After 11 years in Shanghai, as he prepares to move on to start a new life in India, Nitin Dani is baring it all in an honest interview about many facets of his life that not many know about.
Many of you may know Nitin personally, have worked with him, or have been inspired by him. And for those who don’t, here is a heartening chat with the founder of Green Initiatives and Seeds of Change, two of Shanghai’s oldest environmental & well being focused organizations.
In this interview, Nitin shares snippets about his life - from his upbringing to intercultural understanding, from his work in China to his plans for India, from learning to unlearning. And lessons he learned along the way.
The Farewell & The Last Concert
For readers of this article, if you would like to say a goodbye to Nitin in person, you are welcome to join Seeds of Change’s last music concert of 2021, “Till We Meet Again”, themed to ‘celebrate’ Nitin’s departure from China after 11 years.
"It’s meant to be a good bye, which is a sad feeling, but can also be a beautiful feeling because it means that you care. But that there is also hope and optimism that we will meet again in the future."
SoC volunteer writer, Kawa, caught up with Nitin recently, curious to know more about his life that he has not really shared with the community earlier.
Best education possible
I was very close to my family growing up. My father was reasonably well educated but my mom missed out on her higher education since she, like other women in those days, got married early. She made up her mind that no matter what, her kids were going to get the best education and my dad supported her on that.
Back then we were living in a very small town where the schools were not very good. And our teacher really thought that my sister and I were very smart kids. She called my parents and said “I think you guys should put your kids in a better school. It’s really far away, but you should give it a try.”
“Going to a boarding school was the starting point for a lot of things in my life that were different from most kids in India of my age.”
Nitin's boarding school in the hills of Southern India (photographed by Nitin in 2014)
Back in 1989, when I was around six years old, my parents, my sister and I took this 39-hour-train journey from the central part of India to the south where the boarding school was located, to enroll my sister. It was the first time that even my sister was seeing the school, so it was more like, “Hey, let's go check out the school”.
It was really beautiful, like something out of Harry Potter's Hogwarts. The school even had a ‘mini-zoo’ with lots of animals. I was just so captivated by the animals that I too wanted to study in that school. So the next year, my parents also enrolled me in that school.
Hogwarts? Probably an Indian version. Nitin's boarding school (photographed by him in 2014)
Boarding school? That sounds tough.
Yea, so when it was finally time for me to leave my parents it was actually very very difficult for me to leave them and I cried a lot. I think that is probably one of my earliest memories of school.
Going to the boarding school meant that there was this physical distance between my parents and us. We only saw each other around twice a year. We would write letters to each other every week, sometimes even twice a week if we missed each other more. We were only able to talk to each other on the phone once every three months or so if we were lucky - back then there were no internet or emails or mobile phones. So, for me, the longer I spent time away from them, the closer we got. When we went home during the vacations we gave each other all our time and attention. So naturally, my sister and I grew up very close to our parents.
The relationship has always been like friends who could tell each other anything they wanted, although not so much about our relationships and girlfriends, Indian parents are a little closed about those topics. Also issues of mental health or stress or depression - not something they were aware of.
My lowest point as a kid...
My parents spent a big part of their money on our education. School fees were like 50% of my father's annual salary per child and as a result, we were constantly in debt. We always had this environment at home where we didn't know where money was going to come from for our next fees.
“There was always this financial tension in our house - my parents even kept a day-to-day track of their expenses to make sure they didn’t overspend. Then here was this point that I still remember where I saw my mother selling her wedding jewelry because we needed money to pay the school fees.”
Nitin and his sister, Nidhi, as kids ready for school (around 1987-88)
I guess, the memory has always indirectly motivated me to always give my best to whatever I do, and not give up. My parents never told me that I had to do well in school or anything. They just told me that I should give my best and I felt like it was the very least I could do to support my family.
Shy, introvert and curious as a child
I was actually a very shy kid, quite an introvert, I’d say. I was too shy to even wear shorts! But I was a really curious kid and asked my parents a lot of questions. My mum would often say, “you ask too many questions”, both jokingly and irritatingly. I often took apart my toys trying to fix them back, but mostly ended up breaking them.
I was also really good at sketching, and at playing the harmonium (Indian version of the piano - more like an accordion). In my late teens there was a time when I was going through a depression because I was living in a very unfamiliar, competitive environment where I could not deal with the pressure, and I ended up drawing a lot of sketches here and there with some quotes on them.
“I remember, one of them was, “You cannot discover new oceans, unless you have courage to lose sight of the shore.” Another quote was “The difference between impossibility and possibility lies in a person’s determination.”
"Shades of Silence" | Nitin's early sketch (Mar 2002)
One of my friends saw all these sketches, and encouraged me to study architecture. Interestingly, even though I was good at science and math in school, I did not really enjoy them. I was only pursuing engineering because I did not know what other options there were. But perhaps because my father was a civil engineer I was always very influenced by buildings and would spend hours on this ‘3D home architect’ software growing up.
Thanks to that friend I decided to pursue studying architecture. That was another key moment in my life.
Growing up, wanting to be a pilot, first airplane ride
Living and studying in Bangalore exposed me to a dynamic, fast world and I gradually began opening up and trying new things. I think that in general, the kind of people who choose to study architecture are likely to have a more diverse skill set and varied interests. They like going out, exploring things, partying, visiting galleries, etc.
I had almost no money in those days so I rarely went out. But I worked very hard and put in all my energy into my projects and designs. We traveled to different places nearby to study different kinds of architecture. I was simply relishing all these experiences because I was always a person who liked to try new things and didn't accept stereotypical ways of doing things, including taking no for an answer.
Nitin's first airplane ride, and exchange trip to Germany (Oct 2005)
My parents' financial situation had gotten better by the end of my architecture school. In 2005, five of the top students of our class had a scholarship to go to Germany for an exchange program - I was one of them. That was my first trip outside of India - possibly one of the first times I sat on an airplane. Growing up I was fascinated by airplanes and wanted to be a pilot. In fact, I often wondered if I would ever sit in an airplane.
Anyway, ever since I went on that first trip to Europe - including Berlin, Paris and Amsterdam, I noticed the difference in the education system and I really wanted to experience a more open system of higher education than what we had in India. I saved up money and pushed to find a way to work in Singapore.
Finally, when I got to Singapore, I did get a lot more global exposure, and was making money that was above average in India for a young architecture graduate like me.
Life and work in Singapore just didn’t feel right
Life in Singapore was challenging for me. As an Indian, I felt a lot of racism there - I also felt that people were quite ‘cold’ although the city was hot and humid (pun intended). While I was used to being outstanding in my school and work in India, in Singapore I always felt very ordinary, rather insecure. I felt like my work did not have any significance.
Early days in Singapore - at his office desk (2008)
On top of that, it was a very expensive city. The apartment rent that I was living in was more than my monthly salary - so there were four of us sharing the place. My working hours were quite unpredictable.
There would be months where I was working every day on a deadline, where I barely slept for a few hours a night, where I didn't even know whether I could make it to my friend's gatherings or birthdays. And then there were weeks following that where I had nothing to do because we were waiting for the results of a bid or for new projects.
The biggest positive of Singapore was the start of Nitin's photography journey (Jan 2009)
Due to a combination of all these factors, I wasn't really able to relish that Singapore experience. I felt like the mindset of the place and the people were not necessarily right.
“Making more money, having a big car, having a big house seemed like a common priority in most peoples’ lives, which was okay for some, but not for me.”
Singapore taught me all things in life that I did not want to do, or be
My real learning, or I should say, the real unlearning phase began when I got laid-off from my job in Singapore during the financial crisis (2009), and I went to Milan for my Masters with a partial scholarship.
Photograph from the first day of Nitin's life in Milan - the Duomo di Milano (Oct 2009)
“That one year changed my life and put me on track to where I am today.”
Italy, and Europe by extension, helped me to start looking at things differently, questioning the status quo. I was reading a lot, watching a lot of really great movies. A couple of my favorite movies back then were Freedom Writers, about a teacher, and Julie and Julia, about cooking. By that time I had begun to really enjoy cooking - so I was doing a lot of cooking, photography, teaching English to Italian kids, and traveling.
Teaching in a summer camp for kids in Urbino, Italy (Jun 2010)
It was challenging financially, but the exposure and learning was worth it. They were giving me so many different perspectives.
Traveling with a childhood friend to Budapest (May 2010)
“I saw that in Italy people were so happy in most jobs, they loved what they did. And yet, there’s a lot of us who spend our life making money and saving it for retirement, but being unhappy on a day-to-day basis.”
I questioned whether we need to make the amount of money we think we should make. Were there other ways of living with less? I realized that we don't need to have a single source of income that pays all your bills all the time, because if we’re unhappy with that, then everything around you seems unhappy.
Last day of Nitin's Masters in Milan @Lake Como (July 2010)
So what I kind of tried to do was to change that model and nurture my multiple interests and see how they could also help me make a living. It helped that I knew that I was not the kind of person who can sit in a desk job for 12 hours a day or work for hundreds of hours on a project that I don't believe in.
“Experience is what you get when you didn't get what you wanted.”
My journey in China was always one struggle after another. Even before I came to China, the difficulties had already started with the visa. In fact, I came to China only because my Masters internship in Milan did not work out at the last minute and I had no other choice.
“We had so much negativity about China in the Indian media that it was never really my first (or even last) choice to come to Shanghai.”
"King of Good Times" | A couple chilling on the bench in Fuxing Park (Nov 2010)
But as soon as I arrived in Shanghai I immediately liked the city. For me, Shanghai was a perfect middle ground between India and Singapore i.e. it was not too chaotic and it was not too perfect.
“I felt like Shanghai was a place where I could live for the next few years. I liked the people and I was seeing the life around me and capturing the stories through my camera. Of course, I had never imagined that "few years" would become 11 years.”
Silhouettes at the West Lake in Hangzhou (Nov 2010)
A man cleaning the traditional hot pot dishes around People Square (2011)
I remember I borrowed money from a friend of mine in India to be able to pay my bills for the internship when I came to China. The company was offering me a small stipend, but it was nowhere close to enough. I was changing my industry, moving away from architecture to branding and communication, as well as from being a designer to being a manager.
A group of men playing cards in People's Park Shanghai (Oct 2010)
Those first two years in Shanghai were extremely challenging for me - both personally and professionally, and I was paid very little. I continued to experience racism here; dating was an uneven playing field for an Indian man, and a combination of sustained pressure from my family plus failure in the dating scene convinced me to get married. I'd say that the intention was right, but the reason and timing for such a major step were not.
Professionally, I would have applied for an architectural job in some other company and could have gotten paid much better but I chose not to do that because I wanted to continue exploring branding, storytelling, and other areas that were new to me.
“Of course, having a flexible lifestyle, having fun at work, and not having to deal with the stress of a crazy, unpredictable architectural job was a key motivation to not goback to a corporate job.”
A woman praying in Jade Buddha temple (Oct 2010)
Jingan temple during mid-Autumn festival (Sep 2011)
Coincidentally, I began running these ‘green drinks’ events since my roommate had started them a year ago and he wanted to give it up. I felt there was potential in that and applied my branding skills to it and see if I could help it grow.
"From drinks to links" - Green Drinks 'mantra' in the early years
Starting a company was not a conscious choice.
A lot of things that I did were not mainstream. I was sure that I did not want to go back to that unpredictable work-life phase, like I had in Singapore. Architecture as an industry is largely that.
Birthday with close friends in Shanghai (July 2012)
Fortunately, I met a few people along my journey in Shanghai with whom I felt like I could make ‘green drinks’ work and turn into a financially sustainable organization, although I had no idea it would take many years to do so.
1st Annual event and rebranding from Green Drinks to Green Initiatives (Dec 2013)
It really helped that I had a few different skills that helped me generate some money to keep myself going although I had to be very very careful about my expenses - it was the same feeling I had growing up.
Green Initiatives 10-year anniversary event invitation (Jan 2019)
However, sharing meaningful knowledge with the community was giving me a lot of motivation and I simply focused my energy on gradually growing ‘green drinks’ which later came to be called Green Initiatives (GI) - its current version.
We were supported by a wonderful group of volunteers, including Ashley, my colleague today who's been working with us for 9 years - first as a volunteer and then as a core team member.
Seeds of Change: "We rise by lifting others"
Seeds of Change (SoC) started in 2017 when I met someone through a common friend at one of our events. We worked together for six months or so and felt like we had similar values. And then we said, let's try to scale up GI’s work through the power of technology. That became Seeds of Change.
"Blockchain for social impact" - one of the many packed GI events (Jan 2018)
I mean, yes, instead of spending money and time on this new platform, we probably could have focused more energy into GI. But somehow, I always thought GI had a rather conventional model that was hard to scale up. I had never intended to run a nonprofit organization or a company in China or anywhere. I was simply taking things on a year-by-year basis, on what I felt was the right thing to do at that time.
Delivering a lecture at Tongji University on the Green Initiatives story (2016)
“We say life is what happens to us when we are busy making other plans. In that sense, Green Initiatives and Seeds of Change ‘happened’ to me.”
Nitin's interview in a local Shanghai magazine (Oct 2015)
Although the business partnership that started SoC did not work out, I continued to lead the development gradually, with support from our team and cofounder, Florian. I have tried to combine impact with profitability, but trying to make GI or SoC financially sustainable while fairly compensating our team has been quite challenging.
Infact, we still struggle with that.
SoC's signature charity music concerts brings together both adults and kids alike, for immersive musical experiences
And it didn’t help that until then, for six years, I was in a bad marriage that had also burnt me out. On one hand we were trying to do all this good, that the community appreciated, but on the other hand I was drained.
Thankfully, I got out of the latter (i.e. the marriage) in 2018. That release gave me a bit more fuel to try to develop Seeds of Change into holistic learning, health and wellbeing, rather than just sustainability. I saw around me that there were a lot of other people dealing with similar emotional, mental, and relationship issues - with others and themselves.
One of the lowest points in my life: death of close friend Sabina in June 2018, that led to surfacing of a series of emotional issues, and ultimately, dealing with them that gave me deeper insights on the need for promoting wellbeing
That many actually could not afford a private therapy session or counselling, which can be quite expensive, especially if you don’t have insurance. Fact also remains that mental health is not seen as a major issue in most parts of Asia, including China.
I was hoping that we could tap into the power of community learning and collaboration to support each other.
"We rise by lifting others," Nitin says. Helping people grow meaningfully is one of SoC's core mission | Photograph from SoC's charity music concert (Mar 2021)
“I really look at our work with GI and SoC as an opportunity, an ongoing experiment. I have had the best intentions, just may not have had the most necessary resources or be profitable enough. I guess trying to make money doing good is a lot more challenging than doing so with no limits.”
But I try to learn and grow from the experience, and I guess this is what life is all about.
We gain a lot more by trusting people than what we loose by not..
Honestly, even if I had to go back, I think I would still have worked with all the people I worked with, because what I've realized in my life and running this organization is that you gain a lot more by trusting people than what you lose by not. Most people are good people. But every once in a while, you may have a bad experience.
Addressing students at the Western International School Shanghai (WISS) in 2014
So let's say I've had difficult experiences with a few individuals in my life in the last 11 years but at the same time, I've met thousands of amazing people who have helped us along the way just by coming to an event or sharing our work with others or contributing to different campaigns or volunteering.
One of GI's signature experiences to The Nature Conservancy in QingShan, Zhejiang (Nov 2018)
You need to have faith that there are more good people than bad people. And that no matter what, every now and then there will be someone you know who will be a little misaligned and that is the way things are. You cannot live your life constantly being afraid of who's going to take advantage of you. I am still very optimistic about people and thankful for everything that we've done.
Even for these people that I didn't end up having a good relationship with, I think I have still learned a lot from them and the process. It's just that we probably had different expectations from the partnership. If we knew more about each other's personality types, expectations and needs, then probably we could have found better ways to handle each other.
Without doubt, it is the fear of losing my family without having spent enough time with them. Having lived in a boarding school since the age of six, I feel like I’ve not spent enough time with my parents and that they need me around them now as they grow older.
My father had a major fracture last year and broke four bones in his leg and I could not see him. He has a metal plate inserted into his leg and walks with a limp - I feel like I need to be there.
Nitin with his mom, dad, sister and nephew in his hometown (Feb 2017)
Decision to leave China is not recent
My plan to go to India has been on for at least three to four years, even before COVID.
It was in January 2018 that I was reading this book called The Abundance of Less by Andy Couturier, who we invited to Shanghai for a series of lecturs, and who also became a really good friend of mine. While reading the book, I was actually spending my winter vacation in the northern part of India, in the hills, close to the Himalayas.
The book that influenced Nitin a great deal
The book talks a lot about rural, self-sustainable living. And that's when it occurred to me that I could live in the countryside and run something of my own as long as it is self-sustainable. And that I really did not need to live in the cities which was the main reason for me to leave India in the first place - the traffic, the chaos, the rush, etc.
Photographs of the hills in Northern India where Nitin intends to settle down (Feb 2018)
"Family is one of the biggest reasons why I'm going back to India, apart from the fact that I want to be closer to nature, spend better quality time with Katie, my girlfriend, and really work on our future project without having to deal with the uncertainty of lockdowns."
The show must go on
We have been working on a transition plan for half a year already. I think that our wonderful team and volunteers at GI and SoC are more than capable to keep things going. In fact, I believe that they will be able to grow the impact even further.
I simply planted the seeds and watered it as long as I could with all their support. And now it’s a great opportunity for them to take it even further.
We are always eager to engage more individuals in our work in different capacities. If they are interested they can reach out to us:
Ending one decade and beginning another...
I want to plan as little as necessary for next year.
I think I need some real rest from all the hustle and bustle and running around in Shanghai. I have given my best for over a decade in this fast paced city, hustling around to sustain 2 organizations that I did not intend to start in the first place, and that has tired me out.
Moodboard of Nitin & Katie hope to build in India. Photographs from their project archives.
Eventually, Katie and I plan to start a learning center in the hills through which we hope to share the experience and knowledge we have gained through Green Initiatives and Seeds of Change, with the community there. A project built & designed closely with nature, focused on developing real life skills, emotional health, permaculture and mindfulness.
Respecting local architectural style and building in harmony with earth. Photographs from the hills.
It will still be focused on people, possibly more grassroot in nature. Passing on the right values, the necessary knowledge and the much-needed skills to both adults and kids on being able to live a healthier and happier life, that’s what we want to focus on for our India project.
Of course, you are welcome to visit us some day when the place is ready 🙂
Nitin, Katie, their dog Masala, and core team of Green Initiatives & Seeds of Change
Here is the video
Living for a healthier planet
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