‘India needs to be humble in claiming cultural parentage’

New Delhi, April 19 (IANS) India shares many cultural affinities with neighbouring countries, including Southeast Asia, but New Delhi needs to be “humble” in claiming cultural parentage and also be “sensitive” towards the “inherent anxiety” of neighbours about their own cultural identity being “overwhelmed by the power of Indian culture”, says a top official.

Former foreign secretary Shyam Saran, delivering a talk on “Cultural Diplomacy: Leveraging India’s Soft Power”, stressed that cultural diplomacy should be about “a joint journey of exploration” and that “pride if any should be in rejoicing that our ancestors provided a cultural spark which led to such a powerful surge of creativity and artistic expression in our extended neighbourhood.”

“Cultural affinity needs to be pursued with humility and a readiness to acknowledge the many contributions made by neighbouring countries in enriching our shared culture of the sub-continent,” said Saran at the Eighth Pupul Jayakar Memorial Lecture here on Monday night.

Saran, who is head of the Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS) thinktank, remarked that “some Indian scholars alienate their Southeast Asian counterparts by suggesting that Southeast Asia got its culture and art from India”.

“True that throughout Southeast and East Asia as well, one encounters the colours and sounds of India everywhere. But whatever cultural assets they may have borrowed from India, our neighbours to the East transformed these into exquisite examples of local genius and creativity. What has been at work here is not cultural imposition but a creative exchange that enriched both,” said Saran.

Stressing that diplomacy requires cultivating sensitivity to the cultural idiom of a country one is dealing with, Saran said this sensitivity helps a diplomat “to sense the shifts in moods and expressions of his interlocutor and read the clues to a reality that often lies hidden behind formal articulations”.

The former top diplomat said the success of Bollywood “as a facet of Indian popular culture is legendary though treated with some disdain by votaries of high culture”.

He added that “no matter what barriers are erected by the Pakistani state, Bollywood and its stars still rule the Pakistani imagination. The Indian state has had little to do with this most powerful instrument of cultural impact, but it could certainly leverage it to the country’s advantage.”

Saran said that International Yoga Day, which is now celebrated across the world on June 21, has made “this quintessentially Indian heritage a global phenomenon and reinforced India’s soft power”, but added, “there are times when we tend to reject the present and the promise of the future in favour of a remembered past and ancient glory”.

Stressing that “cultural diplomacy is all about sharing not showing”, Saran said “a culture that does not share will soon stagnate and die”.

“I truly believe that open and liberal societies, in particular plural democracies like our own, are far better equipped to successfully navigate the increasingly congested world which is emerging…”

“In seeking our place in the world, India should be careful not to devalue the very strengths we possess as a confident and accommodative, indeed assimilative culture,” said Saran, who has erved as the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Nuclear Affairs and Climate Change and as chairman of the National Security Advisory Board.

“Our democracy is a citizen based democracy. Individual eccentricity has always found place in our culture and we must retain space for every individual to give full play to his genius, free from narrowly defined cultural categories or uninformed prejudices.”

“If we are to engage other cultures in a productive dialogue, we must reaffirm confidence in our own and learn to accept and celebrate the diversity that lies at the heart of the idea of India.”

Saran said that India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru “considered nationalism as a limiting concept because from his point of view, nationalism considered civilizations as unitary creations. But civilisations had emerged from interconnections with each other and India more so than the others. Therefore he said, the history of one society necessarily required knowing the history of other societies. It is this exciting adventure of mutual discovery that cultural diplomacy is all about”.

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