Hard sell soft power
India's best minds must reach out more to the world to distinguish our civilisation from our nation and our nation from our State. Gopalkrishna Gandhi writes.india Updated: Oct 07, 2011 22:58 IST
'Unbeknownst' is not a word we use every day. Not any longer. And yet there is more to that archaism than its simple meaning of 'unbeknown', or 'unknown'. It suggests a gentle occurrence that has tiptoed past us, like an apparition. Exactly like that, a tender event occurred last week in Sri Lanka that went unobserved in India.
Our high commission in Colombo organised a concert tour last week in Sri Lanka by the skilled Carnatic musician TM Krishna. What made the tour different was that it was not confined to Colombo with an echo appearance in Kandy, but took the artiste to Jaffna, Kilinochchi and Vavuniya that have been benumbed by war and needed the release that can only be provided by music.
The evening prior to his departure, Krishna gave a soulful performance in Chennai. On the top of his form, he asked the audience if he could sing one more song. Everyone wanted more and someone requested 'Vande Mataram'. Krishna asked: "Which one, Bharati's version?" The voice returned: "North Indian version!" Krishna obliged. And how! I have heard the masterpiece sung with varying degrees of voltage but I had never heard it rendered with the lyrical magic that Krishna invested it with that evening. Every adjective for India that was employed in the song, and every noun, stood out in Krishna's rendering in blazing relief.
Krishna took that India, civilisational India, to the traumatised Lankan venues he has sung in, with telling effect. From all accounts, his concerts were a musical success but, above all, a cultural score in India-Sri Lanka relations.
Hearing accounts of this tour, I was reminded of one by Jiddu Krishnamurti in 1978. The philosopher toured the southern part of the island and spoke to largely Buddhist audiences that saw in him another son of Kapilavastu. No country could have contained Krishnamurti, not to talk of a State. The Indian government had nothing to do with that visit but Indo-Sri understanding received a boost from that visit that few State visits could have provided.
From Chennai, again, last week, a troupe of artistes from Kalakshetra led by Leela Samson, left for a tour of the US and Canada. The celebrated exponent's solo Bharata Natyam performance in Washington DC will, I doubt not, make a huge impact, as she is one of a kind. Half a century ago, her teacher Rukmini Devi, on her tour of the US, was introduced at Jacob's Pillow, Massachusetts, the centre for world class dance festivals, by Ted Shawn, as "the regenerator" of the classical dance of India. And the legendary Balasarasvati, at the same venue, was introduced like this: "Tonight, you are in the presence of greatness." Not too many Indians can be introduced like that in the world today.
I have noticed this last week India's best minds and talents going abroad, with next to no fanfare and yet with the greatest impact on their hosts. Ramachandra Guha spoke at the United Nations on World Non-Violence Day with minimal coverage of the event in India but to acclaim in the General Assembly. I doubt if an official spokesman would have carried the credibility of this independent academic when he said : "Sixty-three years after his death, Gandhi matters for his pioneering of non-violent techniques of protest, or satyagraha; for his willingness to stake his life in the cause of religious peace and religious pluralism; for his respect for other living beings and for the earth; for the transparency and honesty of his personal and public life. For these reasons, and more, Gandhi matters, still".
Uma Dasgupta, the distinguished Tagore-scholar and biographer spoke on the poet in Europe last week with not the faintest reportage in India, but with her audiences there doubtless richer by the experience.
India counts because it is a strong nation, a smart country, a growing economy. And India appeals because it is a vibrant democracy. But if India impacts it is because India has men and women who have something of her classical greatness in them.
'Cultural diplomacy' is an unlovely term. It introduces into what is open and sublime, a twist of something hidden and motivated. The best credit to the culture that is shared comes when the sharing is egoless and logo-less. And when it is given as an offering, not as a sale.
The Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), so refreshingly headed by Karan Singh, has, in recent years, shared the best of India with the world. And yet, for India's best and truest minds, to share its genius with the world, a new and redemptive approach is needed. One that distinguishes our civilisation from our nation, and our nation from our State. For that, the ICCR and our National Akademis may need to reflect on how processes can be fostered by which India can move ahead on the wheels of her independent genius.
And in this, they will find valuable guidance in a remarkable speech which Rammanohar Lohia made in Parliament. Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay had teased the radical about raising the same things again and again in Parliament. "What would you want me to talk about?" he returned. "Why don't you describe what our national academies should be like?" Kamaladevi said. Lohia read up on the subject and delivered a masterful exposition during a whole debate he raised on the subject of what our Akademis , which were just then being set up, should be like. That speech was also Lohia's last, described by Kamaladevi as "a resonant swan song". It lies in the Hansards, to our times 'unbeknownst'.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor
The views expressed by the author are personal