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January 14, 2016

Parmesh’s Viewfinder: On Meeting Iconic Women

Text by Parmesh Shahani

Parmesh Shahani on the Women in the World Summit, Delhi’s new design secret and more

I sat with tears runing down my face while listening to two mothers at the Women in the World Summit in New Delhi. Robi Damelin and Bushra Awad, Israeli and Palestinian, had both lost their sons to conflict. Bushra’s son, Mahmud, died from a sniper’s bullet in 2008, in Palestine, while Robi’s son David was killed in 2002 at an Israeli checkpost with nine fellow soldiers. “Nobody asks women if we should go to war, but women, and especially mothers, are the worst victims,” Robi told us.

It was a day of emotional highs and lows. Of extreme laughter, and extreme pain. Tina Brown, the conference ringmaster, had assembled some of the world’s most feisty women for her inaugural India event. Tina’s a pretty feisty character herself! Becoming Tatler editor-in-chief at 25, and then reigning from the summit of the magazine publishing world by editing Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, founding The Daily Beast, and taking over and then unfortunately shutting down Newsweek magazine, she’s seen it all. In the midst of all of this, she’s also managed to write books such as a bestselling biography of Princess Diana.

As Anand Mahindra noted, while introducing her in the capital, Tina was expelled from three boarding schools as a child for offences that included referring to her headmistress’ bosoms as “unidentified flying objects”.

She confessed to us that she did indeed like to make trouble — trouble of the kind that would get people’s attention. This conference certainly did grab headlines.

From the hullabaloo over Smriti Irani’s on-stage comments to the powerful stoic determination of Dr Obiageli Ezekwesili (Obi), co-founder of Nigeria’s Bring Back Our Girls campaign, this was an event that focussed front and centre on woman power, and the need for women to speak up. Obi told us all on stage, “Indifference is the opposite of love, not hate. We can’t afford to live silently in our mansions. We cannot buy insurance against danger in today’s world.” Women need to speak up for themselves, and men need to join them in this conversation.

So even as we celebrated the corporate successes of women like Naina Lal Kidwai on the Women in the World stage, we also reminded ourselves of ‘Bitiya’, a young girl from a village in UP, who was gang-raped in 2012 when she was 13 or 14. In a brutal, difficult-to-watch session, Barkha Dutt interviewed Bitiya and her mother, who have lodged a case against the assailants and are fighting for justice, freedom from stigma and the right of the young girl to have a good education.

During the same session, Dr Menaka Guruswamy, from India’s Supreme Court, spoke of the need to respect the law, and fight for our constitutional rights in the court, while Govind Singh Rathore, the founder of Sambhali Trust, spoke about how he wanted to take the law into his own hands, after witnessing domestic violence against his own mother. The contrasting viewpoints raised many issues; of morality, vigilante justice, and more — all issues that we surf through regularly on our nightly news bulletins, before changing channels.

It was a joy to witness the unpretentious Cate Blanchett studiously sitting through different sessions, taking notes seriously, or Oscar-winning Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy bustle about backstage, as the conference producer. The conference was packed with so many former Verve cover stars — Barkha Dutt, Shereen Bhan, Nita Ambani…. It felt like an alumni meet!

I took to the stage myself, for a conversation with Madhuri Dixit-Nene. Madhuri radiated a quiet elegance as we chatted about her women-centric roles in films like Gulaab Gang and the sublime Dedh Ishquiya, her public advocacy with the Beti Bachao campaign and as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador, and how she and her husband Ram are raising their two boys as gender-conscious and gender-equal human beings.

A few days before this session, I was hanging out with another Madhuri on a very different stage. Our Godrej India Culture Lab in Mumbai had hosted a spectacular dance performance by India’s leading professional transgender dance troupe — The Dancing Queens. “Convey my love to my idol,” Madhuri Sarode, one of the group’s lead dancers, told me when she heard that I was to go to New Delhi some days later to interview the superstar whose namesake she was. As a superfan, she had actually changed her own name to ‘Madhuri’, as a form of respect! I found Madhuri’s fierce courage and fortitude very moving. I see both these qualities in so many Indian women around me today, whether natural-born, or transgender.

The success of this summit, same as other conferences like TED, tells us that now, more than ever, people want to connect with each other in real life. The more intensely we engage ourselves with technology — iPad, iPhone, iWatch, apps and so on, the more we want to have meaningful personal conversations, and give serendipity a chance. Tina started Women in the World in 2010 in a small theatre in New York and now, just a few years later, it is a huge global phenomenon, with annual events in New York, London and now India. I must mention another feisty woman here — Gayatri Rangachari Shah — the force behind Tina Brown Live Media on the ground in our country. If there was one person who ensured that the New Delhi conference happened succesfully, it was Gayatri, quietly working behind the scenes.

It was also my pleasure last month to host author and poet Vikram Seth in Mumbai. Here to receive his Times LitFest Award for Lifetime Achievement, he spent a day with us at our Culture Lab in Vikhroli. A day before, I had punned my way around the city while taking him on a fashion-shopping expedition, an experience that was alien to him but which I think he enjoyed a great deal. While I can’t reveal anything that I learnt about A Suitable Girl during the time we hung out, I can tell you that it will be spectacular beyond belief, and well worth the wait.

Will it come out in 2016? Your guess is as good as mine. But then, what’s a year or two, when there’s so much we can do, such as write in rhyme, to while away the time?

Okay, bas, enough for this column. Bad poetry is not what you expect to be reading in the January issue of Verve!

Vayu — Delhi’s new design secret

My friend Vivek Sahni has opened a secret treasure trove of design in the heart of Delhi. His Vayu design store breathes new life into the musty yet regal Bikaner House. I fell in love with a rose-quartz and brass coffee table and ordered it immediately for my new apartment. Go check it out quickly, before the Delhi society hordes descend on it.

Aditi Singh in New York

Our January 2009 Verve cover girl Aditi Singh returns to New York with a show, All That is Left Behind, at the prestigious Thomas Erben Gallery. She’s showing a powerful body of new work, inspired by what she describes as the “transcendental quality of yoga and art…quietly, rhythmically getting rid of all that is extraneous, of reaching a place of resonance, where there isn’t a distinction between the inside or outside of an experience”. I’ve had the pleasure of a magical sneak peek at her Mumbai studio, but if you happen to be in the Big Apple this month, do go and see the show.

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