The Subverse - Season One

Join Susan Mathews for Season One of The Subverse podcast. This season contains eight conversations that range from the intricacies of origami and protein folding, to flow and play, to understanding bioacoustics, renewable energy, protecting our commons and the dark side of aesthetics in neoliberal cities.

episode 1

All creatures great and small

“Of bug, bee and beast” is a book published in 2015 by Zubaan, written by an environmental lawyer turned writer and poet, Devaki Panini. The book was created with the objective to create a movement of empathy toward and informed interest in smaller and less known biological species. It is a playful exploration of the lives of animals, great and small and the precarity of the worlds they live in, affected in a range of ways by human activity, hubris and ambition. She takes us on a wonderful journey through little story gems.

In this conversation, we will talk about what motivated her to write the book and what inspired the poems. Many of the poems are about animals that she felt were left out of dominant conservation efforts and remained hidden to most people because these were lesser species to many people. Most conservation still remains mega-faunic while it is the bees, the ants, the spiders that are really important species in terms of avoiding mass extinction. These poems are signposts to a difficult road ahead but also bring a more tender, personal feel to what can often be seen as terrifying prospects ahead.

Buy a copy of this book. Or follow on Facebook.

episode 2

Flow like a river, play like a child

In this episode, I speak to Ryan Christie, originally from Colorado in the United States of America, who has been a holistic movement coach in Switzerland for the past 15 years. Ryan loves helping people achieve goals that at one time seemed unattainable, making the impossible possible. Moving and coaching people from children as young as 6 to his more life experienced clients of 70+ years of age. His focus with his coaching clients is to provide support with ‘life’ coaching, focusing on mindset and mental tools, enhancing emotional intelligence through conversation, and increasing physical strength, power, stamina, and flow. Therefore, I reached out to him for a talk, given my own personal experience of how he can help change mindsets, provide a physical boost, instill fun moving and grooving, and just so joyfully share of his wisdom and empathy.

Ryan and I speak about flow and play, improving our vestibular intelligence- the doors of our perception, and how we relate to our environment. We discuss why children seem to have so much more fun, are so curious and adventurous and experience time more slowly while as we age, we become more rigid, set in our ways, watching life just pass by so fast.

Flow is both go and slow, time can be pliable and elastic and so is our brain. So, we do need to try out new things, learn new languages, make origami shapes, cook up a storm, play a musical instrument, find our playgrounds, embrace our inner child, go exploring and invite novelty and creativity into our lives.

A recent addition to Ryan’s toolbox is something he has worked on with his father. They have revamped what was a Shena-board as the Earthboard. This was an ancient Persian tool for calisthenics and wrestling and symbolizing a sword in battles of ore. The board now is a simple fitness tool to help build stability and strength while also improving balance and mobility. We explore this and more in this conversation of how we can bring these gifts of intuition and play into how we relate and connect to each other.

For further information on his work or rather play, go to Earth Board and for links to videos of the exercises in the episode, see below:

episode 3

Land, lyrics and the Poromboke commons

In this episode, we speak to Nityanand Jayaraman who is a Chennai and India-based writer, social activist, and a member of the Chennai Solidarity Group — a collective that fights environmental injustice and discrimination.

As competition for access to natural resources pits powerful corporations against farmers, fishing communities and indigenous people in violent conflict, Nityanand has placed himself on the side of the latter, working to ensure that rule of law and ideals of democracy are not buried at the altar of commerce. An engineer turned journalist and activist, Nityanand describes himself as a solidarity worker who generates city-based support for community struggles against corporate crime and government high-handedness in dealing with such issues. Relying on volunteer energy and local resources, the Chennai Solidarity group has played a critical role in expanding democratic spaces for community struggles. They are known for their innovative use of arts and cultural interventions.

In the episode, we discuss the Poromboke, a medieval Tamil word that refers to communally held commons such as water bodies, grazing lands and community forests. These lands were carefully managed, yielded value to the community, and were subject to strict regulation. But over time they began to be perceived as ‘wastelands' and are dismissed as worthless. We discuss the origins of these commons, spanning from medieval through colonial times and touch upon industrialisation, the rise of the metropole, and the dominant worldview of built-up and paved economies. The shift in how this land was classified, managed, used and contested is a microcosm of civilizational conflicts around land, livelihoods and culture all over the world.

The song that features in this podcast is Chennai Poromboke Padal, conceived by Nityanand a few years ago, written by Kaber Vasuki, and sung by T.M. Krishna. It speaks of how we need to revalorize these commons and shows us how art can be a powerful form of protest. The music video is available here.

For more reading around the subject, check out these links:

episode 4

The Folds of Life: Exploring Origami, Proteins and Human Biology

To understand life, you must understand proteins. Proteins, simply put, are the workhorses of the human cell. These molecular chains are assembled from chemical links and building blocks called amino acids. What a protein does and how it does it, depends also on how it folds up after its creation into its final intricate shape and function. When folding, sometimes they coil up into slinky formations called ‘alpha-helices’, while others fold into zig-zag patterns called ‘beta sheets’, which resemble the folds of a paper fan.

In this episode, we talk with Sudha Neelam, a research scientist in the field of cell biology. Sudha Neelam graduated from the University of North Texas, Dallas, USA with a PhD in Biomedical Sciences. She is currently studying the mechanisms of protein synthesis; exploring how misfolded proteins cause diseases and how therapeutics can intervene to correct the damage it causes.

She compares protein folding with origami, the ancient Japanese art of paper folding, which has entertained generations with its beautiful simplicity. Proteins are our own biological origami. They fold spontaneously based on a series of codes in the form of amino acids, akin to the crease patterns and folds of origami. This biological origami depends on the correct genetic code, accurate assembly of amino acids and the precise folding of the amino acids into a functional protein. Connecting the folds back to her childhood memories, she muses on how paper folding and protein folding are unique in their creativity and similar in their need for precision and perfection.

Origami is also a deeply contemplative practice, engendering calm and stillness. It is rich in symbolism, stirs up creative juices, gives breath to paper, and similarly to protein folding, its pristine folds meld life and art.

Follow Sudha Neelam on LinkedIn

For more reading:

For viewing:

episode 5

Reshaping energy justice in a climate crisis

In this episode, we speak to Ketan Joshi, a prolific writer, analyst, and communications consultant whose focus is on clean energy and climate change. He previously worked in climate and energy for private companies and government agencies, and now writes about the front lines of climate and energy battles around the world. He is based in Oslo and consults with organizations addressing the climate crisis. He is also the author of Windfall: Unlocking a fossil free future, which was published in September 2020.

We live in a time of extreme weather events and after a sobering sixth assessment report was recently published by the IPCC on the physical science basis of climate change, the question of what is going to fuel the future has never been more urgent. The evolution of energy has changed both human and natural history in significant ways and yet our future is not preordained and there is great potential to redefine society’s relationship with energy.

However, energy is not a neutral input that helps run the engines of our economies and societies. Cheap and energy-rich fossil fuels have shaped society’s practices, expectations and desires in terms of how we live, move and consume. There has been recalcitrance and obfuscation on the part of fossil fuel companies to change, and the industry is good at ensuring that we don’t wander too far into imagining a world without them. On the other hand, renewable energy has become cheap but can create social and environmental harm if it follows the same extractivist, land-grabbing models. These harms affect access to land, livelihoods, and culture especially for marginalized peoples and indigenous communities. There is a crucial need for environmental justice and ensuring that any energy transition does not exacerbate social and environmental inequalities. Actions or policies also need to consider serious conversations around degrowth, decentralized and community-based energy, reliance on minerals, materials as inputs for renewable energy, the generation of waste, and how greenhouse emissions are only a slice in a larger pie of drivers of ecological collapse.

Follow Ketan Joshi on Twitter.

and check out more of his work out at

Further reading and links

episode 6

Renewable energy: clean, green, or mean?

In this episode, we chat with Uttara Narayan, who explores the governance of the clean energy transition at the World Resources Institute, Chennai, India.* Her focus is expanding the interpretation of a just energy transition to include broader consequences of exclusion and injustice and ways to minimize them in an equitable manner. Uttara’s work involves the use of interdisciplinary approaches to address challenges at the intersection of environment, social justice, and development.

The rapid rise of renewable energy (RE) in India to meet a growing demand and to displace fossil fuel sources has come with some crucial challenges. While it is a keystone element of the transition to a low carbon economy, the production of renewable energy can and has led to many adverse impacts on the ground. Seen as inherently benign, impacts of renewable energy infrastructure projects are rendered invisible. We discuss these impacts in more detail such as increased ecological and social vulnerabilities. These include landscape changes as well as labour and human rights abuses in locations where raw material extraction, production and end-of-life stages take place. There are also impacts on local and regional biodiversity during the construction and operation phases of the value chain in particular, conflicts from water use, energy justice where communities near project sites are not prioritized for improved access to electricity, and more.

We discuss larger concerns about climate discourse and the fixation on numerical targets, which swamp all other considerations and often ignore concerns around land, livelihoods, biodiversity, and culture. These issues are often viewed as inconvenient distractions in the movement towards a higher-order climate goal.

Drawing inspiration from speculative fiction and the work of Ursula K. Le Guin and her works Those Who Walked Away from Omelas, The Dispossessed and The Word for World is a Forest, we visualize what these other futures might look like. We also dissect our responsibility to act in ways that are not merely utilitarian or green washing.

*She gave this interview in her personal capacity and her views do not necessarily reflect those of the World Resources Institute.

You can follow Uttara Narayan on:

Further reading and links

episode 7

Brutal Beauty: Neoliberalism as an Aesthetic Project

In this episode, we speak with Jisha Menon whose book ‘Brutal Beauty: Aesthetics and Aspiration in Urban India’ was recently published by Northwestern University Press in October 2021. Jisha is an Associate Professor of Theatre and Performance Studies and, by courtesy, of Comparative Literature at Stanford University. With a focus on performance studies, this book turns to artworks, performances, and aesthetics to examine the aspirations and anxieties generated in the wake of liberalisation in India. Taking into consideration various works of art — paintings, installations, photography, films, theatre, live performances, visual art, etc —Brutal Beauty argues that neoliberalism exceeds its descriptors as an economic, social, and political phenomenon.

Moving beyond the usual lenses of planning and development, the book demonstrates that aspirations to remake the city and the self in the idealised image of a ‘world-class’ template can have unpredictable effects, from entrenching existing hierarchies to generating new solidarities. Each of the creative interventions that she describes discloses a range of concerns, which range from gender, regional, and sexual identity politics to civic problems of the precipitous costs of living, migrant labour, electronic waste, media-generated panics, and the precarity of dwelling and travelling within the city’s rapidly changing environments.

The book explores a range of subjects from the aspirations of urban youth using the call centre industry as a point of departure, to the dramatic shifts in discourses around representations of same-sex desire and treating narcissism not just as self-absorption but as a libidinal intervention in highly organised and rationalised environments.

It also explores property and development, displaying the urban panics that shape spatial struggles around home and belonging. The artworks speak to scenes of evictions from informal settlements, habitations of minority and migrant subjects, and elite escapes into gated communities insulated from the gathering menace of the world. Brutal Beauty delves into artistic engagements with obsolescence to examine the systematised human degradation that becomes part of the market calculus of value and waste. No account of growth and garbage in India is complete without an understanding of the ways that waste pickers themselves begin to be identified not only with trash but also as trash.

What is clear from this excellent book, and which was pointed out in the conversation is that the artists discussed in this book exist in a dialectical relationship of receptivity and responsibility to the urban environments from which they emerge, suggesting an inextricable connection between arts and social worlds. Artists are affected by urban forces, and this manifests in their artworks that are likewise open and receptive to the world that shapes them into being.

Note: The artists whose works are mentioned in the book are Ayisha Abraham, Krishnaraj Chonat, Mahesh Dattani, Sheela Gowda, Suresh Jayaram, Ram Ganesh Kamatham, Ravi Kumar Kashi, Preetam Koilpillai, Shantamani Muddaiah, Pushpamala N., Archana Prasad, Rimini Protokoll, Cop Shiva, Vidhu Singh, Christoph Storz, Vivan Sundaram, Surekha, Living Smile Vidya, and Michael Walling.

More about the guest

In addition to Brutal Beauty, Jisha Menon also authored The Performance of Nationalism: India, Pakistan, and the Memory of Partition (Cambridge UP, 2013). She is also a faculty affiliate at Modern Thought and Literature; Feminist, Gender, Sexuality Studies; Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity; and Urban Studies at Stanford University.

Follow Jisha Menon on Twitter.

Further reading and links

episode 8

A chorus at dawn: using bioacoustics to quantify ecological restoration

In this episode, we talk about soundscape ecology, the study of sounds and bioacoustics, which is the study of species vocalisations. We speak with Pooja Choksi, a PhD candidate at Columbia University and co-founder of Project Dhvani, about her fascinating research on ecological restoration in the central Indian landscape, using acoustics as a tool.

Pooja’s primary research focuses on understanding the impact of ecological restoration on vegetation, people, and wildlife. She uses non-invasive audio recorders in the dry tropical forests of central India to study how species vocalise and how acoustic activity differs as a function of restoration and management. Her work takes her to the Mandla district, outside the famed Kanha National Park in Madhya Pradesh. As part of Project Dhvani, which she founded, she collaborates with other scientists to understand how biodiversity varies across landscapes in India. They also work together to stimulate curiosity and appreciation for biodiversity through the exploration of sounds and testing the feasibility of acoustics to aid conservation efforts.

The ecological restoration in her research revolves around the removal of an invasive shrub, Lantana Camara, which was introduced to India by the British in the 1800s when it was brought here as an ornamental plant. Being highly prolific, it takes over open spaces and the understory of a forest very quickly. It gives animals like tigers and leopards places to hide. But it is a menace for people living nearby and their livelihoods. She works in forests around villages, where people collect some amount of firewood and non-timber forest products like Tendu leaves and Chakoda seeds. Several communities have, through the assistance of a local NGO called Foundation for Ecological Security, requested the Forest Department to remove the shrub. While there is no blanket removal, in the areas where the shrub has been removed, there has been a slow return of native species, which can be defined as ‘restoration’ in this forest.

Through bioacoustics, Pooja records the insects and birds, the many taxa that vocalise all in the same data to see how they thrive in different habitats, some restored, some unrestored and lantana monocultures. This combined data can help make more evidence-based decisions, which will hopefully be more beneficial to people and biodiversity. Another aspect of this research is that a lot of bioacoustics work takes place in humid, tropical forests or temperate forests, so studying these underrepresented dry, tropical forests is important. She stressed that bioacoustics is a tool and needs to be combined with surveys and other research methodologies. Also, a disadvantage is that it can leave out non-vocalising species in the data and capture sound from nearby patches.

During our conversation, she spoke about how she has aimed to make her own work participatory, speaking with people from the villages and working with them, and trying to understand what they view as restoration. Pooja is grateful to the local community members in the villages around where she works in Madhya Pradesh for their support. She acknowledges her great set of collaborators including Mayuri Kotian, Devendra Korche, Siddharth Biniwale, and Pravar Mourya, who have contributed to several aspects of the research she talks about.

We also spoke about the explosion of citizen science in India and how anyone can contribute to understanding soundscapes and to research by doing their own recordings and using sites and apps to submit their findings. Treading cautiously as we approach this novel and exciting field, tuning into nature may just provide a small piece to the puzzle that is the natural world and how we can live alongside it.

More about the guest

Pooja Choksi’s website:

Follow Pooja Choksi on Instagram and Twitter

Further reading and links