Celebrating the Long Tail of India’s Social Imagination

Uday Dandavate
7 min readNov 1, 2023

Abstract: This article chronicles a remarkable journey of dialogue and discovery, where the author engages with individuals who have shaped India’s social imagination. By sharing their stories, the project aims to preserve the rich diversity of ideas, compassion, and innovation that have strengthened India’s intercultural fabric. In a time marked by discord and negativity, these dialogues offer a beacon of hope, highlighting non-violent creative transformations taking place at the grassroots level. The concept of the “long tail effect” suggests that these conversations have the potential to inspire a wider audience, nurturing curiosity and fostering a sense of unity in diversity. This initiative serves as a valuable resource for research, education, and social impact, weaving a tapestry of India’s evolving social imagination.

Background:

In this article, I will share an unfolding story of stories.

Three months ago, I conceived the idea of recording dialogues with individuals who have played a pivotal role in shaping the social imagination of post-independence India. To clarify, my interest lies in the concept of social imagination.

What is Social Imagination?

I have adjusted the term “sociological imagination,” coined by the American sociologist C. Wright Mills in his 1959 book “The Sociological Imagination,” to “social imagination.” Mills introduced this term to describe a framework for comprehending social reality that positions personal experiences within a broader social and historical context.

British sociologist Anthony Gideon defines sociological imagination as follows:

“The application of imaginative thought to the asking and answering of sociological questions." Someone employing sociological imagination ‘thinks themselves away’ from the familiar routines of daily life.”

I found the idea of social imagination captivating because it satisfies my curiosity about participatory design as an ongoing and iterative process of meaning-making by people. After a 30-year journey as a design researcher, I have concluded that all design is a process of discovering meaningful relationships between the self and the surroundings, between the mind and matter, and in understanding the present in the context of the past and future. Fourteen months ago, I paused my professional work to explore my place and purpose in the world as a designer. I began engaging with groups of people, ranging from small groups of four to gatherings of 250, discussing life, imagination, design, poetry (both mine and theirs), and artificial intelligence.

A significant event in my life brought me an epiphany. This year marks my father’s centenary. Both my parents actively participated in India’s freedom struggle during their teenage years and continued to contribute to India’s social and political transformation, both at the grassroots level and as members of India’s Parliament. One night, I woke up with the idea that the best way to merge my personal journey with that of my parents is to initiate an oral history project. This project aims to discuss the essence of India’s post-independence evolution with individuals who have played a role in shaping “The Legacy of India’s Imagination.” Rather than just celebrating my father’s centenary, I felt compelled to archive the ethos of the times in which India’s social imagination is evolving.

Why an Online Archive?

India is currently undergoing a process of reimagining its identity within the framework of Hindu nationalist ideology. In this social reimagination, the post-independence dream of “unity in diversity” is being abandoned, and animosity toward Muslims has become a driving force in the new discourse. History books and education policies are being rewritten to conform to this new imagination, and vigilantes roam the streets enforcing conformity. Every pillar of democracy is under strain, and media is being coerced into submission. Given this context, it is crucial to preserve a stream of consciousness that keeps the memory of “The Legacy of India’s Imagination” alive.

Documentary filmmakers Anjali Monteiro and K P Jayasankar

The objective of this project is to showcase and preserve the diversity of ideas, idealism, dialogues, and actions that have enriched India’s intercultural fabric. I aim to raise awareness among current and future generations of young people, demonstrating that the spirit of curiosity, compassion, and innovation remains alive at the grassroots level, despite what the media and politics may suggest.

Story of Stories:

When I initiated this project, I initially planned to record dialogues with 5–6 eminent activists. However, as I began conversations, participants recommended others, and the project expanded. Participants became not just contributors but also an engaged audience. They regularly share reactions to other dialogues, forward links to their networks, and suggest additional individuals to invite.

Environmentalist Medha Patkar

Before I began these dialogues, the prevalent politics of negativity, hatred, and violence weighed heavily on me. Yet, the compilation of these dialogues has shifted my focus toward the constructive imagination and activism of many people dedicated to promoting peace, justice, and joy within their communities. These dialogues reveal stories of individuals driven by high levels of curiosity, compassion, creativity, and commitment, maintaining incredible resilience in their pursuit of a better India. The collective impact of these dialogues on the audience has been profound.

Here is a response from one of the audience members:

“What you’ve undertaken is an incredible task that will open doors for people from diverse backgrounds. I imagine these dialogues will act as a catalyst for their research. Bravo! More power to you for your dedication and efforts. These conversations, what I call ‘oral histories,’ will become a valuable reference point for us and for future generations of all Indians.”

Another audience member wrote:

“I was deeply moved by your conversation with Shabnam Hashmi. I have known her and seen her for nearly 30 years, but this conversation suddenly made her so intelligible to me. What an amazingly insightful conversation. She has always seemed like a low-key, gentle person. However, in this moving conversation, she reveals the creation of her Ganga Jamuni legacy, a perspective that stands as a true bulwark against the polarizing politics of our times. Her initiative, ‘Mere Ghar To Aaye,’ is a classic social design project that should be studied and acknowledged in design schools as a simple yet profoundly effective intervention that addresses the needs of our times. Congratulations, Uday. I realize that these conversations are actually reintroducing me to people I have known. They seem to gently unveil them in ways that are almost magical. For everyone, it’s the magic we need today.”

Today, we witness conflicts and wars in real-time on digital screens. Digital media has also become a platform for distorting facts, spreading lies, manipulating minds, inciting fears, anger, and hatred, and promoting violence. This deluge of digital violence can be emotionally draining. Many people are turning away from mainstream media and seeking a balanced perspective, or a view aligned with their own beliefs, from alternative media channels. My project aims to utilize an alternate media platform to highlight non-violent, creative transformations that are occurring through grassroots initiatives. I have learned that the stories of these small yet purposeful initiatives possess the power to inspire hope and curiosity for non-violent change.

The participants in my dialogue may have had a profound impact on a relatively smaller number of people compared to the prevalence of hate-driven narratives that influence a larger population. Nevertheless, initial reactions give me hope that if these dialogues reach a wider audience, a long-tail effect can emerge from them.

What Is a Long-Tail Effect?

Chris Anderson popularized the theory of the long-tail effect in his book “The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More,” first featured in Wired in 2004 and later published by Hyperion in 2006. The long tail is a statistical distribution pattern that occurs when a larger share of occurrences takes place away from the center or head of the distribution.

While most decision-makers focus on the central tendency in statistical distributions to target a larger but less diverse section of a sample, the idea of the long tail highlights a new opportunity. Concentrating on a cluster of subjects scattered at the tail end of a distribution can address the needs of a diverse and significant portion of the population.

Through this project, I aim to shine a spotlight on geographically distributed, small yet impactful initiatives that can preserve the legacy of “unity in diversity.” I believe that such an archive will serve as a repository of inspiring stories.

I will conclude this article with a message I received today from Dr. Girish Kulkarni, the co-founder of Snehalaya who is also one of the participants in the 42 dialogues recorded till today:

“Dada, your series of dialogues is set to become a valuable resource for training and research, benefiting volunteers and institutions engaged in social reform movements, the younger generation eager to participate in causes with social commitment, people-centric politics, public policymakers and influencers, as well as diverse colleges of social sciences, students, and journalists covering media, social sciences, and politics.

I have no doubt that from this effort a positive and constructive vision will emerge.”

Playlist of the dialogues is available at

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Uday Dandavate

A design activist and ethnographer of social imagination.