"Samvaad ki Roshni"

Neesha Noronha

Why Focus on Samvaad (Dialogue)?

Hearing about the events of February 27th aroused in us sadness, disbelief, horror and confusion. These feelings were only intensified upon seeing and hearing the reactions and aftermath. We felt an urgent need to do something, to find again some meaning and order in our lives. We felt the need to re-connect with people and humanity. We were also disappointed with the analyses and responses of various individuals and group as they failed to consider the larger Development paradigm whose values and institutions breed violence and destruction. Issuing more public demands or organising marches appeared futile, insufficient and inherently counterproductive to the philosophy of dialogue. We decided to host ‘Samvaad ki Roshni’ on March 4-5, 2002 in the hope that it would provide much-needed nourishment to our creativity and connectivity.


How Did We Encourage Samvaad?

In the week prior to the event, we spent a few days simply going around to neighbourhoods, inviting families and friends. It was important for us to rebuild and regenerate our connection as neighbours, to recognise our belonging to a common community and foster the spirit of responsibility as members of it. In schools, we tried as far as possible to invite children and teachers within their individual classes, encouraging them to pass on the invitation to their own families. Although we did send announcements and press releases to a few local newspapers, we preferred the informal route of establishing personal contact with people, paving the way for dialogue right from the start.

For the event, we anticipated the need for a variety of activities to appeal to different persons. We selected a few that we thought would highlight and promote cooperation and creativity, those that would be in keeping with the philosophy of dialogue. We envisioned Sukhadia Circle as the host to a variety of games, art and craft activities, and a poster exhibition and samvaad area. We hoped that these activities would provide the contexts and launch pads for dialogue. Thinking to accommodate a large number of people, and a number of different activities, we situated each activity in the different corners of the garden. A number of volunteers facilitated the activities and dialogue in each of these areas.

The games were all examples of dialogue in action. They required a great deal of creativity in solving them. Moreover, all of them were cooperative; their solutions depended on the dedication of each person to the task, as well as patience and communication with other members of the group. None of them involved winning or losing, and there was no use whatsoever of either rewards or punishments. In this manner, over 40 different games were played by people of all ages. The games encouraged the bridging of the generation gap, the sharing of ideas and the valuing of people of all ages. The initial reluctance of most adults to play games was often overcome by seeing other adults and children engrossed in solving a particular problem together.

In playing these creative and cooperative games with a number of different people, several incidents and reactions stand out. They serve as concrete examples, which highlight their usefulness in generating dialogue. One family played a single game of Tangle for over 45 minutes, refusing to stop before they had worked it out to their satisfaction. Similarly, another group of boys and young men, some of them strangers to each other, continued to work at the game of Traffic Jam, until they had all successfully completed it. These experiences were some of those that inspired and motivated us; others sometimes did the opposite, confusing or disappointing us. For example, in the Space game, one group of friends tried out different people’s suggestions to successfully complete it; yet, another family was unwilling to work things out together, even after repeated promptings and encouragement, and ultimately abandoned the game. On occasion, fights broke out among children, over minor incidents (accidental pushing, teasing) and it was with frustration that the other children tried to break up these fights.

It was both the positive, uplifting incidents as well as the negative, disheartening ones that served as initiators of our discussions. How was success in a game achieved, through what means, and how did people feel as a result? What were some of the attitudes and strategies that we can use in other areas of our lives to solve problems? We asked ourselves and each other, why we sometimes react violently to the smallest hurt or injury? Why are some people willing to give up on a game, rather than work collaboratively with others to solve it?

The art and craft area was devoted to the exploration of our creativity. We had a variety of waste materials from which children could make collages, puppets or other little articles. Rubber stamps, which were meant to portray one’s own identity, were made from pieces of wood and tyre tubes. Children also made cards for friends, in which they drew and/or wrote stories or poems. Several children also chose to make pictures which we later displayed. We had chosen ‘friendship’ as the theme for drawings. For some children, who found that theme too abstract, we asked that they draw animals in their own unique and unusual ways. We then talked about the need to appreciate diversity with these children.

Invitations to people and children to draw their own original animal, or their idea of a friend, were often responded with, "I don’t know how." Children of all ages were initially afraid and unwilling to try new things, unwilling to trust themselves and draw on their own capabilities. They first drew pictures that they had been "taught" to draw in school. Some children evaluated and competed among themselves, for resources and for approval. This was compounded when parents were hovering nearby, giving children instructions about what to do. Ironically, when invited to create their own pictures, the adults almost never wanted to try for themselves.

The children’s pictures also reflected the societal conditions they live in. On occasion, the pictures were violent ones; a man being hung to death or terrorists (Osama Bin Laden). These were sometimes accompanied with explanations and stories about why they drew such pictures. The messages appeared to be reproductions of those espoused by family and the media. On the other hand, other instances revealed the openness of the children and their willingness to question their own assumptions and thinking. For example, one youth started off drawing a flag, as it symbolised to him the strength of a nation and certain important values. When he realised that he did not actually witness these values in everyday life, he decided to draw a cow whose worth he could experience and see firsthand.

Also heartening was the experience that, once convinced that they would not be evaluated or told what to do, most children grabbed the opportunity to be as creative as they could. For instance, one child began to draw a dog using a technique he had been taught in school. When asked to draw some animal in an unusual or special way, he added on an elephant and an ant and even made up a story about how he and the three animals became friends. Other children chose to draw fish, elephants, camels, rats and cows each in their own way. They were usually absorbed in their work, and once their work was put up among the others, they enjoyed pointing out their work, or looking at the other animals drawn and trying to identify them. Children talked about what they liked and wanted to draw and how it would be different from the drawing of someone else.

There was also an interesting group effort where a mix of children and adults worked on a collage together, using a fallen branch and bits and pieces of paper and cloth. The concept and form of this collage changed as people added to it, and new people joined in the creation process. Its initial form was that of a boat, but it later turned into a friendship island.

However, it was not the pictures or products alone that initiated dialogue; rather, much of the dialogue was generated within the process itself. People discussed why they were drawing or making a particular item, what meaning and importance it had for them and how they would express it. They talked about where they got an idea from, how it developed, what influenced them. They talked about different ways in which they could express an idea and how they could show it to be their own idea. They also shared both ideas and materials among themselves and discussed other people’s ideas and items.

The poster exhibition and discussion space also initiated samvaad at varying levels and intensities. There were a number of posters around issues of factory schooling, globalisation, thought-control, development, industrial-military society, and media. A number of these issues had either not been thought about or had been thought about very differently. Some people were curious about some of the issues that we were raising, why we were raising them and our interpretations of them, while others shared their own experiences.

A few dhurris (rugs) were available on the lawn, for people who wanted to have more focussed and in depth conversations. Some of the issues discussed in these groups were ‘what people would like Udaipur to be and what they can do as individuals’, ‘why unemployment is increasing’ and ‘what is the responsibility of youth in society’. These we had felt were some of the deeper concerns and questions we had to ask ourselves, in the face of the tension and violence around the Godhra incident. Otherwise, if discussions only centered on the incident and the events following it, we would (again) only emerge with a limited analysis of why violence is increasing at all levels of our society today.

Predominant reactions to the questions being raised, even among our own families and friends, as well as among strangers, were more violence, indifference or helplessness. Some people seemed unable to link their everyday experiences to the larger social atmosphere and to see the potential for dialogue as a viable alternative. As a result, they appeared unwilling to take on the responsibility to seek solutions to such problems. Yet, many others were very appreciative of this opportunity to dialogue meaningfully. Some even expressed pleasant surprise that young people were so concerned with serious issues and felt motivated to interact and dialogue with us and each other. These various reactions seem to indicate that people are acutely feeling a lack of spaces for personal and community expression and will respond when they become available to them.

Encouraged by the response on Saturday, we decided to repeat the event the next evening. We made a few changes however. We thought the activities would work better, if we were within sight of each other and our roles were more flexible, with all members moving from one dialogue space to another, as they thought best. This we decided for two reasons: First, we were going to have fewer volunteers to facilitate activities; and second, we also felt that the physical distance between activities had inhibited team members from supporting each other. We decide to locate all the activities in one quarter of the garden, rather than spread out over the whole garden as we had done on Saturday. We also dropped the art and craft activities, which required more volunteers, were more individual-oriented (vs. group-oriented), and necessitated several material resources.


What Were Challenges/Concerns? What Did We Learn?

Structure and Activities

It was evident that the flexibility of structure on the second day, and the ensuing support from team members, made a considerable difference to the energy generated among us. Without predetermined or fixed roles, it became much easier to actively initiate and encourage passers-by to take part in the activities, to engage them in dialogue, and to support each other in this process.

The transition from games and posters to dialogue was a difficult one, in which a frequent concern was the lack or loss of depth/seriousness in the ensuing discussions. We need to develop our own sensibilities and work out ways to weave activities and dialogue together more effectively. At the same time, we need to remember to be flexible and responsive to natural openings, rather than trying to force dialogue to happen.

Using the poster exhibition as an initiator to dialogue required more people to actively initiate conversations or to encourage participation in conversations already taking place. This process was more effective on Sunday, but creating more obvious, defined spaces for participation may also help this process.


Interaction and Communication

An obvious barrier was age, and it was evident that many adults still consider game playing an activity for children. We must therefore be extra vigilant about not reinforcing or supporting these stereotypes, unintentionally or unconsciously. For example, the all-denominational prayer meeting on Saturday was dominated by elders, with children and youth playing only a minor part. This may have reinforced a hierarchy and distinction of roles between young and old, which we had been trying to combat by playing games and making arts intergenerationally. In the future, we should better incorporate the philosophy of dialogue during prayers, perhaps by encouraging small groups to share their prayers with each other. This may make people more interactive and energised, rather than formal and inflexible.

Developing our own sensitivity and understanding of peoples’ realities would also help us to strengthen the various processes of dialogue. Some peoples’ initial reluctance to be involved seems to reveal fear and resistance, as they would say things like, "We don’t know what to do" or "We don’t know how a game this played," or "We can’t do it." The challenge for us is to invite participation in an encouraging, non-threatening way, while taking into account age, gender and other relevant profile characteristics.

It also may help us to recognise and value even the smallest openings and opportunities, even if they do not meet our own expectations. A number of people are unable to move beyond the limited analyses of the contemporary problems of modern life; however they are aware that these exist and are willing to discuss them. Moreover, experiential, rather than academic, discussions have enabled some to recognise the link between their individual lives and community atmosphere. As a group, we are conscious of the fact that this is not the only way, or the only successful way, to create spaces for dialogue. Therefore, we are continuously working out new avenues for continuing the dialogue.

People also specifically asked questions about the purpose of such activities, whether there was a charge, and if not, who was footing the bill. In the future, it may help to think of ways in which we could answer these questions and also show how people may contribute and take up the work on their own.

An encouraging aspect of the event was the enthusiasm of the volunteers. This reaffirms our faith that people are concerned about what is going on around them and are willing to take responsibility to make things better. We’d like to seize these opportunities to work out ways of dialogue and to reach out to more people together.


How to Continue Samvaad?

On occasion, such one-off programmes may serve the purpose of introducing the idea of samvaad to more people. However, to have the desired impact and get beyond the superficiality of initial relationships, such processes need to be continued among communities, in the evening or on weekends, on a more long-term basis. At present, we need to work further with those people identified as receptive, responsive, and interested. The dialogues started at this public event may be carried into smaller communities, neighbourhoods, colonies, and among families and friends. This would make the nuances of peoples’ views and realities clearer. It will likely be necessary to maintain contact with interested persons and give them support in carrying forward this process of dialogue. Although far from the point where we need fear peoples’ dependence on us, it is an aspect to keep in mind when we plan for more long-term efforts at continuing the dialogue.

Both as an individual event and as part of Udaipur as a Learning City, Samvaad ki Roshni was an important activity. Creating an atmosphere for dialogue is necessary not only as a counter force to violence, with reference to the latest Godhra incident and its destructive aftermath, but also in times of apparent peace, when destructive forces are silently snuffing out diverse lives and life forms. The process of dialogue needs to be carried forward, not just by the initiators of this process, but also by those who, in some way, identify with the vision of building both a learning and a loving community. Samvaad ki Roshni is visualized as a starting point to generating dialogue and building relationships among individuals and communities. The hope is that people will take the initiative to begin dialogues with others in their own communities.