TEDx Youth at IITM


TEDx Youth@Chennai held their fourth TEDx talks on November 10th, 2013, this time at Central Lecture Theatre, IIT Madras, featuring speakers with “the youngest average age by far”. With talks ranging from the importance of creativity to the interestingly titled “The Tao of Ouchies”, with performed poetry by two of the speakers and a Blues concert, the session shook the audience awake on a lazy Sunday.

Aishwarya Manivannan

“The sad part is the houses look the same at every age, whether the person is four or seventy-three.”

Aishwarya Manivannan, interior designer, artist, trained dancer and educator, attested to the importance of creativity in her talk on ‘Sandcastles for life’ (Her favourite pastime is building sandcastles). Going from the left-right brain distinction to a game to test creativity, she displayed a small triangle on screen and asked the audience members to draw anything they could think of using it, in thirty seconds.

“How many of you have drawn houses?” she asked. Half the audience put up their hands. “How many of you drew rockets?” Another twenty percent. She’s performed this test for people from the age of two to the age of seventy-six, and certain common motifs keep turning up, across the board.  One of the most unusual designs she got were a 64-year lady who drew the view she saw out of the window everyday – a neem tree, whose branches formed a v-shape.

When we start drawing similar things in a creativity test, it’s time for some change, of course. So how can we develop creativity? “Curiosity and play,” she stressed. “We need to be curious about everything that goes on around us.”

In an interview later, Aishwarya opined that unlearning is the most important thing for creativity. As an educator herself, she feels that children are taught early that there is one right answer for everything. “That’s not right, is it?” She aims to guide children towards figuring out their own answers and being creative. She ended her speech with a quote by Picasso, “Every child is an artist. The problem is staying an artist when you grow up.”

Malvika Iyer

“The doctor told me I would never walk again. He obviously didn’t know I’d walked the way up to his office.”

Malvika Iyer began her speech wryly commenting that it’s a good idea not to pick up the grenade lying outside your house to use as a hammer. She was in 9th standard when she lost her arms in a ‘freak accident’. Her arms had to be amputated (she now has two prosthetic arms fitted to her elbows). She couldn’t go to school, but nevertheless studied for her board exam from home, so she could write them at the same time as her peers. When the results came, she found that she’d topped the state. That moment was a revelation. “I realized there was nothing stopping me from doing whatever I wanted,” she said.

A bit nervous and halting during her speech as she described the accident and its aftermath, Malvika drew resounding claps when she read out a letter written to her by President Abdul Kalam, recommending her courage and wishing her all the best for the future.

She is now a doctorate student at the Madras School of Social Work, and her thesis focuses on disability and inclusion. “My mother is my rock. I’m lucky that she never treated me differently after the accident. She’d ask me to buy groceries, make me do chores. Everyone around me has been supportive,” she said. Fittingly, her plans for the future include providing the same kind of support and inclusion to disabled people throughout the country.

A P Shreethar

“I told Zakir Hussain later that I hadn’t listened to his music when I drew him. He was surprised.”

A P Shreethar delighted the audience by speaking in Tamil (“My English knowledge is limited to two words – promoted and detained – that kept appearing in my report cards,” he explained) and keeping them in splits throughout his speech. He was born in Karaikkal where he studied till 4th standard. “I did well in studies then. My mother kept telling me I was a good student. When I came to Chennai for my 5th standard and failed, she said, ‘But you studied so well in Karaikkal! When I failed in 9th standard, in 11th standard, in college, she’d keep saying, ‘But you studied so well in Karaikkal!’”

Art happened by accident. Shreethar loved the kolams drawn outside his house and used to keep practicing drawing them over and over again. Then in school he drew the cricket World Cup mascot, Appu ‘Yaanaikutty’ (baby elephant) in different poses. Those, and trees, were the only things he knew to draw when his friend dragged him to an art contest on ‘India-Russia relations’ so they could get out of class. “I could draw trees very well,” he recounted. He drew two trees with their branches mingling, and titled it ‘India and Russia: deep-rooted relations’, an English title suggested by a man there. He won a prize for it, and everyone began commending his drawing skills.

Art was an escape from boring classes. When he graduated from school all he wanted to become was an artist. His father, however, wanted him to get a degree, “so that on my wedding invitation I’d have a degree after my name”. He got a B.A. in economics, and then applied to the Government Arts College, which refused to take him in because of a lack of seats for the forward classes. Undaunted, he determined to draw portraits of celebrities and get them to sign them. His first sketches were of Zakir Hussain, from whom he got them autographed before a concert. Zakir was delighted with the pictures, the two became friends and Zakir Hussain recommended him as the best artist he knew. “What I’ve learnt is that talent is not enough. It’s not enough if you’re a good artist, you need to draw famous people to come up in life. That’s how it is,” Shreethar concluded.

Balaji Venkatraman

“Regional language is not about using ‘machan’ or ‘machi’. It’s just that unique way of speaking English that we Indians have.”

Describing himself as a typical Chennai boy, Balaji Venkatraman, an IT professional, wrote his book Flat-Track Bullies for his nieces, aged seven and nine. In his talk, he focused on a regional English language, which is different from merely ‘Tanglish’. Idioms like the indigenous ‘getting two mangoes with one stone’ are much less violent than the gory ‘killing two birds with one stone’. With a rich local dialect, why do we need to ape the “proper” English of the West?

In an interview later, Balaji declined that he had much advice to give aspiring writers. “I’m a new writer myself, after all,” he said. However, he did suggest that people not self-publish their first book, but go through established publishers. “I Googled what one must do after writing a book. The first step listed was ‘Get an agent’. I sent my book to over 50 of them, but it was rejected. The second step listed was ‘Approach the publisher directly’. So I did that, and finally one decided to publish my book.” Which goes to show how important perseverance is for a writer.

Krishnakumar Balasubramaniam

“If marks are the measure of your work and your degree is the measure of your intelligence, what is the measure of you?”

Krishnakumar Balasubramaniam is an actor, writer and director, voted one of the ’37 Indians of tomorrow’ by India Today and given the title of ‘Theatre Technocrat’. Speaking about how it all started, he narrated how he went to the supermarket one day with his friends and picked up a packet of cookies. Not something to spark an epiphany, you might say. However, he realized, as he took the packet, that he didn’t really want the cookies. He wanted the orange that was in the next aisle. “I picked up the cookies because my friends were picking up cookies. And the same went for my education.” This realization led him to drop out of University in the US and fly back to India, where his parents met his assertion that he wanted to be an actor with skepticism and tears.

He stayed, though, and worked for his dream. “I loved the idea of doing something I loved. If it doesn’t excite you, there’s no point wasting four years of your life doing it. When you love something, that feeling seeps into everything you do.” Krishnakumar tried acting, then writing, which he absolutely loved – “I’d sacrifice sleep to do it” – and ventured into direction. “I wasn’t wondering what I was doing with my life any more,” he said. So what is the measure of you? Perhaps one answer is – if you reach for the oranges, instead of settling for cookies, that is the measure of you.

Archana Karry

“Who will marry you if you become a performer? Some guests are coming, I can’t make it to your dance programme, sorry. Please choreograph my children’s dances for annual day, won’t you?”

Archana Karry in her talk on ‘Why Dance is the new Math’ spoke about how dance (or indeed any art form) in India is barely given any respect. “Math has been of huge value to humankind, helping in all our technological advancement,” she said. But dance, creativity, art, are equally important. To illustrate this, she listed out the values learning dance had given her, from empathy to self-respect.

She stepped into Kalakshetra a fifteen-year old girl with no confidence. “I don’t think I can do this,” she told her teacher, who told her to stay and practice. She was literally a fan, standing behind the king or queen of the dance drama on stage, waving her arms up and down through the show, and feeling small. But she saw how the parents of the princess and the ‘fans’ sat in the audience, both equally proud. After all, a fan was as crucial to the show as the lead princess. “I found out the importance of team work then,” she explained. Through her journey at Kalakshetra she also gained self-confidence and a love for dance.

“I’m a professional, as much as a math teacher. Why do people think that dance is just a pastime to enroll their kids in but not something to be pursued seriously? Parents want their kids to learn dance only to perform onstage. I want to teach students who come here for the sake of learning.” Not everyone can be a performer, she concluded during a personal interview after the talk, but everyone can benefit from learning dance, no matter how old they are, even if they’ve never learnt it before, as long as they’re learning for its own sake.

At this point, Blues Conscience took the stage and pepped the audience up with a concert in the middle of the event, playing popular tracks like Obama, the Hoochie-Coochie Men and Kamasutra, the last having some pretty racy lyrics. In keeping with their assertion that the Blues is meant to drive one’s blues away, their songs certainly cheered the audience up.

Hemalatha Venkatraman

“I’m sorry, appa. I know I must have freaked you out – a ten-year old girl writing love poems and reading them out to you.”

Hemalatha Venkatraman is a final year student of architecture, has been a national level gymnast, and is a poet and writer. She lists Charles Bukowski as her favourite poet, and likes performing poetry better than just writing it. She is also a hardcore feminist. She performed two of her poems, one titled ‘The Wondrous Slut’ and the other one on smoking weed and architecture, garnering huge applause from the audience.

Riddhima Yadav

“If we wait, it’ll be a case of too much, much too late. It’s not ‘if’ climate change happens, but ‘when.”

Riddhima Yadav was at eighteen the youngest speaker at the event. She started speaking about environmental issues when she was ten years old. What intrigued and surprised her was how people knew so much about the issue and its consequences, but didn’t do anything to stop it.

“One Google search uses up enough energy that could power a 60W light bulb for 17 seconds,” she said. One can only imagine how much energy that adds up to over a year. The standard environmental economic model says that as resources get depleted, their prices shoot up and people will start developing cheaper, better alternatives. Riddhima finds the whole concept problematic. “How long can that be sustained before it breaks down? We’re waiting for the problem to happen and then overextending ourselves to solve it. Wouldn’t it be better if we prevented the problem in the first place?”

Kharaini Barokka

“We are all in constant pain.”

Khairani Barokka, dressed in a “lazy and traditional” Indonesian outfit, delivered her speech on ‘The Tao of Ouchies’. Okka, as she is called, has a rare neurological condition that makes sensation in the right side of her body feel different from those in the left. Plus, it leaves her with a near-constant pain that often results in her “jumping from bed to bed” when she travels. That hasn’t stopped her working as a writer and an artist, being an advocate for artists with disabilities, and delivering talks on the importance of committing to “fun things in life” and the need to accept pain to feel truly joyful.

What are the ‘Ouchies’? They’re the little things that get us down all the time. They’re not big enough to be actual hurt, but they definitely count as pain. So how did she go from pain to joy? “I was so sick of feeling sad that I decided to be happy instead,” she confided. Indeed, she didn’t look as if she was in pain at all – being full of life and zest onstage. However, she broke down a second towards the end of her speech, as she showed various photos of herself, always with her trademark wide-toothed smile. “I’m always smiling onstage, and there isn’t a single moment when I’m not in pain,” she whispered.

After greeting the audience with a loud ‘Vanakkam’ – “Vanakkam is such a wonderful word” – and introducing herself, Okka performed a beautiful poem on pain, which she’d written after another agonizing attack. In the “true nerdy style”, she said, her favourite pastimes were reading, writing and making art. And indeed, this passion for the arts was the common thread running through all speakers.

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