India Superpowering Through Culture

Culture always played a powerful noiselessly in the world development. Its the people and culture not the political hot potatoes who have made the world a better place to live little happily. With only political forces the world might have been doomed long back. This hard truth is slowly surfacing. When the economic chips played by politics failed and erupted as the financial melt down a year back, culture come as the savior.Although culture has been recognized as the soft and silent tool for the success of a nation, it has been underplayed by several countries. America gave a big colour to culture through its corporations in its efforts to conquer the world. Doubtlessly the American tricks paid for a quarter century. Today it is taking a tough beating.

India which is a cultural magnet for centuries is bouncing back with a bang. From the stone age India has been in the forefront of cultural play around the world. For its knowledge, astrology, mythology, dance, music, food, snake charming, magic and what not. When the Western world was conquering the erstwhile traditional powers the same culture has been dumped as the superstitious. Today the same has been wooed as the potential stress buster and life saver.

The Western chips are down and chasing Indian yoga masters, astrologist, ayur vedics and many other traditional powers. Bharatnatyam, folk dances, chicken sheekh kebab, idlis, vadas, vedas, upanishads are sought after by the life down westerners. This was silently going for the past quarter century. With the tourism ministry and cultural diplomats giving an economic culture Indian wherewithals have taken a big currency shape. In the coming days Indian culture will be much sought after. But in order to stay without slipping Indians must not dilute their sincerity and seriousness. The main reason for the downfall of the Western culture has been its lack of seriousness in sustaining its cultural power. Too much of casual approach had dented the image of America and Europe. This must be avoided by the Indian culture promoters in order stay float at the global arena.
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Shobanna Saxena writes in The Times of India on 22 November 2009

Call it Disney diplomacy from the East. But Mickey Mouse has some competition now. So does MTV. Chinese rock bands are entrancing American teenagers with their music; sufi singers are emerging from their shells in the Muslim world; and yoga gurus are telling Westerners how to sit in the lotus position. All of them have one thing in common. They are the software of their country’s soft power.

Hard power can drive people away but soft power almost always brings them closer. This is why nations with big ambitions have always used cultural exports to enhance their clout. During the Cold War, both the US and USSR opened cultural centres around the world, leaving Bolshoi ballerinas to challenge Broadway beauties. Today, the story is being repeated. Bharatnatyam and yoga are taking on Confucius and Chinese rock bands in the new world order, whose economic engine is said to be located in Asia.

The Chinese are aggressively pursuing cultural diplomacy and now, India is responding. The Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR) opened seven new cultural centres in Asia this year and is planning many more across this continent, Europe and the Americas. Is the ICCR desperately playing catch-up with China, which will soon open roughly a hundred ‘Confucius Centres’ around the world? “It’s definitely an incentive,” says Dr Karan Singh, the ICCR president who served as India’s ambassador to the US in the 1980s (see interview). Singh, who was recently in the US to identify a building to house a cultural centre in Washington, says India needs to flex its soft-power muscle. “Diplomacy is like the Ganga-Jamuna-Saraswati triveni. The Ganga is political diplomacy, the Yamuna is economic diplomacy and the invisible Saraswati is cultural diplomacy,” he says.

In 2009, the ICCR opened centres in Kabul, Kathmandu, Bangkok, Tokyo, Dhaka, Kualalumpur and Abu Dhabi. Bhutan will have one by next year and talks are on with Pakistan and the Maldives for similar centres. “My idea was to first consolidate our region and to ‘look East’. We have also started a centre in China as an extension of our mission as there is a ban on cultural centres there,” says Singh, who took over as ICCR head in 2007.

Of late, Beijing has been taking cultural exports seriously. Last week, two of China’s hottest new rock bands – Carsick Cars and P K 14 – began a whirlwind musical tour of the US. The ICCR says it has sent Indian rock bands abroad in the past but till now, there just wasn’t the money to do this consistently. Now, Delhi, like Beijing, seems ready to splurge on the culture front. “This year, we got a special grant of Rs 75 crore from the government. Hopefully, this will become an annual grant,” says Singh.
Can such funding help India follow the American model of cultural diplomacy? Minister of state for external affairs Shashi Tharoor says Hollywood, MTV and McDonald’s have done more for American soft power than specific government activity. Tharoor defines soft power as the “ability of a country to attract others with its culture, social values and foreign policies”. At the Technology, Entertainment, Design conference in Bangalore recently, the minister said, “In today’s world, it’s not the size of the army that wins, it’s the country that tells a better story. India is and must remain a land of better stories.”
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Dr Karan Singh has worn many hats – maharaja of Kashmir, governor, ambassador, minister, scholar, writer. Now, as head of the ICCR, the 79-year-old Congress leader is leading India’s softpower offensive. He talks culture, politics and pop exports to Shobhan Saxena. Excerpts:

Why should the government be involved in cultural promotion?

There are many centres run by private organizations, but they are on-again, off-again kind of initiatives. We want a public-private partnership. The government can’t take sole responsibility for Indian culture. It’s far too rich, varied and extensive. But a cultural centre run by ICCR gives it focus and continuity.

Why focus on neighbouring nations?

We have ignored the region for a long time. We share languages and culture with our neighbours. We must have good ties with them. I am keen to have closer cultural relationship with Pakistan. We also need to engage culturally with China.

Is Bollywood part of the plan?

Filmmakers like Raj Kapoor, Guru Dutt and Satyajit Ray are part of our programmes. Bollywood is in great demand abroad, though it is not always suited to our cultural centres.

Why are you taking desi rock bands abroad? That’s hardly the world’s idea of ‘Indian’ music?

India is not just Bharatnatyam, it’s also rock and pop. Personally, I’m a rock addict. I listen to one hour of pop music every day. I love Dire Straits, Billy Joel, Abba, Whitney Houston, etc. I love Bharatnatyam too. I see no conflict between classical and pop. People are surprised because they think that to be a philosopher, you have to be dull and boring.

Is globalization killing cultural diversity?

Globalization is part of us whether we like it or not. We have to take advantage of it and use it creatively. India is large enough and intelligent enough neither to go into a shell nor get swept away by globalization.
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____________________Whatever India’s relative strengths may be in terms of hard power – military and economic prowess – culturally, we have always been a superpower.
Any country with an unbroken cultural continuity that goes back to the dawn of time, the ability to assimilate influences from outside, and with pinnacles of refinement in every sphere of creative expression, is bound to be one. However, culture is often seen as a passive footnote to the principal text of diplomacy. Its existence is taken for granted, and its utility is undervalued. Only recently is India waking up to the real potential of ‘soft power’, that curiously Freudian expression coined by Joseph Nye.

The fact that the ICCR, the country’s premier institution for cultural diplomacy, was established as far back as 1950, around the time that India was adopting its Constitution, is incontrovertible proof that leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru and Maulana Azad were very clear about the need for India to promote Indian culture abroad. But today, with India perceived to be emerging as a global power, we are entering a qualitatively new phase of cultural diplomacy. If hitherto the interest abroad was in the richness and refinement of India’s past, broadly subsumed under the rubric of ‘exotica’ and ‘mystique’, today the world wants to know how that heritage links up with the excitement of the present and the potential of the future. In other words, foreign observers want to understand how the culture of the Indian people is a part of their persona and behaviour, what is its role in defining who we are, and how much does it contribute to making a billion people the world’s largest democracy and one of the fastest-growing economies. To put it bluntly, people want to know what makes India and Indians tick. And, the aim of cultural diplomacy is to answer this question as fully and effectively as possible.

The aim may be simply stated, but the task is enormously complex. In fact, if there is one area of diplomatic work where the simplistic and the routine are as lethal as the AIDS virus, it is in the business of projecting a country’s soft power. An entire array of instrumentalities must be used, encompassing, of course, our priceless heritage in the arena of classical music and dance, but also theatre and puppetry, literature and architecture, art and sculpture, and contemporary developments, including Bollywood. In addition, there are the all-important areas of academic interaction, scholarship programmes, the funding of Chairs of universities, and support to conferences and seminars.

But it is very important to remember that richness in soft power does not automatically translate to effective cultural diplomacy. To convert soft power into effective cultural diplomacy requires vision, planning, infrastructure and finances. For instance, India has less than 30 cultural centres abroad. By comparison Russia has over 80, and the former Soviet Union had 150; the Alliance Francaise is represented in almost every important capital as is the British Council; Germany’s Max Mueller Centres and Goethe Institute do not lag far behind; Spain is rapidly expanding its centres named after Cervantes; and China is the latest entry in this field and, according to some estimates, has allocated several billion dollars to open 100 centres abroad named after Confucius.

Similarly, vision and planning cannot go too far without finances. The ICCR’s budget still hovers around Rs 150 crore; by comparison the British Council’s annual budget is over Rs 4,000 crore. Cultural infrastructure is of pivotal importance too. New Delhi, the capital of the republic of India, is conspicuous for lacking a state-of-the-art auditorium, exhibition gallery or conference centre. The best that we have to offer for large audiences is Siri Fort, which is both shabby and technically outdated. India must stop also passively accepting the fact that it will remain on the margins of world cultural events. The international film festival that we organize is not even close to being a major landmark in the arena of films, even though India is the largest producer of films. We need to also become a coveted destination for professionally organized international festivals in the area of dance, theatre, literature and music. In each of these areas, our cultural legacy goes back to a time when most other cultures were beginning to read and write. For instance, Bharat wrote his Natyashastra several hundred years before the birth of Christ, and while this treatise is a unique introduction to all performing arts, it is even more so a meditation on aesthetics itself. With such a lineage it is appalling that India does not have any world-class festival in any of these fields.

Cultural diplomacy cannot operate in a vacuum unto itself. To be effective, it must be an intrinsic part of diplomacy, persuading people about the validity of our world view through the attractiveness of our cultural heritage and ethos. As India readies itself to take its place at the high table, it is time that cultural diplomacy received our fullest attention because this is one area where we have perhaps one of the best products to sell.

Author-diplomat Pavan K Varma has served as the ICCR’s director-general and director of The Nehru Centre in London. He is currently India’s ambassador to Bhutan

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1 Comment

  1. sourav894 said,

    +00002010-05-23T21:51:55+00:00312010bUTCSun, 23 May 2010 21:51:55 +0000 2, 2008 at 7.27 p05

    Good to know that there are people interested in the rich culture of my country, and working hard to bring it on the world view. Cheers for your wonderful blog. Even I’m a published poet. You can catch glimpse of some of my works here- http://souravroy.com/poems/


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