The idea of talks — brief, multidisciplinary, inspirational — has spread faster in India than in any other country. But has the quality matched the quantity?
Critiquing TED or anything to do with it is a terrible thing. It could come off as pure spite, dismissing a cultural movement that celebrates the best minds and cutting-edge concepts of this era. Besides, India has adopted the TED brand and, since 2009, has, without the parent organisation’s aid, organised nearly 400 ‘TEDx’ events — more than any other country. However, TED’s generosity in allowing the use of its brand, and India’s enthusiasm in organising TEDx events, has created a phenomenon high on entrepreneurship, but often lacking in spirit.
Somewhat vague? Perhaps picking up the narrative from a little earlier might help. It all began with an idea worth spreading.
In 1984, an architect named Richard Saul Wurman brought together influential people from the spheres of Technology, Entertainment and Design, and challenged them to give the ‘talk of their lives in 18 minutes or less’. The idea was twofold: to make the complex simple, and to make interesting information accessible. The initiative went online as a video site — TED.com — in 2007. The combination of radical ideas, variety of topics and uncommon brevity, proved irresistible to the mercurial attention spans of the millennial generation.
TED.com. Look it up, you’ll love it. There’s a bearded Aubrey de Grey insisting that ageing is just a disease, a curable one. There’s Sunitha Krishnan, whose fight against sex slavery will have you clenching your fists and applauding at the same time. There’s Ken Robinson’s humorous, riveting talk about how schools kill creativity. There’s a never-ending line-up of virtuoso musicians, some just eight years old. There are synesthetes who can listen to colour and taste numbers. There’s Jill Bolte, a neuroanatomist (brain scientist) who was completely conscious when she suffered a stroke. There’s Marcel Dicke tempting you to try his insect hors d’oeuvres.
The TED bug bit a growing number of netizens. The talks, which can be downloaded for free, were shared freely as well. More recently, local radio stations have also begun to air these talks.
It all began in the U.S., but soon, watching the talks online wasn’t enough. Other countries wanted to host TED events. Mysore hosted the first, and so far only, TED conference in India: TEDIndia 2009. It was a tremendous success, featuring stellar talks from the likes of Eve Ensler, Devdutt Pattanaik and Jaggi Vasudev.
But these events involved high costs and logistical issues, which made it impossible for the average enthusiast to join in. Thus was born TEDx — independently organised TED events.
TED handed out licences like candy. There were 11 TEDx events in 2009; 60 in 2010; 79 in 2011, and 119 in 2012.
There were rules for TEDx events. 1. No sponsor logos on stage. 2. No sponsors giving TEDx talks on stage. 3. No TED branding instead of TEDx. 4. No co-branding: running a TEDx event one day and another event the next day with the same funding and speakers. 5. No exceeding the 100-attendee limit. TEDx Ambassadors — licensees who have attended at least one TED Conference — were appointed to ‘guide’ their newer peers in hosting events and sticking to the rules.
With the TEDx headquarters in New York, and only four TEDx Ambassadors to supervise quality and integrity, there was very little monitoring of the licensees. Then, in December 2012, TEDxChennai violated the rules by holding a press conference with sponsors, having a venue sponsor as a speaker on stage and other speakers who were part of another conference. TEDxChennai lost its licence, and one of the four ambassadors, Kiruba Shankar, stepped down. TEDx Director Lara Stein subsequently admonished licensees: “In India, unlike elsewhere in the world, there have been repeated violations of TEDx rules.”
TEDxChennai opened a can of worms, and TEDx in India began to look amateurish, like local events playing dress-up. Rules were being broken all over the country, but the spotlight on Chennai wasn’t entirely an accident. Twitter feeds began to red flag these wrongdoings. Benedict ‘Benny’ Gnanaiah, one of the many vocal TED fans who think TEDx organisers are corrupting what TED stands for, was one of those who tweeted. He, like Kiruba Shankar, was part of the team that organised the third TEDx event in India, TEDxChennai, in November 2009.
Kiruba Shankar says that one ought to give the organisers the benefit of the doubt. “They know the difficulties of putting it together.” Any digressions, he says, “are honest mistakes.” His former associates aren’t as charitable. “TEDx is supposed to be a conference, and it has fallen into the hands of event managers,” Benny said. “Two of the speakers used the stage for their selfish ends. Our funds (for the 2009 event) went unaccounted for. We couldn’t even put the videos online.”
Every TEDx event is required to make the dozen or so talks available online. Tellingly, not one talk from 373 events in India (as of November 2013) made it to the main TED.com site.
One reason is that by 2012, ‘life coaches’ made up an uncomfortable percentage of speakers; self-promotion and entrepreneurship were heavy on the agenda. TED itself has featured inspirational speakers, so Ram Sahasranam, TEDx Ambassador, says they’re now “educating licensees, or cancelling licences in case of blatant violations.”
Another reason is the “poor quality of curation. A speaker must be sensitised and primed for this stage. Without this, the focus of the talks is too local,” says Ram. Also, in terms of video production quality, “We are behind by five years. A three-camera setup and good editing, taken for granted in many countries, is very expensive here.”
TEDx subsequently reeled in the licensing, bringing down the number of events in India to 97 in 2013. “We have implemented a more rigorous event approval process, which has helped filter out those applicants that may be hosting a TEDx event for the wrong reasons. There is always room for improvement, but we feel confident in the strides that we’ve made,” says Lara. It also put into effect better monitoring, among them a particularly inspired peer-review system. Every TEDx event will have among the audience an ambassador or another licensee, incognito.
A report on the merits and violations of the event will then be communicated to New York. TED believes the spirit of the whole thing is sometimes lost in translation, that this gap can be overcome by exposing ‘deserving’ TEDx licensees to TED conferences, through scholarships.
While TEDx wrestles with rules and quality, there’s the INK Conference, founded in 2010, by Lakshmi Pratury, the entrepreneur behind TEDIndia 2009, held in Mysore. Conducted in association with TED, INKtalks are, in spirit, content and quality, quite like TED talks. The event itself is exclusive in nature; while videos of the talks are uploaded later on, if one wants to participate, there’s a fee of Rs.1 lakh. (Certain TEDx events, at TED’s discretion, are allowed to charge an admission fee, but always under $100.) “Exclusivity is a must to ensure this level of quality. We put big names like Abhay Deol and Anand Gandhi on the stage with virtual unknowns. We are building a community here,” says Lakshmi.
The purpose of INKTalks, Lakshmi says, is to bring together people with ideas and people with the resources to translate these ideas into action. “This is like a brain spa, a mind massage. I wanted to translate TED for Indian sensibilities,” she says.
This Indian sensibility, an overwhelming blend of enthusiasm and opportunism, is what makes TEDx’s inclusivity its greatest strength as well as its Achilles’ heel.
TEDx has handed over its next Indian phase to students. It is “reaching out to educational institutions,” says Ram, where events will be held in controlled environments. When compared to the heady enthusiasm of the first year, and the frantic scramble, in the next two years, to get on the TEDx bandwagon, this new phase is a plateau, which will confine TEDx to colleges and give New York some time to breathe and figure out what to do with TEDx in India.
There is also the question of the impact TEDx events have in the real world. “There is follow-up on our part, and there is definitely an effect,” says Nehha Bhatnagar, TEDx speaker, curator and licensee. “An attendee, for instance, was so inspired by the work done by one of the speakers for cattle protection that she now volunteers for the cause.”
For the most part, however, this ‘impact’ is a welcome side effect, not a motivation in itself. For the organisers, the main things are the “power of this platform”, the “amazing response (to their talks)”, “watching ideas come alive on stage” and “interacting with experts from varied fields.” A TEDx organiser usually focuses on conducting and participating in the event, but not on following through, by putting out quality videos of the event, for a start. Granted, video production isn’t cheap, but when an organiser picks a five-star hotel or a giant auditorium as a venue — neither choice uncommon — cash crunch isn’t a plausible explanation.
The speaker list, the rule-bending and the low-quality curation prompt fans to complain that their beloved concept has been hijacked. “People driven by ideas, working on ideas, running ideas enterprises should spearhead TEDx,” says Benny.
TED fans, in other words, want something like the INK Conference. But it takes a certain entrepreneurial spirit to organise an event of this nature, and the rather expensive cost of participation puts it beyond the reach of the common man.
TEDx is the only other option, even if it comes in the form of a talk in a college auditorium, blatantly defying the 100-attendee rule, with a line-up filled with dubious management gurus, but also sprinkled with a few sparkling savants.