In December, six Caltech students travelled to Gandhinagar, India for the India Institute of Technology Gandhinagar (IITGN)’s India Ki Khoj program.
India Ki Khoj is an immersive program in which Caltech, IITGN, and Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (JAIST) students gather at IITGN to listen to lectures on Indian culture and society, visit historical sites throughout Gandhinagar and Ahmedabad, and interact with each other to gain a greater understanding and appreciation of each other’s cultures.
Lectures varied from interactive discussions about Indian philosophy to classical song and dance performances to examples of religion’s impact on Indian art. My personal favorite was Professor Rita Kothari’s talk about Indian cinema. She specifically focused on the fantasy-like plots of Bollywood movies and how they both reflected and impacted the social norms of Indian society. She argued that for many Indians, Bollywood represented an alternate world with seemingly perfect lives, and acted as an escape from reality. However, fantasy can be problematic. Like the American entertainment industry, Bollywood suffers from lack of representation and can be ignorant of social issues. Kothari, however, is hopeful for the future, with a younger generation of directors creating more meaningful, less-stereotypical Hindi films. Clearly, these lectures challenged many beliefs I held about Indian society.
Most days, we filled the time between lectures with field trips, sometimes including a traditional Gujarati lunch or dinner. Two of these trips made a big impression on me: the Kasturbhai Lalbhai Museum and the Palaj village. The Kasturbhai Lalbhai Museum was almost an Ahmedabad version of Pasadena’s Huntington Library!
It used to be the home of a textile entrepreneur, but now displays the artwork of Nobel Laureate Rabindrananth Tagore’s family. The museum’s architecture was gorgeous, and the works were full of history. I could have stayed there for days! The Palaj village, on the other hand, gave us a taste of authentic Indian life. We saw their farmland, played with the village kids, talked to IITGN students who volunteered there, and learned about the village’s education system.
It was truly an eye-opening experience that reminded me of the privileges of suburban American life. Furthermore, the traditional thalis style meals were fantastic, and provided significant diversity to my typically mundane vegetarian diet.
Although the lectures and field trips were important, others and I felt that the interactions with IITGN and JAIST students were the most impactful part of the trip. It is not every day that you can sit in a room with people from nearly every region of India and Japan!
While there were several cultural aspects that we got to educate each other on, I was amazed at everything that we bonded over! If nothing else, India Ki Khoj taught me how oddly similar our world is. Though we live completely different lives on separate continents, we can all bond over the same jokes and TV shows. While seemingly trivial, it reminded me that no matter what, we are all human at our core, and every culture and experience should be approached with an open mind. That being said, I am eternally grateful to the Caltech Y and IITGN for this opportunity; I will cherish this time in India and with the IIT and JAIST students for the rest of my life.