The event template of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address to non-resident Indians—whichever part of the world he may be—now has a recognizable format. Infectious hoohah before the star leader’s arrival, a technologically smart stage, a cultural programme that mixes ethnic India in varying denominations, green, orange and white T-shirts, a foamy version of Slumdog Millionaire song Jai Ho, programme comperes dressed as if their sons were getting wedded, and then the speech.
The Speech. Modi’s speeches, if slightly repetitive in texture and tone, cover huge ground—from terrorism, business, growth, diplomatic ties (and unties) with neighbours and others to barely veiled gratitude for world leaders who welcome him with open arms.
If “Marhaba Namo”, the billing accorded to Modi’s address to more than 50,000 Indians at Dubai Cricket Stadium on 17 August was dubbed as another Madison Square moment by Indian TV stations, there was a good reason.
If you have been trailing the visuals and news around Modi’s foreign visits, you know what to expect. The programme lights up in your mind as soon as the words “stadium”, “Indians living abroad” and “Narendra Modi” start getting grouped together. So we Indians are loud when we praise which can begin to sound like we are outsourced sycophants, we wear garish clothes to fete our political biggies, we can naturally lapse into a celebratory mood; if it is not Mohiniyattam then there is Kathakali and Kalaripayattu to announce our unity in diversity, lest anyone forgets. We thank the motherland where we were born and we thank the country where we have set up home.
This part of template is as foreseen as Modi’s enthralling “formula” of calling for at least one standing ovation, urging crowds to clap and cheer for their own, his easy use of languages alien to him but intimate to his audiences, mixing metaphors with promises and turning up in well-thought-of Indian attires. You have read this before in various places. I have written it before, right here (Minority report | Mr India).
Which is why it may be time to sharpen the surrounding aspects of a Modi event. Modicraft sells after all. So even till the net worth of the Indian prime minister’s visits abroad and speeches dawns upon India, it may be worth asking if we are underestimating the non-resident Indian (NRI) mind and appetite for visual spectacle? Or, why won’t we whet the cultural fixation of NRIs with India beyond overdressed comperes, orange, white, green T-shirts, decorative umbrellas and crazy clash of classical performances colliding into stage acrobatics in Indian clothes? Isn’t the NRI stage as an extension of Modicraft also a great platform to reveal newer forms of art, craft, culture, dance, theatre and humour that represent urban India more relevantly? Must every cultural evening for NRIs in Dubai or America be an omelete of Republic Day celebrations? Must the colour palette be largely inspired by the Indian tricolour? Surely there are other contemporary ways to offer a slice of India to those who don’t live here but find themselves connected in some way. But like the NRI appearance, their appeasement too has become a frozen cliché. Time to thaw it.
While we are on Modicraft, I found myself squirming a bit during parts of The Speech. After a sound argument on why religion and terrorism should be urgently delinked, Modi at some point went on to request for a standing ovation for UAE Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan for allotting land for a temple in Abu Dhabi. Deserves gratitude, yes, but asking for a standing ovation for a “temple” that stands for Hindu religion wasn’t the most brilliant part of The Speech.