On the South of Delhi in Gurgaon is a new type of technical college with high ambitions to provide a new type of education within service and hospitality. Unlike others, this college has a strong focus on applied knowledge and circular economy within food, from farm to forks and fingers!
The Institute, called Vedatya, is still young but has already achieved so much. I arrived there on a sunny December day with Sanjoo Malhotra, co-founder of the platform and network Tasting India. It was towards the end of Tasting India’s 2017 symposium on food, where Sanjoo and his co-founder Sourish Bhattacharya, had collected some of India’s leading influencers and change-makers. The missing piece at the symposium, until that day, had been education; how to create a new integrated learning model for organic food businesses that would teach theory in a practical and experiential way.
Sanjoo Malhotra, co-founder of Tasting India on the grounds of Vedatya, December 2017.
From star chefs to culinary entrepreneurs.
I didn’t expect to find an organic farm on campus. Sanjay Sharma, Head Chef at Vedatya explains: “For a chef to be able to work effectively and maximize their creativity, they really need to know how food grows; what local ingredients are available, what is the seasonality, how are they grown, and which parts can be used.”
High tech buildings of the Vedatya Institute.
Vedatya currently has 4 acres of farmland, a herb garden, lots of fruit trees; mango, lychee, lemons, oranges, chiku, and papaya. And to complete the full ecosystem of sustainable practices, the institute is going to keep cows on-campus, for both compost and dairy and develop an 100 percent organic fish farm that can also create natural fertilizer. This integrated approach to applied learning allows current students in training, as well as industry professionals, to really value local, organic produce, and explore more sustainable culinary practices.
Vedatya chefs in the farm.
Amit Kapur, Managing Promoter of Vedatya explains: “India’s population is over 1,2 billion, almost 18 percent of the world, and yet we are a nation of mostly male engineers. 90 percent of those engineers are unemployed. We need to change our education system quickly and develop new types of skills. India’s education system is still in silos, and very gendered, and class divided.”
Amit Kapur, Managing Promoter of Vedatya.
Kapur continues: “We really wanted to create something that will last beyond our lifetimes.” Ved means knowledge in Sanskrit, and Aditya means Sun. Vedatya, therefore, is a coined name that sounds like ‘Source of Knowledge.’ Its goal is to become a model for higher education and a hub of interdisciplinary knowledge with industry – where scientists and philosophers can work alongside farmers, gardeners, artists, chefs – and even engineers.
Chef Megha Kohli, Head Chef at the restaurant Lavaash Delhi, holding a class on how cuisines are reborn.
At Vedatya, a chef isn’t just a chef anymore. A culinary student could work anywhere in India’s food business – from being a hotelier or restaurateur, to re-branding and distributing local products to support small scale farmers and communities. Students need to know about locality, seasonality, and heritage – as well as all the soft skills of service design. One of the Vedatya’s alumni, Preet Singh, went back home and became an organic honey producer, selling his brand across India and overseas in Singapore.
Alumni’s organic honey brand is sold across India and overseas.
Another way that Vedatya is promoting applied education is by partnering with different industry players through an industry-academic partnership model that is quite unique in India. Industry partners are potential employers of Vedatya’s graduates, and so they can be an integral part of student’s curriculum that is reviewed every two years. This initiative has led to partnerships with InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), one of the world’s largest hotel companies, and with Columbia Asia Hospitals, one of Asia’s leading hospital chains, in the healthcare industry, to name but two.
Most of India cooks over traditional wood fire ovens.
Class inequity – a major challenge. “The Institute is in a rural setting, so every year we give 2-3 scholarship to young people from the neighboring local village,” adds Kapur. “Slowly we are getting young people interested in coming here to get an education but it isn’t easy.”
Vedatya has great plans for maximizing its land with organic farming.
India has huge inequalities and a very complex caste system. The villagers come from backgrounds where they have absolutely no exposure at all to rapidly changing urban life. It’s a huge sacrifice for a youngster get an education when they are expected to help their families survive.
“One of our scholarship students wanted to quit after only a few months,” Kapur explained. Eventually he told the director that the reason he wanted to quit was because he is being bullied by his friends about the formal way he is required to be dressed at Vedatya. Even his family teased him for looking like a ‘plucked chicken’ because he was following Vedatya’s dress code to be well-groomed and wear a uniform.
“It sounds funny to us, but he was deeply ashamed. There is a conflict and context that even we don’t understand. We are talking a difference of 20 kilometers. We need to support rural communities and give them a longer perspective. We also need to help these communities survive,” concludes Kapur.
When Vedatya and the Tasting India platform talk about food, they mean everything from the production of food, to food on the plate. Vedatya believes that organic food is second nature for India and it has the potential to be the new economic driver for a sustainable future, to getting people into the workplace and tapping into new industries such health tourism. Organic farming has the ability to feed India through new distribution channels, and offer solutions to major challenges, such as how to deal with food surplus, nurture cultural diversity within the vast continent, and create major export crops and produce that can take more than India’s current 1 percent of the growing global organic market.
You don’t have to go to the Himalayas to find yourself – but it might help!
Immersing yourself in natural surroundings brings a huge amount of physical and psychological benefits. But naturalness is much more than a superficial sense of wellbeing. It can bring us to another level of autonomy, where we are freed from all the usual external influences that shape our beliefs and behaviour. It’s about gaining insight into The Human Condition.
View from Majkhali Village. Photo by Dhirendra Bisht.
That kind personal transformation is much easier to attain with hands-on experience, says Ajay Rastogi, Philosopher and Applied Ethics practitioner, and founder of The Foundation for the Contemplation of Nature.
I had the good fortune to meet Ajay at the recent Tasting India Symposium in New Delhi, an event that brought together some of India’s brightest minds within food and sustainability. Like many of his contemporaries there, Ajay had left a successful career to go back to his home region and drive change from within. For Ajay that meant working together with the rural villagers of his homeland at the foothills of the Himalayas, in Uttarakhand.
Ajay welcomes everyone, regardless of race, caste, age, religion, gender, orientation, or education.
The foundation aims to research and develop new models for Resilience through cultural exchange, by connecting villagers with people from the cities and other countries in residential homestays and programs such as yoga and meditation retreats. The Contemplation of Nature is threefold; immersion in nature, mindful meditation, and a hands-on experience of the rural ‘resilient’ life.
Resilience moves far beyond current definitions of sustainability. On a 2-week homestay, you get to take part in everything that rural village life offers. Don’t worry – there is no enforced programme here. You are free to just rest and explore if that’s what you need, but guests usually end up getting quite involved with village life; learning about everything from organic seed banking, to preparing grain harvests, to tending to the village cows, cooking the local Kumaoni cuisine, or celebrating one of the many festivals that happen throughout India.
The Yoga Hall was listed as one of the top ten yoga venues of the world by The Guardian newspaper.
The Vrikshalaya centre is the headquarters and heart of the Foundation. It also offers longer-term residencies for artists and designers who are interested in exploring the principles of resilience as part of their work. Vrikshalaya means ‘Home of the Trees’ in Sanskrit – so outdoor activities such as rock-climbing, water rafting, camping and hiking are all part of nature immersion. The area is stunning, and the centre has been listed as one of ten top yoga venues in the world by the Guardian newspaper.
The aim of the foundation is to get people to experience three basic principles of Resilience that sustain all life; Dignity of Physical Work, Interdependence and Interconnectivity.
Women transplanting of rice accompanied by a Hudikia Ball musician. Photo by Dhirendra Bisht.
The Dignity of Physical Work
There is a long tradition in India of travelling to the Himalayas and rural areas to practice yoga and meditation as a spiritual practice, but not physical work.
Ajay explains: “In India, we have such an inequitable society. The caste system is still deeply ingrained in society and especially in rural life.”
Specific tasks, such as tailoring, traditional music, cleaning and different crafts, are often associated with specific castes. It’s considered servant’s work. And work is very gendered. Traditionally, women prepare the food, work in the fields and take care of the house. A recent survey revealed that women spend more time in the fields farming than men and bullocks combined!
Homestay Mums preparing food.
“We never even imagined the value of cultural exchange with western visitors. Younger westerners, in particular, would challenge outdated ways of thinking about caste and gender,” explained Ajay. “They wanted to know why the village girls were fetching water and taking care of the cows after school, instead of playing cricket with boys.”
Also, the homestay families are from different castes. This was purposefully provocative on Ajay’s part. The foundation hosts communal events for the visitors and their host families, challenging these deeply ingrained practices. Traditionally, lower castes do not eat together with higher castes. They do not attend the same meetings. Lower castes are even given separate plates and cutlery if they go to the house of a higher caste.
For the visitors, the learning curve is clear. Artisanal types of work and growing our own food re-connects our minds and hands. Doing something mindful with our hands together with others is natural and enjoyable.
This especially affected some of the younger visitors from the States, Ajay explained. “Their tears welled up as they realised they hardly ever spent time with their family. Here in the villages, shared activities, whether its farming or preparing millet, or making textiles, is a way to spend quality time with our friends, family and neighbours. It’s fun to create something of value together.”
Traditional farming is organic.
The repetitive actions of simple tasks also have a positive effect on the mind and body. When your mind can reach a level of sustained calmness, your body starts to do miraculous things. It’s called the ‘deep relaxation response’ in psychology. The stress hormone cortisol isn’t frantically released as our bodies aren’t in a fight or flee mode, aggravated by extremes in emotion. Combine this innate calmness with physical movement and you have a recipe for better mental and physical health.
Interdependence Interdependence is about people, reciprocity and solidarity. We are all used to financial transactions; I buy something and I pay for it, I own it. But it’s far smarter and more beneficial for the individual to systemically build a society around shared spaces and shared resources. In the village, not everyone has to take care of their cows every-day. They can share the duties, and reduce the daily work from once a day to once every 30 days.
Celebrating Diwali. Photo by Pete Zhivkov.
Traditionally, when someone dies in India they are cremated on an open funeral pyre. So when someone dies everyone visits the house in mourning to pay their respects and donate some wood. The job of collecting wood for the funeral pyre is taken care of by the community. Community takes care of necessities. It used to be the same with cooking for a wedding. Surplus food and goods are also distributed throughout the community to those in need. Interdependence exists as a fact, so working with it is just common sense.
A host family house in the village.
Interconnectivity The third and final principle of the foundation is Interconnectivity. This is about striving for a harmonious coexistence with nature, as we rely on our environment for all the resources that keep us alive. Ajay’s hope is that people will take the realisation of interconnectivity back with them and apply it to their own lives.
Celebrating Spring. Photo by Jogendra Bisht.
Interconnectivity The third and final principle of the foundation is Interconnectivity. This is about striving for a harmonious coexistence with nature, as we rely on our environment for all the resources that keep us alive. Ajay’s hope is that people will take the realisation of interconnectivity back with them and apply it to their own lives.
Words by Tanya Kim Grassley. Published in The Forumist, March 2018.
How many percent of pilots are women? 3 percent? 5 percent or 11 percent? You might be surprised to find out that the country with the highest percentage of female pilots is India, with 11 percent, compared the global percentage of 3 percent and 5 percent in the United States.
Two WAI India trainees at Girls in Aviation Day celebration celebrated at the Delhi Flying Club, September, 2017.
“The gender imbalance in aviation is global!” says Noopurr R. Chablani, Secretary of the Indian Chapter of the NGO Women in Aviation International (WAI). She continues: “Girls in India have been encouraged to study STEM subjects (Science, Technology Engineering and Mathematics) for quite some time already, so there are a lot of high school girls with high career ambitions.”
Bhatia has years of experience in travel, tourism and hospitality and wanted to give young women more career opportunities – not only as pilots or cabin crew, but also as all types of engineers, technicians, designers, strategists, air traffic controllers, operations managers, and flight care specialists, to name but a few professions in the field.
Radha Bhatia, the driving force behind Women in Aviation International, India.
Noopurr R. Chablani, dedicated to gender equality in aviation.
Bhatia herself is no stranger to CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility). She started the Bird Academy in 1988, as an educational arm of the Bird Group. Bird Academy offers diploma and certificate courses in travel and tourism, airfares and ticketing, passenger and baggage handling, air safety and emergency handling, dangerous goods regulations, as well as consultant and foundation courses certified by IATA, a trade association of world airlines. The courses range from about a month to a year in duration and Bird Academy trains roughly 3,000 students every year, guiding them from high school to finding employment across the country.
Sai Deepthi Patro, 15-year-old from Visakhapatnam, India, says: “Today I visited the entire airport and even got an opportunity to see what an Air Traffic Control tower looks like. I become an engineer. I will definitely try for a job in aviation.” (December 14th, 2017).
Bhatia adds: “We also need to involve the girls’ families so the girls all have an advocate at home. There are still a lot of preconceived ideas about what it means for a woman to work at an airport or as an air flight attendant. Also, specialized education is long and it can take years before the girls earning a living.”
There is indeed, a lot of work to do. The global aviation industry needs to update its practices to actively promote gender equality. In India, Bhatia and Chablani are challenging the status quo and inspiring others to do the same.
Video: The inauguration of Aviation Multi-Skill Development Centre, located at the old airport in Chandigarh, 27th February 2018. The Centre will train 2360 candidates in 8 Job Roles, over a 3 year period, with the CSR contributions from the Airports Authority of India to the National Skill Development Corporation (NSDF), and with active support from the Ministry of Civil Aviation. The centre will be affiliated with the Aerospace & Aviation Sector Skill Council (AASSC) who have helped develop the content of the program, with Bird academy as the Training Partner.
Captain Nivedita awards a WAI student with a pilot cap.
Many of us dream of quitting our jobs and leaving the city, but how many of us manage to do it? I asked Innovation Strategist, Karina Vissonova, how she and her partner Aron designed ‘the good life.’
Karina and Gazsi, at home in their cottage. Gazsi is a local Pumi dog. Photo by Alexandra Heim.
Q: What was your childhood like?
A: I grew up in Latvia. I played in our family vegetable garden since I could walk, and was outdoors all year round. As a teenager in Riga, I spent every free minute with my friends making fires on the beach or partying in the forest.
Q: Why did you move away?
A: I studied in Copenhagen and was recruited right away into a job in innovation, that was still a relatively new field at the time. I got to work with some amazing professionals – architects, designers, and thought leaders. It was like working with rock stars! But Copenhagen was never really ‘my town,’ despite all the ‘goodies’ that came with life in the city. It felt like my lifestyle was bought, somehow.
Q: How did your job evolve your thinking?
A: I found it challenging to accept that so many great ideas, which would truly help people to live a better and more sustainable everyday life, would get chiselled down to fit into existing production systems. It’s as if we design for machines rather than people. We have all the technologies we need, but we have heavy, outdated systems that are resistant to change. I started wondering what else I could do.
Q: So you decided to leave your job?
A: Not immediately, but I knew I needed to change my own path. I wanted to be able to seek answers to the ‘big’ questions. Eventually Aron and I decided to make the leap and move to the countryside in Hungary. Aron is half Hungarian, but it wasn’t particularly about living in Hungary, it was about pursuing a quality of life with less, and rediscovering ourselves without a professional identity tag. We moved in the middle of winter, without TV or internet. It was the most silent 3 months of my life!
PAP Wines Garden Restaurant- Under the Volcano.
Q: How did you cope with that silence?
A: Just by giving it a chance. We missed our friends, but we were also in love with our new home on the hill. In the Spring, I started gardening. Portuguese friends had told me about permaculture, and so I spent hours on YouTube learning everything I could. My first garden was a mandala garden; a beautiful, unruly patch. I was the laughing stock of the neighbourhood at first, but when my neighbours saw how my garden was flourishing, even during periods of drought, they switched to permaculture methods. I also practice companion planting, where you pair plants that can support each other with nutrition and healthy insect populations; my strawberries grew together with spinach, for example. It’s pretty in its own wild way.
Aron selling at the Farmer’s Market – from chai and chutney to wine, 2017.
Q: So your food brand evolved almost by accident?
A: Yes! Suddenly we had all this surplus produce so we started making condiments to sell at the farmer’s market. We made our own labels and suddenly we had a brand!
Q: What came next?
A: One day, Aron announced, “Do you realise we are living in one of the world’s very famous wine growing volcanic regions? We should make wine!” My response was a hesitant ‘OK…’ Aron went to work for a local wine maker, to learn the ropes. A year later, Aron made his first wine, a ruby coloured Pinot Noir. We made 300 bottles. It was excellent. We couldn’t believe it. It was like we had the volcano gods on our side!
A selection of PAP Wines.
Q: And it’s organic?
A: The wine is organic, yes, and with a low sulphite content, but for us it’s not about labelling our product as ‘organic’ or getting expensive certifications, it’s just about being true to the traditional, artisanal wine-making methods. We want to make the most honest and highest quality wine we can, while caring for the land. Many of the new wine makers here follow regenerative farming methods – it’s far less costly and far more effective.
Aron in the kitchen, January 2017. Photo by Alexandra Heim.
Q: When did you decide to open the restaurant?
A: Our wines became commercially successful within 2 years, and our garden was abundant. It was a natural progression to pursue Aron’s dream of having a small restaurant. He is an exceptional chef, albeit with no formal training. Aron had learnt to cook regional dishes, in Tamil Nadu, in the south of India, and in Himachal Pradesh, up in the North, in the foothills of the Himalayas. This influenced our concept – Indian, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean vegetarian tapas-sized dishes served with local wines . We just offered our own home cooking. We opened for guests last summer and it turned to be the busiest summer of our lives!
Q: How does your life today compare with life in the city?
A: Countryside offers an unveiled life, a connection to oneself and the systems that let you survive. Leo Tolstoy wrote about the division of intellectual and physical labour, and the need to experience both to acquire true wisdom. I couldn’t agree more. I scribble away about sustainability, but I feel that it is the experience of working the land and being part of a community that entitles me to write about sustainability.
PAP’s ceramic plates and Aron’s samosas. Photo by Alexandra Heim.
Q: What are your plans now?
A: I want to continue writing and consulting. I still have more questions than I have answers, and I get the feeling others do too. But we need to ask the right questions. If I can attend to the vineyards and the garden during the season, run our little home restaurant, and write for the rest of the time, I will be a very happy and lucky person.
Karina and Aron, Pinot Noir harvest 2017.
Q: Any advice to someone wanting to make a total change in their lives?
A: Dream! Plan big and trust your intuition. Life is unpredictable but it’s also full of opportunities. You just need to have the courage to believe in yourself.
These days, we have a false sense of security because of social transparency, where events and emotions that used to be very private are always on a display on social media. We have an impression that we are emotionally connected to other people, which also gives the false impression of a safety net. I find that such a net, if it indeed exists, is very thin.
Despite social media, we are more dependent on relationships in our physical communities than we realise – and the support that they can provide. Nurture real connections. Value where the things in your life come from and go to. When taking a life changing step, make sure your ties are offline as much as online.
Text by Tanya Kim Grassley & Karina Vissonova
Images: Alexandra Heim and otherwise, Karina’s own.
Food for Change a new platform in Stockholm. Food for Change is a CSR platform for businesses connecting waste food with people in need. Local supermarkets explore how to reuse all the waste food they throw away every day, by creating a membership scheme for low-income people. Membership or gift cards for people in need costs roughly 50 euro to gain access to regular food deliveries. The programme invites volunteers to deliver the food to local communities. Many large companies invite their employees to take part in the scheme as a CSR effort.
A few other examples of green initiatives turning wasted into wanted:
Networks: The carpet manufacturer Interface has created a sustainable line of products called Net-Works. Net-Works is the first step in creating a truly restorative loop in carpet tile production, whilst cleaning up oceans and beaches of plastic and creating financial opportunities for informal economies; some of the poorest people in the world.
A firm in Brazil, Arteplas, is taking plastic bottles out of landfills and repurposing them as high quality rope. Treehugger reports that their product is both higher quality and cheaper than traditional rope constructed from fibres. Arteplas have independent analysis from a third party assessor showing that their recycling processes for rope use 70% less energy than ropes from virgin materials. Their plant employing up to 400 local people. The quality of the product, is proven in the success of the company and its applied use across different industries.
Blest.Making oil from waste plastics: Typically made from petroleum, it is estimated that 7% of the world’s annual oil production is used to produce and manufacture plastic. That is more than the oil consumed by the entire African continent. A Japanese company called Blest created a small, very safe and easy-to-use machine that can convert several types of plastic back into oil. Amazing. A machine like this would be invaluable to informal waste pickers the world over, allowing them to add value to collected plastics.
The Green HangerMade in Australia from 100% recycled cardboard, the Green Hanger will be used as an event invitation during Tokyo Designers Week, then as a coat hanger. The Green Hanger eco coat hanger is a fully recyclable and biodegradable cardboard coat hanger made from 100% recycled materials.
Parapu Durapulp pressed chairby Södra in Sweden is a winner of the Red Dot Design award; the product concept is a collaboration between an ad agency, the pulp manufacturer, KTH and famous PR-driving designers Claesson Koivisto Rune. DuraPulp is a new material that combines paper pulp and PLA (a biodegradable plastic) to create an incredibly resistant paper. Created from one pressed cut out sheet the new product demonstrates how a simple manufacturing process can add value to raw waste materials and create perceived value for the hotels and companies who use it.
Eco-Drywall: While recent interest in sustainable building has spurred the creation of eco-minded materials like Greensulate and Cow Dung Bricks, drywall is one building component that has remained essentially the same over the past 100 or so years. That’s about to change, however, thanks to EcoRock, a new drywall material that’s made of 80 percent recycled materials.
Poly-Al is made from recycled Tetra Pak. Tetra Pak Europe pays a local producer to take care of old Tetra Pak. He removes the paper part and recycles and then uses the plastic/metal foil part to make a board, 15 mm thick, flat or corrugated that is used as a building material in walls or roofs. It is water proof, fire resistance and uses no additives in the compression process. They have started to use it for making cow-sheds in India and it has increased the milk productivity with 2-3 l per cow per day! It keeps the cows cool and comfortable, and is a beautiful material as well!
In 2014, the wandering artist-monk Tenzin Shenyen spoke at a Service Design Network conference in Stockholm. Shenyen is the Tibetan word for friend. And Tenzin Shenyen is a British-born Tibetan Buddhist monk who received his monk’s vows from His Holiness the Dalai Lama in July 2004.
Shenyen has spent the decade or so wandering around the world, and as he describes it, “Allowing the blessing of the tradition to mingle with the secular beauties of my own culture.” His office consists of a rolled-up copy of Artforum and an old Nokia 100. He thinks he can be contacted via his blog radioshenyen, but he’s not always sure.
A while back, I managed to reach him just before he left a monastery and Buddhist university in Thailand, where he had been teaching for a year. I asked if he would answer a few questions for the online magazine The Forumist.
“Send me a few questions,” he said. “But be warned – I only answer questions that are both logical and beautiful.”
A conversation with Shenyen always helps to refresh your outlook on life and introduce a new perspective to your own worn-out conclusions. His writings and talks often remind us about the continuously changing nature of life – that karma and experience cannot be correlated for predictable effect, much less be designed.
Here is the interview that was published by The Forumist:
What is spirituality? “Answer #1
A teacher once asked, ‘How do you know what a candle is when you haven’t seen all the candles in the world?’ If he had said ‘electronic devices’, the question would be easier to imagine, to relate to, but… candles? Can’t I at least be sure about what a candle is?
“Buddhist philosophy operates in that space – the space of not-knowing. And this not-knowing is the basis – the grammar – of spirituality in Buddhism. So, likewise, I want to say ‘I don’t know’ to your question, not as an answer but as one of many possible responses. How can I possibly say what spirituality is when I haven’t ‘seen’ all the spiritualties in the world?
Spirituality is communion with The Invisibles. It is a relationship with that which closes your physical eyes. These closed eyes can be faked, or ritualistically assumed, or genuine. Only the latter is true spirituality. It is being open to the idea that existence is not just ‘us and the animals’ within a cold dark universe. This openness begins in discipline, then acquires dignity and presence, then dissolves into grace and abandon. By discipline I mean sustained acts of faith and imagination.
‘A love? I love your father, certain black Madonnas from Africa, the flowers which grow by the Atlantic, difficult texts… and you.’ From The Samurai by Julia Kristeva.”
What is the hardest part of your practice for you personally?
“The hardest part of my practice is remaining homeless and jobless while back in the West. I yearn for something bigger – and gentler(!) – than a tent to live in. Living as a homeless monk back in the West is a really powerful experience psychologically. It is an exercise in trust and in realising the nothingness[ITALS] of my life, but it is physically demanding and unfeasible beyond the summer months. So I’m beginning to think in terms of it as finding a part-time job or room somewhere. I’ve lived in western monasteries but they often feel kind of jaded or false. I’ve seen westerners become monks and then forget that they are the products of the most individualistic, high-speed societies that ever existed on the planet. They then try to squeeze themselves into an ancient Asian monastic model and it hardly ever works. It is easy to become listless and dull, emotionally starved and alienated from your own cultural roots and personal histories. This is not renunciation – it is a loss of nerve and a form of living in denial.”
You made a conscious decision to not be attached to one home for quite a few years. What was that experience like?
“It wasn’t a ‘conscious decision’ so much as a pragmatic one. I was heading back to England after 11 years in Asia, I was a monk and wasn’t supposed to be looking for work or have a home. So I… just knew I was going to be homeless. And I just went with that reality. I accepted it – quite naively, actually, I would say. I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for. I bought a tent in London and then decided to wander in England. I thought, ‘Where’s the safest place to go?’ And I headed towards Cornwall. I’d never put a tent up before in my life and suddenly I was in this farmer’s field outside Plymouth, without permission, in the dark.
“That year I slept in 93 different places – I wandered through Cornwall for a few months and then catapulted to Japan to do a 1,100km pilgrimage. I learnt so much about just trusting in situations. And also about how decisions often cannot be made until one is in the midst of the ‘landscape of answer’. The places I slept in, I simply couldn’t have planned it all out in advance. I had to be walking in the dark and tired and looking around me – in the landscape of answer. Being homeless in the UK as a monk is a ‘dual nationality’ kind of thing – you’re semi criminal, as wild camping is illegal, and at the same time you’re the epitome of trustworthiness – I wear my robes. I guess it helps being a monk from Liverpool in this respect!”
What kind of practices or concrete behaviours would you recommend to any lay person – ‘non-medical antidepressants’?
“Concrete behaviour – and concrete evidence – is only one dimension to Buddhist practice. There is also ‘water’ behaviour, ‘air’ behaviour, ‘time-lapse’ behaviour, etc. For example, mindfulness practice has now entered the mainstream as a secular practice devoid of any religious dimension. And this is fine. Buddhism doesn’t own the copyright on mindfulness. But these ‘new’ approaches, such as MBCT (mindfulness based cognitive therapy) or MBSR (mindfulness based stress reduction) lack the existential vastness of Buddhist philosophy and cosmography.
The modern secular forms really just deal with a kind of ‘local’ problem and ignore the vaster existential problem – you reduce stress created by your workplace in order to… return to work and more stress. It is essentially nihilistic. Whereas, in Buddhism, you are practising in order to end all forms of suffering forever, to transcend having to have this kind of suffering body, even. Buddhism combines precise technique with existential vastness, and this dual flavour is where its power lies. Buddhism isn’t interested in changing the molecular structure of the brain – a bullet or cocaine can do that. It is interested in changing karma – the moment-by-moment presencing of reality – this is something that science can’t get a handle on.
“But bearing in mind what I said in my previous answer – about the dangers of just superstitiously adopting wholesale an alien culture – I would like to see people explore the existential practices of Buddhism and take them into contemporary settings.
“My personal ‘Buddhist universe’ is a scattergun intermingling of Madhyamaka, cinema, ritual practice, communion with The Invisibles, ethics, architecture, Instagram, purification practices, #verysimpledecisionmaking, #onehomeayear, silence, high-speed-super-slow, contemporary art, study as one of the healing arts – the list is potentially endless.
Lighthouse Relief volunteers, Joanna Ågren and Jonny Bradford, have really proved that a few determined people can make a massive difference to so many. They have helped move 48 people out of refugee camps and into apartments to begin a new life. For every social media post, the informal network raised up to 20,000 SEK that went directly to buy provisions for refugees, mostly via the mobile app Swish in Sweden.
See the Facebook page in Swedish, and the blog, in English. Their testimony shows how much of the help in Greece actually came from independent volunteers – private individuals mobilising themselves, without any formal help. These volunteers took it upon themselves to go to Greece, often not knowing what they can do to help until they arrive and meet other volunteers on the ground (including the refugees). In addition, the response of the local Greek population is very moving.
The official refugee camps were not humane places, not well equipped. They are lacking in food, supplies, amenities, not to mention medical care. They are policed and fenced in, and many of the refugees fear being imprisoned indefinitely in these camps.
While governments in Europe spend extraordinary amounts erecting fences along their national boundaries, not one government penny has been spent helping the refugees flee war-torn Syria and Iraq. Not one penny on food and supplies in Idomeni or the shores of Lesbos. Even worse, our governments’ response has been to add to the challenges the refugees face, blocking them from applying for asylum- which, until very recently, was deemed to be a very basic human right.
The blanket decision to demote and declassify all non Syrian and Iraqi nationals to “migrant” status (as opposed to refugee) blatantly ignores all the international humanitarian laws and mandates that have been set up since the second world war. This is not a “refugee” crisis, but a crisis of neglect, an ethical crisis. The inability of the EU to respond rationally, with problem-solving solutions and long-term planning, is only increasing the crisis incrementally by the day.
How many days can a person go without adequate food and shelter? The official hotspot camps set up by the military are full to bursting. At the same time, Jonny and Joanna estimated that around 40 percent of the refugees they saw in the camps in Greece (official and unofficial) are children under the age of 12.
This week’s blog post is the story of one family’s journey from Syria, written by a refugee, Mohammed Abdi, who helped Joanna and Jonny translate at Idomeni. I urge you to spend 5 minutes reading it. May his testimony serve to dispel any doubt you may have in your mind about the urgency of the crisis, and the responsibility the international community has to avoid an atrocity of wilful neglect.
Here is an article that first appeared in The Forumist in December, 2014.
At home, in exile. Changing Places with Ninos Dankha, Prince of Assyria.
It’s easy to compare Ninos Dankha’s sultry tones to the searching expression of Nick Drake, or the pared-back honesty of Tim Buckley. It’s certainly in that Hall of Fame that he belongs. His cathartic approach to music conjures unmentionable longing: all the joy and sadness of the world. His voice has a natural, emotional intensity and restraint that can’t be feigned. The rhythm is definite, but slightly reticent and offbeat. The melodies are original, yet hauntingly familiar. Changing Places is an album that you will revisit, with renewed meaning, time and time again.
“I wanted to say ‘I am the Prince of Nothing, I’m not from anywhere.”
NINOS DANKHA PRINCE OF ASSYRIA
Photo: Truls Andersen
Q: The name, Prince of Assyria, was it intended as a provocation?
A: At the time, I think it was. But you know, the name – it was in 2007. It was more tongue-in-cheek and less loaded somehow. I just wanted to say ‘I am the Prince of Nothing’, because Assyria doesn’t exist. I wanted to say I’m not from anywhere. I’m brought up here in Sweden, and have been here since I was one year old, but I’m always asked where I am from. For me to say I’m Swedish would have been the real provocation.
Q: And now more than ever, that’s a provocation?
A: Yes, I think it still is. Europe is freaking out again. Blaming a whole range of complex issues on immigration. It’s the easy answer that sounds logical and believable, but it’s dangerous to opt for easy answers in challenging times. We need more critical thinking. More solutions. At least now there is a public debate. When there is no dialogue opinions go unchecked and never get challenged.
Gates of Ishtar at the Pergamon museum, Berlin
Photo: by Ninos Dankha
Q: So what is the solution?
A: That’s the discussion we should be having, especially in the media. I hope it’s time for a more intelligent discussion on what the solutions really could be. Most of all, I hope that the new generation can find the confidence within themselves to design these solutions. The issues today are diverse: restrained resources, failing economies based on an outdated model. We’ve turned ourselves into consumers heavily reliant on cheaply produced, throwaway goods. It isn’t sustainable. This is happening and neither Europe nor Sweden can blame it on the ‘outside.’
Q: In a way, Sweden needs to believe the story about itself that the rest of the world believes. Are you also still defining your place in the world?
A: Yes, in more ways than one. I used to dance. Making music was a natural progression. It’s just about creating something, letting whatever it is inside you flow through you – even if it is blocking you. If you focus on just the blockage, or the problems, you lose your focus and can’t be creative anymore. Being creative is the way out for all of us. The difference is, in dance there can be total silence while the movement continues. This is hard to do with music. I’m still learning how to not overexpress – to be more confident and transparent in silence and slowness. It’s a thin line.
Ninos Dankha was a dancer
“In dance there can be total silence while the movement continues. This is hard to do with music.”
Q: What music are you listening to now?
A: So much Ryuichi Sakamoto today, it’s the weather! I also listen to folk music like Karen Dalton. I had 16 Horsepower on just now.
“I think I am letting go of the commercial make-up. Changing Placesis self-produced, but besides that there isn’t too much post-production either.”
Q: Your music has been described as ‘Swedish Melancholy’. Is there such a thing?
A: Yes, I suppose so. I think I’m trying to tap into some sort of universal mix of joy and sadness. That’s melancholy for me. When I think about Swedish melancholy I think about gentle, melodic voices. A shift from major to minor. In Egypt, they sing their heart outs with so much sadness! In Mexico, they celebrate death with joy – but it’s all the same feeling in those blue notes, wherever you go. It’s just a matter of rhythm or ‘touch’ that defines the cultural aspect, and even the cultural differences are not confined by national boundaries. Very little is.
Q: It’s more of a changing landscape. So it’s apt that Changing Places is the last Prince of Assyria album?
A: Yes. The first album Missing Note was well received, and I’m really grateful for that. There have been a lot of great people involved in Prince of Assyria. But now I have to find out what’s next. I think I’m letting go of the commercial make-up. I’m trying to learn how to have far less production. Changing Places is self-produced, but besides that there isn’t too much post-production either.
Photo: Ninos Dankha
Q: Yes, it feels closer. Your version of Song to the Siren in particular: You can feel the air. What are you working on now?
A: Right now, I’m writing lyrics for the third album. It will be called Prince of Assyria, by Ninos Dankha. It’s a transition. After that I can finally leave the Prince of Assyria project and see what I can do. Mentioning Assyria makes people scared and it scares me too. If I let go of that identity what am I?
Q: Maybe it’s enough to start being Ninos Dankha and see what happens?
A: Yes. That’s more than enough for anyone! There’s no need to go on justifying my existence. From now on it’s just about the music.
Ilkka Suppanen won the prestigious Torsten and Wanja Söderberg’s prize. Here is an introduction from Ilkka himself that was not published in the catalogue.
Ilkka in Milan, 2015
Looking back, dreaming about the future. I am very honoured to receive this prize. It’s given me a chance to look back at my life and feel gratitude for all the opportunities I have had since I was a young designer. Every bit of positive feedback gives a designer confidence to continue developing their thought process, no matter where they are in their career.
For me, drawing is a very important part of my thought process. Drawing allowed me to become a designer. And I think the drawings in this catalogue describe my journey as a designer more than words ever could. Drawing has helped me navigate a complex world ruled by words. It helped me to continuously ask questions about the role of design, from designing products and environments to thinking about the larger, more complex systems that govern our world, and what is possible in the future, with all the human creativity and technology available to us.
As soon as I could hold a pencil I started scribbling, but it was at school that drawing started to have a particular significance to me. Although I was verbally articulate, I soon realised that my imaginary world was made up of images, not words or text. I could not understand why I was not allowed to draw my way through every class! It turned out that I am heavily dyslexic. In those days there was no diagnosis, so school was very difficult for me. Drawing became my refuge. It was the only way I could get praise from teachers or make my schoolmates laugh. Through drawing, I had a chance to develop my interests and get a higher education studying architecture and design.
Drawings is a reiterative process, an act of exploration, questioning and discovery, where the drawing takes on a life of its own and reveals more questions that need to be answered. Anyone who draws understands this. Technical drawings are the last defining work done in the design process, but drawing throughout the whole design process helps me to continuously ask questions, testing a concept again and again until the solution is ‘justified and correct.’
I look back at the drawings of my heroes, Alvar Aalto and Eero Saarinen. I look at their drawings and I am in conversation with them. In Alvar Aalto’s drawings you can see several scales sketched in a one single piece of paper simultaneously: this represents his holistic view on design. Just one drawing holds all that knowledge. Eero Saarinen could try and solve multiple problems in a one single drawing. I saw a plan of a skyscraper and an evaluation matrix of possible future wives in one drawing! These heroes showed me how drawing is a way of dreaming the future. And for me that sums it up. That’s a designer’s job. It’s what we are trained to do. I believe the most important work for a designer today is to share their process with the world, so that we can collaborate in dreaming a better future and designing the world we all want to live in.
Imaginary Life recently was invited up to the Artic circle by artist Laila Kolostyak to help organise a seminar and workshop for over 20 selected snow and ice professionals from Russia, Finland, Sweden and Norway. The seminar was funded by Kulturkontakt Nord and the Norwegian Barents Secretariat and aimed to explore how Snow and Ice professionals can raise the profile of their work, as well as collaborate and share knowledge across borders on how to drive successful projects of all scales; from installations in nature parks, to interior and architectural design, to urban planning and urban reclamation and festival planning.
Keynote speakers included leading professionals such as Timo Jokela from the University of Lapland, Rovaniemi, known decades of spectacular land art, Jens Toms Ivarsson, Design Director at the world-famous ICEHOTEL in Jukkasjärvi, Sweden and Ole Morten Rokvam, an artist and craftsman who has curated leading events with snow and ice in Norway for over a decade. In addition, the artists from Kirovsk and Murmansk were exceptionally inspiring, sharing their festival and community work and bringing a lot of love and live music.
We spoke with Jens Thoms Ivarsson:
We were discussing the ‘eternal ephemerality’ or ice. Is that something Design can learn from?
Absolutely. Imagine: the earth was created at some point, some billions of years ago. The water we are working with could have come from a comet- its ancient and essential stuff. Two different materials met and collided, basically stone and water. They became a frozen moment. Hot lava froze into stone, and water turned into ice. It’s this moment of change that artists and designers often explore in the materials and contexts they work with. Moments of change. Tipping points. How materials age next together. How they behave. It’s fundamental stuff, but ice also teaches us about the nature of continuous change. The seasons, nature’s needs, human needs in winter climates, and of course, climate change. These are new frontiers for design in general. We always think about the negative aspects of snow and ice, how to get rid of it, how to avoid it. We’ve hardly scratched the surface of how to use it as a material.
How long is something ephemeral?
It’s a good question. It all depends on the point of view, the objectives of a project. We follow the melting process of the ICEHOTEL too- it is so beautiful. We spend so long making details, crafting interiors and design elements –always knowing it will melt and return to the river again. And during the process, the sound changes in the building, the atmosphere is fantastic. It’s not sad- its liberating. The ice hotel doesn’t collapse, it opens up in the centre to reveal the sky and the surroundings of the place where it started. There is so much new knowledge to be gained about snow and ice.
But there is a high risk of making mistakes working with such a volatile material?
Yes – but the volatility also opens possibilities. Designers always ask “How do I avoid mistakes?” Ernst Billgren’s book ‘Vad är Konst 2′ (What is art 2) says that the short answer is to sit very still! As soon as humans do something there are mistakes, but mistakes also lead to discoveries. All our genetic development and success is built on learning from mistakes. When I work in stone or concrete and it is placed in city, there is a lot of pressure as the object will lasts for a lifetime. Working in snow and ice is very freeing in a way. You can be more brave and experimental. Less self conscious and more playful.
How do you work with seasons of water and light at the ice hotel in Jukkasjärvi?
You’d think it all happens in the winter as the focus is on ice art but we are moving to all year round. In the summer there is rafting, fishing and other nature activities and the phenomenon of the sun never setting at night- that is a very special experience to have. Also we are preparing for the water to freeze long before it does. It’s the pivotal moment for us, as we invite artists from all over the world. And those artists are not all traditional ice sculptors. We work with people from all background to explore what they can create with ice as a material.
We can also funnel water from the river, and blow it through snow canons to create a material we call “snice” –manufactured snow. We can throw snow onto moulds. Sometimes we use reinforcement to create very large structures. We are also learning more ever year about how to use ice reinforcement. The old way is to create giant moulds for architectural structures where the walls are built with plywood moulds and filled with snice, much like the process for creating concrete buildings. By exploring ice reinforcement we open new doors to resourceful innovation in architecture.
How many people are involved in constructing the ICEHOTEL in Jukkasjärvi every year?
At the ICEHOTEL we have a team of over 50 people who work on the structure alone. Then there is all the finishing work on interior design, lighting and so on. Tools and methods are developing all the time and its important to share this knowledge.
Focus on working together is important – the joy comes when it is finished! One of the hardest jobs is being on roof in minus 35 connecting wires without gloves. It’s the engineers, technicians and ice workers we really have to thank! They make these ideas possible.
What other type of work do you do there?
One example is that we send ice and snice all over world- and send our engineers to make large events possible. For examples we created a catwalk for Chanel at the Grand Palais in Paris. We needed to install a cooling system for the 40 m long 8 m high catwalk. Karl Lagerfeld ordered it. We had to tell him not to wear boots not to get wet. He was great fun to work for. We asked him to lick the ice and he obliged!
One of my favourite projects that you showed at the seminar was the roundabout you made in a lake.
Yes, we cut out a huge disc in the river and added a boat engine. It was a simple intervention to see if the disc would rotate – and it did! It rotated at a perfectly even speed. It worked out better than we anticipated it would. Nature is like that.