By Neha Kirpal
Sydney-based radio broadcaster, author, sustainability and climate-resilience consultant, and educator, Dr Shailja Chandra is multifaceted to say the least. It is the rich blend of all these interests that keeps her inspired, open, curious and hungry and satisfied all at once. “I do work on multiple streams of creativity, broadcasting, teaching and consultancy but all these streams flow towards one ocean,” she explains.
When she graduated from IIT Roorkee in 1995 and subsequently moved to Australia, all she wanted to do was complete her Master’s in built environment (sustainable development) and Ph.D. in sustainable buildings from the University of New South Wales, and find a decent job.
After 13 years of corporate life in sustainability advisory, her colleagues were puzzled about her decision to resign one day to pursue her “creative dreams”. “Little did I know then that the pursuit will be stumbling, humbling, yet deeply transformational and stunningly soul-stretching,” she looks back.
Working as a radio broadcaster in Sydney, where she interacted with several Indian artists, musicians, filmmakers, and authors, she got the opportunity to interview Urdu poet, lyricist, author, screenwriter and film director Gulzar.
The meeting laid the seeds of Chandra’s debut book The Moonsmith Gulzar (2021). The book is a tribute to Gulzar’s relatable writing, his stirring lyrics and his poetic renderings of life’s greatest dilemmas. The Bollywood legend later said it was the “best work on my works so far”. The book is slated to launch in India this April.
Currently, Chandra runs her own consultancy in sustainability and climate resilience and also teaches these subjects. Her consultancy focuses on shifting perspectives on how to design, build and operate buildings and infrastructure to minimise their impacts on the environment and increase their resilience in the face of imminent ecological and climate change. She also delivers guest lectures at the University of Sydney.
“My work in the climate resilience space fills me with equal hope and dread about the actions and inactions on climate,” she says. The subject is one of the themes in her next book, a work of fiction.
Though also an “accidental radio broadcaster” for the past 12 years, her parallel profession has slowly grown to be a significant aspect of her thinking and sanity – and proved to be truly transformational for her inner and outer world, she says. Through her radio shows, she actively engages with the Indian Australian community on matters relevant to both countries.
Her fortnightly podcast Mukhtasar Si Baat with Shailja brings together her deep curiosity about the human condition combined with her love for retro Hindi songs. The podcast was featured on Gaana’s Top 10 Podcasts (English) for several weeks after its launch.
The short length podcast has her discussing how sometimes cherished, familiar songs can unravel fresh perspectives and unfurl new threads of understandings. In some episodes, she has also included her own renditions.
“[These songs reveal] insights about our failings and fulfilments, our despairs and desires, and our love and longings; insights that speak to us individually yet revealing our collective human condition. What makes a song, a ghazal or a poem beautiful, nuanced and persuasive is when we hear it at the right moment in our emotional, intellectual or literary journey,” she elaborates.
Chandra is a strong advocate of the fact that “we must honour, and if possible, celebrate our imperfections and vulnerabilities”. “Through my work, I wish to be a bearer of the message that we are in this together. To be able to see ourselves as a part of larger humanity and recognise that our struggles, sufferings and failings are not personal – these are our human condition,” she says.
“A scholar of life” as she calls herself, Chandra draws inspiration from all forms of art, language, literature and nature. Listening to great writers and persuasive thinkers such as Gulzar, Yuval Harare, Alain De Botton and Eckhart Tolle helps her to recalibrate and realign her thought process. “Their incisive commentary, brevity of expression or conscientious reflections are awe-inspiring and constant sources of inspiration for me,” she says.
Gardening and travelling also keep her engaged and on her feet. “I believe that there is no friend more intimate than a city you have walked, laughed, cried and dined in,” she says. During her travels, she loves to photograph elements of nature and its intersection with urban design, all sorts of street art, laneways and iconic elements of cities.
Chandra is driven by a vision to “cultivate transformational collaborations and conversations – drawing on the consolations of our collective human condition and the shared beauty of our existence, and the meaning and solace these can lend to our lives”.
This, she says, is in response to “the rising sense of meaninglessness and insignificance that the hardworking cogs of the urban machinery are feeling despite their prosperous, healthy and socially buzzing lives.”
She is also actively involved in curating powerful stories and diverse voices on the dynamics of climate change in Australia and how it is shaping households, communities and connections with their environment. In mid-2023, she is running a series of workshops in partnership with a climate-change centre in Australia. “I believe in being open to change, recalibrations and reinventing. Continuing to have a transformational and inspiring journey is perhaps my only long-term goal,” she concludes.
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