Eight years after Ajay Gandhi and M.R.Vikram started Manthan, Hyderabad’s forum for discourse continues to attract an informed audience.

To commemorate the eighth year of Manthan, founders Ajay Gandhi and M.R. Vikram are planning to organise a day-long ‘Manthan Samvad’ later this year featuring seven to eight sessions that will be addressed by distinguished public speakers. The Samvad, they hope, will become an annual event.

In 2005, these two friends started the forum that today seems to have no parallel in the country. “We are surprised when speakers addressing our gathering tell us that they haven’t come across similar forums in Mumbai or Delhi,” says Ajay Gandhi.

Ajay Gandhi and Vikram have been friends for around three decades and share a common passion for in-depth discussions. “We, as a society, are so obsessed with cricket, cinema and a few other things. Both of us were frustrated that the city did not have any space for intellectual conversations. Tired of looking out for such forums, we decided to start Manthan,” says Ajay Gandhi.

The first Manthan event was held at Saptaparni. Inaugurated by Shantha Sinha, the session was addressed by Professor Aditya Mukherjee of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, on ‘Nehruvian Economics to Manmohanomics’. It was an evening the audience is unlikely to forget. The 75 to 80 members braved a sudden downpour and a power outage and sat glued as the session continued with the help of seven candles. “The Q&A session also took place in candle lights,” says Vikram.

With each subsequent session, Manthan grew in strength. Today, most sessions draw an audience of 150 to 200 and on certain occasions, the gathering swells to 400 to 500.

Manthan charges no membership fee, is known to be extremely punctual (the sessions begin at 6.30 p.m. and has missed its mark only twice — once due to heavy downpour and on another occasion when a speaker turned up late) and the gathering is always treated to Hyderabadi patti samosas, Osmania biscuits and Irani chai. The choice of the venue varies from Saptaparni (for intimate gatherings of 100 to 150) and Vidyaranya School (for larger gatherings).

Ajay Gandhi says, “The organisation is privately funded by a group of friends and we don’t encourage members to contribute.” Vikram feels it is imperative to keep Manthan functioning this way: “One cannot attach monetary value to intelligent conversations. And people should come to take part in engaging discussions rather than the food, which is why the menu hasn’t changed over the years.”

The guidelines may sound idealistic but has made logical sense to the functioning of the forum. Vikram and Ajay Gandhi, with the help of a small and dedicated advisory board, track distinguished personalities who visit Hyderabad for various events and invite them to address a session. “Apart from one instance, we have never paid a speaker or offered to pay for airfare tickets. Speakers willingly come and speak provided they have time during their travel,” says Gandhi.

A lot of thought goes into selection of speakers across various fields. “We do not choose a speaker based on recommendation or expecting personal benefits to any of us. We look out for incisive speakers,” says Gandhi.

The sessions at Manthan are never moderated so as to allow maximum speaker-audience connect. The introduction and vote of thanks speeches are brief, of less than a minute duration. “There is an intelligent audience out there and we don’t want to waste their time,” reasons Vikram.

Manthan events do not have a fixed periodicity. “The sessions are organised at the convenience of the speakers. Over the years, we have loyal members who make time for events if we intimate them two or three days in advance,” says Vikram. Gandhi adds, “The credit goes to Hyderabad audience, which ironically has not been known to respond to anything that exercises the mind.”

On the flipside, Manthan has been accused of being a forum for all talk and no action. Ajay Gandhi puts things in perspective when he says, “Intelligent conversations are essential to build a healthy society. This is our form of activism — to listen, learn and thus make informed choices. The country would be a better place if there were more such forums in each city.”

The speakers vary from scholars to passionate crusaders in different fields. No topic is taboo. From political divides to sex, Manthaniites have been privy to many an intelligent discussion. There have been emotionally-charged sessions on Telangana issue that left a member of the audience weeping and a few others moist-eyed. A session on sex, recalls Vikram, drew well-informed questions and discussions from the audience that his respect for Manthaniites grew manifold.

On many occasions, the discussions do not stop with one session. Members continue to share their thoughts on Manthan’s yahoo and facebook groups for weeks later. Gandhi says those discussions are more time consuming and vibrant. It is here that Manthaniites agree, disagree and shed their individual biases to see varied points of views.

Looking back, it’s tough to believe that there was no preceding model for such a forum. “We had no model organisation to look up to. I hadn’t even witnessed a TED session earlier,” says Gandhi.

A lot has changed in the last eight years. With information overload on social networking platforms and diminishing attention spans, Manthan has survived it all. Gandhi notes that each session attracts at least 20 per cent newcomers and notes how a few youngsters within the family have benefited immensely through some of these sessions. “We want more youngsters to be involved. I’ve been asking my daughter and Vikram’s son to think of a change in format of our sessions or highlight issues that will address youngsters,” says Gandhi.

There have been many memorable speakers and discussions that Gandhi and Vikram find it tough to single out the best ones. In unison, though, they say they can single out those who fell short of expectations.

As of now, their energies are focussed on bringing together an eclectic set of speakers for Manthan Samvad. “We are forever pursuing good speakers,” laugh Gandhi and Vikram. They hope to get Amartya Sen some day for one of their sessions.

Stay connected

For archival videos of a few of the talk sessions and to join the Manthan facebook and yahoo groups, check www.manthanindia.com