Mumbai: Having held the position of chairperson across a diverse set of institutions, it would seem that the art of chairing comes naturally to Christopher Rodrigues. In 2016, Rodrigues was appointed the chair of the British Council, the official cultural representative of Britain overseas. A graduate of Cambridge University and Harvard Business School, Rodrigues has previously held the position at the Port of London Authority, the British Bobsleigh and Skeleton Association, and the award-winning Almeida Theatre, among others.
Rodrigues was in Mumbai last month for his first official visit to the city. He first visited India in 1978 and says he and his wife Priscilla have often returned to the country owing to its stimulating environment and culture.
In his youth, Rodrigues says, he was a historian and studied comparative economic history at school. The British Raj and the emergence of a modern India naturally formed a part of his curriculum.
Born just after India’s partition, Rodrigues says he has “a knowledge of the past, an interest in the present and a curious mind about the future". He finds a personal resonance with the British Council’s slogan to mark its 70th year in India: “Inspired by India".
“I never leave India without learning more about myself and the country, without being challenged in my way of thinking. This year, I learned more about the Durga Puja in Kolkata," he says.
On a hot afternoon at the terrace turf of a sports arena in Mumbai, Rodrigues attended an initiative by the British Council, called Premier Skills, to support social inclusion through sports by tackling gender norms and enhancing employability. In between conversations with young students, Rodrigues shared his thoughts on the British Council and making the cultural environment dynamic as well as sustainable. Edited excerpts from an interview:
At this point, when the British Council finishes 70 years in India, it is a good time to consider what the institution has achieved so far and its immediate goals for the future. What are your thoughts?
The British Council has been doing extraordinary work all over the world and I have the privilege of coming and seeing them do it. We operate out of 115 countries with the basic purpose of connecting the culture and values of Britain with the cultures of the world. Please note that it’s “connect" and not “export". So, we tailor our programmes to suit the different needs of different countries.
India, where we have been for 70 years, is an extraordinary part of British history, which is why we originally came. And, in my view and in my colleagues’ view, India and Britain have a future together. We are proud of what we have inherited and to pave a path for the future. We do that in multiple states through English teaching and training individuals for English teaching, which gives us incredible reach with state governments.
The programme supports our worldwide objective to inspire the young people of the world and to support gender equality. In the arts, women have cut through and made their name. Fortunately in Britain, it has been happening for a long time. My parents, for instance, were both ballet dancers at the Royal Ballet. It was unthinkable back then, in 1948. What I think is happening is that sports is learning to celebrate women’s achievements. Women’s hockey team, ice-skating and ice-dancing have been there for longer. In sports, women are breaking the barriers down, and we have to create programmes that bring boys and girls together.
Cultural funding from governments and funding for charitable institutions are important to ensure a vibrant programme in the arts. And, this year, we have seen the British Council sign MoUs with several state governments in India for educational and cultural collaborations. What models has the British Council found successful in this regard?
In many parts of the world, the opportunities to do good things are greater than the funding available to charities, even to Britain’s biggest charity, which is us. So, we can facilitate, we can convene, we can curate and we can initiate. But, as we approach the third decade of the 21st century, we have to partner. Our objective in India, as with many other countries, is to understand what they can do, to give back to the community and we are looking for ways to make a difference and to partner with them. A strong case for the work that we do—we have libraries all over India and economically they are quite stressed. I would love to find a wealthy Indian entrepreneur, who believed that reading and learning were really important, and to partner with them and expand our library offer. And in India there is clear evidence, with the success of family enterprises, that they have felt the need to put something back into the community.
In India, a major apprehension for students of liberal arts programmes is employability. What is the part that charitable institutions play in making sure graduates find employment in the arts sector?
You have to approach these things at multiple levels, and the current practitioners have a responsibility to mentor young people to get in there. Young people have to know that you can make a life and a career in the arts. Having chaired a theatre (Almeida Theatre, London), and with parents in theatre, one of the things you realize is that the closer you come on stage, the blinkers come on and you are very single-minded. So, it is understandable that where there are creative juices running, they forget (other aspects).
So, what do you do if you have a creative institution that has a board? It is really important for the trustees to remind the institution to be within young people’s reach. In the UK and the US there are more youth programmes. To get government money for a theatre in the UK, you have to have a youth programme and an outreach programme. So that brings me to the higher level—state and federal. They have an important role to play in supporting the arts. Institutions have a broader responsibility than their prime responsibility which is to create great art. We are all in this together. And the question you have to ask is what kind of arts and cultural environment you want in 20 years time and how that fits in with the state’s view of itself and the nation’s view of itself. And, in the experience I have had everywhere in the world, culture is absolutely central to what being Indian or American or British is. In fact, the smaller countries find it easier—if you go to Bhutan, the link between their culture and the Wangchucks (the ruling royal family) is clear.
I think what we have achieved is trust through a variety of political regimes in Britain and India. We have stayed and we have never left. That’s an incredible platform. I think the challenge for the Council in India is to work out how we make connections at two levels—with future leaderships, and across different generations. I think one of the things about the Council which I have inherited is that it is very focused on other people’s successes. It is much more about what we have enabled to happen.
You mentioned how the British Council has proven itself to be relevant despite changing governments in Britain and India. Should Brexit come through, will the British Council’s position change?
I have a very simple answer to that. To steal a statement made to me by the head of a European institution, if the British Council didn’t exist, you would need to invent it. The pressures of Brexit tempt people to draw apart. However, the British Council is a counter-balancing force, keeping them together. On the day that the referendum was announced, many cultural institutions, theatrical and educational, reached out to us and said: “Whatever the outcome, we want to stay connected."
We are not going to move the country. It is still going to be 26 miles across from Dover to Calais. We are still a short hop from Europe. In terms of the cultural community, the arts and sciences, we are committed to remaining connected with the world and, therefore, with Europe.
The other one is that as Britain tries to understand its position in the 21st century, there is much focus on trade. There are statistics to prove this that trade follows trust, and trust follows a cultural connection. If you want a better trading world, you need to increase trust, and culturally people have to learn to respect and enjoy each other’s cultural traditions.