It was in the mid-2000s that I first met representatives from Kyrgyzstan in Kolkata. A cultural group was toruring India on an Indian Council for Cultural Relations programme, and I was interpreting for them. Their rich dances and colourful attire won admiration and adulation, but what really had audiences stumped was their unimaginably beautiful rendering of Bollywood numbers. In fact, an argument had ensued when they group performed, amongst other places, on the venerated stage of the Rabindra Bharati University. The young students wanted more, and the authorities were aghast that Rabindranath Tagore’s hallowed portals were being defiled by Bollywood.

But let me not digress. The group had all mesmerised.

Years later, travelling to this Shambhala locked away in the heart of Central Asia, I was stumped to see how Bollywood in particular and India in general had seeped its way into the Kyrgyz national culture and psyche.

Honestly, this was not unexpected. This was a hangover from the Soviet legacy, where India was amongst one of the most favoured nations in the hearts of people. In Central Asia in particular, which shares history and traditions with India, India enjoyed special status. And Bollywood was the jewel in this crown.

Bollywood over Hollywood

“Our parents grew up watching Bollywood films, so they were preferred over Hollywood ones,” explained Asel Aldasheva, head of the Crafts Exporting Council in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek. “For one, India was a friendly country and in particular in Central Soviet Asia, also a kind of neighbouring country. Hollywood belonged to the other. Moreover Bollywood always propagated lofty ideals – the family, honesty. Good always defeated evil in the end. It touched a chord with most of us.”

Aldasheva’s thoughts were echoed by Alina Asangazieva, a professional in her early 40s who was so enamoured with Bollywood dances that she began practising them at first and was soon giving shows. “The dances are so aesthetic, so colourful and yet so glamourous,” Asangazieva said. “It appeals to us, the dancers are sexy but not in a vulgar way, rather sensual, it has the eastern exotic touch.” Her favourite number? Nimbooda Nimbooda from Hum Dil De Chuke Hain Sanam.

And her favourite actress? But of course, Aishwarya Rai.

So popular did Asangazieva’s dances become that she opened a dance school at her home in Bishkek a few years ago and formed the dance group Kauhar (meaning diamond). Bollywood allowed Asangazieva to turn her hobby into professional success with the glitz and glamour it boasts of. Soon Kauhar was performing at local and public events. So impressive were the performances that soon the Indian Embassy in Bishkek roped the troupe to perform at different embassy functions. Asangazieva has travelled to India numerous times to perform with her group.

Diamond dreams

In 2016, when I attended the Incredible India promotional function and road shows organised by the embassy together with the Ministry of Tourism of Kyrgyzstan and Air Manas, which has recently started operating direct flights from New Delhi to Bishkek, we were greeted with namastes and young Kyrgyz girls from Kauhar dressed in ghagra cholis.

Soon, they were up on stage gyrating to Chaiyya Chaiyya and Chittiyan Kalaiyaan. Was it difficult to pick up the steps, the eye movements, the famous Indian nods? Not in the least, said Aigerim Shakirova, one of the Kauhar dancers. “I love the makeup, the costumes, so very glamorous and feminine,” Shakirova said.

Her love for these dances was obvious because it was her hobby, something she did in her spare time. She is otherwise a student of Kyrgyz and Slavonic languages. And of course, her dream of travelling to India has also been fulfilled. She has performed at road shows organised by the Kyrgyz Embassy in Delhi and at tourism promotional events.

If the young and beautiful were smitten by Bollywood, so were the not-so-young and less tony. At a stop at a cafeteria, a stewardess almost in her sixties asked us whether we were from India or Iran. As soon as she heard India, her face broke out into a broad smile and she said in Russian, “Zita Gita’, recalling the 1972 Hindi film Seeta Aur Geeta. How is she, is she married, she asked, referring to Hema Malini, who had played the memorable double role. “She recently celebrated the wedding of her daughter,” I smiled back. Hema Malini is now also a politician, I added.

Bollywood in Bishek

A stroll through the bazaars of Bishkek reveal that music shops were 50% stocked up with CDs of Bollywood films. Even though Kyrgyzstan is a Turkic-speaking nation, with close ties, culturally and economically to Turkey, Indian music and films sell at a premium.

This obsession is not limited to Bishkek. On a trip to Issyk Kul lake, Kyrgystan’s crowning glory and the tenth largest lake in the world, our 50-something Russian sailor on our cruise boat wondered if we were carrying CDs to swap with him.

On our way back, we encountered a wedding party of young people. It was not quite 6pm, but they were all drunk. They waved at us and we waved back. They shouted in Russian, “Where are you from?” “India,” we shouted back. “Namastee” came the response and then, “Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan.” Yes, yes, we nodded in agreement.

Such was the demand that the Indian Embassy organised as musical named Issy Kulskie Bollywood (Bollywood in Issykul) in collaboration with a number of local dance and choreography schools at the prestigious National Philharmonic Hall of Bishkek in March 2016.

“They just love Bollywood and that’s what India is to them – Bollywood is synonomous with India and India with Bollywood,” said one Embassy official.

Indian soft power

Taking advantage of the popularity that Bollywood, especially its dances and music, enjoys in the country, the Indian Embassy has begun offering Kathak dance classes. The talented and charming Kathak dancer Sakshi Kumar is the teacher. She attests to the popularity of Indian dances there. Kumar is not just teaching at the embassy school, where students can do a two-year diploma course in Kathak, but she is also teaching at the National Kyrgyz Library and at a special dance school for school children called Balajaan to those between 10-15 years of age.

“My experience here has been lovely,” Kumar said. “The Kyrgyz people are very warm and are in love with the Indian culture.”

But the formidable challenge is that she has to show that Bollywood was just a tiny fraction of the ocean of Indian culture. “People on the streets call me as Anandi, sing a Bollywood song or say, Mithun Chakraborty or Raj Kapoor or sometimes Akshay Kumar as to tell me that they know India,” she said.

Though neighbouring China, with its big investments, has established 42 Confucius institutes across the country, it is Indian soft power that holds sway in this Central Asian republic.

In October 2016, the Indian Embassy organised the Festival of India, to celebrate the 25th year of Kyrgyzstan’s independence, 25 years of India establishing diplomatic relations with the Kyrgyz Republic, and 70 years of India’s independence. The programme was launched with a performance by renowned sitar artist Smita Nagdev accompanied by other artists, held at the Kyrgyz National Academical Theatre of Opera and Ballet in Bishkek.

But that was at an official level. At the unofficial one, “The festival of India continues throughout the year,” as Asel Aldasheva put it.

Members of the Kauhar dance group performing the song Nimbooda Nimbooda. Courtesy Aditi Bhaduri.