Day 74: Unconference in Udaipur

I recently attended an Unconference in Udaipur organized by the organization Shikshantar there. As the name suggests, an unconference essentially takes the main organizing principles of a conference and flips them on their head.

A normal conference will be organized by a group or organization around a central theme, with a small set of speakers talking about topics related to the theme before a large group of listeners. The day is highly structured and planned, with little room for change. And interaction between all attendees is limited to the coffee breaks and meal times.

An Unconference, on the other hand, is built on a different set of values. Here are a few of the altered underlying assumptions I saw in the Unconference:

Everyone has gifts to share, and therefore, co-creation is best

One of the main, underlying assumptions of an unconference is that in any group, there is immense collective wisdom. In order to realize that potential and to allow it to be shared in the world, we must invite people to do so. In a normal conference, there are no avenues for non-speakers to share their knowledge. On the other hand, in an unconference, the main idea is to break down the barriers to allow people to come together to share in a collectively created experience, where anyone can offer anything at any time.

As a result, there were people who, on the day of the unconference, signed up on a large board to do sessions on different topics, like sexuality, eco-architecture, and other topics related to healthy communities. Meanwhile, within sessions, there’s an underlying assumption that the more that people participate, the better the activity will be.

Thus, many of the activities being offered — like painting, a jewellery-making session, or even an exhibition on sustainable technologies — were interactive. The people who chose to attend those sessions got to paint, make jewellery, or use the technologies, rather than simply observing them or hearing people talk about them.

Cycle-powered mixer

Self-Organized Experiences

This point is inherent in the last one as well, but all participants are free to move about as they see fit. There’s a simple underlying understanding called “the law of two feet,” which means being physically and mentally present wherever you are, but beyond that, you are free to move from place to place according to your interests and where you’re feeling called.

For me, this meant spending the first hour catching up with old friends who I ran into. After that, I checked out many of the stalls — from Sukoon, a gift culture initiative seeking to collect unwanted things and then gift them to people looking for such items, to Eco Hut, an upcycling initiative with many different products, to a healthy juice bar that was set up, to Tapovan Ashram, where many local plants were on display and information was being offered on improving soil quality.

After that, I felt like eating a bit, so I went over to a stall offering thai sticky rice and peanut-based curry, where I paid whatever I felt like. Once my stomach was filled to its heart’s desire, I decided to go inside, where a You Lead Talks session was happening. YouLead Talks is a TED Talk-like platform started by my friend Deepankar, which invites all people to come and share their stories. In the spirit of co-creation and self-organization, there were no pre-set speakers; people signed up the day of the unconference to come and speak, and then got up on stage and shared their ideas.

Apart from that, there were countless impromptu drum circles, songs sung, and group dances throughout the day.

Real Diversity

As you might have already noticed from all of the activities I’ve mentioned, there were many, many different activities and experiences offered during the Unconference. Just to name a few more, there was a space for mindfulness and meditation with a new app that’s been created, a session I attended on block printing using natural dyes

Preparing the dye
Dipping the block
A peacock print

many different local healthy food entrepreneurs with stands

a manually-operated cold press oil machine

a video and audio exhibition seeking to recreate the experience of two people living in a tribal village in Rajasthan, a frisbee team organizing small frisbee circles, a booth of artists who make art by painting rocks and bottles, a youth group seeking to get the youth more politically and socially active, and so many more. In fact, there were so many different activities and experiences being offered that I can’t even remember all of them.

Apart from diversity of activities, there was also an extremely diverse group of people at the unconference. Children as young as five, grandparents or greatparents surely as old as eighty-five; people of all faiths; people from India and from outside; and people from all different socio-economic classes. Wherever you looked, you’d find groups of people who don’t normally see interacting in society sitting and learning together.

food: a language that we all speak well

Equally amazing to the fact that it was happening was how normal it seemed; it wasn’t something that the organizers made a point of or that everyone was discussing. It was just the natural state that emerged organically by simply inviting everyone, offering so many different things to appeal to a wide audience, and then giving an invitation to everyone to organize their day as they please.

This point — that if you simply create an inviting space for people to come together around a shared interest, they will naturally come together — is lost on development-focused people, who work from the hidden assumption that people of different classes, religions, castes, and so on, really are irreconcilably different. And as a result, change must be engineered externally.

This focus on diversity is in direct opposition to the mono-culture brought in by large multinational corporations, by a media that tells us what we should care about, and by a schooling systems that tells us what is and what isn’t important. Here, individual people have decided what’s important to them, and then were given a chance to share it with whoever was interested.

A final point worth noting is the overall atmosphere in an unconference. A lot of resistance movements take on an energy of hate — the majority of the time is spent simply critiquing and discussing how horrible everything is. Such spaces are important, but can be draining, rather than regenerative.

In contrast, an unconference is not only a resistance movement, but also is an act in healing and celebration. In thinking of the reason for organizing unconferences, there is an acknowledgment of the destructiveness of our current social, political, and economic paradigms and institutions. Yet, in the practice of an unconference, it is an environment of non-stop celebration, buoyed by hugs, song, dance, and lots of food.

If you are interested in doing an Unconference in your community, please get in touch and we can start brainstorming how to make it happen.