As a proud partner for the inaugural Sugar & Spice Festival that’s happening this 1-15 August 2020, we are bringing you this series of interviews with presenters so that you get to know them better and their workshops.
Today, we have Niyati Sharma, the founder of Pratisandhi Foundation (a youth-run nonprofit promoting sexual health and education in India), who is delivering the ‘Sexuality in India: Introduction to Kamasutra’ workshop at the festival. We ask her some questions about the workshop and her background. Please enjoy and sign up for her workshop!
Q: The Karmasutra has been represented in popular media in all sorts of fashions. What has been the most egregious misrepresentation you’ve seen so far?
There are a lot of misconceptions about the Kamasutra in popular media, and also in the manner that many people understand it. For me, I think the treatment of the Kamasutra as a kind of “sex manual” is what is problematic. When we say Kamasutra to someone, they automatically assume it is synonymous to sex. This is not true. While the text talks about sex and sexuality at length, it is certainly not the only element that it discusses. The philosophy underlying the Kamasutra is about incorporating eroticism, sexuality, and sexual practices in a manner that allows one to self-actualise. It talks about how one should behave in different kinds of relationships, friendships, choosing lovers, and even common sexual dysfunctions.
Q: What key lessons do you want participants to take away from your workshop on the Kama Sutra? Is it more to understand Kamasutra as a text or to see how it can be applicable to their lives?
My workshop will be introductory in nature and is not historical or academic in its approach. The main thing I want participants to understand is where the Kamasutra comes from and to better understand some aspects like who it was meant for and why it was considered important. When one thinks of the Kamasutra, it is only natural to wonder why and how did sexuality come to be considered so important in ancient India that a whole sacred text revolving around it was developed. We will also dabble between different topics and concepts that the Kamasutra talks about. The core idea is to understand the treatment of sexuality within the Kamasutra and my hope is that many participants will find a lot of these philosophies relatable or at least comprehend the logic behind them.
Q: Your non-profit organisation Pratisandhi Foundation works on spreading sexual health and education in India. Tell us about the biggest challenges in your work.
Some of the greatest challenges we face come from the stigma associated with sex and sexuality in India. It is hard enough to initiate conversations about sexual health and even more so when it comes to adolescents and young adults in schools. This becomes a huge hurdle in any attempt to educate students because teachers and parents- who are key stakeholders for any student- who come from more conservative backgrounds tend to be against you.
I have personally witnessed schools that police female students, pass lewd comments, and even shut down students who try to take a stand for their own education. Very often, private well-to-do schools take on the cause of sexual health as a checkbox they must tick, which makes a real impact and learning a farce. My organisation is one that prioritises the voices of the youth. We want young individuals to be a major stakeholder in what is taught to them and to actually empower them to make informed decisions of themselves. Unfortunately in India, many other stakeholders do not take the voice of the youth seriously, which, in my opinion, is one area where we are going wrong.
Niyati with the youths of the Pratisandhi Foundation
Q: You are the founder and executive director of Pratisandhi Foundation, yet you are still studying at the University of British Columbia, Canada. How do you manage and juggle this?
I started Pratisandhi when I was in high school and admittedly, it has been challenging to run the organisation remotely. However, I am lucky to have an extremely dedicated and passionate team accompanied by enthusiastic volunteers on the ground who take a lead when I can’t. Their support has made all the difference for us. Youth leadership is truly transformational and I have been fortunate enough to witness that. For me, the organisation is my baby and no matter where I am, I will always be available to support our mission and take it forward.
Q: What other projects on sexuality do you hope to work on in the future? What is your ideal vision for how sexuality is perceived and discussed in India?
We are currently working on multiple projects that strive to make sexual health education more structured and accessible. This includes an upcoming peer-mentorship program that we will be launching soon. We envision a young India (between the ages of 15-24 years) having unrestricted access to non-discriminatory, medically accurate, age-appropriate, judgement-free, comprehensive sexuality education and having the autonomy to make informed decisions concerning their sexual health and well-being.
To sign up for Niyati’s and other presenters’ workshops, do sign up for Sugar & Spice Festival at www.sugarandspice.asia.
Images: Niyati Sharma