Diversity As Soft Power: India’s Cultural Diplomacy Should Spread Message Of Its Inclusive Democracy

Diversity As Soft Power: India’s Cultural Diplomacy Should Spread Message Of Its Inclusive Democracy

India also no longer capitalizes adequately upon her best known international icons such as Mahatma Gandhi, writes Amb Sarvajit Chakravarti (retd)

India's cultural diplomacy can be an enormous influencer of modern global society and help to disseminate its heritage and message of peaceful co-existence and non-violence in our turbulent times. The Indian cinema industry has played an enormous role in creating awareness and attraction for India across the world, but the penetration of other arts form and heritage has lagged behind. Therefore, owing to a variety of constraints, lack of funding, creative imagination and initiative, as well as sub-optimal use of technology and IPR protection arrangements, it has perhaps a very long way to go to realize its full potential.

Our cultural agreements, especially with the EU and other OECD countries, are largely obsolete because while our federal government plays a lead role in disseminating Indian culture, in the EU the responsibility for cultural activities has been largely passed on to local and municipal governments. Therefore, their budgets no longer allow for the hosting of Indian cultural delegations. 

On our part, the responsibility for providing for concert arrangement costs, local transport, hospitality and even daily allowance for out-of-pocket expenses is to be borne by the receiving side under the cultural agreements. Indian embassies and consulates are, therefore, often forced to rely upon the generosity of local Indian associations and India friendship clubs to host Indian performing arts delegations, resulting in sub-optimal treatment, publicity utilization and impact of these world class performers. 

Problem areas

The extremely short notice received by our missions from the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) makes it very difficult to slot them into local festivals, which are usually planned 18-24 months in advance. We also do not realize the value of using our performers to focus attention on other aspects of India such as promoting trade and tourism by creating a "Day of India" in collaboration with local chambers of commerce or create a media platform for their interaction. As a result, the artistes receive little local publicity or recognition. 

The consequence of this process is that Indian concerts end up being hosted and enjoyed mainly by the Indian diaspora, with little mainstream participation or impact. Very often we do not have the time or script to present the concert in the local language, further limiting its utility in non-English speaking countries.

The missions may also organize interactions about India with local chambers of commerce, universities and media so that the concert is the culmination of a process of India promotion. Scheduling them around trade fairs with Indian participation also helps.

India also no longer capitalizes adequately upon her best known international icons such as Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore. Culture must be used as a vehicle for creating awareness of India and promote its trade, commerce and tourism as well as languages and art forms.

Such criticism , however, is easy to make. How can we improve upon the use of some of our most capable and attractive human resources? Possibly by evolving a holistic policy of cultural diplomacy, forward planning, coordination with departments of trade promotion, tourism and chambers of commerce as well as our global radio and television footprints, such as they are. 

Private sector sponsorship may be sought for cultural delegations travelling to OECD and other countries of significant trade and tourism interest, where the entire overseas cost may be borne by Indian companies in lieu of co-branding and other publicity.

Valuable suggestions

This will enable our performers to receive everywhere the standard of local hospitality they deserve and concerts can be organized on the largest possible scale to attract maximum local participation. If our missions can proactively negotiate slots for Indian performances in established local festivals, it will ensure easier handling, better media coverage and greater impact from the event. Exhibitions of photographs and screening of short films of tourist or trade promotion value at the concert venue will be useful. 

The missions may also organize interactions about India with local chambers of commerce, universities and media so that the concert is the culmination of a process of India promotion. Scheduling them around trade fairs with Indian participation also helps. 

Therefore, cultural diplomacy may be used to optimize our economic interaction with the developed countries. It should be an important task of missions rather than be relegated  to the lowest priority and a hassle best avoided with disrupts the routine functioning of the embassy or consular post.

In Least Developed Countries, a provision already exists since 2004 to enable ICCR to bear even the local costs of sending a performing troupe. This facility may be used to improve Indian influence in the Global South, particularly in Central and West Africa as well as Latin American countries. Private sector support and trade promotion can be very useful in creating new export markets and local capacity development. In South Asia, more troupes can be sent around at less cost on the basis of supporting long term cultural and social interaction.

Private enterprise

The government has very limited resources to send a few troupes abroad annually so far, while maintaining a list of over 3,000 artistes on the ICCR panel. These artistes are therefore frustrated by their lack of international exposure. It may, therefore, concentrate its resources on cultural dissemination in the Global South and our immediate neighbourhood while encouraging the private sector to promote culture as a business and export promotion tool in the OECD countries. 

We should also encourage private impresarios to slot them into regular festivals all over the world, providing perhaps only their performance fees for each concert. This will enable the artistes to get wider international exposure and give co-branding benefits to their sponsors.

Encouragement should also be given to private media to develop a global footprint. It is sad, indeed, that even after 75 years of independence, India has no globally televised channel or reporters' network to keep us updated on global affairs in real time

One relatively underused area of Indian expertise is in the field of imparting education in English as a language as well as a medium of instruction at all levels from primary to tertiary levels. This experiment was once very successfully conducted in Ethiopia but has not been pursued seriously since. This can be very useful to do in non-English speaking countries to create generations of children and youth familiar with India and sympathetic to our objectives. This is the way to go if India wishes actually to be a “Vishwaguru“ (global leader), as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is fond of saying. Indian STEM education and IT skills are globally valued very highly and business management skills may also be in great demand, particularly in handling MSME enterprises.

Hindi popularity 

In the spreading of Indian languages such as Hindi, much more is desired. We are usually sending experienced professors with doctorates in Hindi language and literature to actually teach Hindi literacy and numeracy at kindergarten and primary school level. Naturally, they become quite frustrated. The supply of teaching materials is also inadequate and patchy. Employing local Hindi teachers is difficult as the embassy can only offer them a monthly honorarium of Rs 2,500 or so in Indian rupees where the local hourly rate for tuition may exceed Euros 10 or more.

Professors sent to occupy ICCR-sponsored Hindi Chairs in universities should me tasked to learn the local language also, and then create a dictionary from it into Hindi and a basic grammar primer. Such local language learning facility is often provided free by the host university. Language teaching facilities abroad of the Goethe Institute and Alliance Francais may be studied and adopted by our cultural centres abroad.

Closer cooperation is also required between the ICCR and the Public Diplomacy Division of the Ministry of External Affairs to promote lecture tours by eminent Indian experts and screen the excellent documentary films produced by the latter. Masterworks of modern Indian literature should be translated into UN languages and disseminated widely in the relevant language areas.

The government may also support festivals in India honouring our great cultural personalities. One such towering personality that comes to mind immediately is Sarod maestro Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, the centenary of whose birth falls in 2022.

One of his leading students, Ustad Tejendra Narayan Majumdar, is planning to hold memorial concerts of classical music in his honour at New Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Kolkata in December 2022 but is having to run from pillar to post in government and private sector circles to raise enough funds to stage the events and later give the recordings a global footprint in digital format.

Tagore and Gandhi

Although Rabindranath Tagore is a global icon who travelled to 36 countries, there is no international festival in India honouring his varied contributions to education, poetry, music, literature, essays ethics, philosophy, religion, politics, theatre, dance-drama, painting cinema social reform, our freedom struggle and other aspects of his work and personality. It would be useful to have a three-day international festival in August inviting representatives initially from the countries he visited to review discuss and perform the works of Tagore in their own interpretations, publishing the results thereafter. The festival could be held on a biennial basis.

Similarly, Gandhi Jayanti could be celebrated more vigorously and widely, particularly through education systems, to promote the continuation of his values, ethic and philosophy. Suitable compilation of samples of his basic writings and quotations therefrom at levels from primary to tertiary education could similarly be translated into the UN languages and widely disseminated.

Indian civilization and cultures are a vast ocean of diversity in a shared territory, which spread across the world in earlier times with sailors, traders and travellers. The time is right now to globally disseminate that diversity through direct contact and digital technology and thereby spread the message of peace, toleration, non-violence and inclusive democracy and development across the planet.

(The author is a retired Indian ambassador. Views are personal)

Published under an understanding with South Asia Monitor

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