Nikita is the founder of Culture Gully, India’s premier art and culture platform, and also, Unfiltered India which comes up with the most awe-inspiring stories all across the globe, stories that want to be heard and shared. This platform is an attempt to share stories that have broken stereotypes and empowered others to do the same.
Her geniality and positive approach to life and work is something that we can all get inspired from! We’ll be majorly focusing upon addressing the various stereotypes that exist amongst us and more importantly, why they exist, the significance of positive spaces like The Culture Gully, Unfiltered India and Now&Me in breaking the same stigmas, starting conversations and raising uncomfortable questions, thus moving towards a more progressive state.
What inspired you to start Culture Gully and Unfiltered India?
Ever since childhood, I’ve been dragging my friends and family to explore various unexplored places, monuments, cafes, and art galleries across India. So, while travelling I experienced that people were only interested in knowing the popular features of India, for example, you’ll just go to see the Taj Mahal, you’ll see Safdarjung Tomb, you’ll see Humayun’s Tomb, but either people were not aware or they were not interested in exploring the integrities of Indian culture.
For instance, how did Chandni Chowk develop? So, when I go to Chandni Chowk, I talk to the famous Jalebiwala over there and get to know his story. That constituted a lag in the society that wasn’t there, and that was my primary aim of starting Culture Gully that was to bring fruitful information to the forefront so that people could talk to various local on a digital platform. And that is what you’ll see on Culture Gully that the various junctions around India tell a multitude of stories.
When I visited Purana Kila a few years back, I met a bunch of kids over there, playing with a litter of puppies. I remember striking a conversation with the five-year-old Kanika, and I asked her why she was singing and cuddling with that puppy, she told me that a lot of fancy cars come on the road and end up hitting the puppies,
And I want to be in a position where the educated people do not take this step, and I want to start a shelter home for such dogs so that they never get hit by anyone else ever again.
Such kind of stories test the emotional intelligence and value systems of an individual, and that is the motif of bringing them to the forefront.
Absolutely agreed, starting conversations which have a potential to actually bring about a change out there is something all of us should strive for. Along the same lines, you come off as a very strong-willed, determined woman, not afraid to raise your voice for what you believe is right, have you always been like this?
I was very shy and timid in childhood, despite the fact that I did participate in a lot of extra-curricular activities.
When you’re in school your worldview is quite narrow because you’re talking to the same set of people, you share that comfort level, and you know that they won’t harm you and you’re in a safe harbour.
So, coming from co-ed school to taking admission to an only girls college opened my worldview. I graduated from JMC, and I understood the everyday struggles that a woman in India faces. For instance, while you’re travelling in a metro, you might be wearing a dress and there would be a thousand people ogling at you.
It’s about the relative privileges one enjoys because of belonging to a particular gender or community. The kind of atmosphere we’re exposed to versus what they are exposed to, so, at the end of the day, it’s all about questioning your own set of beliefs and continuously, changing and evolving while educating ourselves as well as those around.
You have to be really strong in that perspective and maintain your mental calm, but at the same time, you cannot go on ignoring the issue, you have to raise your voice and that is where the strength comes from.
So, it’s not just me but every woman in India who grow into struggle individuals because of these issues that keep happening with us. Whether somebody harassing us on social media or going out in public - it all culminates to becoming a strong woman.
Absolutely! Also, not just your education but also the space that you’re in affects your thought processes to a great extent. Spaces like JMC, LSR, Delhi University itself, are revolutionary in themselves.
Yes, the sad part is that people equate feminism to saying that women want feminism because they want to rise above men. This is an extremely flawed misconception because we just want equality that should exist between men and women both.
About Unfiltered India, it is full of inspiring and kind real-life stories, which may just end up making someone’s day. For instance, the latest post portrayed an image of a sister tying rakhi to her sister, and that was a pure simple “aww” for me, and besides, how we are actually deconstructing and unlearning the older methods in our own little ways. How much do you think that such small acts of change or kindness hold the potential to bring about real change?
There is a Hindi proverb that says “boond boond se ghada bharta hai”. In fact, when you go back to 1955, when the driver told Rosa Parks to give her seat to the white-only section that was reserved, she refused to do so at once. That was just a small step in making the struggle for African-Americans successful, to demand their rights.
That one small step led to a change, so, I feel that these stories together, whether its Humans of Bombay, Humans of Delhi, Now&Me - all of us are working together to bring that small change in the society so that it can lead us to that big change.**
Agreed! Even if you can impact one life out there positively, your purpose is served.
Right now, you told me about that Rakhi story, so you might tell five others about that story, those five others might get inspired, and that’s how change starts.
How I got that story was that I’ve been tying rakhi to my sister ever since childhood. So, I found it very relatable and when I saw these two girls, they are my cousins, so I asked them for their story that they are the new age generation, how they relate to it.
And they could relate to it really well, they said, “we dont need a man or a brother to protect us, in fact, we do not need anybody, we are just trying to protect this tradition”.
Absolutely! When I saw that story, I said to myself that I can “choose” my story, I can choose where I want to go, and more importantly how. I can do things my way.
You see a lot of women in leading organizations coming up with the empathy concept. So, Culture Gully and Now&Me are based on the same concept, of invoking empathy. According to a recent study I came across, women tend to be better managers than men in certain areas because of the empathy concept involved.
Share one thread/story from Unfiltered India that is closest to your heart and particularly inspired you.
It has to be the acne story. I’m sure as a girl, even you’ve experienced acne and hormonal issues while growing up and society bombarding you with questions such as “what is on your face?”, “try multani mitti, haldi” without understanding the negative impact it can have on one’s mental health.
That story about Meghna, that was actually my story told in her words. When she was 13 years old, she started getting hormonal acne, and she is 23 now, and it still continues for her. The sad part is people are usually very provocative. Please live and let us live!
That concept of being “perfect” exists in our society. Some of the bloggers are bringing about a change, but the majority of what you see on Instagram in terms of influencers also is revolved around becoming fair, gaining that size zero body and how to get a flawless skin.
So, that was one story that was very well-received, following which a lot of people came forward to tell me that they have been through similar circumstances. It’s as natural as menstruating- it’s completely natural to have acne, it’s completely natural to have grey hair - it’s all a process of growing up, it’s not a disease.
Even at the workplace, one might hear from some women who have faced such issues, some are even told to just cover up their acne when they are sitting for meetings.
Why should I? Would my acne determine my mental acumen of giving a feasible solution while sitting in a meeting? No, it won’t. Would my clothes tell how good I am as a presenter? No.
Do you think that in the present times of uncertainty and bleakness when mostly everyone one comes across is struggling to find himself in the hustle and bustle of life where they are always running or chasing after something or somebody and the worst part is they don’t even know why? Do you think connecting to our roots, in its entirety or intersections may be the last hope we can resort to?
Connecting to your roots as a process, if you’ve lost touch with yourself is something that people should understand, it’s not something that cannot happen on its own. You have to ask for help.
The world has become so competitive, for instance, if your friend is doing law from Harvard, you’ll probably jump in too if you see him/her as a competitor.
We are moving towards an ideology wherein we are striving towards perfection, and we are not able to achieve that because nobody can be perfect, we are all learning in the process.
So, yes, connecting to your roots does help, but at the same time, we have to understand that it’s completely normal if you are not able to do so, and it’s normal to seek help. We are not normalising that issue as of now.
If you’ve lost touch with your roots, you’re perceived as an alien. I know one of my friends who has come back from The U.S. after 10 years, and people have treated her as if she is somebody who has lost touch with her country, she is not aware of the rules. She is a changed person, so you cannot pinpoint that this or that experience particularly changed you, it might be something that she has compared with India and U.S. that has led to that change - so, understanding the psychology behind that matter is important rather than pinpointing that may be connecting to your roots would help, it’s all a process of learning.
We live in extremely uncertain times. We are in the midst of a pandemic, of which we never received any prior training or a thumbs-up in schools or at our workplace. How has COVID impacted your work? Has this zeal to break stereotypes deteriorated or increased in any way in people?
I’m a very outgoing person, so, earlier when I used to cover stories for Culture Gully, I always used to hop from one place to another. But as you say when a tragedy strikes, you have to put your thinking caps on to deliver the best solution, so that's what the whole world moved to, and in changing times you have to learn to adjust.
So, in terms of COVID-19, yes, definitely it has impacted our work and maybe the learning experience in terms of fieldwork, but otherwise, it has also given us more time to connect with each other. Earlier, if I had to connect with someone for a story, I had to follow up 2-3 times to get to know the feasibility of whether they can meet at the coffee shop but now like we’re right now connecting over a zoom call, it's very convenient - I can be in my living room and talk to you, I can be doing something else, I can be multitasking at the same time. So, I feel it's an opportunity in disguise.
Also, I will tell you about me and my MBA experience. I am pursuing my MBA right now and we were supposed to go for our offline classes in June and everything happened so suddenly that it shifted to online. All of us are still trying to understand how to go about it but at the same time, we are trying to learn what we can get the best out of it. We have classes all day on zoom, we are trying to connect with each other at 4 a.m. in the morning to do a project - all that reiterates is to the process of learning, the process of preparing for the worst.
Even a lot of companies have changed their marketing strategies. For companies like Amazon and Walmart, the business is in full bloom.
COVID-19 has posed a lot of challenges but on the brighter side, it has also shown us that one does not need to be available in the office 24x7, the work can happen from anywhere.
It has cut down costs, in terms of rent, there is more time in hand for employees, one can pursue and go back to yoga, walking and all the other older hobbies. Earlier, when I was working, I had to spend 2-3 hours on travelling which is resolved now.
We all have dreams, hopes, inspirations, but somehow, the constructs that this society we thrive in has defined for us, hinder us from unleashing our real potent self. Each one of us is capable of changing the narrative but we don’t even try, just because we are afraid. What’s your opinion on this?
Don’t listen to society, it’s fooling you. In the end, what truly matters is how happy you are.
While covering a story for Unfiltered India, I came across Ganga, she’s a part of the LGBTQ+ community and she told me that she was born as a male, but was more towards the feminine since childhood. And in the process, people, both men and women, mentally abused her. She stood her ground because she knew that that is what would make her happy - she wore saris in school and college, she knew that that was something that would ignite the spark in her. She didn’t let society fool her. The same thing goes for each one of us.
Don’t let anybody tell you what you can be. Dont conform to the rules of society because, in reality, there are no rules - you create your life and destiny. You decide your rules. Take your time and focus on your mental health. Take one step at a time and it would all work out for you. Life is a story and weave your story in the most fascinating way possible.
Like you mentioned that there are certain standards and norms set by the society, and we need to question and challenge them, and that is the only way of how we can progress. So, do you believe that redefining the “norms” is the only way to facilitate more conducive environments?
I honestly feel that in the coming years, the word “norm” would be completely excluded from the dictionary. The way the progress is happening in gen X to gen Z, we are the ones who are driving change. We would be the ones defining that one cannot constitute anything as the “norm”. Three is no rigid rule in society, anybody can be whoever he/she wants to be or pursue whatever they want. The term “norm” itself would become inconsequential in the coming years.
What does social media for social good mean to you? How do you ensure that it remains a positive experience for you when you consume it as well as for your viewers when they consume your content?
I read a lot of articles online before publishing any story, and I try to filter out the fake stories from the real ones. It’s important to not fall into the trap of fake news, whatever comes as WhatsApp forwards, it may or may not necessarily be true. What I’m doing at Culture Gully is that if I find a story that I know would ignite the interest of the 32k that are there on the platform, I make sure that it’s verified.
At the same time, some of the negative has to be turned to positive. When one is talking about manual scavenging, that’s a negative topic, but how you can make it positive is also one aspect of media that you’ve to look into.
For instance, the day before yesterday, I put a story about Raahit who is a grade four student who was selling samosas to supplement his family’s income. A lot of people perceived that as child labour, but a lot of people also saw that he is supplementing the income of his family. Below in the caption was mentioned that if you’re any information about him, “please get in touch with us”, so that we can contribute and help him understand and give him a better life.
There is a way of looking at a story. It’s not that every story is negative or that every story is positive, it’s about how you can create an impact.
Now&Me is a peer to peer community support network which helps young people feel less lonely during difficult times and allows them to connect with others who might have been through similar things like them from all across the world. According to you, how impactful are positive spaces like Now&Me, for our youth?
There is a lot of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity in this world. Mental health issues have always been present but it’s gradually coming to the forefront only now.
What Now&Me is doing is a fabulous job, where people can talk about their feelings and emotions, anonymously if they want. What Culture Gully, Unfiltered India and Now&Me are doing are somewhat along the same lines.
Interviewed, Transcribed and Edited by Annanya Chaturvedi
The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and guest and do not necessarily reflect the official policy, position or beliefs of Now&Me, any other agency, organization, employer or company. And since we are critically-thinking human beings, these views are always subject to change, revision, and rethinking at any time. Please do not hold us to them in perpetuity.