New Delhi: Rajya Sabha member Karan Singh believes that culture is the subliminal third leg of international diplomacy, the first two being politics and economics. Over a double tenure in the last five years, Singh has presided over the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), an organization founded in 1950 by Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, India’s first education minister, to implement policies pertaining to India’s external cultural relations
Singh’s personal history and political career are only too well suited for this role. Born in Cannes, France, as the heir apparent to the last king of Jammu and Kashmir, he catapulted into the Indian political stage at the age of 18 in 1949. He has authored 19 books on culture, religion and philosophy; has three honorary doctorates apart from the one he earned at Delhi University; and is an exponent of music in his mother tongue, Dogri. Singh emphasizes that cultural diplomacy relies on the people to people dimension as a basis for dialogue. The ability to persuade through culture, value and ideas is a prime example of what he calls “soft power”
We met with him on the eve of ICCR’s 60th anniversary celebrations, which comprised performances and a two-day seminar to reflect on the state of India’s cultural heritage in the globalized world. Edited excerpts:
What was your immediate, most challenging task when you took over as ICCR’s president?
It was to expand the number of centres worldwide from the standpoint of bilateral relations and also to consolidate ICCR’s brand identity.
Things weren’t in very good shape when I took over and I would say that I’ve been able to turn that around. Independent cultural organizations now want an ICCR stamp on their programme even when we don’t have an active role in their event. That speaks volumes.
What exactly is on the council’s agenda?
We work in four broad areas. Primarily, the idea is to set up a worldwide network of cultural spaces that function as resource centres and offer courses in Indian languages and arts. We also offer around 3,000 scholarships a year to foreign students and facilitate rotating Chairs in the field of Indology in universities abroad. Hosting India-themed festivals around the world is becoming an important part of what we do. These had practically disappeared in the last 20 years, after Rajiv Gandhi. We orchestrate these festivals—often on a reciprocal basis—to address music, dance, cinema and cuisine. In recent years we’ve done this in Russia, Japan and France.
How has the council expanded in terms of numbers?
There was only one centre in the Saarc (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) region in 2005—in Colombo. We’ve since then set up in Kabul, Kathmandu, Dhaka and Thimpu. We expanded into Beijing, Bangkok, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Abu Dhabi, Tanzania and Mexico, all in a span of five years. There are presently 26 ICCR centres outside India, three of which are in Europe: London, Moscow and Berlin. At least 10 more centres are in the pipeline for the next couple of years.
Is this rapid expansion strategic?
We’re toeing a conscious “Look East” strategy. The new wave of expansions is geared to strengthen diplomatic ties within Asia. In fact, we’re looking east even domestically, having recently set up several centres in the North-East region.
Where does China feature in the overall scheme?
We’re working on strengthening cultural exchanges bilaterally. We concluded the Festival of India in China earlier this year and the Festival of China in India is actually in progress as we speak. That apart, we’ve also invested seriously in our Beijing centre. While we can’t match up to China’s massive cultural diplomacy budget at this point (it was $8.7 billion, or Rs38,800 crore today, in 2009-10), we must remember that we’re two unique ancient civilizations that have very different things to offer to the world.
It’s surprising that there are no ICCR outfits in North America. Isn’t cultural diplomacy with the US a high priority?
It is, indeed. I’d tried to initiate a centre 20 years ago when I was the Indian Ambassador to the US. Our Washington centre hasn’t fructified for various reasons, but I hope to change that within the next two years. In the meanwhile, we’ve been supporting Indian artists and cultural organizations such as the Asia Society that promote Indian culture in the US. In March 2011, we’re collaborating on an India festival at the Kennedy Centre. That apart, Toronto and Paris are high on our priority list.
How does the council function within the government system?
ICCR is completely autonomous although our international centres function within the overall rubric of their respective ambassadors. And I believe this independence is crucial for the credibility of an organization such as the ICCR.
What about in terms of finances?
When I started out five years ago, we had an annual budget of Rs60 crore. This soon doubled and is now Rs250 crore. We can also avail of special grants on a project basis. The Indian government has realized the value in cultural diplomacy and is taking cultural programming rather seriously now.
So the council has had no problems channelling funds?
There’s a standard bureaucratic procedure for earmarked funds, which is smooth. The problem arises when it comes to big purchases. That’s the reason we don’t have a centre in Washington yet, for instance. There’ve been several ideal properties that have come up in the last decade, but by the time a special committee inspects and approves of it, the property gets sold. These are the times that I find our procedures too cumbersome.
The ICCR motto is “vasudhaiv kutumbkam” in Sanskrit or the world is a family. How does the council seek to balance the occidental domination in the international culture sphere?
There is no question of domination. As we grow politically and economically as a nation, the world is bound to take more interest in Indian culture. The ICCR’s role is to whet and feed this curiosity as expertly as possible.
But surely ICCR’s strategy has changed over the years?
I would say it has strengthened and garnered more focus. The idea has always been to promote strong points of Indian culture, be it through Bharatnatyam dance or Sanskrit courses in our international centres.
However, we are trying to project a more diverse cultural image of India now. We opened the Festival of India in France earlier this year with an exhibition on tribal art. And we’re looking at organizing a Sufi music festival in London soon.
How would you respond to allegations that this projected image is too staid? What about innovation and experimental arts?
ICCR’s resolve is to continue to symbolize the cultural and intellectual efflorescence of India by paying homage to its great classical and folk forms. Honestly, we don’t have the funds to go about experimenting or investing in “fusion arts”. We have established art forms and it makes sense for us to continue to harness them for presenting Indian culture to the world. We’ve received requests to conduct Bollywood dance classes at many of our international centres, but that is beyond our purview. At least, this holds true for now.