Exploring Social Imagination: My Ethnographic Experiments

Uday Dandavate
6 min readJan 9, 2024

Yesterday, I attended a seminar in the small town of Ahmednagar to celebrate the birth centenary year of my father. The seminar’s theme was “India 2030: What will it be like; what should it be like?”

My father was born in this town, where he was drawn into India’s freedom struggle against British rule. After independence, he rose to become one of the senior-most parliamentarians, an activist for social justice, and a three-time member of the national cabinet. It was, therefore, a special moment of pride for the people of Ahmednagar to celebrate the rise of the son of the soil to the top echelons of Indian politics. He had, at one point, even rejected the suggestion to become the Prime Minister of a coalition government. Between a packed auditorium and an online audience, about 500 people attended the event.

Several eminent speakers, including a local member of the state legislator, a former Mayor of the city, and the editor of liberal/ rational magazine “Sadhana” spoke on the theme of the seminar – “India of 2030: What will it be; what should it be?” I was listed as the last speaker of the day. I was requested to talk about my oral history project, “The Legacy of India’s Imagination.” I had decided that, instead of delivering a lecture, I would turn my session into a dialogue.

When it was my turn to speak, the first thing I did was turn off the projection of the screen, get down from the stage, and sit at the ledge of the stage.

I invited all those under the age of 25 present in the audience to come to the front and sit on the floor in front of me. There was great excitement in the room as about 30 students between the ages of 16 and 20 walked to the front. My daughter and son in law sat with their two-years old daughter, in the last row of the auditorium in case she tried talking or crying during the seminar. When she saw other youngsters walk to the front she shouted “Baba”, and ran to the front with other kids and sat right next to me at the edge of the stage, admiring the conversation.

I said to the students, “I do not have any speech; I only have questions for you.”

Last year, India celebrated 75 years of independence. Stories of the freedom struggle have been prominently featured in the media all over. In this context, I decided to begin my conversation with a simple question: “What does freedom mean to you?”

Most of the kids had no clue. One said, “Being able to do whatever I want to do.”

I then explained to them that two weeks ago, I had recorded a dialogue with a 100-year-old Dr. G G Parikh, a freedom fighter who was born during British rule, fought for freedom, and dedicated 75 years of his life to social reforms. I asked him during our dialogue what freedom meant to him during India’s years of slavery and during the freedom struggle. He said to me he had no intellectual grasp of what it meant but was driven to participate in the freedom struggle due to the atmosphere of the time. He did not know the meaning either slavery or of freedom then but understood it only several decades after participating in various struggles for social justice. He also mentioned that during the freedom struggle, he was arrested at the age of 18 and was locked up with several intellectuals of the time, in whose company he had the opportunity to hear stories of Gandhi and other leaders. He understood the freedom struggle as making a personal sacrifice for the nation.

I asked the youngsters in the audience to talk about the difference between knowing and understanding. What emerged from the conversation was that knowing was about being familiar with the words, but understanding was tied to experiencing, reflecting on, and internalizing what we know.

I pointed out to them that even having been born into the family of freedom fighters, I had not given enough consideration to understanding what freedom meant until the day of my dialogue with Dr. Parikh. I had a moment of realization that the famous poem written by Rabindranath Tagore, “Where the mind is without fear,” helped me understand the meaning of freedom, through my experience of several decades of internalizing and reciting the poem in many contexts. The young students asked me to recite the poem in Marathi. I read out the Marathi translation made by me and then explained my own understanding of freedom as “absence of fear.”

I asked the students what they were afraid of. One of them said, “I fear failing.” Another student said, “I fear wild animals.” I then read out a long list of words and asked them if they feared those things. I asked if they feared: Darkness, heights, being an outsider, being alone, getting old, death, enemy, enmity, of feeling hurt, thugs, authority, teachers, or parents. This exercise triggered deep reflection. The students went quiet after I mentioned each word, reflected, and answered.

While the responses to most words varied, there was unanimity among them that they feared feeling hurt and parents. My next question to them was, “What would it feel like if you were not afraid of anything?”

One student instantly shouted, “Freedom.” Other responses followed.

I then talked to them about my oral history project, “The Legacy of India’s Imagination.” I explained to them that the project was a documentation of life stories of people who fearlessly and persistently pursued their dreams for India. I explained that the lack of fear will open their minds to learn more, do more, and accomplish more, just like these individuals.

I told the students that my father, who was once a youngster like them from a small town of Ahmednagar, could fight the British rule and rise to great heights in Indian politics because he was fearless. I told stories of his bravery as a child and as an adult.

I wrapped up my dialogue by explaining to them that we need to listen to our inner conscience and be courageous in seeking and pursuing our dreams. I finally read one of my poems and explained to them that each of us has a little light in our belly, like the glow worms, and we can illuminate the forest in the dark times.

Here is the poem with which I ended my dialogue.

Glow worms

The Insects.

that hold light

in their belly

fill my heart

with joy

like the stars

in the sky

they stimulate

my imagination

create curiosity

and fill the

silence of the night

with festivity

glow worms cannot

fill. a room

with light

nor can they

Illuminate a path

the purpose

of their light is

to create attraction

only the female

has light

her brilliance

attracts the male

she shines

they mate

and help their tribe

survive

Glow worms live

Only for a few weeks

But they have

kept the forest

Illuminated

For centuries

they arrived on the earth

before we did

and will possibly

be around

after we become extinct

they

hold light within

but have no power

we crave for power

and hold ego in our belly

they live for

the cause of eternity

we live in the moment

I have learned

from glow worms

that

a community of

illuminated souls

can fill the air

with joy

no matter

how small

they are

or how short

their life is

the cumulative effect of

enlightened beings is

sparkles in the air

inspired imagination

and a life

full of wonder

I felt a soothing energy during my dialogue with these 16–20 year old students. I also felt a positive curiosity and intrigue in the rest of the older audience as they observed the interaction. A former mayor of the city who talked to me at the end said “We (politicians) should all learn to have such dialogues with youngsters, rather than preach to them from the podium”.

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Uday Dandavate

A design activist and ethnographer of social imagination.