Huddled with 30 other thinkers, debating globalization and diversity at an invite-only conference called “The Inner Lives of Cultures” has to define my idea of bliss. At this one, organized by the British Council two weeks ago in Delhi, my co-participants included philosopher Charles Taylor, anthropologist Henrietta Moore, mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik, brand guru Santosh Desai, psychiatrist Sushrut Jadhav, poet George Szirtes and writer Amit Chaudhari. The chaotic churning of my mind as it processed cross-disciplinary insights is a luxury I consider priceless.
Over the past two years, this hasn’t been a solitary journey. I’ve had many co-travellers but it seems that from being somewhat of a secret cult, the phenomenon of “brain spas” is reaching a tipping point. Simultaneously, as an editor at a national fashion magazine, I have witnessed, at close quarters, the apparent luxury boom in the country, whether in the shape of international fashion labels, private jets or yachts. These parallel journeys have led me to contend that we are indeed in the middle of a luxury revolution—but it is not of the kind that the luxury brandwallahs would like to project on PowerPoints.
Mind travel: Film-maker James Cameron (left) and Lakshmi Pratury in conversation at INK 2010 in Lavasa, Maharashtra, in December. Gene Driskell/INK
The first wave of this revolution began in the early 2000s, as it did in the West, with the widening of the lexicon of luxury to make way for subdued and meaningful experiences. As we began to get comfortable with wealth in India after the late 1980s, and after we were satiated with the deluge of gadgets and branded baubles post-liberalization, we realized that luxury lay perhaps not in merely having things to own, but in pursuing experiences. So we began to seek out these special experiences, such as masterclasses on art or wine or sailing, personalized spiritual gurus, yoga at Ananda in the Himalayas, and so on. The luxury industry began to recalibrate around these experiences. This wave generated several sub-trends, such as “stealth wealth” (Newsweek International, 24 June 2007), or the wave of “sustainable luxury” that Suzy Menkes and her International Herald Tribune gang rode into Delhi, singing, in early 2009.
While this wave was gaining momentum, another one was forming. This was the pursuit of knowledge as the new luxury. The luxury of living your life contextually, connectedly and meaningfully, instead of in a mere acquisitive manner. Luxury no longer lay in what you possessed or even what you experienced, but rather, in what you said and did—your words and deeds came from knowledge within you.
Where does this knowledge come from? In an age of Google searches on your mobile phone, just access to information is not enough. As Harvard University’s Homi K. Bhabha recently told me in Mumbai, the challenge lies in interpreting this vast amount of information as knowledge.
Brain masseuse: Harvard’s Homi K. Bhabha is one of the most important figures in contemporary post-colonial studies. Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard
Where do you start looking for this interpretation? As with other kinds of luxury, you need a concierge, and the “knowledge as luxury” wave has brought a whole new breed of concierges and curators to the forefront, such as the India Today group, which started organizing its annual high-powered conclaves in 2002, or Lakshmi Pratury, who brought the TED (Technology Entertainment and Design) conference to India in 2009.
The timing was impeccable. Post-recession, it seems that the rest of the world was feeling anxious, and there was an upsurge in attendance at conferences such as TED, which mixed up speakers and performers of all kinds to create ideas worth sharing. In 2010, Pratury also put together INK (Innovation and Knowledge). INK will be an annual conference (TED India was a one-off), and Pratury’s organizational and networking skills catapulted her to the Forbes Women to Watch in Asia list in October.
Most attendees at these events are from the corporate world, because the cost of tickets is high. INK costs Rs 1 lakh for three days and the two-day India Today Conclave costs Rs 85,000. For attendees, these events serve as much-needed breaks from the routine and are useful opportunities to network. Ultimately, their value lies in the inspiration they provide, usually from the non-paying fellows, or speakers.
More than the large expensive conferences, it is the several hundred events under the TEDx banner that have created brain-spa addicts across the nation. TEDx events are mini-TEDs independently organized by local volunteers. There have been TEDx events in cities (Patna and Chennai), in universities (such as TEDx IIM Kozhikode or TEDx Anna University), or around themes (TEDx Youth). Some of these events have celebrities as speakers or in attendance (TEDxChange in Delhi this week had Melinda Gates as a special guest), but the majority are filled with ordinary folk, and their extraordinary lives.
What excites me about these knowledge summits is that they are often not just about knowledge for the sake of it but also opportunities for inciting change. When urban policy activism and business collide, as at the 361 Degrees conference in Mumbai, or when design thinking plays out in myriad ways, as at the Unbox Festival in Delhi, the needle moves. Changes, however small, do take place.
These recurring changes have led to the third wave that has just begun, especially since the start of 2011, where luxury lies in not just attending conferences and interacting with participants, but in collating and curating such people yourself. A think tank—the kind that top hedge funds, and wealthy individuals in the US have—costs less than a university, and is simpler to fund and run because its activities are focused. The trend is beginning to gain credence in India.
The Mahindra group has recently incubated the foreign policy think tank Gateway House. The Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore has been set up through the Kusuma Trust to examine how the Internet interacts with the political, cultural and societal norms. The New India Foundation, based in Bangalore and funded by businessman Nandan Nilekani, runs a fellowship programme for awardees to write books that contribute to a fuller understanding of independent India.
None of this means that Tikka Shatrujit Singh of Louis Vuitton should be worried. His monogrammed bags will continue to fly off the shelves; we are in a demographic and economic sweet spot, as all the branded luxury PowerPoints, and indeed other articles in this issue, might tell you. But what these new luxury paradigms suggest, and what gives me hope is that, perhaps, contained within some of those LV bags are bunches of conference notes or white papers, with insights that can skew the luxury lexicon.
TED Fellow Parmesh Shahani heads the Godrej-India Culture Lab, and is editor-at-large at Verve magazine. His first book Gay Bombay: Globalization, Love and (Be)Longing in Contemporary India, was released in 2008.
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