Want to raise a child with the business acumen of the industrial tycoon Ratan Tata, the concentration powers of the spiritual guru Swami Vivekananda, the scientific brilliance of the nuclear hero A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and — of course — the patriotic confidence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi?
In India, there is an app for that. In fact, many apps.
For centuries, India’s mothers have drawn from rich cultural and religious traditions to pass down a store of knowledge to guide child-rearing. Underpinning this maternal inheritance is a practice known as garbh sanskar, in which the nurturing of a child, and the creation of an environment conducive to instilling a Hindu value system, begins in the womb.
But in today’s India, the ancient ways alone are no longer sufficient. A new kind of business is taking off, largely from the entrepreneurial western state of Gujarat, catering to mothers-to-be in a country that is rushing headlong into a digital future.
Startups big and small are offering apps that combine traditional prenatal and postnatal guidance with scientific research, weaving in wellness practices and dietary plans, as well as daily developmental activities like yoga, meditation, art, story reading and lullabies.
It is all packaged in a slick interface for a generation that answers more readily to reminders from smartphones than from mothers-in-law.
“Lovely Mom, if you can drink some water, please,” one of the apps, Garbh Sanskar Guru, nudges by text message, taking on the fetus’s persona. “I love dancing in the rain.”
India prides itself on striking a balance between the old and the new. The rise of Mr. Modi, and a new elite around him, has furthered the notion that India can at once pursue an inward-looking nationalism and expand its connections abroad. The app developers are banking on the fact that navigating this reality requires new tools and knowledge.
In the process, the smartphone — blamed for luring young Indians away from traditions and easing the spread of the worst kind of hate and division — is put to the service of retaining the best of values. Devices associated with rising loneliness are programmed not only to help women cope with a period of intense anxiety and stress, but also to improve couples’ bonding by bringing some structure to the pregnancy whirlwind.
When Dhara Jignesh Pambhar, 29, and her husband, Jignesh, were expecting their second child last year, both parents and the older child, Darshan, who is now 6, did activities in one of the apps together each day — reading a story, singing lullabies. Sometimes, they would put their hands on Ms. Pambhar’s stomach and repeat to the fetus: “We welcome you to this world.”
Just what kind of baby did they want? The app recommended an exercise called the “dream chart,” in which parents create a large collage to visualize the qualities they desire.
For the new child, Dhyey, a boy who is now 17 months old, the chart included pictures of babies with good hair and a bubbly smile, as well as depictions of the Hindu deities Krishna, representing friendship, and Hanuman, representing power.
There was also a picture of a smiling and 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 Ms. Pambhar, who helps run an online business selling kitchen appliances. “Both my husband and I are a bit challenged in height.”
Sometimes, when the boys are restless or stubborn, the other women in the family taunt her: “But you used the garbh sanskar apps. Why?”
“It’s not like they will be perfect all the time,” she answers.
Jitendra Timbadia, a founder of one of the apps, called DreamChild, worked in a child activity center associated with a sect of Hinduism before turning to development research. The other founder, Chheta Dhaval, has a branding background, and Mr. Timbadia’s wife, Suyogi, a yoga instructor, designs and leads the app’s physical activities.
Given DreamChild’s sweeping ambitions, Mr. Timbadia said, the modern research is crucial.
“From the sixth month of pregnancy to the fourth year, the whole life’s blueprint is laid out,” 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 daily app routine with offline workshops, range between $100 and $180.
One afternoon at the app’s offline center in Surat, a city in Gujarat, about 20 women — some well along in their pregnancies, others in the planning stages — went through yogic and breathing exercises as soft music played, before turning to art 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 educated families, people don’t talk about these things openly,” Ms. Pandav said.
“Here, there is no tension, no worries, no family, nothing — we, and our babies,” she added, running her hand over her stomach.
DreamChild regularly holds large seminars with the sales pitch “Make your pregnancy happy and confident.” In September, about 500 couples filed into a large auditorium in Ahmedabad for a three-hour program that had the feel of a job fair. They applied sticky notes to a map of India laying out the qualities they wanted in their babies: self-confidence, creativity, empathy, national pride, honesty.
There was a performance from the Mahabharata, a Hindu epic in which Abhimanyu, the son of the central figure, Arjun, absorbs battlefield strategies while he is still in the womb, as his father talks with his mother. Speakers at the event made more contemporary references: Mr. Modi’s mother, Heeraben, recited the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, another epic, when she was pregnant with the future prime minister.
One recent day, Prashant Agarwal, a founder of the app Garbh Sanskar Guru, which has about 18,000 paid subscribers, held an online seminar of his own, sitting down behind his laptop with a ring light propped nearby. About 125 people tuned in to hear his introduction, during which he discouraged reliance on unverified information forwarded through WhatsApp groups — “there is nothing but confusion there.”
He walked the participants through the app, then showed them that cute reminder on drinking water: the baby, in the womb, wanting to dance in the rain.
“It is not that any of us love babies less. It is we forget,” he said. “How many of you can say no to your baby?”
He then unveiled the package’s price. The app startups acknowledge that moving people from free to paid offerings remains a challenge, despite the rapid expansion of digital literacy and online payments in India. The issue is the structure of Indian families: Husbands control the purse.
Mr. Agarwal offered a discount to anyone who signed up within 30 minutes of the session’s end. A woman named Payal asked if the discount could be continued into the evening.
“Because, sir, I need to discuss with my husband,” she said.
Ms. Pambhar, the height-challenged mother, used an app during both of her pregnancies. She said that she could see in her second child about “60 to 70 percent” of what she had visualized in the dream chart.
“For nine months, I thought: ‘You will do something big,’ the way Abdul Kalam did,” she said, referring to the national hero who helped advance the country’s nuclear program and later served as India’s president.
She added with a smile: “But there is no pressure.”