Watch and read the full transcript of Saisha Srivastava’s TEDx Talk: What Nobody Told You About Happiness at TEDxJaiHindCollege Conference. This event occurred on August 7, 2015 in Mumbai, India.
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Saisha Srivastava – Dancer
So you know how when you’re filling out a form or a questionnaire and it says: name, age, sex and you’re like fine, fine, fine. And then it asks you something like: so tell us about yourself. And then suddenly you’re like: oh my god who am I? And you sit there questioning everything you know about yourself.
In my experience, a lot of people once they graduate high school or in their early twenties, face a bit of a similar existential crisis when they’re suddenly confronted with the world full of its seemingly focused adults going in forward in very specific directions, because we try to find our place among them. Who really are we? What do we believe in? What kind of lives we want to lead? This realization dawned upon me when I looked at this photograph.
So you see when the satellite Voyager 1 was leaving — had gone past Neptune and was leaving the solar system, American astronomer, scientist and [general badass] Carl Sagan convinced NASA to turn the satellite around and take one last picture of the earth before it left the solar system. And he called this picture the Pale Blue Dot. And he spoke about how for us every single person that we know, every corrupt politician, every young couple in love, everyone has lived and loved and fought and laughed on a single speck of dust that is suspended in a sunbeam, and upon looking at this picture a lot of people have a startling realization of insignificance and smallness. The fact that they’re very small part of something very big and from here I believe that people go in one of two directions.
Either people believe that nothing matters, that I can get whatever job I want, I need to earn money. I don’t see how anything affects anything, who cares. Or people believe that everything matters, that whatever I can affect in my own small way I will and I affect every single person and think that I am in relation with. And I believe that this is possibly one of the single most important questions you can answer for yourself at my age or any age: does nothing matter or does everything matter?
Now I believe everything matters and because of this I started to think about the role I play and how I affect every single thing I’m in relation with. So when I went to the Calcutta Blind School on a donation drive in 2013, while I realized — while I knew that the food packets and the clothing was important, somehow it felt impersonal, it felt unspecial. And I thought that if I have to bring something that is uniquely me to this equation, that if I have to give something that means something to me, if I have to share something that makes a difference, like what would that look like, especially because in a country like India where people often engage in acts of community service during in school or college and where the tagline is that you are making a difference, it is very important to consider that question.
You see, when I was five years old, I entered a room with pink and blue and green walls for the first time on Camac Street in Calcutta and it was sure that I learned the magic of a bar of music. The balance required in a pirouette and the fact that if you pulled your socks halfway down, you can spin on your toes and still grip the floor with your heel when you land. I got older and I learned about the ecstasy that you feel after a dance performance when a group of 10 girls are hugging and screaming for no reason. You have to be a little careful because one person might trip into an electrical loose wire and then 10 people are simultaneously electrocuted. I learned about the disappointment and the heart and the anger but the fact that you need to say whatever you have to say when the curtains rise in those eight minutes when the music is so loud that you can’t hear anything except your heartbeat, that’s thundering in your ears.
Eventually other activities crept into my life and dancing settled into a place so unimposing that I fell in love. And it became that thing that was sort of in the corner that I could go back to when I was tired. And so I knew in my bones that if I had to share something meaningful, if I had to share something that meant something to me, that made sure that I had a specific role to play in that equation, I knew that it had to be dance. And so when I went back to the principal of the Calcutta Blind School and I said I want to teach your students how to dance. She said no. And so I sat and I convinced her in a few hours later, for some reason she said yes. And within a few months, me and a group of strangers that had materialized from god-knows-where arrived for our first day of workshop at Calcutta Blind School with a suitcase full of inhibition.
So we walked into workshop on our first day and this was basically an introduction to the faces that we had at workshop. So a question that we get a lot is: how do we teach the visually challenged how to dance? And so I begin to explain that there is a song from the movie Black 2005 that says, ‘Haan maine chukar dekha hai’. And the song talks about how for me: thanda thanda rang hain bundong ka – the color of rain drops is wet or for me the color of an Indian bride’s wedding gown is [quickly]. So it talks about how the world they see is through touches and sensations.
So whenever we teach it involves a lot of clicking, a lot of clapping, a lot of stomping and more importantly than that we simply ask questions: tell me what rain feels like on your hand. And we do like a sort of rainy sensation on their hands so the students automatically can replicate with their own fingers. And chote chote shaharon se, khali bol baharon se, humko shola utha ke chale. Objects that they can pick up, objects that they interact with every day. Giving our students specific direction is important. So barish kam kam lagti hain. The rain is falling from right to left and from top to bottom. And our students can automatically replicate it with their own hands.
The thing is that as far as Indian society is concerned, my students fit into a category: underprivileged. And when we categorize somebody as underprivileged, we decide that we can only engage with them in certain ways: either by donating money or by teaching English, because we never consider these people as individuals with likes, dislikes, hopes or dreams. And I think what happens that is even more scary in Indian society is that sometimes people internalize this invisibility and people internalize this difficulty. If you ask somebody that is conventionally considered underprivileged, so aap ka kya sapna hai, and they say: hamara kya sapna hoga. That’s what I mean and what — and this sort of sets up walls and what we do at workshop is that we break down these walls, both in the minds of our students for whom movement has always been conventionally to get from point A to point B and suddenly a girl discovers that her hands can move in a wave-like motion for the first time. And what it feels like to do like a Thumka, a hip rotation for the first time.