“Does the sun rise when the cock crows
Or is it the other way round?
The answer is obvious, everyone knows—-
— But which is the more profound?”
From The Riddles of Irreverence by Bachchoo
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Britain late last year, he had declared 2017 would be the year of Indo-British culture. The intent behind the declaration was a cultural exchange, a feasible and worthy project to invest in and execute over a year. But there’s no such thing as Indo-British culture. What Britain imparted through colonial contact with India was its language, rational or scientific attitudes, Anglican Christianity, habits of dress and some conceits of class and culture. These were adopted with gusto by the upper echelons of Indian society and India today is in very many respects a product of this hybridisation. Indians didn’t become remotely “British” even with these imports and interactions, but we did breed a literature and educational system through British influences.
India had no equivalent influence on the colonising country. Yes, Brits developed a taste for chicken tikka masala and for the cuisine that Bangladeshi restaurants pass off as “Indian”. Apart from isolated Hare Krishna groups, there are clubs of yoga and meditation classes to which a stratum of the British population resorts for health or spiritual well-being. But all these are recent imports and seen as such, despite that in the 19th century a few yogis and Vedantic philosophers came to Britain and were applauded and followed. Bollywood film distributors count the UK as a “territory” today. Hindi films may run for weeks in towns and parts of cities with large Indian immigrant populations, but there is strictly no “crossover”. Despite boasts by some fantasising Indian journalists, the native British don’t watch Hindi or Tamil films — the latter being the preserve of Sri Lankan immigrants.
Earlier this year, when a Tory politician called Zak Goldsmith ran for election as London mayor, he tried to ingratiate himself with Indian immigrant voters by attending Indian religious fairs, at one of which he declared that he loved Bollywood movies. Journalists called his bluff, asking him to name one movie he’d seen or to name one Bollywood movie star. He couldn’t. Of course PM Modiji’s initiative is welcome. It will not be the basis for the future formation of Indo-British culture, but it will certainly, with the backing and sponsorship of the UK government, probably through the British Council, bring British audiences to Indian cultural events. The flow in the other direction will need no push or initiative from the Indian government to make it popular. If, for instance, the Royal Shakespeare Company plans to perform a few plays in Mumbai, New Delhi, Kolkata or any other of our major cities, the performances will be sold out, no matter what the price of tickets.
And if the cultural exchange involves sending a few British pop groups to arenas in India, there is no doubt that they will attract Kumbh Mela-sized throngs. The Indian high commission with its cultural wing, the Nehru Centre in London, is in charge of bringing to fruition this year of culture. I was recently asked by Srinivas Gotru, director of the Nehru Centre, for advice on getting the cultural events onto mainstream British TV. He outlined the broad plan for the cultural year. There’ll be a literature event or events set up by the tried and tested organisers of the Jaipur Literary Festival, who have made their enterprise into a moveable feast. Then there will be a visual and photographic exhibition featuring the interaction between Indians and the UK from 1858 to the present day. Some of it will be dedicated to the pre-photographic days and will, I imagine, consist of paintings, drawing and scrolls. The scope widens with photography and again with immigration from the subcontinent from the late 1950s and through to 2017, the 70th year of Indian independence.
The larger intent is to bring across from India musical and theatrical acts and feature them in prestigious venues in all the cities of the UK. I am sure these performances of music, dance and drama will be successful and popular with the section of the British population familiar with the cultural output, and not with the general British public. Of course that’s true of the reverse acts too — one wouldn’t expect a rural population travelling from Haryana to Delhi on their tractors to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s presentation of Coriolanus. But the aim, surely, is to spread the cultural net a little wider. I have been going to the Nehru Centre for years to see exhibitions, listen to music recitals, take part in debates about this or that and have even sponsored stage performances and chaired meetings there. On most evenings and for most occasions it is a lively place. Its strength, and at the same time its weakness, is that it has a small loyal clientele. I should declare an interest. Towards the end of this month I am scheduled to lecture about my thoughts on the evolution of Indian cinema.
The event is announced in the glossy programme brochure which the centre produces. Allow me to present a sample of the events as I open its pages randomly: On Thursday 27 October there will be a sitar and tabla recital by Jonathan Mayer and Udith Pankhania. On Monday 19 September there’ll be a dance recital of Kathakanjali by Keka Sinha. On Friday 14 October Dilraj Singh and the Saptak Fusion Band will present ghazals and Sufi music. All these events will be attended by the less than 200 people the centre’s theatre accommodates, most of them regular attendees and some of them invitees of the performers. There will be a few white faces. I can’t foresee a time when Indian culture of any sort (though we did invent chess and hockey!) will become mainstream in Britain. But, believing in its charms, we must try. Maybe the year of culture will help.