Saisha Srivastava: What Nobody Told You About Happiness at TEDxJaiHindCollege (Transcript)

Saisha Srivastava

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.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: what-nobody-told-you-about-happiness-by-saisha-srivastava-at-tedxjaihindcollege

 

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.

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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.

[Music]

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.

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And simultaneously we break down walls in the minds of our instructors, because my instructors, and I’m blessed about this, are not people like – are people that go in with the courage to treat people as individuals and that opens them up to all kinds of lessons that they could learn. For example, in preparation for this TED Talk, I asked a lot of choreographers and dancer friends: so why do you dance? Why are you here to dance? And I got a whole lot of answers. But we ask this question in the schools that we teach at as well, and we got answers ranging from: Oh, I actually hate maths, I’m bunking math class and have come here to learn, or my best friend has partial vision and I’m completely blind, so we can kind of help each other out, or that oh, my teacher said I could bunk class and come and learn here. All the way around from the older students until we got to 6 year old Lokhi. And I said look, Lokhi, [Bengali] why are you here to dance? And she looked at me and she said, [Bengali] which means if man makes music, then he must dance. I was just waiting. She’s this tiny, for me it was the simplest most beautiful most profound answer I’ve ever heard about why people dance.

In another occasion we — I called up my friend Kabi and I said we’re going to have to cancel class because there’s no music system today. And she said no, we don’t have to cancel class. The girl said they’re going to sing. And I said what does that mean? Yeah. [Singing]

Sometimes we make do without music. Lokhi, these are lessons that would have passed us by had my instructors, my friends I had — the people that I have been fortunate enough to work with not been individuals who are present so sincerely so genuinely so authentically in this experience that it can never possibly be charity or community service. But it becomes an act of sharing of happiness. It has happened over time that what applies to me about dance will apply to somebody about a business idea, will apply to somebody about film, will apply to somebody about something else. But when you create something from such a place of authenticity, something from such a place of joy that people can’t help but pass it on. And it has happened in time that there have been people that have created things from such a place of excitement and authenticity and happiness that you can’t help but be a part of whatever it is that they’ve created. You can’t help but be a part of the ripple and I believe that the greatest innovators and changers and movers of our time have all been in on one secret: that happiness as a ripple effect, that whatever you create from this place of joy people will want to pass on. And this can be passed on in different shapes and ways and you never know how it really happens.

So let me tell you another story. I have a friend called Mohini who wanted to start workshop at Narendrapur at a very strict and conservative blind school. And I accompanied her as a silent observer to the meeting and the principal asked her: ‘So what is the structure of this workshop?’

And she said, ‘Whatever you want it to be’.

And then he said, ‘Okay, how many days a week?’

‘However many days you want?’

‘Are there going to be male or female instructors?’

‘Whichever you prefer sir’.

And at this point I was getting really silently frustrated, and I said, ‘Mohini, you’re not giving this man any real answers’. So after the meeting I pulled her aside and I said, ‘Mohini, what happened back there?’

And she said, ‘Saisha, how does it matter how we do it? We’re here to teach them how to dance’.

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And in that moment I realized that if she had not focused on the essence of what it is we were making and if she had sort of – and she had not been flexible with the sort of more irrelevant details, workshop would not have started in Narendrapur for those 40 boys two weeks ago in Calcutta.

You see one of the questions we get a lot of the time is: what organization are you from? What are your goals? What do you hope to achieve? And I always say I don’t know. I don’t know what the structure is days of the week, timing, songs, names of songs, whether or not there will be a performance at the end. But all of that is up to you but what I do know is what it feels like to — go into a room with pink and yellow and blue walls and feel my world change and realizing for a lifetime that learning has a far more powerful end to serve than the short term end of performance. These ripples will go forward and happen in ways that you never imagined and take shapes and forms and as long as you focus on what it is that actually matters, structures will cease to be relevant and your ripple will flow resistance free and take all kinds of shapes that you would not even have imagined.

So this is a series of very complex diagrams that I have drawn to illustrate exactly how this happens. So I sat up all night doing this. What happens is that, so if I choose to share something very special with a small group of people around me, it expands itself in ways that you maybe will not even anticipate and notice how you are no longer relevant in this ripple that it just — sometimes it will crop up as 6 year old Lokhi, sometimes it will crop up as Mohini starting a workshop in Narendrapur, and sometimes it will be the girls that dance without music. Some of these people will create ripples by themselves and will become agents, vessels of creating things that you had not even imagined. And sometimes if you’re very lucky, and if you’re listening, you realize that this ripple doesn’t just move outwards, it comes back inwards as well. The way I feel this happiness when I see pictures and videos and experiences and stories of students that are engaging in workshops in all of these different places because my five friends who I started workshop with two monsoons ago have now started workshop at five different schools by themselves with five more people who have told their friends in Delhi, Bombay, Pune, Bangalore. Now isn’t that a whole lot better than if I had decided that nothing matters?

So if you ask me: what I’m studying I will say economics and Chinese with a minor in political science focusing on South Asian affairs with kind of an emphasis on governance and economic policy. If you ask me what I want to do with that, I will say no idea but there are some things that I do know. And I want to show you a video before I tell you what that is.

[Video Clip]

You create ripples wherever you go. So be conscious of it, be aware of it and create ripples that matter. I don’t know where I’m going to be five years from now. Heck, I don’t even know where I’m going to be five weeks from now. But what I do know is that every single thing I will ever create will always always always be from this place of love and happiness. And I will always strive to find that impossible connection in the places where it seems most difficult to find it, to create magic like this, that just makes you want to get up and dance.

Thank you.

 

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