Soft Power

From Kannada rock to Sufi gospel: India puts its soft power on show in Australia

A 12-week-long festival across seven cities in the continent gives cultural diplomacy a big push.

Cultural diplomacy is putting a positive spin on the India-Australia bilateral relationship and also enriching the Australian economy.

The first Confluence Festival of India in Australia, touted as one of the largest foreign cultural festivals to be organised in the continent country, rolled out 25 productions showcased at over 70 different events at iconic landmarks across seven cities, in 12 weeks starting from August.

For decades, India’s soft power potential has remained largely untapped, but the Narendra Modi government has been focusing on raising India’s profile in the international arena through cultural diplomacy. The Indian high commissioner to Australia, Navdeep Suri, strongly believes that “India is a super power when it comes to soft power and Prime Minister Modi has been adroit in recognising the potential of yoga and cultural diplomacy in raising India’s profile around the world”.

The country is leveraging culture as a tool of diplomacy to strengthen its reputation as an innovative, creative and culturally robust nation in this age of likes, tweets and hits.

“Public diplomacy is an essential handmaiden of traditional diplomacy and its importance will only increase in a global economy and a global media stuffed full of rapidly changing images,” said the former Australian high commissioner to India, Peter Varghese. “For our relationship with India, public diplomacy is essential if we are to build the strategic partnership which both governments desire and which our converging interests makes necessary.”

He added, “But in the end, the hard yards of public diplomacy are gained not by governments but by individuals and groups. It is the networks in the arts, in business, in education and in all the other nooks and crannies of community life that underpin a people-to-people relationship.”

All things Indian

The 12-week-long festival of all things Indian – dance, music, theatre, visual arts, cartooning, puppetry, khadi and, of course, yoga – has struck a chord that will endure long after its final act, the dance drama Jatayu Moksham from the Ramayana by The Kalakshetra Foundation in Canberra on November 8.

Sponsored by the Indian government, the Ministry of Culture and the Indian Council for Cultural Relations have pitched in more than Rs 2.5 crore while the Australian government has granted AU$250,000 (Rs 1.2 crore approximately) for the festival. In addition, there has been plenty of support in kind from state and local authorities. This includes the gala opening at the Sydney Opera House, which was supported by the New South Wales state government. Some of the venues were made available on a discounted or revenue-sharing basis and this has helped bring down costs considerably.

“The total in kind support that we received, including the media support from the ABC [Australian Broadcasting Corporation], would be worth well over a million dollars,” said Suri, who decided to use the public-private partnership model, riding high on the successful festivals he previously organised in South Africa and Egypt. It resulted in an international-class show unbridled by bureaucratic constraints.

“By supplementing government resources with private sector and local contributions, we got the flexibility to work with local groups and forge the kind of collaboration that one saw in Sydney Opera House on September 18,” Suri said. “We were also able to do special media launch events for the festival and reach out to new audiences via social media. This would be much harder if we were only reliant on government funding.”

Australian economy

In return, the festival has made a substantial contribution to the local economy. “On a conservative scale, the festival has contributed over AU$ 2 million to the Australian economy from venue hires, sale of tickets, hospitality, etc,” said Sanjoy Roy, managing director of India-based entertainment company Teamwork Arts, which was entrusted with the responsibility of organising the events.

Securing iconic venues such as the Opera House in Sydney, Federation Square in Melbourne, Queensland Performing Arts Centre in Brisbane, Festival Centre in Adelaide, the Old Parliament in Canberra and the State Theatre in Perth was a challenge.

“Once the mainstream venues understood what we wished to present, they were enthused and welcoming and created gaps in their plans to host festival programmes,” said Roy. “What helped was that we reached out to them well in time and discussed jointly what would or could work in terms of audience engagement and what would drive ticket sales.”

Teamwork Arts has been working in Australia since 2002. “The professionalism that technology and production crew displayed in their dealings with artists and my colleagues was always in keeping with best practices and Australia’s reputation of having excellent sound engineers, technicians and theatre staff,” said Roy. “We have always found that the arts-going audiences in Australia have both welcomed and celebrated the diversity and richness of Indian performing and visual arts.”

Mainstream audience

So, did the festival catch the fancy of mainstream Australians and succeed in going beyond the stereotypes – cricket, Bollywood, Kashmir, poverty?

“I feel that perceptions about India are changing anyway, thanks to the growth of the Indian economy and the impact made by Prime Minister Modi in the international arena,” said high commissioner Navdeep Suri. “But through the festival, we wanted to convey that in addition to the well-known classical arts forms, there is also a youthful and vibrant India that is comfortable in its own skin, happy to experiment with different art forms and quite unselfconscious about borrowing from others.”

The above was reflected in Raghu Dixit’s Kannada rock, in Sonam Kalra’s Sufi gospel project, in Piya Behrupiya – a uniquely Indian take on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night – and cartoonist Ajit Ninan’s talk on political humour. While the Raghu Dixit performances were dominated by audiences from the diaspora, all the other shows had 60% to 65% mainstream audiences.

As Christopher Zinn, a consumer campaigner and former foreign correspondent residing in Sydney’s Bondi beach area, said, “While many Australians might be hard pressed to realise there was a specific festival, few might have overlooked the many and varied ways India and Indians have been active, alive and on display in our public life over the past few months. As a result, the exotic energy of India, which contrasts so sharply with average Australia, is becoming both more familiar and welcome to the mainstream.”

The Indian high commission worked with selected journalists from Australia’s main print outlets, arranging for a few to visit India before the festival to interview the artistes and capture the stories behind renowned institutions such as Nrityagram and Kalakshetra. Publicity about the festival in specialised outlets like Time Out also played a major role in driving audiences to the shows.

“Our media partnership with ABC clearly played a big role in generating so much coverage for the festival in the mainstream media,” Suri said. “I am delighted that I could persuade Michelle Guthrie, the new CEO of ABC, that our festival would fit well into her own plans to bring greater diversity into ABC content.”

The response has been gratifying even in the remote town of Alice Springs, where Confluence partnered with the Desert Song Festival, and in Perth, where Delhi-based artist Vibhor Sogani’s art installation Mahatma in Me, was showcased at Elizabeth Quay. Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s saying “Be the change that you wish to see in the world”, the installation has subtle images of Gandhi and some impressions of his thoughts expressed in mirror finish stainless steel. “It attracted people to see their own reflection in the image of the Mahatma, pause and possibly introspect… a moment of self-realisation and the responsibility we all carry to bring about the change,” said Sogani.

Similarly, designer Sunaina Suneja’s exhibition, Bapu: The Craftperson’s Vision, in Brisbane and her khadi fashion show at the India Australia Business and Community Awards in Sydney were warmly received. She had styled the garments for an Australian audience, for Spring-Summer 2016-’17 and beyond, enforcing the natural fibre’s versatility and global appeal.

“The architecture for Confluence to become an annual event has been put in place and I am pretty sure it will be back in 2017,” said Suri, who is moving on as the Indian ambassador to Abu Dhabi after an 18-month stint in Australia.

The writer is president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Association (Australia & South Pacific).

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