In the fifties India could have well been called The Land of Snake Charmers. In 2010, it’s Incredible India all the way.
In 1950 when Maulana Abul Kalam Azad founded the Indian Council for Cultural Relations to begin building Brand India, the general prevalent notion in the developed world was an India full of “half-naked sadhus”, “snake charmers”, and “elephants and camels”.
In 2008, when Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, and ICCR president Karan Singh, were travelling in a car to Siri Fort, Indian culture was the two of them listening to Hard Rock on the radio at full blast. “For me that is also an integral part of Indian culture and when we discovered we both love Rock music, we spent the time listening to music in a car,” said Singh.
Today, on the eve of the 60th anniversary of the council, when someone mentions elephants on the roads to DG ICCR Suresh K Goel, he says in a forthright manner “yes you may see elephants on the roads.” Goel points to a quaint paradox “earlier we were defensive about our shortcomings now we feel it is better to say to people, tell us where we’re lacking and we’ll correct it.”
That works well in tandem with the fact India has gone beyond, Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Bhangra and Shehnai vaadans. “Many things which we too earlier perceived as tribal art or not very ‘arty’ are now things we promote,” said old ICCR hand.
Maulana Azad didn’t define culture and a key change in the cultural diplomacy ICCR practises has been encompassing everything and anything relating to India as part of Indian cultural promotions.
So in a ICCR centre abroad, a request from the local population on the then ongoing India – China economic emergence, was met with a lecture by a scholar from that nation.
In Johannesburg, that meant writer Nadine Gordimer and three other South African authors – one who wrote children’s books, one who wrote on social problems and the third a writer of modern prose – came to the ICCR centre and read out their works.
The ICCR’s cultural diplomacy includes setting up centres to promote Indian culture in different countries. “We have about half-a-dozen in the offing, Paris, Washington, Mexico, Toronto…says Singh.”
It also funds about 6000 scholarships each year to bring in students from different nations to India, so that they can be trained in different aspects of Indian arts and culture and go back as ambassadors in their own nation for Brand ICCR.