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Richa Shukla

In conversation with Madhvi Prasad (PhD Scholar, University of Mumbai)

May 2022

Dr. Richa is Assistant Professor at Jindal Global Business School. She did her M.Phil. on Simone de Beauvoir’s Philosophy. The dissertation was titled as : Webs of Identity: A Relationship between Self and Others in Simone de Beauvoir’s Philosophy. Her PhD was on Feminist Phenomenology. Its titled as: Dialogues in Silence: A Study of Mourning, Shame and Vulnerability in India.  Her theoretical leanings goes for Feminist Philosophy, Existentialism, ethics and social and political philosophy. She has numerous peer reviewed publications under her name. She has presented her work and given talks in many international and national conferences. She has worked on few international reserach projects on gender disparity. Dr Shukla is a certified philosophical counsellor from the American Philosophical Association. Dr. Shukla is one of the founders of Collective for women philosophers in India(CWPI). She is also the member of History of Women Philosophers and Scientists (HWPS)

Richa Shukla

Madhvi: Greetings, Dr Richa. Thank you for agreeing to participate in this interview. The first thing I'd like to know about you is your background, varied interests, education, beliefs, motivation and challenges that prompted you to pursue advanced studies in philosophy as well as convey these vibes through your teaching career.

Richa: Well as a Philosopher I doubt if I have a very strong sense of belongingness. So I still struggle when people ask me where I belong to? Bombay (currently Mumbai ) and Benaras played a very integral role while shaping me as a human being. I did my education largely from JNU, New Delhi. There's a way educational institutes like JNU affect you. It drills your mind to understand reflection and critical thinking. Mine was no less different. As a young woman when I entered JNU with my set of preconceived notions, it asked me who am I? And the answer to this question continues…

Because of the privileges of being born in a certain family, education was given priority above everything and anything. Hence, reading fiction, Hindi, English, and Marathi literature was an everyday affair. In hindsight, when I think of it, reading as a habit was passed on to me by my previous generation. As a result, my family introduced me to Kathak, classical singing. The latter I recognized I wasn't cut for. Kathak brought a certain sense of aesthetics to my life. My generation is the third generation to act as arbitrators, and attorneys hence it was a tough call to not choose the law and think about Philosophy. I see Philosophy as a partner who never abandons you, especially during your challenging times. It stays with you, by you.

One of the larger Philosophical questions which I am working on is the idea of the gender gap in the Indian philosophical domain. This has been one of the challenges which I faced while reading Philosophy as a woman of color.

I see how the metropolitan city has influenced you to broaden your thinking and, of course, to choose philosophy. The JNU culture has undoubtedly instilled creativity in you, and Kathak art has ingrained aesthetic principles in you. So, my question for you is concerning gender roles and how you describe your contributions to promoting gender equality in society, particularly through the implementation of values such as diversity, openness, and aesthetics.

Well to be honest it's not only the cosmopolitan nature of a particular city which has broadened my thinking solely. I am thankful for the cultural capital which I have received being born in a family like mine where there's a lot of intersectionality. My Father to be more precise is the most amazing Philosopher I have seen in my life. He influenced me to pursue Philosophy. I guess the relationship between Philosophy and Law is an interesting one which reshaped my perception of doing Philosophy.

But you are right about other aspects here. I think I have a two-fold response to your question. About promoting gender equality, I feel Public Philosophy is a very important tool these days. That's why I categorically started to write in popular tabloids. It helps to share your opinion, and offer multiple perspectives and also solutions. One of the steps taken in this direction came alive when we formed the Collective for Women Philosophers in India. One of the structural differences which can be bought out would be via making more inclusive courses, pedagogies should be directed as such where inclusion, gender diversity and aesthetics should intersect with each other.

Heartfelt congratulations on your initiative to support Indian women philosophers. I am sure that it will restore the status and value in a society that women seek. Secondly, while your arguments made about reforming curriculum and pedagogy are fascinating, it is sometimes problematic. The reason is the increasing concerns about the accessibility of educational resources to women who are marginalized, especially rural women living in remote parts. How do you connect such inequalities to the concept of intersectionality?

It's a valid observation Madhavi, I must say. But when I answered your question I was specifically speaking about the academic world and its accessibility, and how it can be more diversified in nature. I remember when I got admitted to JNU, I came across this concept called marginalized points or quartile points. It's a simple concept which believes that people come from diverse backgrounds and those who hail from complex social structures should be given advances ahead of others. I was fascinated by this concept. Hence the Canon of JNU was very diversified. It's like you become special because of your differences. I wish we could have more egalitarian steps like these where participation and accessibility can walk together.

Getting back to your question, I feel inequality and intersectionality are very closely related to each other. It's like making a puzzle. As I said earlier, more egalitarian steps can help us to build the bridge, also something I realized since I started teaching is that a lot of people have taboos associated with the great rural and urban divide. There should be more dialogue to demystify this myth.

I'm delighted you're addressing accessibility and participation in the teaching profession because students confront difficulties in both areas. Aside from that, you mentioned the rural-urban divide. Could you please share some suggestions for closing the gaps? Also, you expressed your personal opinions on the favourable effects of politics, demography, gender, racial, and migratory terms on your career as a philosopher. Do you have any recommendations for people who are experiencing negative effects as a result of the influence of all of the above-mentioned terms? Such as a female student who, despite having promising academic qualifications, is struggling for scholarships and resource accessibility due to her gender, financial status, demography, and migrations.

Wonderful question Madhvi. Let me use an everyday example to answer your question. I see marginalization as a Bombay sandwich. Those who are and have stayed in Bombay understand, that it's multiple layers, a few we like, a few we do not. It has multiple layers. By removing one layer, you cannot expect that you got the sandwich you want to consume. Let's try understanding the web of marginalization through this metaphor. In the case of marginalization, all these layers intersect with each other. Hence, your point is very valid. Dialogue on all levels is the key to bridging the gap. There should be discomforting dialogues in families, classrooms, cafes and whatnot. Remember, feminists struggled when they said personal is political. It's important that the elephant in the room gets addressed.

Secondly, there should be more policies, and scholarships to bridge the gap between these two spheres. And most importantly, more sensitization programs to help people unlearn. Unlearning the preconceived notions is the key here. Unlearning the feudal ways of looking and existing.

The example of a female student which you gave could also be understood as a form of resistance, that despite every hindrance she is trying her level best. Even though the gatekeepers of morality are trying their level best to keep her silent and marginalized. I wish there could be more institutes like JNU which offers another world, another perspective, another kind of training and which give strength to all kinds of voices. And of course unless and until policies and dialogues would not happen it won't make sense.

Thanks for bringing the solution so vibrantly. My next question is a bit personal. What would you do if a colleague said something racist, misogynistic, prejudiced, or otherwise offensive to you, or if you witnessed someone dealing with these issues? What stand would you take? Also, How will you encourage diversity, equality, and inclusion among your subordinates?

Well, you have to corner and confront people all the time. Though it depends on whether I would use humour, satire, a movie example or whatsoever. You see, showing a mirror is important. But don't blame me, if you don't like what you see.

Well, ideally I believe it should be taken care of by the institute itself. But I will share this exercise which I always do with my students. It's a social experiment called privilege walk. Here, I ask all of them to stand in a line and with the yes to each question they have to come forward, and with a no, they take a step back. It highlights exclusively the gender gap, social exclusion, etc. I usually have a Playlist of certain scenes from movies (Regional, Hindi and English) which I share with them. I think engagement is essential.

That’s a superb idea and l think other people should also implement such important moves to promote diversity, equality and inclusion. Apart from this, I am also highly impressed by your teaching styles. Could you describe more about it?

Well, thank you Madhvi. Because I'm a Philosopher, dialogue has been a key in my classes too. I usually begin my lectures after playing a video/ some scenes from a popular show/ movie or song. After playing it, I usually ask the students what they think about it? I try to place one different opinion over another. Then I weave concepts and introduce philosophers. This becomes a really interactive way of doing theories and it reaches people too.

Secondly, I always have this segment in my class once my class gets over. It's titled, Samjho Toh. ( try to understand) Here, I ask any student to come up with anything interesting they are reading/ listening/ painting etc. Sometimes students come with prose, poetry, a line from some story, a movie character, or a painting. It helps to understand their inner world and what they are thinking. It also helps in diversification in terms of thought processes. Once the student has shared, I ask for multiple perspectives. So far it's been working good. Fingers crossed!

Thank you Dr Richa for participating so actively in this interview and for elegantly expressing your ideas. Your approach to philosophy would undoubtedly bring a meaningful change to this world. I wish you success in all of your upcoming endeavours.

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