. With the hope of being able to "discover a lot of new thoughts", Somrita Saha, an IT analyst, expresses alacrity in exploring the concept. "It's a brilliant idea," she says. "For those mired in corporate lives, this is a chance to diversify ideals and prod intellectual interests. There's scope to sit back and ponder," precisely the goal the India Culture Lab and Shahani aim to fulfil.

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