India’s soft power should be her vehicle to becoming a superpower, if one goes by Samuel P Huntington’s “Clash of Civilisations” thesis that the next fault-lines of geo-political power conflict will be cultural. The diaspora is helping India turn into the current international flavour through her films, food and fashion.
The expansion of India’s soft power depends on two modern realities. One, commerce drives culture and two, no culture in the world has an embarrassment of riches in dance, music, art, craft and textiles like India.
India has history on her side. As AL Basham, author of The Wonder That Was India, lectured, “In ancient history, six master cultures have swept across continents: Greek, Roman, Persian, Arabic, Chinese and Indian.” In modern times, it was European — particularly English in the 19th and 20th centuries — and since World War II, American.
Specific examples of Indian successes in the past millennium by renaissance thinkers like Rabindranath Tagore and S Radhakrishnan include Hinduism in South-East Asia and Buddhism across Asia; scripts like Brahmi and Tamil, which influenced Thai, Burmese, Sinhalese, Korean, among others; and the musical systems of ragas, the dance language of mudras, and architecture. Then followed a period of absorbing influences from Islamic and Christian cultures. “With the freedom struggle, Indian culture got proactive and political again through the Mahatma, who brought the world’s largest empire to its knees. As Indians know well, the American Civil Rights Movement and Nelson Mandela’s victory against apartheid were direct legatees of Gandhism,” says Sheela Kerkera, the brain behind the Gandhi exhibit at the American Museum of Civil Rights at Memphis, Tennessee.
While these are examples of India’s thought culture working at deep levels and leaving a lasting influence, there is plenty to cheer in popular trends. With the booming Indian diaspora, Indian food gained supermarket and restaurant presence across America and Asia (it is already entrenched in Europe, while “curry” has long been rated Britain’s national food).
Bhangra-rap and Madonna’s bindis, the new buzz about Bollywood and the Indian element that has appeared without fail in the last decade on international ramps suggest that India is exulting as an international flavour.
If the second World Cultural Forum at Jordan last December was a clue, the thorniest issue was “cultural identity” and how to preserve it against the roadroller of American globalisation. Worried Arabs, Africans and Asians jointly turned to the Indian delegation to know how India had transferred a millennia-old culture into a brisk, modern body.
Says Pavan K Varma, Director-General, the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, “India is perceived to have a traditional-modernity sensibility that plays the international game, but unmistakably as itself.”