Last month when the Namaste India festival was launched I was in Paris in a French museum — at the Musee Guimet devoted to Asian culture. I joined a queue of people into the auditorium to find an intense discussion on new wave Indian cinema. The panellists and audience, all French, exhibited an deep interest in Indian cinema, an advantage we ought to have exploited long ago by creating a pool of film commentators to discuss the socio-political environment on which parallel Indian cinema is based.
Cultural diplomacy is accepted as a powerful instrument of soft power whose outreach is often underestimated. It has been found to be the most effective way of influencing foreign audiences. Other countries reach out to the youth, non-elite and other audiences outside the traditional embassy circuit because this form of diplomacy derives its credibility when it is seen as being independent of government institutions. Instead, our official cultural institutions are directly marketing culture in a way that is often hackneyed, stale and superficial — cardboard cut-outs of the real thing.
People are tired of the same old stuff and all the Indian stereotypes that have been done to death. Instead of a fresh approach to contemporary realities there is a bureaucratisation of culture and far from seeking inputs from artistes, intellectuals and professionals, government organisations and officials decide what to showcase and how. Sadly patronage often has its role in all this, resulting in the resurrection of individuals who have been around for decades. Repackaged content, which we have showcased for decades, no longer attracts audiences who can easily access the best productions at the touch of a button.
Professor Alain Supiot of the College de France and the founder of the Institute of Advanced Studies at Nantes in France feels that “there is a need for the intellectual horizons of culture to go beyond western ways of thinking to establish a dialogue between cultures. The focus of cultural exchange should embrace culture in its broadest sense of the term, by being attentive to the diversity of civilisations.”
For this to happen, there must be an understanding of what French people want. Discussions with Indian authors are big attractions but not two years after a book is released. Textiles are another. “French people are enthralled by Indian textiles and the art of embroidery, weaving and block printing from so many regions” commented an avid admirer of India and who has long been a leading light of the Parisian couture industry. Another comment I heard was “why do you not introduce veg/ non-veg express thalis as a diversion from those “sempiternelle” (French for eternal) pizzas? Or run a shopping arcade of Indian groceries next to Gare du Nord railway terminus?”
And that brings one to ask whatever happened to the Indian cultural centre in Paris? What is the story behind why premises purchased years ago are still lying unused even as Namaste India is launched with so much fanfare? The property bought by the embassy is beautifully located within walking distance of the Eiffel Tower, the Qui de Bramley, and a host of cultural centres representing foreign countries. Possibly a critical CAG paragraph, lack of funds or simple apathy prevents the Centre from starting to function.
What is needed is an effort to refurbish our efforts at cultural diplomacy to demonstrate to a foreign audience that we have the ability to collect and interpret ourselves in a way that responds imaginatively to what people want. We need at the helm of affairs persons who have an understanding of local attitudes that transient embassy employees cannot possess. We also need some way of ensuring that the people who decide how to represent India abroad have the necessary gravitas and the intellectual bandwidth to do so.
Shailaja Chandra is former chief secretary, Delhi
The views expressed are personal