Aggressive Packaging and Increased Financing Required to Promote Traditional Art Forms

Sangeeta Sharma Headmistress Parevartan School

Art and culture know no boundaries. But what if they are used as a tool of cultural diplomacy? Definitely, it’s icing on the cake! The Nehru Centre, which acts as the cultural wing of the Indian High Commission in London and regarded by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) as its flagship centre, is one such initiative to enhance India’s soft power abroad. To discuss how it functions in promoting the plurality of India’s culture, Ramesh Kumar Raja spoke to SangeetaBahadur, an Indian Foreign Service officer of the 1987 batch who is currently posted in London as Minister (Culture) in the High Commission of India and Director of The Nehru Centre. Interestingly, Bahadur also happens to be the author of the Kaal trilogy which is her tribute to the unique and eternal spirit of India. Edited excerpts:

How do you rate the response of Indian art and culture outside the country?

India has been the flavour of the century, particularly in the field of culture, art and literature, ever since economic liberalization made the world sit up and take notice of a newly reawakened, dynamic country which also happens to possess a civilizational wealth like none other. Cultural diplomacy is now being used intensively as well as extensively to enhance India’s soft power abroad, not just through performances and shows but also through a sustained intellectual effort that focuses on increasing awareness about India. The response has been impressive. Not only is there a deep curiosity about and interest in watching and listening to Indian cultural manifestations; there is an increasing number of artists – those of Indian origin and otherwise – to understand, appreciate and even experiment with Indian art forms.

What is your perception about London as the platform to launch Indian art and culture in Europe?

London has been home to one of the largest and oldest Indian/Indian origin communities in the world. In fact, it is the biggest non-white ethnic minority group in London, with a population of almost 5.5 lakhs. That was the reason why the government decided to set up the first Indian cultural centre – The Nehru Centre – there, with the mandate of acting as a cultural bridge between India and UK. Long before that, though, private organizations and individuals had already been here for decades, working hard to carve out a place for Indian culture on the busy and amazingly fertile London art scene. Many Indian/Indian origin artists, exponents, gurus, intellectuals, writers and film makers think of London as their home, and just about everyone who is anybody on the Indian cultural matrix sooner or later lands up in London to perform for and interact with local audiences. Obviously, there can be no better platform than London from which to mount a cultural offensive on Europe. Many organizations in neighbouring countries are already drawing on the vast pool of Indian talent in London to fuel their cultural initiatives.

How does the Nehru Centre engage the Indian arts and artists to the audiences of western world? What does the centre do in promoting the Indian art and culture?

The Nehru Centre is the oldest Indian cultural centre in the world, regarded by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) as its flagship centre. It acts as the cultural wing of the Indian High Commission, and has been given a clear and focused cultural agenda which it fulfils through an intensive calendar of events. Using largely UK-based artistes, performers and speakers but not confined to them, the centre hosts an event virtually every second day, ranging from performances and talks to book launches, seminars, discussions, exhibitions and plays. The artists, speakers and writers we showcase are not necessarily Indian or of Indian origin; so long as their theme is relevant to India or inspired by it, we use that as the basis for pursuing our cultural engagement with not just the Indian and South Asian diaspora but also with the mainstream British audience. In fact, we have been encouraging performers, speakers and writers from other countries in Europe and even the US to share their Indian cultural experience with our patrons. All our events are free and open to the public so as to make Indian art and thought accessible to everyone who is interested.

Being someone closely associated with a cultural centre in West, what needs to be done to restore the beauty of fading arts in India as well as abroad?

I have never come across a single person in the West, be it in the UK or in any other country I have been posted in, who has not been enchanted by Indian arts, crafts and the wealth of cultural heritage reflected in them. I have met a host of artists and organizers who have no genetic linkages with India but have devoted their entire lives to promoting Indian arts in their own countries and around the world. However, the first step for invoking this kind of interest and dedication is familiarization. ICCR has been doing a commendable job of establishing and sustaining an international cultural outreach, but the fact remains that we are simply nowhere close to what countries like China, UK, USA and France – to name just a few – spend on promoting their soft power.

Sangeeta Bahadur with Karan Singh
Sangeeta Sharma Headmistress Parevartan School
Sangeeta Sharma
Parevartan School

Secondly, the packaging of our classical and traditional art forms is simply not good enough for this day and age. If our presentations are perceived as being tacky and old-fashioned, they will simply not attract the younger audiences, no matter how talented the artist. This inability to take Indian art forms to the younger generation of Indians and non-Indians has resulted in what you have referred to as the ‘fading’ of Indian arts abroad as well as at home. In this, we need to take a leaf out of Bollywood’s book. Its superb packaging and presentation are what have made it the face of Indian culture across vast swathes of the world, whether the purists like it or not. If we are to keep classical and traditional Indian arts alive and interesting, greatly enhanced government-patronage in terms of resources and financing and imaginative and aggressive packaging and promotion become crucial. Unless we succeed in making our arts exciting, relevant and accessible to the younger people, they will inevitably fade away in time.

Does the author in you help in bringing out new ideas to spread the reach of Indian arts in the UK?

To some extent, yes – in the sense that I can see, like a story unfolding in my mind, the possibilities in something new and off-the-beaten-track that comes to my attention, and am willing to give it a go! To the extent that I can, I do make sure that The Nehru Centre gets involved with projects and ideas that have the potential of taking India to new and larger audiences, to people for whom it may be their first encounter with an ancient civilization that is still constantly evolving in so many ways. Also, being an author with a felicity for words, I suppose it is easier for me to sell the India story to my interlocutors and get them interested in the multi-faceted and dazzling cultural experience that India can be once it grips your imagination!

Tell us something about your Kaal trilogy and its second book, Vikraal, which was released recently.

In many ways, the Kaal trilogy is my tribute to the unique and eternal spirit of India, particularly its strong and vibrant mystical traditions. While it is often classified as a mythology, the Kaal trilogy is not one. Instead, I chose to create a totally new mythology with its own matrix, parameters, equations and dynamics. The story is centred around the growth of a superhero – Arihant, who has been created by the cosmos as a divine weapon designed to destroy the deluded Lord of Maya, Aushij. Unlike his western counterparts, though, Arihant’s growth as a superhero is based on the uniquely Indian concept of an inner unfolding of potential. While I have not used any incident or character from our epics, what we have borrowed from is India’s timeless mystical and spiritual traditions. We have used concepts culled, inter alia, from the Vedas, the Upanishads, the BhagwadGita, the BhagwatPuranas, the Shakta tradition, Tantra and Tibetan Buddhism. There is no lecturing from the pulpit; the ideas and resonances are woven intimately into the story, merely adding depth and layers to the narration.

Vikraal takes the evolution to the next crucial step, carrying him beyond mental limitations through the very intense process of self-realization orchestrated by the entity who calls itself Kaal – the Time-Keeper of the universe. Around this central story are wrapped the bright threads of politics, strategy, warfare, ambition, greed, hatred, loyalty and, yes, romance! I have also, in Vikraal, explored Aushij’s world-view and his decision to choose the Dark Path. Like Milton’s Satan, he evokes not just sympathy but also empathy in the reader!