Saturday, May 02, 2015

What is Culture Express?

You know the thing with epiphanies? They have a strange habit of presenting themselves at the least opportune moments. Mine struck me in the middle of my second semester MA examinations. There I was trying to cram up tenets of Buddhism and ancient Indian history when the idea of Culture Express came to me. Where I should have been studying earnestly, my head was swimming with ideas and possibilities in cultural education.

Can't say it was altogether unprecedented, though. My husband, Viren, had just started offering workshops of his own and it was inspiring to see his long-time passion for woodwork come alive like this. It was also amazing to see how people with similar passions reach out when there is a call for learning. 

So many people want to learn; they just don't know who to ask. It is especially true for working or homemaking adults, who have long stopped formal education and let the rut of daily life take over. There is little time or opportunity to learn even if one wants to. There is no real choice between popular and often unreliable media, and the ivory tower of academia. Culture Express was born from the need to bridge this gap. But before I delve into my vision for Culture Express, allow me to go back a little in time and tell you where it all started.

Early love

I can easily attribute my obsession with culture studies to my mother. She is this lovely woman who lives in a little bubble made of all things beautiful. Whatever minor talents I have in terms of singing or dancing or painting, I owe them to her. I inherited her artistic temperament, and oh, the love of reading! She would read a lot and since I was her only child and companion for the greater part of the day, she would tell me what she was reading. I was greatly influenced by her love for literature, especially the Mahabharata. Even today, we can spend hours discussing her favourite epic.    

Growing up, I learnt many little arty things. I went to painting class, I learnt some Rabindra Sangeet, I studied English literature and quit them all eventually. I went on to do a masters in Clinical Psychology and worked as a journalist for almost six years. I owe it to my parents, especially my father, to allow me to find my path. I meandered a lot but I was soon to come face to face with my true love. 

True love

All this while, my love for all things culture kept bubbling just below the surface. Two years ago I was working for a trade magazine of the salon and spa industry as its assistant editor. It was an easy, cushy job with the added incentive of trips to the most luxurious spas of the country, but I was beginning to get disillusioned. The superficiality of the beauty and fashion industry was starting to gnaw at my spirit. That was when I chanced upon a post graduate diploma course in Comparative Mythology offered by the Dept. of Sanskrit, University of Mumbai. Since it was a weekend course, I took it up. That was the first sign from the Universe.

All guns blazing

I completed the first course while I continued to work. I re-discovered my love of academics and how much I enjoyed it. It was like tasting blood. By the time the year was over, I wanted more of it - all of it. I decided this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. With a LOT of encouragement from my husband I took the big leap of faith. Trust me, starting over and changing one's career at 30 and giving up on one's financial independence takes a lot of courage. So I enrolled in not one but three courses simultaneously, determined to make the most of the two year study break I had given myself. I took up an advanced PG Diploma course in Comparative Mythology, a PG Diploma in Mysticism and decided to do my second master's degree in Ancient Indian Culture. The assignments and the exams nearly killed me but I couldn't be happier.

The birth of an idea

And in the thick of things, the idea of Culture Express was born. I was my best case study in this course of action. I looked at the Urmi from two years ago and the Urmi after two years of culture studies; the difference in the way I understood my cultural context was phenomenal. I realised how most Indian children have a very superficial understanding of what their culture is all about. We grow up hearing stories from our elders, participate in rituals and festivals, and turn to the television, the Internet or popular fiction building our abstract notion of culture. We rarely stop to think, we rarely question our sources. We assume what is being told to us is true. As adults, we use the term 'culture' excessively and often unconsciously, seldom realising what we mean by it. In these times of political debate surrounding a party with Hindu leanings, 'Indian Culture' is being used and abused as a tool for propaganda and most of us nod our heads not knowing what it is we are agreeing with.

When I started to understand this cultural ground we stand upon, I wanted others to understand too. This is why I have started Culture Express. I want to make available to people the knowledge of their culture through short workshops, presentations and talks. These short workshops will offer authentic content and help fill a lot of gaps in perception and understanding of one's cultural milieu. What I want to do with it is foster a rational approach towards culture, backed by academic sources. I want people to know their roots the way I'm coming to understand mine. I want to show how wonderfully the forces of history, economics, politics, religion and mythology all come together to create this flux we call culture. But I want to make this easy for the rest. I understand not everyone has the luxury of time to delve into the depths of culture in search of their roots, just as I understand that knowing one's roots is important. Come join me on this journey, won't you?


Nadia said...

Sounds really fascinating Urmi. I did not know you did all that. I've enjoyed seeing Viren's workshop posts. This is really cool.

Urmi Chanda Vaz said...

Thanks Nadia! Until I few days ago, even I did not know I did 'all that'. :) I hope this takes off because it means a lot to me.

Akanksha Tyagi said...

I love you more after reading this post Urmi. And I say this with all my heart. And I love someone because I see a common connect :)