Do you want to raise a child with the business acumen of industrial tycoon Ratan Tata, the powers of concentration of spiritual guru Swami Vivekananda, the scientific brilliance of nuclear hero APJ Abdul Kalam and, of course, the patriotic confidence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi? ?
In India there is an app for that. In fact, many applications.
For centuries, mothers in India have drawn on rich cultural and religious traditions to transmit a wealth of knowledge to guide their child-rearing. The basis of this maternal heritage is a practice known as garbh sanskar, in which raising a child and creating an environment conducive to instilling a Hindu value system begins in the womb.
But in today’s India, ancient customs alone are no longer enough. A new type of business is taking off, largely from the enterprising western state of Gujarat, catering to expectant mothers in a country hurtling headlong into a digital future.
Startups, large and small, offer apps that combine traditional prenatal and postnatal counseling with scientific research, incorporating wellness practices and dietary plans, as well as daily developmental activities such as yoga, meditation, art, story-telling, and lullabies.
It’s all packaged in a sleek interface for a generation that responds more readily to smartphone reminders than mothers-in-law.
“Lovely mom, if you can have some water please,” one of the apps, Garbh Sanskar Guru, pushes via text message, assuming the personality of the fetus. “I love dancing in the rain.”
India prides itself on striking a balance between old and new. The rise of Modi, and a new elite around him, has fostered the notion that India can pursue an inward-looking nationalism and expand its connections abroad at the same time. Application developers are confident in the fact that addressing this reality requires new tools and knowledge.
In the process, the smartphone, blamed for alienating young Indians from traditions and facilitating the spread of the worst kind of hatred and division, is put in the service of preserving the best values. The devices associated with increasing loneliness are programmed not only to help women cope with a period of intense anxiety and stress, but also to improve the couple’s bond by bringing some structure to the whirlwind of pregnancy.
When Dhara Jignesh Pambhar, 29, and her husband, Jignesh, were expecting their second child last year, both parents and the eldest child, Darshan, now 6, did activities together on one of the apps every day: read a story, singing lullabies. Sometimes they would put their hands on Mrs. Pambhar’s stomach and repeat to the fetus: “We welcome you to this world.”
What kind of baby did they want? The app recommended an exercise called “dream chart,” in which parents create a large collage to visualize the qualities they desire.
For the new child, Dhyey, a boy now 17 months old, the painting included images of babies with good hair and a cheerful smile, as well as representations of the Hindu deities Krishna, who represents friendship, and Hanuman, who represents power. .
There was also a photo of a smiling, suited Mr. Tata, the Mumbai industrialist who expanded a Parsi family business into one of India’s largest international corporations. Another photo, of an uncle, was “for height,” said Pambhar, who helps run an online business that sells kitchen appliances. “Both my husband and I have a little height.”
Sometimes when the children are restless or stubborn, the other women in the family tease her: “But you used garbh sanskar apps. Because?”
“It’s not like they’re going to be perfect all the time,” he responds.
Jitendra Timbadia, founder of one of the apps, called DreamChild, worked at a children’s activity center associated with a sect of Hinduism before turning to developmental research. The other founder, Chheta Dhaval, has a background in branding, and Mr. Timbadia’s wife, Suyogi, a yoga instructor, designs and directs the app’s fitness activities.
Given DreamChild’s broad ambitions, Timbadia said, modern research is crucial.
“From the sixth month of pregnancy to the fourth year, the entire life plan is drawn up,” he said. “Today’s mothers won’t accept it without science.”
The app has had about 15,000 paid users since its launch in 2019. The basic package, with limited online-only activities, costs about $25 for nine months. Hybrid packages, which supplement the app’s daily routine with offline workshops, range from $100 to $180.
One afternoon, at the app’s offline center in Surat, a city in Gujarat, about 20 women (some in their pregnancies, others in the planning stages) performed yoga and breathing exercises while soft music played, before dedicating themselves to artistic activities.
Hetal Pandav, a 26-year-old optometrist, was in the first trimester of her first pregnancy. She said she had come as much for the sense of community as anything else.
“In families, even in educated families, people don’t talk openly about these things,” Ms. Pandav said.
“There is no tension here, no worries, no family, nothing: us and our babies,” she added, rubbing her hand over her stomach.
DreamChild regularly organizes large seminars with the sales pitch “Make your pregnancy happy and safe.” In September, about 500 couples packed a large auditorium in Ahmedabad for a three-hour program that resembled a job fair. They applied sticky notes to a map of India describing the qualities they wanted in their babies: self-confidence, creativity, empathy, national pride and honesty.
There was a performance of the Mahabharata, a Hindu epic in which Abhimanyu, the son of the central figure, Arjun, absorbs battlefield strategies while still in the womb, while his father talks to his mother. Speakers at the event made more contemporary references: Modi’s mother, Heeraben, recited the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, another epic, when she was pregnant with the future prime minister.
On a recent day, Prashant Agarwal, founder of the Garbh Sanskar Guru app, which has around 18,000 paid subscribers, held his own webinar, sitting behind his laptop with a ring light nearby. Around 125 people tuned in to hear his presentation, during which he discouraged trust in unverified information sent through WhatsApp groups: “there is nothing there but confusion.”
She walked participants through the app and then showed them that nice reminder about drinking water: the baby, in the womb, wanting to dance in the rain.
“It’s not that any of us love babies any less. It’s what we forget,” she said. “How many of you can say no to your baby?”
He then revealed the price of the package. App startups recognize that moving people from free to paid offers remains a challenge, despite the rapid expansion of digital literacy and online payments in India. The problem is the structure of Indian families: husbands control the money.
Agarwal offered a discount to anyone who signed up within 30 minutes of the end of the session. A woman named Payal asked if the discount could continue into the evening.
“Because, sir, I need to talk to my husband,” she said.
Ms. Pambhar, the height-challenged mother, used an app during both of her pregnancies. She said she could see in her second child between “60 and 70 percent” of what she had visualized in the dream chart.
“For nine months I thought, ‘You’re going to do something big,’ like Abdul Kalam did,” he said, referring to the national hero who helped boost the country’s nuclear program and later served as India’s president.
And he added with a smile: “But there is no pressure.”