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khatua-shanghaiPolitics divides, culture connects. Just a couple of days before Chinese President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi met in Goa to discuss weighty issues such as India’s NSG membership, the two Asian giants quietly turned to the magic of films to make their ties hum with positive energy. In Shanghai, a pact was signed between India and China to recreate Raj Kapoor’s 1951 classic Awaara into a contemporary Chinese opera.

awaara-chinaAmarendra Khatua, the new director-general of Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), who was in Shanghai to deliver the keynote address at the 18th China Shanghai International Arts Festival (CSIAF), struck an upbeat note on long-standing civilisational ties and promoting cultural exchanges in Tier-II and Tier-III cities in India and China. The joint theatrical remake of Awaara, which remains the most popular Indian movie in China, hints at more such collaborative cultural tie-ups India is set to pursue in days to come.

“Cultural diplomacy is poised to play a bigger role in India’s foreign policy calculus in days and months to come and promote Brand India,” said Khatua, a veteran diplomat  and an accomplished poet who writes and translates in English, Hindi and other Indian languages.

iccr-khatua-profileWith the Modi government positioning culture at the heart of India’s burgeoning diplomatic engagements, Khatua has been given a focused brief. “Both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and EAM Sushma Swaraj want a streamlined, transparent and efficient working of ICCR,” he told India Writes Network in an interview at his tastefully done office in Azad Bhavan, the seat of India’s cultural diplomacy.

In barely three weeks since he has been at the helm of the ICCR, Khatua is doing precisely this: fixing the system, motivating the bureaucracy and staff, and interacting with a diverse spectrum of performers, musicians, dancers, sculptures and creative professionals.

Focus on Brand India

hindi-day-modiAmid all this frenzy, Khatua is calm and clear about the ICCR’s priorities. “The focus will be on promoting and showcasing diaspora linkages, propagation of yoga and ayurveda, including pharmacopeia of Ayurveda,” he said.

“ICCR will work closely with territorial divisions of the MEA to organise appropriate cultural activities. In general, there will be a greater involvement of ICCR in diplomatic activities across the spectrum,” he said.

“Under the new leadership, we are making efforts to promote ‘Brand India’ through emphasis on traditional Indian cultural and scientific mores, yoga, Ayurveda, Sanskrit, Vedas, folk arts and culture, Puranic and historic cultural and philosophical linkages between India and the world,” he said. The promotion of Hindi and greater cultural footprints in Africa, Latin America and neighbouring countries are important priorities, he added.

The Way Ahead

Looking ahead, Mr Khatua said that the ICCR will be setting up more cultural centres. Currently, there are 26 cultural centres set up by India across continents. “The aim is to have 50 cultural centres in the next 15 years,” he said. Another important priority will be to take two-way cultural diplomacy to second and three tier cities, he said.

china-yogaKhatua, the author of several critically acclaimed collections of poems, including “Garden of Enchanted Stones,” is a firm believer in the power of culture to connect nations and peoples. “Promotion of soft power adds up to all our diplomatic initiatives as cultural inputs improve people-to-people contact, continuing interaction, academic and other ideas exchange and brand image,” he said.

The last two years have seen culture moving to the centre-stage of India’s diplomatic outreach, with Indian cultural values and traditions striking a chord across the world. In a landmark achievement, the UN unanimously adopted a resolution declaring June 21 as the International Yoga Day following an inspirational address by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2014. Since then, the Yoga Day has been celebrated with passion and panache across key world capitals.

It promises to be a spectacular show, inviting the world to revitalize its sinews through the ancient Indian practice of yoking body, mind and spirit. With barely days to go for the first International Yoga Day, the Indian government is leaving no stone unturned to showcase the country’s greatest soft power export to a global audience, cutting across hemispheres and continents.

The UN will commemorate the inaugural edition of International Yoga Day on June 21, with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and General Assembly President Sam Kutesa in attendance. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj will represent India at the event, commemorating the first International Day of Yoga at the UN Headquarters in New York. It will be broadcast live at Times Square, the pulsating heart of Manhattan, to a global audience.

Showcasing Soft Power

In a curtain-raiser media event giving a peek into an array of events lined up to celebrate this high moment in yoga’s global journey, Sushma Swaraj eloquently described yoga as “the soft power of India” which can usher in lasting peace for a violence-wracked world.

“The initiative India had taken there was a reason behind this…That the world which is now engulfed in violence should be taken to a path of peace. Yoga is India’s soft power. Through that soft power, our goal is the world attains peace also bring down violence in the world,” said Swaraj.

Fast-track Diplomacy

In a triumph for India’s fast-track diplomacy, the 69th Session of the United Nations General Assembly December 11 adopted by acclamation draft Resolution, A/69/L.17, declaring the International Yoga Day, with a record number of 177 countries co-sponsoring it. The Yoga Day was declared barely 75 days after the pioneering idea was mooted by the yoga-practising Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Mega Yoga Show

The Indian government has made grand preparations to have a mega yoga show on June 21 at Rajpath in New Delhi, with similar celebrations planned by the Indian missions across the world. Mr Modi will be present at the Delhi event to soak in this high moment in his cultural diplomacy, but contrary to some media reports, he will not perform asanas.

“He (Modi) will grace the occasion and address the gathering but he will not perform yoga,” the minister clarified. The Delhi yoga show is expected to be attended by over 35,000 people.

The prime minister, who has been an ardent practitioner of yoga for years, has been tweeting pictures of various asanas and their benefits on the human body.

Don’t mix politics, please!

Yoga is widely seen as a gift of India to the world, but over the years has become a global answer to all those looking for physical vigour, mental peace and spiritual radiance. But in the subcontinent, parochial posturing has intruded into worldwide celebrations of the yoga event. After Pakistan rejected visa to an Indian yoga instructor, India has decided to hold an in-house event at its High Commission in Islamabad to mark the International Yoga Day..

“There is no problem. They refused them visa. We did our internal arrangement there. But yoga will definitely happen there. We were not doing this programme there by depending on them only… We will conduct yoga inside the premises of our embassy.”

A Global Journey

Yoga incarnates itself in many schools and practices, Hatha Yoga and Raja Yoga being the most popular. This quintessential Indian holistic discipline has now travelled across borders, and become a truly global phenomenon which has been eagerly embraced all over the world.

From Cairo to Chicago and New York to Addis Ababa, and Tokyo to Moscow, yoga has found ardent practitioners and devotees.

Yoga’s emergence as a global brand and the most visible symbol of India’s soft power is a work in progress. Celebrities around the world, including Hollywood stars, have taken to yoga in a big, giving a sheen of glamour to the ancient Indian practice.

New York, among other global cities, is known for its love of yoga, with yoga sessions being held from time to time at Times Square, the heart of Manhattan and Central Park.

 

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