India’s cultural heritage goes back over 5,000 years even before the much discussed Indus Valley civilisation. Since the advent of recorded history there is enough evidence to suggest that for several millennia India has been bedrock of culture both rich and varied. Music, dance, drama, art and sculpture, architecture, literature, cuisine has thrived in various regions of the country. To understand the complexity of India just note that there are 24 languages, people of every ethnicity and religion. Like Europe it offers a smorgasbord of different sub-cultures. However, what has kept India thriving through eons is shared vision of an idea that is India. It has given birth to four religions — Hindu, Buddhists, Jain and Sikh — and has in different eras an attraction of other faiths sometimes as an evangelical destination and sometimes as a conquest. For example, India has over 140 million Muslims and 25 million Christians along with Sikhs, Jains, Parsis and others living with over 800 million Hindus in a comparatively peaceful coexistence notwithstanding an occasional skirmish. There is, as they say, a bit of the world in everything cultural here.
Even today the composite culture of a Hindu majority nation has remained largely secular and pluralistic. In the ancient spiritual texts of 4000 BC, the Vedas referred to it as Vasudeva Kutumbakam — the world is our family. India is home to several ethnicities from Caucasian to Romano gypsies, from Mongoloid to indigenous tribes and Southern (Dravidian) Pre Aryans. India became the world’s first melting pot of cultures eons ago. A string of invasions starting with Alexander the Great in 4th century BC to successive Muslim invaders from 10th century AD till the 18th century followed by European colonialists including, Portuguese, Dutch, French and, most importantly, the British have left behind traces of their roots as they intermingled with the locals. Today’s India has been enriched by centuries of cultural influences from across the world though with passage of time and a unique synthesis has created the unique Indian identity.
“Entrepreneurship in arts and culture is an economic as well as sociocultural activity, based on innovation, exploitation of opportunities and risk-taking behaviour. It is a visionary, strategic, innovative and social activity,” says Canadian scholar Lidia Varbanova (2013). This is arguably how it happened in India too. Culture in its early days was largely dominated by the clergy (Brahmins) or priests who determined what to be when. Most creativity across art forms had religious or mythological overtones. About 2,000 years later the kings and other royals and their sataraps. Some encouraged architecture (Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan who built the Taj Mahal). Others became patrons of singers and dancers (Gupta Dynasty, the Cholas) and still others supported literature, art and craft. With it continued pretty much like this till India got independence in 1947. While the India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru did found important cultural institutions like the Sahitya (Literature), Sangeet Natak (Music, Dance and Drama), Lalit Kala (Fine art) Academies, National School of Drama, the two Institues of films and TV in Pune and National Muesum and National Gallery of Modern Art it was more of intellectual pursuit. These national and some provincial academies did offer scholarships and awards and hold cultural festival they were seldom involved in funding creativity.
A unique aspect is that since early days, Indian culture has been in the hands of individuals or groups of private investors. Since independence some of the earlier state and royal patronage got transferred to government and subsequently also private companies and trusts but largely the onus of creative industries transferred independent funding. This is why India is one of the few nations in the world where government financing is little and if the rich culture is still thriving it is because of cultural entrepreneurship. Artisanship for centuries till today is highly developed and practised. Various genres of dance, drama and music from contemporary to traditional are still poular especially in rural areas.
Again, given its size and complexity, India has remained multicultural. Every district and there are over 500 has its own dialect, folklore and tradition. There are for example over 200 films made each year in Tamil and Telegu and several dozens in Marathi, Bengali, Punjabi, Malayalam, Bhojpuri, Oriya and 20 other languages besides 300 in the national language. Radio and TV broadcast in over 20 languages. India has just 400 News channels and another 400 in all genres is quite extraordinary. Each of the major Indian language has more adherents than the national language of most nations. It may be surprising to you but there are more English speaking people in India than any other country. There are two main schools of classical music and five major classical dance forms. There are over 50 types of major folk music and dances. Even the traditional art and pottery remained a private enterprise with virtually no state support.
The power of culture is often not felt immediately. It slowly permeates into our day-to-day life. Cultural power is glacial. It moves slowly but with great force. Of course, in a networked world where travel and communication is easier than earlier some cultural leit motifs become obvious. Thus we use words like “soft power” or “smart power” as analogous with the power of culture.
A classic example would be Hollywood which has become all pervasive around the world. Or Chinese food. Or yoga. And a host of transnational iconic people and products have emerged from Coca Cola to Apple from Michael Jackson to Jackie Chan. With an estimated turnover of $2.4 trillion annually, culture (and this excludes tourism and travel) is one of the world’s largest industry. France, for instance, draws over 85 million tourists every year mainly because of its heritage and cultures but India a mere 22 million. Its distinctive cuisine, fashion and art amongst other things are rich and diverse and we have woken up to marketing our food, fashion and heritage. In fact, cultural power has never been understood either by the government or the industry. When I go abroad people always ask me about Bollywood. This is the power of culture. It can overprint on other peoples’ minds images, sounds, taste and smells of another nation and in the process monetise an intangible asset or undermine another
We have heard in the past two decades various people around the world, including most recently Indian prime minister Narendra Modi have talked about India as a soft power. India’s soft power has rare characteristics when compared with the other great powers of the emerging multipolar world: US, China, Russia, Japan and Europe (as a unified entity). It’s relatively neutral, non-threatening image, nuclear weapons notwithstanding makes India a uniquely attractive great-power partner for countries looking to hedge against future fallout between the US and China, and not wanting to antagonise either superpower. What is soft power? It is about creating a credible and positive image of a country in the comity of nations .The term “soft power” was coined by neo-liberal academician Joseph Nye of Harvard University “to describe the ability to attract and co-opt rather than coerce, use force or give money as a means persuasion.” Since then the term has also been used in context of increasing social and public perception through lesser visible lobbying (culture, sport, cuisine, art) in the global village. In 2012, Nye explained that with soft power, “the best propaganda is not propaganda,” further explaining that during the Information Age credibility is the scarcest resource.
Historically, the rise of India’s soft power is ancient. Some symbols are the Vedas (amongst the oldest written texts in the world) and Buddhism especially after its spread across Asia, 2,500 years before Christian faith. For the Mesopotamian, Roman and Greek Empires India’s soft power was its aura of being the land of knowledge, riches, fabrics and spices. Hence the continued pursuit of trade with India followed repeated invasion of India. In the last 100 years, the most powerful expression of Indian soft power was, again, a galvanising idea: Mahatma Gandhi’s notion of nonviolent resistance to colonial rule captured the world’s imagination and inspired others who struggled against oppression, from Martin Luther King Jr and Nelson Mandela to Lech Walesa and Aung San Suu Kyi to Obama. From Tagore to other Nobel laureates like Dr Hargobind Khorana, Dr Amartya Sen and Kailash Satyarthi. Authors like Salman Rushdie, Anita Desai, Ruth Praver Jhabwala, Jhumpa Lahiri and Vikram Seth, to name a few. Sportspersons like Viswanathan Anand, Sachin Tendulkar, Virat Kohli, Leander Paes, Sania Mirza, PV Sindhu and Saina Nehwal. We produced several world heroes.
Arguably, India’s best known global brand today is Bollywood (incidentally so named by yours truly). Around 50 years ago, Indian cinema began to attract fans across the world, especially in Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. In 1957, Mother India became an international hit, one of the first not produced in the US or Europe. Actor-director Raj Kapoor was mobbed on the streets of Moscow and Beijing. His brother Shammi became a heartthrob in Baghdad. Dev Anand, Dilip Kumar (Asia, Middle East) and later Guru Dutt, Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak, Shyam Benegal, Adoor Gopalkrishnan and a few others achieved global acclaim. In 2003, when three Indian truck drivers were kidnapped in southern Iraq, a tribal sheikh offered to arrange their release — if he got a phone call from Asha Parekh.) From the 1970s, Bollywood superstars Amitabh Bachchan and Sharukh Khan have huge fan following across borders. Sharukh getting mobbed by raving mobs in several cities of the world like London, New York, Dubai and Berlin is not uncommon. Aamir Khan, Salman Khan, Irfan Khan, Priyanka Chopra and Deepika Padukone are amongst those who have a large overseas following. Indian songs from Raj Kapoor’s Awara (Vagabond) — Awara Hoon and Mera Joota Hai Jaapani to recent item numbers are now routinely heard in cabs, cafes and night clubs around the world. I was once in Iceland and pleasantly surprised to hear one of my old favourite Chalte Chalte (1975) booming from a restaurant. Unfortunately, besides talking the government has done precious little to market this globally. It’s been largely cultural entrepreneurs who have done the trick.
For decades India’s image abroad was of an old civilisation living in abject poverty and amidst squalor. A land of snake charmers and swamis. Rarely featured in the western cultural scene, besides an occasional mention of Ravi Shankar and his famous followers like Beatles or an assortment of spiritual gurus such as Mahesh Maharishi Yogi and Osho with their celebrity disciples to Deepak Chopra and Sri Sri Ravi Shanker. Packaged exotica or the Nehru jacket, and now the bundi or waistcoat that Modi has triggered a revival in are scarcely known outside India or its diaspora. Fashion trends like ‘bleeding Madras’ or Rajasthan mirror work and lately sardonic bling are symbols of India’s rising influence as more and more Indian designers are designing haute couture and selling abroad.
But the most remarkable fact is India is the only market which has been able to withstand Hollywood (it gets less than 10 per cent box office share) and American music and television programming. This despite the India has a potential audience of 1.2 billion people. This has worked both ways. It has created a huge market but also led Indian creative industry to keep looking inwards. This is changing slowly specially now, that besides the large diaspora (50 million) Indian culture is gaining accepting in global markets. Films like Lunchbox are transcending western markets. Also India has audio-visual treaties with over 20 countries, including with most major European countries. Co productions from France and Britain are increasing every year.
Take another example: Indian food. There is hardly any major city around the world where you can’t find more than one Indian restaurant. In fact, in the UK chicken tikka masala is the national dish. In the US, people who couldn’t place the country on a map can taste Indian cuisine from around the country. India also began to crop up more frequently in the western cultural scene, perhaps most memorably in the form of the Simpsons character Apu Nahaseemapetilon, owner of the Kwik-E-Mart. Indian stars regularly feature in Hollywood films, co-productions and international TV series. Indian fashion too is slowly making inroads in the international markets.
The state since Independence has largely left culture alone. Besides running national academies and giving out some scholarships and awards and holding a few festivals, government does not fund culture. Some government owned companies may occasionally do it but by and large culture has depended on private sector funding. There are no subsidies or incentives and inspite of this India is the largest producer of films, largest pay TV market, one of the biggest markets of recorded music. Unlike Europe, in India it is local cinema, TV and music which has 90 per cent of the market. Hollywood and major TV channels have to rely on their local subsidiaries to make indigenous product. Recently, India is also emerging as a major player in the digital space. This is one area where there is exponential growth and is one the few industries that receives government support and incentives.
Cultural industries can create over five million jobs in the next five years. It has the potential to be a $200 billion industry in the same time frame. For this it requires a complete mind set change. The government should not get bogged down in needless controversies but provide an enabling environment for the sector to flourish. We do not have either comprehensive culture or media and entertainment policy. We need someone to champion this industry. When information, knowledge, content, sport, fashion and cuisine are promoted, not only do we promote the nation, but also generate substantial revenue. There is no reason why culture should not generate at least 2 to 3 per cent of our GDP in the next decade.
(Amit Khanna is media guru and industry veteran)