India’s Tourism needs to move beyond the Taj Mahal

An economic impact report (2018) by the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) has said that India is expected to establish itself as the third largest travel and tourism economy by 2028 in terms of direct and total GDP and that the total number of jobs dependent directly or indirectly on the travel and tourism industry will increase from 42.9 million in 2018 to 52.3 million in 2028. Therefore, tourism has an untapped, huge potential in India. Each city in India has a fascinating story to tell and share, something that a contemporary traveller seeks.

There is much to do. As part of research to understand the boundless tourism potential of India, India Foundation’s Center for Soft Power speaks to travel experts who specialise in travel to India and those who are really passionate about coming up with unique ways in enhancing the image of India to inbound tourists. In this interview I spoke to Philippa Kaye of ‘Indian Experiences’ who strongly advocates for an India #BeyondTheTaj campaign. During the Interview, she shared some of the insights she has gained from her two decades of travelling to India. She is someone who is constantly striving to deliver something different.

Ms. Kaye has travelled extensively in India and is an active advocate for expanding Indian tourism beyond simply the Taj Mahal. (Source: All photos provided directly by Ms. Philippa Kaye)

Our exchange:

1. Please explain the genesis of of ‘Indian Experiences’.

Indian Experiences in its current incarnation is two-fold but both elements of it have the same end objective. I began specialising in travel to India in 1998. In 2015 I revisited standard sightseeing in all the major tourist destinations and was shocked at how dreadful it was. It was the same monologue of a dull history lesson that was preached at me from 17 years previously, as I was taken from monument to monument. Nothing had changed except that the shopping scams had become worse. I left each city having some sense of the monuments and some nice photographs, but no sense of the people, culture, food or any of the other reasons travellers, particularly the modern traveller, seek. I was working for a large travel company at the time in Delhi and curated a whole plethora of unique ways of sightseeing in each of these destinations but I couldn?t find anyone who was prepared to deliver something different. Fortunately, I then started to come across people who thought like me, who truly loved their home cities and wanted to showcase them as they believed the traveller wanted to see.  Their problem was that they were finding it difficult to get an avenue to market.  As I continued to explore and post my experiences on social media, the foreign travellers began to take note and started asking me how they could include the experiences they saw me having, into their clients? itineraries. They weren?t being offered anything new despite asking for something different and so it made sense for me to provide a platform whereby these experience providers can get their product out to the tour operators (and ultimately their clients) who were asking for them. The consulting part also started out of demand. I have sold holidays for years but my knowledge and understanding of India as a destination was not a scalable model. Then a few new tour operators and travel companies started approaching me for help to put together a product portfolio for them that would give them USPs in a crowded market. And existing India specialists asked for help with new product development which has led to producing new brochures and websites for them. India isn?t the one size fits all destination that many people sell it as. There is a whole host of different destinations, activities and experiences but people just don?t get to find out about them.  I?ve been approached by companies who had been told they needed to sell the Golden Triangle despite making it clear that they sold adventure holidays or wellness! So, at Indian Experiences, we don?t just look at companies and give them a standard Golden Triangle package to sell to their clients. We look at their company brand, client demographic, the USPs they have in other countries and the reason that they want to sell India and then we give them a product that matches that.  Some might want to sell holidays to young groups, some might have a wildlife focus, some into history and culture, some women only groups, etc.

India offers a wealth of experiences beyond the traditional monuments. (Source: All photos provided directly by Ms. Philippa Kaye)

2. In your eyes, what is the best that India has to offer in terms of experiential travel?

Goodness, where to start? How long is a piece of string?  India is full of experiences, horse safaris, camel safaris, walking with elephant experiences, discovering the spices and different cuisines, treks and white-water rafting, art, literature, poetry, yoga and wellness, sculpture, jeep safaris, desert safaris, wildlife, kayaking, cycling, motorbiking, architecture, textiles, rural tourism, the list is truly endless. A visit to India can be so enriching and can tailor to any demographic. In fact, the Golden Triangle can be tailored to a clients requirements in terms of experiences. A more adventurous client can do a cycling tour of Delhi, a morning walking tour of the old city in Agra and a half or full day trek behind the Amer Fort in Jaipur or a hot air balloon safari; a foodie can visit the spice markets in Delhi, then the food markets and then learn how to cook a typical Punjabi meal; in Agra they can head to Peshawri and discover Frontier cuisine, then they can visit an organic farm in Jaipur and have a traditional Rajasthani lunch cooked by village women. Even the most ?mundane? of trips to India can be made to be experiential.

3. In one of your testimonials for ?Indian Experiences,? you are referred to as a ?South India Specialist?. Could you explain why? 

I started my India career in 1998 in south India, specialising in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. I was lucky enough to work with a great London based PR Company and in 1999 we managed to get Kerala featured on the BBC Holiday program which was huge in those days, and our business shot through the roof. I jokingly became known (amongst friends in the industry) as the Kerala Queen.  I didn?t branch into the rest of India for a couple of years. I guess in an industry where most people focus on the north, I was a bit different and stuck out!

4. India continues to charm international tourists. According to a World Economic Forum report, Tourism generated 40 million jobs in India in 2016. Do you think Indian tourism’s economic potential has been fully tapped? 

I?ve also heard that tourism accounts for 1/11 jobs globally which is quite something. I don?t think that India?s tourism potential has been tapped at all. There is such a focus on a pathetically small number of monuments and cities and the rest of India – its variety, destinations and experiences – struggle to get noticed. There are many reasons for this, so many companies only focus on selling the mainstream destinations, the places people have heard of and the places where extra money can be made from shopping commissions. There are companies out there who truly care about the client experience, discovering what the country has to offer and what the client wants and they put it together really well, but they will always be more expensive than the bigger companies and as with all things, it is a price driven market. I also think that it is the global awareness that lets India down. People will ask for what they have heard of and these tend to be the main stream destinations. I have always sold India by asking the vital question that most people tend to forget when speaking to possible travellers, and that is asking them why? Why do they want to travel to India? Take out the main stream destinations they have heard of, they can be included easily, but why else would they like to visit, what are their interests – the food, wildlife, art, adventure, photography, health and wellbeing? Once you know what a client is looking for, then you can tailor a trip for them.  The problem is, most agents don?t know their country well enough and the PR machine doesn?t do anywhere near enough to promote India?s extraordinary diversity.

Ms. Kaye believes that India’s total tourism potential is still yet to be realised. (Source: All photos provided directly by Ms. Philippa Kaye)

5. In your assessment, from which country does India get the maximum amount of interest and why? 

Traditionally one of the main inbound markets was from the UK, we have a long history with India and a fascination about it. Of course, there is nothing as good as word of mouth publicity and with a bigger market traveling, the word spreads further. This is the market which I know more about however, official statistics from 2015 show:

6. What are the ways in which India can become tourist friendly and offer to the world distinct value propositions?

India has a whole host of value propositions already, they are there, ready and waiting for people to come and discover them. India?s Natural Heritage is rated as the 6th best in the world, its natural history as being the 10th best. It has 29 states, a plethora of UNESCO sites, vibrant cities, beautiful countryside. However it does lack in a multitude of ways. The inbound tourist figures, when compared with other countries, are incredibly low and do not reflect India?s rich diversity at all.

Infrastructure needs to be improved throughout the country, both in terms of the quality of more affordable accommodation for a mid-range traveller, to the delivery of useful information.  On arrival at airports, there is no useful, helpful information to be given to travellers no one telling them the best way to get somewhere or to tell them best and safest places to stay. They are then left to fall prey to unscrupulous scamsters or get ripped off with expensive taxis. There is no one tourist board coming out with uniformity across the country as to what policies should be put in place to assist tourists.  There also need to be tourist police available in mainstream destinations. Perception is also a massive issue with travel to India.  Even after 20 years I still get asked about Delhi Belly and the poverty. India needs a PR department to improve its image, no one is out there combating bad news stories of which India gets more than its fair share.

7. What are the increasing or changing areas of interests for inbound international tourists vis a vis India?

Tourism for India has been cast in the ?Raj Era? mould and follows the same circuits. The modern day traveller does not just want to look at monuments, have a mediocre history lesson and be dragged into shops. They want to engage, meet the people, gain a level of understanding of the country and its people. They want it to be real. They want to discover how people live in different environments, learn about the culture, sample the different food, learn about the spices, learn about its religions and arts and crafts and textiles. In short, the modern traveller wants to engage. This is true globally, not just in India, the traditional fly and flop beach holiday is very pass? now. Of course then there is also the social media generation who are only interested in getting a photo in front of a monument to be able to post it on Instagram ? but then maybe that?s me being a bit cynical. ?

?The modern day traveller does not just want to look at monuments, have a mediocre history lesson and be dragged into shops. They want to engage, meet the people, gain a level of understanding of the country and its people.? (Source: All photos provided directly by Ms. Philippa Kaye)

8. What ought to be done to enable the soft skills of the labour force in the Indian tourism industry?

There are very few training schools within the tourism sector and it doesn?t have a ?sexy image.?  Kids these days don?t see the tourism industry as a ?career opportunity?. In many cases, IT is still their mantra, but in a country where 70% of the population is under 30 years old, this is a massively untapped population who, with the right directives, could be wonderful ambassadors for the Indian tourism sector. They need to be shown the fabulous diversity of their own country, need to be shown that it is fun, exciting and rewarding.  The industry needs to ?walk the talk,? perhaps have tourism professionals doing workshops in schools and universities to show its potential. But, India doesn?t treat tourism as an industry, where are the training programs, communication skills trainings, sensitisation of cultural differences? Even many travel companies don?t do soft skills training or destination training for their employees.

As mentioned 1/11 people globally are employed in the tourism sector and yet as an industry the economic benefits are not highlighted at all.  Cities and mainstream destinations aside, rural regions could massively benefit from appreciating what they have and learning how to showcase this to the traveller, these rural and real experiences incidentally are what the modern day traveller is looking for. The drift from villages to the cities could be halted if the villages could be shown just how they can benefit directly from tourism. Indian Experiences works to promote companies who are working on exactly this.  On a larger scale also, tourism needs to be taken more seriously as an industry, its economic benefits showcased which will bring more people willing to set up training programs, will encourage more people to take it seriously as an industry and in turn will enhance India?s soft power in terms of tourism which as of now it is failing woefully in. Young people today, if they are taught what their country is, how it can be showcased and how they can be proud of it, can be its ambassadors which would be a powerful tool to enhance their self-worth, their appreciation of their own country and improve the image of the country globally.  This could also assist in changing the short-sighted approach which the current tourism sector has in the treatment of its foreign visitors.

9. Do you think India?s public and private enterprises have been steel-willed to join forces to enable India?s tourism potential, or not? 

No, very little is being done. The individual state governments by and large make occasional efforts in an ill-thought and often ill-conceived way. Little is done with a long term thought process in place or to actually think about the market they are targeting, there are very few, clear long term sustainable policies put out there. It mainly comes down to private enterprises, most of which have their own specific interests at heart and not the greater good of the tourism industry at large, which is understandable.  There are a couple of states which do better, Kerala and Rajasthan are the two most noticeable examples where the government and private enterprises work well together and have a more focused and sustainable policy. I have had many meetings with state tourist board officials from around India and the people I have spoken to don?t even know the product they are promoting, they do not know the potential that their own states have and in the instances where they do know a bit about it, they recite a list of monuments/sites at you and that?s about it. No one is actually trained on their destinations or how to promote them. I spoke to the guys at Punjab, all they could talk to me about was Amritsar. In Maharashtra it was only Ajanta and Ellora, I could go on.  In terms of infrastructure there is also a long way to go. Ensuring tourists safety is key, so many at a more budget level in particular fall prey to scams and have a bad experience.

10. In Japan, there was the #UnknownJapan campaign on Instagram which helped the country attract a lot of inbound tourists. What would be your recommendations for India to tap into the potential of social media to attract inbound tourists? If you were to suggest a possible campaign for tourism in India, what would it entail?

I have a personal rant against the Taj Mahal as I personally think that it prevents people doing the actual trip they want to do when they come to India. It?s all they focus on and therefore they miss out on the hundreds of other reasons that there are for visiting India. I have always been a great believer in my first mantra, India #beyondthetaj.

Also, people are so bored with Raj era tourism, Kerala backwaters, just the same old promotions. India needs to reinvent itself. The message that needs to be got out there is that there really is something for everyone in India. India also needs to get a strong message out there to appeal to a much younger traveller. If we think about it, India has culinary, textiles, adventure, architecture, beaches, forests, deserts, mountains, cities, golf, horse riding, trekking, rafting.

Adventure India, wild India, rural India, village India, chilled India, foodies India, artistic India. Visit to discover #yourIndia.

However, one thing, above all others in the feedback I?ve had about India over the last twenty years, is about its extraordinary people and it is the warmth of the people. That is the memory people take home with them.  This leads me to my second most popular mantra: Monuments create the backdrop but people create the experiences.

Also, it?s about stories, there are countless stories in India. A brilliant campaign could be started around #storiesofindia.

11. Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb thinks that in 10 years, India will be one of the world?s biggest markets with respect to the tourism industry. What will be your suggested roadmap for the next 10 years for ?Incredible India 2.0??

I think any individual is unqualified to answer this. I know that I am, because it requires a team of thinkers, movers and shakers! In the immediate term there are a whole host of fabulous people in the private sector from hoteliers to DMCs and people who are passionate about India?s arts, crafts, food, etc., who know India and its potential and I would invite these people in a think tank who can then brainstorm on the various aspects which would need to be considered.  In working together with the government the problem is continuity and so a system and 10 year plan would have to work around the instability of non-continuity.

Nature’s materials, knowledge systems and cultural outreach, The hand-made economy as cultural know-how

Introduction – our natural inheritance

The great rolling vistas of madhya Maharashtra are broken here and there by the rocky outcrops of the lesser Sahyadri ranges. In these lie enormous bowls, through whose lower reaches dry watercourses wind, with the craggy heights flickering every now and then with the passage of herds of goats and sheep in search of the sweeter grasses. Below them, following the easier contours, are villages and towns, some of which are of such antiquity that they are recorded in the Sahyadrikhanda of the Skandapurana.

Here, where the ‘ritus’ are known by whether they lighten the dryness or  deepen it, the sciences of soil had already reached a high pitch when Sant Dnyaneshwar composed his retelling of the Gita. The hardy kisans of this region classified their soils ‘kali’ or black, ‘pandhri’ or white, ‘kharam’ or salt, ‘burki’ or white salty and each of these picturesque divisions included local soils that were called light, heavy or sweet.

Until not very long ago, even in the early 1980s when I roamed the Sahyadri, sugarcane presses were built around two solid ‘babul’ wood cylinders, set upright close together. They were arranged with spiral screws so that when an ox turned one clockwise, it also turned the other counter-clockwise, and that was why in Marathi the cylinders were called ‘navra-navri’ (husband and wife, for they turned in opposite directions). The long, dark green stalks of sugarcane were fed in by hand, and the light brown juice that trickled out was boiled down into ‘gur’.

The sugarcane stalks did not then have to be cut into shorter lengths as was needed in the later, ‘improved’ motorised presses with iron cylinders, and this meant the cane fibres after pressing could be used for rope making. The pressed stalks were given to the ‘kumbhars’ (potters) of the villages, who prized the stalks for they would draw out the inner fibres, long and tough, and twist them into ropes which could stand constant immersion in water, for these special ropes were meant for the wells the potters drew their water from.

Not for the kumbhars any local pond with muddy water collected from the drippings of an irrigating water-wheel and into which thirsty cattle would barge. Their chosen wells brought up the water to mix their clays with, superior ‘jal’ for superior pots.

When the babul-wood navra-navris were no longer used, the potters no longer found their fibre, the ropes for the choice wells could no longer be twisted, the clay lost the special lustre imparted by the water, the kumbhars customers went elsewhere, and a material skill faded away.

Ecosystems, crafts knowledge, economy

This is the connection that ties together environment, landscape, water and the cultivation of crops, handicrafts that include both the aesthetic and the utilitarian, all of which extends far beyond what is usually thought of when we use the terms ‘handicrafts’, ‘hand weaves’ and ‘household industries’. It is a connection vital to the organisation and use of cultural soft power because it is so widespread (even if economically underplayed) and because when well organised it is quickly recognisable by many.

For cultural soft power to make use of this connection, there a few prerequisites:

* The ecological-ecosystems basis for crafts, weaves and household arts, with their associated knowledge streams, must be better understood and acknowledged.

* The space and place for a hand-made economy, and associated means of values (which are quite different from the formal and market economy), must be respected and acknowledged.

* When these two steps are firm enough, an instruction pedagogy to convey our practices and learning to neighbours, the region and farther away.

The range of materials which the handicrafts, hand weaves and rural household industry sector employs is as bewilderingly vast as it is fascinating. In north-central Uttar Pradesh, the old cane craft of Bareilly combined with the flute-making skills of Pilibhit so that today the bamboo of Barak valley in Assam furnishes the crafts families in these districts with raw material. The potters of Lucknow, Allahabad and Gorakhpur district get their clay from nearby fields and village ponds to make ‘malwa’ (container for ‘ubtan’, gram flour and oil required for body massages), and cooking vessels.

In eastern Uttar Pradesh, wild grasses such as ‘moonj’ and ‘rara’ grow in Allahabad, Bahraich and Gorakhpur districts. The grasses are coiled, a basketry technique which makes them durable and water-resistant. ‘Roti’ stored in these stay fresh for many hours, and small coiled baskets were the staple equipment for farmers going to mandis or families travelling by train and bus. In Jharkhand, bamboo grows abundantly and is used to fashion utility articles of all kinds, from combs to huge baskets for carrying fowl to the ubiquitous ‘soop’ or winnowing baskets. These are in great demand in the weekly haats in Ranchi district.

A set of pattal or patravali, leaf bowls for prasadam, fashioned from sal or banyan leaves

In the 1951 Census, the first of independent India, among the list of industries and occupations according to which the working population was described were herdsmen and shepherds, bee-keepers, silkworm rearers, cultivators of lac, charcoal burners, collectors of cow dung, gatherers of sea weeds and water products, gur manufacture, toddy drawers, tailors and darners, potters and makers of earthenware, glass bangles and beads, basket makers.

Partial though it was compared with the dizzying range of vocations derived from nature’s materials and the use of an inherited stream of knowledge, this is a list that is likely to have helped the writers and planners of the Second Five Year Plan (1956-61) secure the Government’s acceptance in principle of the Stores Purchase Committee’s recommendation that certain classes of stores should be reserved exclusively for purchase from village and small industries and that price differentials should be allowed to them over the products of large-scale industries.

In the 1960s, what continued to be considered the mainstay of the economy by our rural and urban populations and by planners alike, was still large and diverse enough to routinely include wooden toys, palmyra fibre, stone and marble carving, lacquer work, lace and embroidery, bamboo articles, carpets and rugs, leather goods, glazed ceramic-ware, horn, gold and silverware, ivory, bidri, cane furniture, a multitude of types of bamboo work, artistic pottery, silpa and mat weaving, lac bangles, himroo, silver filigree, coloured stones, salimshahi and appashahi footwear, grass mat weaving, brocade, ornamental brassware, papier mache – examples from a very long list indeed. Until the change that liberalisation and globalisation brought in took wider hold, it is agriculture and crafts that formed the centre of a decentralised economy not necessarily related to any given level of technique or mode of operation, and which proved remarkably holistic.

The clash of materials

In the districts of India in which I have been able to witness, in and near villages, the ordinary commerce of small goods and articles, the two broad groups of materials in current use are visible. The far older group remains, but only just. The ‘jhadus’ or household and yard brooms, either feathery or stiff depending on what use it is put to, are bound together from grasses and reeds. Baskets and tokris are scarce, and are hardly visible in the weekly village haats. For long-term community grain storage, the ‘bhandaran’ structures which used to be marvels of construction – combining wood, cane, cowdung, treated clays and ‘bhasmas’ which varied by location and need – have probably disappeared entirely.

Common to every taluka and tehsil are the vendors of recycled plastic vessels and containers, visible from a distance across the fields because of the brightly coloured piles of articles they manage to strap to their bicycles as they travel between panchayats. Once hailed as the brokers of a distributed recycling industry that puts discarded and waste plastic to practical new uses, these enterprising salesmen are now distributing material whose degradation, piece by microscopic piece, enters wells, ponds and groundwater aquifers.

“Some of the most useful materials, synthetic polymers, also known as plastics, have

transformed our lives in the last few decades,” the publication, ‘Chemical and Petrochemical Statistics at a Glance – 2017’, explains. This annual compendium adds, “The driving force for this development was provided by the need for conservation of natural resources and energy efficiency and inherent advantages of the material which created possibilities of innovative designs and cost savings”.

Built heritage and knowledge heritage. Cowdung pats adorn the compound wall of the palace in Morvi, Gujarat.

It is possible that the Department of Chemicals and Petrochemicals of the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilisers is not aware of the ecological economics of having substituted a object of utility made from natural materials, with one made from plastics. For then, its arguments of energy efficiency, inherent advantage and conservation would be found wanting. While such a view is still uncommon, the production of polymers in India has increased from 5.7 million tons in 2009-10 to 9.16 million tons in 2016-17, and their consumption has risen over the same period from 7.19 million tons to 12.7 million tons.

It is this clash of materials that is hindering the regaining of what used be automatic space for a hand-made economy. When that balance is regained, then the basis for India to take abroad, as soft power, a method and practice of economic stability, is laid, as the next section outlines.

The mechanisms are already available. There are the Prime Ministers Employment Guarantee Programme, and there is the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) with its key programmes: Market Promotion Development Assistance, Scheme of Fund for Regeneration of Traditional Industries, and Khadi Reform and Development Programme. These already have a reach far and wide. According to the KVIC, in 2016-17 village industries (including khadi) recorded production (input costs) of Rs 41,100 crore and sales of Rs 49,900 crore.

These are very sizeable figures – consider that the National Health Mission works with a budget of about Rs 31,300 crore and the National Education Mission with one of Rs 29,500. Furthermore, under these programmes the recorded number of people who have been reached, enrolled on one or another, found the teaching and training for skills of their choice and aptitude, and who are making objects aesthetic or utilitarian or both, are 13,184,000. It indeed takes relatively tiny amounts to make such activity viable, for the KVIC found that margin money of only Rs 1,280 crore made almost 53,000 small projects thrive.

A new methodology to assess the incidence, scale and variety of craft activity  (with ‘craft’ including handicrafts, hand weaves – the entire fibre to fabric cycle, household and cottage industries – which serve local mandis as much as village needs with products from foodstuffs to agricultural implements) is needed. This will suggest that the most basic of the kinds of data we have on the sector must be revised and updated through new criteria.

What we have to describe the numeric size of the sector as we now know it dates to the mid-1990s, after the Office of the Development Commissioner (Handicrafts) asked the NCAER in 1993 to conduct an All India Census of Handicraft Artisans, and which has been thereafter used as a basis for updated enumeration by all kinds of agencies but without revisiting or revising criteria.

Method and practice as cultural outreach

The mahua tree, whose flower is popularly associated with the liquor distilled from it, is revered by tribals in Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan for its extraordinary properties. A pickle made from the flower is used to treat tuberculosis, the flower is eaten by women to as it makes breast milk more nutritious, and its bark when powdered treats respiratory ailments. In Gadchiroli, dried mahua flowers used to be stored by the Gond in baskets lined with leaves of the ‘kojam’ tree which prevents fungus infecting the flowers, for up to two years.

It is in this way that ‘craft’ – so elementally entwined with knowledge of nature, the forms that natural materials can take, the cultivation of species that are food and are medicine, and the cultural codes that govern the conservation of this diversity as well as its uses – becomes the basis for a practice and a method.

As part of the training and advice I have imparted on behalf of Unesco for its intangible cultural heritage convention to a number of countries in Asia, these and like examples have helped to quickly and easily make the connections between cultural practices and livelihoods. The frameworks of knowledge systems relating to societies’ use of natural resources tend to be similar in like ecosystems – whether semi-arid plateau, deciduous rainforest, coastal and deltaic – and that is why their economic and cultural reliance on these resources is also similar.

The first half of the 20th century produced detailed new appreciation of Indias ancient and close connections with South-East Asia

In Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Timor-Leste, Mongolia, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Seychelles, Kazakhstan and Iran I have found that there is, amongst the practitioners of crafts and rural arts, a strong understanding of the correlation between what they do and why it is so essential in the slow, erratic journey towards sustainability. That is why these examples and others like them evoke a line of interested questioning: how can skills be better taught, how can crafts produce attract buyers without losing meaning and context, how can the efforts of the eldest knowledge bearers be supported, what can be done to find and retain the interests of the youth?

At the same time, they (together with administrators and officials from government whose departments are given the task of encouraging the practice and produce of local knowledge systems) tend to be bewildered by the theoretical complexity about sustainability which usually accompanies programmes and campaigns on ‘development’. These more often than not are delivered by agencies whose main focus is remain viable agencies, and are therefore interested in retaining ownership of a development framework instead of facilitating the revival of what has long existed, but which has suffered erosion.

Considerable conceptual work in this direction has been generated through inter-governmental effort, the more notable amongst them being in the areas of intangible cultural heritage (Unesco), traditional ecological knowledge (Convention on Biological Diversity), indigenous and local knowledge (Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystems Services), traditional and local knowledge (World Intellectual Property Organisation) and local knowledge systems (UN Framework Convention on Climate Change). Where these fall short is in joining the practical dots and showing how it is done.

A new development dimension

This is where our experience with craft (in the widest sense as described in the previous section), our diverse wealth of practical knowledge and the supporting scaffolding that government now has – livelihoods and incomes, the provision of credit, skills and certified learning, natural resources management – must become an active foreign policy and development cooperation resource.

Such an approach presents a set of familiar concepts and practices to show that a hand-made economy – as represented by the long-form meaning of ‘craft’ – is vital to fulfilling national and inter-governmental objectives pertaining to the sustainability of production and consumption, raising the level of resilience of settlements and communities (especially to respond to climate change), and strengthening self-reliance whether at the village or town ward level.

Chief among these objectives internationally are the UN Climate Conventions Paris Agreement on Climate Change (2016), which has the full support of and participation by India, and which obliges countries that have ratified to undertake supporting action” and to stand by the nationally determined contributions which they have submitted to the UN climate agency and also to strengthen these efforts in the years ahead.

And there are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to which India is a signatory state party and of the 17, nine are connected with handicrafts, hand weaves and rural household industries. As the reporting frameworks required of countries for the SDGs becomes more stringent, they will help bring a spotlight on the externalities that organised and formal industrial processes have profited from, and likewise on the array of ecosystem services that the crafts and weaves, the arts and local manufactures, perform.

But more than as a means to meet international and regional obligations, a cultural outreach to the countries of nearer and farther Asia based on our own treatment of crafts and their associated knowledge systems, helps diversify the development dialogue. Just as the weather-wise kisans of madhya Maharashtra maintain their own encyclopaedia of soil types, and just as their counterparts in the Konkan record the onset and behaviour of 16 characteristics of rain through the monsoon, so too can the idea of ‘development’ benefit from the diversity of pathways that a hand-made economy quite naturally embraces.

This article is based on my contribution and presentation for the panel on crafts and arts, at the inaugural Conference on Soft Power, Centre for Soft Power of the India Foundation, held during December 17-19, 2018.

Source: Google Images (

Discussion on Convergence of Soft Power and Value Based Democracy

The discussion on the convergence of Value based Democracy and Soft power was held at the Center for Soft Power on the 5th of March 2019. The discussants were Dr. Johannes Heinrich, Philosopher and Author from Germany and Mrs. Shobana Sharma, Research Scholar, University of Madras.

Dr. Johannes Heinrich?s speech was thought provoking and espoused an idea which had its genesis in the ancient texts of India. He gave a simple and lucid explanation from his point of argument. He described why democracy is in dire need of structural reform, and outlined a system that could help achieve this. When speaking of this system with regards to the Indian context, he said the following:

?Because of the great variety of religions and strong religious life, in India it is more easily understood, at least theoretically(!), that state-law and religions must be separated, and that secularization means not at all vanishing of religion, as secularization often is often misinterpreted in the West, by confusing these two totally different meanings of the word. This misinterpretation is nearly impossible in India because of the vitality of religious thinking, even among intellectuals? he said.

During the discussion, the research scholar from Madras University Ms Shobana Sharma clarified the source of all profound Knowledge in the Indian context can be taken from the ancient texts. As it has the ability and tenacity to be amended and postulated to suit and adapt to the cultural environment prevailing at anytime.

This interaction was one of the many that the center will be holding in the coming months.

Roundtable on Yoga

The Center for Soft Power hosted Valentina Ranzi from Italy and Catherine Emmerling-Garet from France, on 26/02/19 as part of a roundtable on Yoga at its office. The roundtable explored both their journeys from being first introduced to Yoga to now, when they have fully immersed themselves into the study and teaching of Yoga.

  1. How were you first introduced to Yoga?

Valentina recalled how she was first introduced to Yoga in 1980 through mediation. As a child she had looked towards art to find a deeper purpose and was able to come into contact with first meditation and then yoga. And in doing so she found that Yoga helped her understand herself better than anything else she had experienced in the west. She spoke of how she learnt Ayurveda and Yoga from an Indian family in Italy.

Catherine spoke of how she was first introduced to Yoga by her mother, who was a practitioner herself.? Her first introduction was when her mother took her to see BKS Iyengar when he was visiting Paris. However, it was only when she moved to New Zealand that she took her first course on Yoga.

  1. What aspects of Yoga drew you towards learning it? Was it merely the physical or was there any spiritual aspects which resonated with them?

Valentina noted that initially she was more immersed in the concept of Bhakti through her meditation. And it was through this meditation that she then discovered the physical aspect of Yoga. And recently with her trip to India and her increased study of Yoga, she has come to understand the spiritual aspects of Yoga.

Catherine described how she her first major exposure to India was studying about India at university, which then led her to studying Hinduism. And now since she has come to India, her spiritual path with respect to Yoga has taken on a completely new shape. She now devotes her time to studying the Vedas and other Indian texts.

  1. How is Yoga perceived in your home country? What are some of your experiences in teaching foreign students?

Valentina said that while Yoga is nowadays quite popular in Italy, it has historically been seen as ?strange?.? However despite its popularity, much of Yoga in Italy is still focused specifically on the physical aspects, and ignores the other elements such as the spiritual and philosophical elements of Yoga. That being said, she noted that Pranayama is starting to gain more acceptance in the mainstream.

Catherine spoke of how in her experience it was those expats who came to study Yoga in India that were more open to exploring the depths of yoga, as opposed to foreign audiences abroad.

  1. In your experience do students eventually begin to delve into the spiritual aspects of Yoga after being initially introduced to only the physical aspects of it?

Valentina noted that in her experience not many students transcended into the learning of Yoga?s spiritual side, when compared to those who immerse themselves into the physical side of it. However, this is not to say that no students do not make the cross, such students exist but the number is small.

Catherine echoed similar sentiments, saying that Yoga forces one to look inward and in doing so people will be able to better understand themselves. However this does not often translate into students exploring the philosophical and spiritual elements of Yoga.

A Journey from Greece to India

This article first appeared in Swarajya Magazine on 3rd March 2019.

Dimitrios Mavrokefalos is a visual designer from Greece, and the co-founder of the HangOut Naxos music festival that takes place in the Island of Naxos in Greece. He was first introduced to Bharaketanatyam three years ago, through Lida Shantala, Greece?s first officially recognised Bharatanatyam teacher, and has since immersed himself in the art form. Mavrokefalos is a student of dancing couple and Padma Bhushan winners V P Dhananjayan and Shantha Dhananjayan.

India Foundation?s Center for Soft Power was delighted to host Mavrokefalos at its office in Kotturpuram, Chennai, on 21 February 2019. V P Dhananjayan also joined in the interaction. The interactive discussion was on Mavrokefalos journey from Greece to India. The presentation expressed the inspiration he has derived from Indian culture and his travels to the country to study yoga, Bharatanatyam, mridangam and chanting.

Here are some excerpts of the interview with Pavitra Srinivasan, research fellow at the Center for Soft Power, India Foundation:

What attracted you towards Bharatanatyam, and how do you perceive it beyond physical movements and techniques?

It was my teacher, Lida Shantala ? whom I first met in Athens ? who encouraged me to start the practice of this dance form. Back then I did not know much about it. The more I followed her teachings, her movements and her expressions, the more I slowly but surely fell in love with it. The Puranic stories she narrated at various moments in her teachings felt magical and touched my heart. Following the roots of tradition of my teacher, I sought to follow her own teachers, the Dhananjayans. This is how my journey from Greece to India began.

What has inspired you about the teaching system of your gurus, the Dhananjayans?

The system is traditional; I spend more time with my fellow students, watch practice sessions and official performances. I have the opportunity to observe many details that I don?t get to see in Athens.

I am honoured to learn from the Dhananjayans, and to witness their teaching. It?s a sacred moment when Shantha akka is directing the movement of the students only with her eyes.

When I see some senior teachers, I appreciate deeply their approach to natya by the moves and the practice they give to the students. I find it hard to perform, but a treat to watch. I appreciate the complexity of the moves and the hard work through sheer repetition of the same element time and again, in order to perfect it.

How long has your training been, both in Greece and in Chennai?

Two years in Greece and four weeks in Chennai.

In Athens, I practise once a week for an hour, while here I practise daily for more than two-three hours. Apart from dance, I practise chanting, music and yoga, and the approach is more holistic towards the subject. They all complement each other in my training here in Bharata Kalanjali, while in Athens I pursue some of the above faculties in different schools.

What differences and similarities do you find between your city Athens and Chennai?

We both have grocery markets and good food! We don?t use chilies at all back in Athens, so it?s hard for me to appreciate chili in the food here. I love the different fruits, fresh guava and coconut from the trees, which I cannot find in my city. Driving here is the craziest experience I ever had; in Athens driving is more structured, and less chaotic. I am curious to know how it would be for a local if there were no horns to sound while driving! (laughs) Here I like to observe all these tiny stores where people work, whereas in my place the stores are bigger. While coal is still used for ironing here, electricity is mainly used there.

Food is less expensive here than in Greece and available almost everywhere! I like idli, masala dosa, samosa and chaat, as well as a good number of colourful sweets, which I normally don?t eat back in my country but indulge in here! (smiles)

Tell us about your trips to Delphi, the spiritual centre in Greece, and Auroville, a spiritual centre near Pondicherry (Puducherry).

This past summer I had the experience of documenting the ?Dances For The Divine Mother? workshop organised by Miriam Peretz, that took place in Delphi, Greece. Whenever I am there, the energy I feel is immense. You can see that in nature, in the many bees that fly around one flower and in the power of water that flows out of the rocks. In Auroville, I had the chance to witness beautiful architecture, a nice concept and an egg shaped rock that resembled Omphalos, a sacred ancient rock found in Delphi, believed to be the navel of the earth. In Auroville, I heard that on this egg-shaped rock, many representatives from different parts of the world had laid some mud for the inauguration ceremony. It was funny to observe this similarity that impressed upon my attention the moment I laid my eyes on it.

You seem to enjoy chanting, what does chanting evoke in you?

It evokes a feeling of lightness, when the mind slows down and stops thinking for a while. In the physical aspect, I feel areas of my body being activated depending on where the sound is being directed. After a good chanting session with other people, there is this change in the field that is felt by all and a kind of joy and ease of connection that comes along with it. I also have a sruti box at home, which is a very good companion and helps to guide my voice.

You are a co-organiser of the festival Hona that happens in the island of Naxos in Greece. How long is the festival and what do people get to see in that?

Hona is a four-day music festival that takes place in Naxos Island. It is the first of its kind in my country and I feel it is a blessing to be a part of it. It is a gathering of musicians from all over the world who share the same passion for expression through a musical instrument called Handpan. In this festival, we have a wide number of workshops taking place that explore the connection between sound and movement through art forms like music, instrument playing, dancing, yoga, tai chi and instrument creation.

As a visual artist, how does India inspire you?

Everything my eyes look at here ignites my spirits. From the look of the mother with a baby on her lap sitting inside a small temple shrine on the street, to the mad crazy drivers here moving in all directions swiftly, to the sounds of the crows and dogs, to the colourful hues of the morning sun and the fruits in the street carts, to the shouts and the gazing of pedestrians. All things here seem to be composed in a divine symphony.

What would you like to take back to Greece from Chennai and India?

Silence! In addition, good moments shared in Bharata Kalanjali with my fellow dance students and teachers. Impressions from beautiful Bharatanatyam performances I have watched and other observations from practice.

Who is your mridangam teacher, and how do you find it different from the drums you play?

Ramesh Babu sir is my mridangam teacher. I had a chance to hear him play while practising for a performance at Bharata Kalanjali. This instrument has a great subtlety in its tone system and one can hear very fine details while practising a whole range of different ?fingering techniques? on it. So it goes without saying that the moment I listened to it and identified the potential it offers, I wanted to explore it avidly. I would like to take some techniques from mridangam and introduce them to Handpan so that my playing will be more diverse.

Are there any music or dance styles that are codified in Greece like how Natya Shastra is codified here?

To my limited knowledge, there are some parts that are being practised there like polyphonic chanting or ancient drama theatre. But all these are separately practised. There is no unifying art form that brings all together as one unit like Bharatanatyam and Natya Shastra do. There are some schools of theatrical and dance art forms there, which I am not aware about.

What I can say for sure is that there is no such form as Bharatanatyam that I have witnessed coming out of the tradition of my country.

I feel there is a great depth of ancient Greek tradition that has only now started coming out intuitively from the present day generations. For this to develop, it needs a good study of ancient traditional texts and regional practices both of my country and other ancient cultures like that of India, to emerge and make an impact once again on the whole world. It is my belief that art is universal and what once existed in a place was also available elsewhere.

Carnatic music also seems to interest you so much. What draws you to it?

It has been five years since I started playing and practising music ? percussive and flute.

But it was only in the last two years that I started experimenting with Indian music.

Having practised percussion for more than five years, I find Carnatic style of playing rather complex and interesting to explore. This whole system of thalamsand jathis that exist in both Bharatanatyam and mridangam enriches my understanding of rhythm and music to a great degree. So my hope is to continue to practise both these art forms and hopefully to expand my understanding of this ancient system of knowledge.

Some years of economic crisis must have been tough on Greece. How were the people able to overcome it?

At the beginning of 2008, it was a bit tough because there was a lot of bad news. So people were getting disappointed easily, but after a period of time, news started becoming obsolete and people started getting back in tune with their real nature, which is joy and laughter! Now if you walk the streets of Greece you might find it hard to identify any crisis in people there. The ancient Chinese saying goes ?when there is crisis it is time for new opportunities and for something new to emerge?. So we try to stay open and see what comes.

Would you forget us when you return to Greece?

My experience here has been really strong in multiple layers! Only if I get Alzheimer?s, will there be a chance that I could forget it (laughs). What happens in your heart stays there forever. Therefore, I will never forget you all.

Pavithra Srinivasan is a Research Fellow at the Center for Soft Power, India Foundation