Nouf Almarwaai’s visit to CSP

India Foundation’s Center for Soft Power (CSP) is a Chennai-based not-for-profit organisation which is working dedicatedly to pursue the merits of soft power through the various domains of cultural sphere between countries across the world to build strong pro-societal relationships. This is achieved through the conduct of numerous interactions across the society through events, seminars, discussion based forums and organizing conferences.

To cultivate a healthy society, CSP actively works to promote Yoga, which is a key element of soft power in connecting nations. As a part of this theme, it had played a proactive role to engage with Nouf Marwaai, an eminent personality from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Founder of Arab Yoga Foundation and a Padma Shri awardee from the Government of India.

@KYM

Center for Soft Power facilitated Nouf to engage with several yogic platforms in Chennai. On August 17, 2019, the first interaction was at Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram (KYM) on, a landmark institute and a frontrunner in teaching traditional and contemporary techniques of Yoga to the city’s diverse population. The event was headed by Shri. Sridharan, Trustee and senior mentor of KYM.

Many participants from foreign countries attended the forum with great interest. Nouf spoke on her personal experience and the benefits of practicing Yoga. She stressed on the importance of Yoga and explained how it is a gift of India and that the people of Saudi Arabia have started accepting the practice.

She said that it was inspiration from the teachings of Aurobindo and Krishnamacharya that had a deep impact on her life which helped her to pursue Yoga in true spirit. She also explained how her Arab Yoga foundation is pioneering the efforts to promote Traditional Yoga in Saudi Arabia through her team of 700 professional experts and 10,000 students in the city of Jeddah alone.

CSP facilitated the second important engagement at the Meenakshi Academy of Higher Education and Research in Chennai on August 18. The conference was organised by the Faculty of Yoga Sciences and Therapy. Nouf Marwaai was invited as the Guest of Honour. The event was a productive session with Nouf sharing her personal challenges of life before Yoga and how life had dramatically altered positively after implementing the learned Yogic practices. Many research scholars presented their papers on important findings in Yoga science.

On the same day, the final yet most valuable event was a public talk organised by CSP for Nouf in collaboration with Chettinad Harishree Vidyalayam on ‘Prospects of India – Saudi Arabia Soft Power Relations: From Yoga to Diaspora.’ The session was dynamic with the topic deliberated on being soft power and its capable outreach which binds communities far and wide through shared interaction and mutual friendship. Nouf also underscored the historical relationship between India and Saudi Arabia that has evolved over the years. Saying that about 25% of Saudi’s expatriate population are Indians, she outlined the similarities of the cultural and family values of both India and Saudi Arabia. She sounded optimistic and expressed hope that the existing Indo-Saudi Arabian bond of friendship can be taken forward to greater levels through renewed values of soft power and culture.

Great Jewish Stars were at the heart of Bollywood

Danny Ben Moshe, the award-winning documentary film maker has spent a long, substantive time researching and piecing together the impact and influence of Jewish superstars in Bollywood through his movie: “Shalom Bollywood: the untold story of Indian Cinema”. The film tells the 2,000-year-old Indian Jewish community and its formative place in the Indian film industry.

In this interaction with CSP he speaks about his journey from Jewish public policy to academia and then to film making, aspects of India-Israel soft power relations, and the opportunities and challenges going forward:

Can you explain to us your journey and why and how you took to film making?

I worked in Jewish public policy in Israel and the diaspora, and then went into academia where I was an Associate Professor and director of a research institute in Melbourne, Australia. We wanted to share some of our research through film as well as traditional academic forms, and I went to see a film maker to get advice and help with that. I had a longstanding interest in documentaries which I had eagerly watched on both TV and at film festivals, and while we were talking I mentioned some documentary ideas I had. To cut a long story short, that process led us to make a film together and I was hooked. That was my first film back in 2005, “The Buchenwald Ball” about a group of Holocaust survivors in Melbourne.  Almost 15 years later, I have now made about 11 films. For a while I carried on as an academic with film making on the side and then performed as half academic, half film maker, but a few years ago I became a full time film maker.


Picture source : Danny Ben Moshe

When was the first time you visited India? What has fascinated you about India?

I first went to India soon after my first film, probably in 2006 or 2007. The initial idea was to explore the possibility of making a film about the Jewish actress Nadira who had recently passed away. I wanted to explore what material existed for such a story and who I may interview for such a film, but as a Westerner and first-time visitor to India, I was captivated by a totally different society and civilisation to what I was used to. The mass of people, colours, cacophony of sounds, were something I had never experienced before.  As I delved into India’s Jewish story, and met local Jews, I asked them about-Semitism, or Jew hatred. They all looked at me oddly either to ask me to clarify what anti-Semitism is or why anyone would hate them. India, I was delighted to discover, is probably unique in being the only country in the world where the Jewish community has not experienced any anti-Semitism. As a Jew I found that fascinating and heartening. It made me want to delve deeper into India society and the dynamics that made it tick and explained its Jewish story.

What prompted and intrigued you to study the role of Jews in Indian cinema and how long and arduous was the journey?

The journey began, as many great journeys often do, in an unplanned way. In my University Institute I had an Indian Post-Graduate student working for me who had encountered a few personal problems, such as housing. Knowing that internationals students often don’t known how to navigate the Australian system, &/or landlords try and take financial advantage of them, I stepped in and helped resolve the situation. It was really no big deal, but her father, whom I had met on a visit to Australia, was extremely appreciative that I had helped her out. He started sending me Iittle gifts, such as pens or key rings via his daughter.  These were unnecessary but apparently quite an Indian thing to do. One day the student, Devaki, walked into my office and said, “This is from my father,” and this time, the item he had sent was an obituary about Nadira with a reference to her being Jewish. As the father knew I was Jewish he thought it would be of interest. I had always known there had been Jews in India, but had no idea that there was this Jewish superstar in Bollywood, and that’s really how my “Shalom Bollywood” journey started.

That journey proved to be very long and very arduous. It took me over 10 years to make the film. This was for several reasons.

Firstly, it was very early on in my film career and I was taking on a massive story.

Secondly, from a financial point of view, I was unable to generate film finance. Usually the way it works with documentaries I make for example for Australian TV or British TV, is that they are publicly funded but they must have content about their country i.e., Australia or Britain. This that was not an option with my ‘Shalom Bollywood film”.

Thirdly, it was also challenging because all the Jewish stars had passed away. I needed to find people who knew them and could speak about them. It took me years and I eventually tracked down Ruby, an elderly lady in Sydney and relative of Sulochana; Diana, a relative of David Abraham in Canada, and Rachel Reuben, the former model who is a relative of Rose, in Mumbai. I then had to travel to all these places to interview them which took time and money.

Fourthly, it was a major struggle to track down archive of the Jewish stars that I needed to tell this story. For example, I knew there would be interviews on India radio with the Jewish stars or photos of theme at the Phalke awards, but ultimately had to give up on my search for these and find other ways to tell the story. But necessity is the mother of invention, which is why my film utilises animation and storyboards, which turned out to be effective, fresh and find storytelling devices. However, I wanted the viewers of my film to go away with the sense they have seen the films of the Jewish stars of India, so I included some fairly lengthy segments with excerpts from the films of old Jewish stars. Then the audience goes away with the feeling “Ah, I know Sulochana, I have seen her before. I know Pramila. I know Rose. I know David. I know Nadira”. And, you know, hopefully that is a way to remember them and keep them alive. 

Fifthly and finally, it was very arduous because, to be honest, the bureaucracy and even the government film organisations in India are very difficult to liaise with. I explicitly came against corruption where people would only provide relevant materials if I paid a bribe.


Picture source : Danny Ben Moshe

What are some of your noteworthy conclusions with respect to Jews in Indian Cinema?

I think it was a unique confluence of events that led Indian Jews to play the pioneering role they did in Indian cinema. Indian Jews were part of this very modern Anglo-Indian Jewish community at a time when cinema was beginning and it was taboo for Hindu and Islamic women to perform on screen. The Jewish community, and Jewish women in particular, were generally more progressive, and did not share these taboos. In addition to their place in Indian society, Indian Jews also had ties and familiarity with the West and its cinema. Physically, the (Baghdadi) Jewish women had the high cheeks bones and lighter skin that emulated the Hollywood look which made them perfect for the low light conditions of early India cinema. It was just one of those unique moments in history where the above factors came together leading Indian Jews to have the pivotal role they did.

The conclusion I reach is that the course of Indian cinema’s history would have been distinctly different, certainly in terms of time frame of developments, without these Jewish stars. But also perhaps without the development of some of the roles such as vamps and other archetypes of the Indian cinema, these characters and their casting would have been different, or would at least have evolved differently. The other conclusion that must be drawn is that as a tiny community, in its peak was only tens of thousands, the impact it had on Indian cinema and society was disproportionate to its size.

Today there is hardly any trace of Bollywood’s Jewish connection? Are there still many Jews in Indian cinema?

Well my first response to that is, even when the great Jewish actors were at the heart of Bollywood or Indian cinema, like Sulochana, Nadira, David, most people didn’t even knew that they were Jewish! When I spoke to cinema historians, journalists and others in India, they had no idea; they thought they might be Christians or Parsis. Today, there is no real trace of Jews in Bollywood other than their legacy and I don’t think we can underestimate that. So perhaps that Jewish presence is felt in the performances of contemporary character actors in the tradition of David or vamps in the tradition of Nadira and Pramila.

Today, Pramila’s son, the actor Haider Ali, who co-wrote “Jodha Akbar”, continues to write and act in Bollywood today. The Jewish choreographer Baba Herman, who is seen in my documentary on set, can often be found directing a dance scene in Bollywood today. But the Indian Jewish community is small, just a few thousand, and of course taboos on Hindu and Islamic women are long past, so the unique niche they filled is no longer there. And while she has left India, the granddaughter of famed 1930s actress Miss Rose, Rachel Reuben, continues her film work as an editor in New York.

Apart from acting, what are some of the other fields in which Jews played a significant role in Indian cinema as per your research?

Well, the biggest non-acting role was that by Joseph David Penkar, who wrote the first talkie in Indian cinema; that is a real milestone. It is no coincidence that it was a Jew, who comes from a community with a long tradition of literacy, after all we are the “People of the Book”. And of course, the late great Bunny Reuben, who was Raj Kapoor’s right hand man and publicist, a real giant in off-screen Indian cinema.


Picture source : Danny Ben Moshe

How would you define India-Israel soft power relations through cinema and TV? What are some of the opportunities and challenges going forward?

I think Bollywood and Indian cinema is a massive dimension of Indian soft power. Israeli cinema is also very significant. If you think in terms of “Waltz With Bashir” the documentary, or the current Netflix drama, “Shtisel”, these have surprising impact and influence, but are in no way close to Bollywood. Also, they often, in the form of “Waltz With Bashir” and massive Netflix hits like “Fauda”, are about the Israeli-Palestinian/Arab conflict, rather than distracting from it.  I don’t think too many popular Indian films and TV dramas would take the situation in Kashmir for their subject matter.

Israel’s soft power is far more in areas of technology, environment, agriculture etc, and my understanding is that there is great work going on between India and Israel at the present time in these spheres. In terms of opportunities moving forward, I think there is scope for an Israel-India film co-production. Israel very recently signed a co-production treaty between Israel and India and perhaps this is an area for collaboration for the benefit of soft power for both the countries. Indeed, I am currently trying to develop an Israel-India film coproduction based on my “Shalom Bollywood” story.

My film “Shalom Bollywood” had its world premiere at the Mumbai Film Festival where it was reviewed by a Hollywood reporter as “lively, upbeat and entertaining” and it was also screened as part of the Israel Country-In-Focus screening at the Government of India’s International Film Festival at Goa in 2018, where it got a standing ovation.  The film has been a massive hit on the Jewish and India film festival circuit around the world, bridging two cultures and finding common ground between the two civilisations.

Interestingly, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited India, he held a special outreach with the Bollywood fraternity in Mumbai and the campaign was titled Shalom Bollywood. What are your thoughts on this?

I am familiar with this Netanyahu-Bollywood event because scenes from my documentary were screened at this Bollywood gathering, and it was a real honour for me to have that take place. I think “Shalom Bollywood” was right for this event because Shalom means “Hello” in Hebrew and it was Netanyahu saying “Hello” to the Bollywood fraternity, and it was also Israel, from its highest office, saying “Hello” to Indian cinema. If Bollywood is a word synonymous with India, Shalom is synonymous with Israel, so the name of this event was very apt.

Are you grooming any talent to pursue their passion in Indian cinema from Israel?

I am Jewish but actually an English Jew by birth. I have lived in Israel and hope to live there again, but am currently living in Australia where I have been for 20 years. But the world is a global village and I am looking to make a Jewish Indian drama and I hope it will be an Israel-India-Australia co-production.


Picture source : Danny Ben Moshe

Are there universities in Israel that teach film making and cover the India-Israeli connection in Indian cinema? Do you teach this aspect in these universities and are there any special courses?

There are some fantastic film schools in Israel.  There is the Sam-Spiegel Film and Television School in Jerusalem, the capital of Israel. And there is a film school in Tel Aviv University. I don’t know the specifics of what any of the above are teaching about India and Israel, but if you are studying world cinema, you can’t ignore Bollywood.

While I’d be honoured to work for any film school in Israel, I have no formal connections to any of them because, as I explained I am based in Australia. However, I teach short courses on Jewish films at different Institutions and museums in Australia and around the world, a lot based on my own films. I include “Shalom Bollywood” in these, which always generates a positive response and extensive discussion. 

In Eilat, the southernmost city of Israel, I believe every year there is a festival of Indian cinema. Israel is massive melting pot with people from over 100 countries, including India, and they stay in touch with India and its cinema. As my “Shalom Bollywood” documentary shows, films such as “Mother India”, a classic of Indian cinema, have played in Israel. The Eilat event is a big gathering for Indian Jews who would be showcasing latest films from India.

Who knows what will be in the future but I think we can say that the Israel-India relationship will get stronger and stronger. I hope cinema will be one dimension of that. And I hope I will be able to play a small part in that.

‘Shalom Bollywood: the Untold Story of Indian Cinema’ can be watched in Israel and India on demand at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/shalombollywood

You can find out more about Danny’s films at www.identity-films.com

‘I fell to my knees…totally in love with this music’

Emmanuelle Martin, accomplished French pianist and Carnatic musician, speaks about her journey across the two diverse cultures

Emmanuelle Martin was born in a family of western classical musicians. Thirty years ago, her father discovered Carnatic Music (the classical music of South India and started learning singing with Savitry Nair in Paris, who later introduced him to Seetharama Sharma: under whom he studied for many years. He also came in contact with TM Krishna, Carnatic musician and vocalist, and this was how Emmanuelle met her future tutor and guru.

How did you get interested in Indian Classical music? Did your earlier training in music help you to learn Carnatic music?

I was born in a family of western classical musicians. About 30 years ago my father discovered Karnatik Music and started learning singing with Savitry Nair in Paris who later introduced him to  Seetharama Sharma with whom he learnt for many years , he also met TM Krishna back then and they became friends which is how I got introduced to him as my teacher many years later.

Yes and no! 

Besides a sort of natural musical sense due to my earlier music training; I would say it helped me mainly for two things: a sense of practice and a sense of Sruti. 

 From a very early age I learnt and practiced the piano, diligently, daily. This allowed to shape in me the  ‘muscle of practice’ and made it easier to be naturally inclined to many hours of daily singing practice once I started learning singing from TM Krishna in 2004.

The other thing it helped me with is a sense of Sruti. The advantage of the piano is that unless you miss the key or that the piano is out of tune, each note is where it is and there is no risk of being approximate so that definitely educated my ear to Sruti or pitch.

Other than these two things; I had more things to deconstruct from my previous musical training, musical concepts to let go off and start afresh. It was indeed like starting an entirely new discipline.

Is there any common ground between the music of France and India? 

I would say that these two music systems function really differently; they both are music so they do have some common ground of course but their approach, the way they are built and evolve are organically completely different, in my opinion. 

In your opinion do you think it is necessary to understand the culture of a country to appreciate its music?

Yes and No. I think like everything; it depends on many things!

I would say in a way it is not necessary because it depends on why one appreciates or wants to learn music.  In my case, I was at first not interested at all in Indian culture; I was familiar with it due to my father’s implication with India and its music. But I had no interest whatsoever in its culture, customs, Hinduism, temples, gods, goddesses, rituals. I was curious when I was a teenager because it was ‘exotic’; far away from home and my father promised to take me there if I would learn at least the ‘Ganamrutha Bodhini’ first book so i could accompany him in his classes with Sharma sir. 

Many years later, when I was 19, I fell on my knees… totally in love with this music; from one moment to the next it became the most beautiful ‘thing’ I had ever heard or witnessed on this planet! I decided to move to India to learn with my guru. He lived in Chennai so I moved to Chennai.

I remember early on, during the first months when I was there; people would approach me sometimes at my guru’s concerts and ask me if was able to “understand what I was singing”; and of course then  I didn’t; and i didn’t even want to understand. I really truly didn’t care! Because what had touched me to the core was Music itself; which included everything of course but at that stage; intellectually I didn’t need to ‘understand’. I was completely in love with the music and I knew that this love was sincere: so Krishna anna would tell me when I questioned him on that subject not to worry; that my only job was to ‘sing’; and practice and that the ‘rest would come’.

Indeed after a few years, naturally; and after living there and travelling so much all over India to temples, big cities, towns and tiny villages along with my teacher and co-musicians for concerts ; after  living there full time; the flavour and context  of these all these beautiful songs I was learning  started to become more real for me; until a point where the intrinsic  ‘meanings’ of songs would become inseparable even though I would not understand their words by words meaning (and I still don’t); the essence; the subtle communication of the songs seem to ‘get in’ in some mysterious ways, very naturally and subtly, without going through the intellectual centre. I don’t need to know that this word means this or that; but of course, later I can study the words if I want. I always read the translation at some point, sometimes it helps being aware; but what I realise is that often it is superficial information; the real substance of the ‘meaning’ is already in!

The culture therefore; for me, is inseparable from the music; but not the superficial aspect of culture. That for me is perfectly unnecessary. This is why there is never anything that replaces patience and long term commitment. Culture such as the one of India; cannot be learnt in a book or ‘studied’, in my opinion and based on my own experience; the ‘culture’ of the country and regions which is the cradle of Karnatik Music is like a fully flavoured bath that gets ‘in’ subtly and slowly at the price of commitment and surrender. Nothing ever replaces this.

But I also know that now I don’t need to be in India to sing Karnatik music.

I can live in my house in southern France surrounded by (French) cows; eat bread and cheese (it is an image) and practice a raga alapana by the (French)  river down the hill; but of course I steeped into the culture for 10 years. 

And I think it depends on each person too. Karnatik music was not a ‘tool’; an ‘experience” I learnt to enhance my own musical practice or artistic discipline. I gave my life to it – completely.

So yes I think it depends; the students I teach in France don’t necessarily have a connection to India to start with; but those who are sincere and if they persevere, usually; naturally after a while there will be a movement to want to come to India; and be in the cradle of this music. 

But I think this music goes beyond culture; students can be totally touched and moved to the core by this music sitting in my music room in the hills of southern France. Eventually they will feel a connection; I would say it is necessary at some point, but definitely not before a while.

How did you opt for vocal Music instead of instrumental? Was it difficult to get the Sahitya correct?

I have always been in love with singing; it is the VOICE that touched me; even before music itself. It really is the alchemical mix of voice and this music together that really creates something for me. Voice serves Karnatik music; and vice versa. I love the Veena too; and I love the violin, mridangam, the kanjira, the ghatam….but for me there NEVER was a question. If I lost my voice I would probably learn the Veena; but I’m not even sure. I would probably just do gardening then.

YES, getting the sahitya correct was/is one of the hardest part of learning this music for me being French. But I was taught to approach sahitya as music; that it is ‘A’ and not ‘a’ or ‘dh’ and not ‘d’ (for example)  and learn to listen and reproduce exactly the sound that my teacher produced; as ‘purity’ of music and precision in my reproduction of sound; it was never separate from the music itself. Of course some of the letters; were more difficult than others for me to grasp; and some languages easier than others; Tamil definitely being the trickiest to reproduce properly. I think I’m getting closer now; but  it took great effort to learn to really hear the sound right and more than anything reproduce it properly; me not having any ‘storage’ of these sounds in my brain! 

Sometimes I would really (not intentionally) change the meaning of a word…and gracious guru and co-students would laugh…and at least we had some fun; (or tears for me ) in the process; but my teacher never let me get away with approximate pronunciation. I am sure I still have lots of work to do in that domain but I sincerely try my best.

The idea being always not to imitate; but to make mine and reproduce in the best way that I can.

Does the spiritual content of Indian music appeal to you?

Yes very much. I wouldn’t say it appeals to me but it is actually completely a part of me. 

What appeals to you most in your travels across India? 

Feel the sacred ground under my feet, sip tea in tea stalls in the streets; walk around the temples and just ‘be there’,  now I am completely in love with deities. I love to walk in Mylapore and sit in the dozens of small temples around the Kapaleeswara temple. Sit and be around the deities – Hanuman, Ganesh … they are very present and alive in my life. I couldn’t tell you why… I just love them… now (I really didn’t care for a long time), be on the banks of the sacred rivers of India –Cauveri, Yamuna….etc, be at the samadhis of great saint composers. I feel connected to the ancient culture and the sacred-infused land of India.

What according to you is the similarity between India and France? 

I would say there is a high sense of ‘culture’, very different culture but still. Great taste and sense of aesthetics! Love for the sacred. It obviously manifests very differently in each of these two countries. (And great food!!!)

Is it difficult to get Western audiences to appreciate Indian music?

Yes. It takes time for them to appreciate it; because it needs a certain level of education; but sometimes some people just fall in love with it and then it is just a matter of nurturing their love by initiating them into the dynamics and systems of this music. Usually it really helps them to learn it; even just the basics; to allow them to stay connected to the music.

What other kind of music do you like to listen to?

I love Flamenco. I love Blues. I love rock. I love Gypsy music from Eastern Europe too. I love Micheal Jackson, Jeff Buckley, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Nina Simone … and many more.

Is it important to have diverse interests in Music?

I don’t know. I think first focusing on the music one’s learning is more important than anything. Dedicated practice and commitment, then if there are other musical interests, well and good. I think it is important to follow our natural inclinations and tastes whatever they are in music because then you are more ‘unified’ in yourself even if you only dedicate yourself to one art form. There may not be any attraction to any other style of music; fine; but if there is I don’t think it helps to repress it or try at all cost to only focus on Karnatik music (for example).  I  definitely don’t think one needs to know western music to learn Indian music quite the opposite; but later; once one has ‘mastered’ the music to a certain degree; I’m sure listening to diverse  types of music enriches and helps one not become too rigid or to just enrich his or her experience of different sounds rhythms; styles etc.

I listened to only Karnatik music for the first many years of my training. I just didn’t feel like listening to anything else, but then slowly (when close to over dosing!) I started listening to other things again; artists I loved from my ‘previous life’ in France; for enjoyment just to get some fresh air into my head! Dance a bit to a funky beat; take a deep breath and sit again to practice! This helped me to reconnect with my own culture; the imprints and experience of childhood and being a teenager which actually helped me in growing in my own music training and practice. (If anything else just to RELAX!)

You have been working with renowned theatre director Ariane Mnouchkine; teaching Karnatik singing and voice work to 40 comedians of different cultures for their new show ‘Une chambre en Inde’ . What does this entail?

From January 2016 until March 2017, I taught the basics of Karnatik music to a group of 40 comedians from the prestigious French theatre group ‘Théatre du Soleil’ and its director Ariane Mnouchkine based in Paris. Daily and in small groups, I taught them how to use and open their voice; sing loud and clear, confidently and open throated, taught them and practiced with them many hours to develop a sense of Sruti and a certain flavour in their voices (that they needed for their show where they performed Therukoothu). Over the months; they slowly started to be more and more confident in singing out loud; being in touch with their own voice, singing in Sruti and some even started developing slowly a sense of Gamakas, recognitions of ragas etc, and a certain sensitivity to Karnatik music because they could relate it to their own direct experience.

I think some of them really discovered their own voice and got a real taste of what it can be to learn and sing Karnatik music which obviously is different than many fantasies western people often have about singing Indian music (they usually, often imagine something very airy, soft and meditative, something soothing and relaxing…well it can also be that…but far from being only that! At least in the way that I have learnt!). It was grounded, real, raw, and hard sometimes. I think it helped them in their work. 

How do you integrate music into theatre?

For now I don’t. I teach Karnatic music for actors to help them in their work. But it is more for – know-the-process itself of this learning that seems to have great value for theatre work. I don’t even know why yet. That being said; I have been convinced by what I have seen in this domain. So for now I don’t: but maybe someday I will, then I’ll tell you how I integrate it. I think it is very delicate – it takes masters to do it well. If it is not done by people who really know what they are doing (like really!) it brings nothing more but only damages things. So I think if our attempt is to create something truly beautiful (and not just exciting; seducing… etc) one should really be very considerate before to do anything that would at best bring nothing, at worst actually damage things. 

India gave birth to the universal language Sanskrit

A distinguished alumnus of Oxford University, Gabriella Burnel is one of India’s finest Cultural Ambassadors. She takes Sanskrit, Yoga and Ayurveda to various countries such as the UK, US, Australia, Ireland and Greece. She aims to establish a Center for Promotion of Indian Culture and is also undertaking research on understanding the significance and science of four classic languages: Sanskrit, Tamil, Hebrew, and Farsi.

Here is CSP’s interaction with Gabriella when she visited the Center in Chennai:

Tell us about your journey so far. What has fascinated you about Indian culture?

I studied Sanskrit at Oxford. The culture of Oxford is amazing; the tutors are amazing. The facilities for music, drama, art and language are all incredible. By all means one can learn Sanskrit. But how much do those studies correlate academically? The experience proved to me that I am not an academic, but I really value and appreciate academia. I can’t be academic because for me the text, even the grammar, and the best of Panini are spiritual and all from another level. But I have had to study it from a pure academic standpoint. But I really love to work with people who are the best in this field. There are thousands of Sanskrit scholars and I love to that aspect. But I can never try and be one. That’s not me.

So I was taught Sanskrit in school by my Indian teachers. Sanskrit is completely universal and India is the land that has given birth to it, nourished it. India is the custodian of the treasure of the language which is for anyone and everyone. It’s beyond religion, culture, caste, creed and politics. Even in the past it is said it was owned by Brahmanas but that’s not the truth. It’s completely universal even though much of it is used in religion. Therefore the texts are completely open.

In past interactions and interviews, you have referred to your parents having a spiritual background. Can you tell us more?

They are the students of Shantanand Saraswati who is no longer here but works through his successor Vasudeva Saraswathi in Jyotir Math in Prayagraj. I wouldn’t say disciples but they have been following the path of Vedanta ever since before I was born and I was brought up in the Vedanta tradition. As far as they can, they access it through his books, teachings and instructions.

What was your experience of studying and learning at Oxford? Did you do a specific course in Sanskrit?

I did a Master’s degree in Sanskrit. I was taught by western teachers in school. I also teach chanting at Oxford Center for Hindu Studies.

Have you studied from a Guru (teacher) who you take as a role model or inspiration?

When you say Guru, it’s not a particular spiritual guru. I would be immensely taken by surprise if that pull happened to me. That would be a massive shock but I appreciate the teachers and I have Sanskrit teachers in India i.e. Pune and Puducherry. I visit various places and basically I came across one person in Prayagraj and another person in Hyderabad who spoke in Sanskrit. They were all my teachers. I really appreciate their concentration. I have three gurus but still I don’t have the main one. But I appreciate the importance of that parampara (tradition) and people who study under just one guru that is a pure lineage for them. But in this journey, it’s not really my purpose, I guess, because my purpose isn’t to be the best and brilliant. For me, I have to see a wide sphere. I have a Dhrupad teacher in Pune, Hindustani vocal teacher in London and another one in Pondicherry. There are Sanskrit teachers for me all over the world (laughs).

When was the first time you visited India? Where did you visit?

Maybe fourteen years ago with an Indian friend from England. Her family were second generation Indians. She enjoyed coming from Indian heritage and it’s very different today from what it was fourteen years ago. Now it’s not very different coming from England. We went to Prayagraj, and other North Indian states. Then we came back to the south to then Pondicherry. I liked it.

Have you founded an organization through which you carry forward the work that you do? If yes, please tell us more.

If the blessings come, there is a plan in me that there should be a center for promotion. It should be for anyone who wishes to experience satsang. In London, I run chanting sessions, a mini version of the centre which has become like a community. I am a white person on the surface but even the Indians who come there somewhere feel a homely feeling. It’s like a family hub which is open every day and not just on one day a week.

There is one room for artists who can dance and have a show and another room available for anyone who needs to rehearse. For an artist, that’s invaluable. One room for painting, classes and studio. One room for Yoga, chanting and satsang. There is also a silent room for meditation.

Do you teach Yoga? If yes, what made you teach Yoga to others?

I can teach Yoga. I learnt it from a teacher in Rishikesh, he is amazing. He comes from the Iyengar tradition which is a foremost traditional school of India. But in England, particularly London, every second person is a Yoga teacher. So there is no need for any teachers there but I wanted to study it because I teach Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita. So I felt the need to be trained in Yoga as well. That’s the only reason.

I have a Buddhist Ayurveda trainer in Sri Lanka. I teach the Ayurveda shlokas, that’s fun for me because I love to study all those texts and we just teach the students basics on how to read, how to write Sanskrit and learn the shlokas.

Which are some of the countries that you visit? What were some of the experiences that people have shared with you concerning Indian thought and culture?

I visit countries as per invitation, predominantly America, Australia, Ireland, Greece, and India. But there are some people who really support me, my parents mostly; not in finance but in presence. There is an English guy who knows nothing about this culture but supports me greatly and another man from New York, a Yoga teacher who really encourages the community. There are so many people who are supportive officially.

Please share your impressions about the science of Indian philosophy.

My overall impression is that it’s better than any psychology. It offers the best psychiatric treatment with the best clarity. It’s not wishy-washy. I can’t prove this but I would like to travel through it. It is so precise about the soul. When you try to learn it, it connects different parts of body specifically the nerve points and just beyond that. The knowledge there is enough to live a completely healthy and fulfilled life at a spiritual and physical level.

There is an impact of Sanskrit language on the brain and also that of the three other languages which are most powerful, namely Tamil, Hebrew and Farsi. I mean all languages are powerful, but for me these seem incredibly powerful. I would like to experiment scientifically to be able to say that these four are equally strong and I would like to see through some studies that Sanskrit has more of a healing impact than the others. I am sure it has but I just need to prove it.

Especially the Kashmiri texts and the Kashmiri tantric traditions were known and understood as a great capacity for research and as the only aid and renaissance in the society that helps.

Have you studied any texts along those lines?

Hmm… The Abinava Gupta Natya Shastra. I have a Kashmiri teacher, he lives with his family. I had an opportunity to learn from him how Kashmir has always been from an Indian Tradition.

You seem to have a special interest at the intersection of Sanskrit, its texts, music and singing. If that is correct, what would you like to tell us about its past and its future?

I would love to improve on the meditative aspect. I have been to many Dhrupad programs and seen how it can be married to Sanskrit. For those who are really tuned and spiritually oriented, we would like to have a Center for experiencing Satsang and 1 room for yoga and another room for chanting.

I would like to break some conventions by having a Dhrupad program with very great Sanskrit chanting along with Bhagavad Gita. And have it run into an hour and keep people in a meditative state where they could be in meditation and hopefully experience the peace. It should also be a center of learning if needed. I would record the chapters that are close to me and I would love the learning to be a by-product because if something is received in a meditative state, you learn it anyway.

When Yoga came to UNESCO

Situated in forested countryside, four km away from the cliffs of Caux and 12 km from Fécamp in the north of France, Ayurveda Guru Kiran Vyas’s Tapovan campus offers a calm, serene and relaxing atmosphere close to the refreshing air of the sea. It is only a small walk away from the beaches of Petites Dalles whose beauty inspired the paintings of Monet and Delacroix.

Born in 1944 in pre-Independence India, Vyas was influenced equally by the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi, with whom his father worked, as well as by Sri Aurobindo. His father was a close associate of Sardar Vallabhai Patel and was asked by the great Indian leader to look after Sabarmathi Ashram when both Patel and Gandhi were sentenced to jail during India’s Independence struggle.

Vyas’s father was given the responsibility of developing and working on Gandhi’s vision of an Indian education – self-reliant and community driven – with half the time spent on work and the other half on academics. Only four when Gandhi was assassinated, Vyas says Gandhi has had a major influence on his way of thinking, with his own father wearing khadi ‘till his last breath.’

Reminiscing on the past, Vyas says, “Historically when I look back at India at what India has done and where India stands today it is very interesting to note that India is an energy by itself.” Having lived in France for over four decades, he speaks about the journey of Ayurveda and Yoga in France in particular and Europe at large.

How was India perceived in France during your early days?

When I first came to Europe, Indian culture was much appreciated particularly in France and Germany. In fact 40-50 years ago, the elite in France would think it very fashionable to be a little Indianised. They would read Indian works and quote either Tagore, Gandhi or Sri Aurobindo. They would organise feasts or a festival and would tell everyone to come in Indian attire. The elite were very interested in Indian culture.

French youth were extremely attracted to India and Indian culture because many Indian writings were translated into French. Right from the beginning of the 20th century, from 1914 onwards, many writings of Indian culture and philosophy were translated into French and so the impact was very deep. Mother, at Aurobindo Ashram, was from France and she influenced a lot of French people towards Indian culture. Many great French authors and poets came to India and stayed for a long time.

France is very aware and open to Indian music. In fact all the great maestros of Indian music come very often to France, so much so that you can experience more Indian music recitals in Paris than in Bombay or Delhi. It is quite interesting that ‘Indianess’ in music, art, dance is much appreciated here.

How did you establish Tapovan in France?

When I first came to France there were some Yoga practices but it was more like gymnastics. It was the dancers and acrobats who were attracted to Yoga practice. There was a total lack of breathing practices.

I had a great opportunity as I was also working at UNESCO in the 1970s in the educational sector. Once the wife of Director General Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow came to me and asked me to be present at an evening reception dinner. I told her that I personally don’t like these kind of events where people drink champagne, what with me being a soft drink kind of person.

But she told me that each time when I was there, especially when I was standing next to her husband – the Director General, he would feel much quieter, and was also able to express himself better especially in difficult situations like when he was with the President of America or some Prime Ministers or with other people. She really wanted to ask me what the secret of my composure was.

I told her that it was perhaps because I practice Yoga, to which she asked what Yoga was.  I told her that Yoga is fundamentally a practice of inner search. Externally, it is true that when we practice asanas and pranayama, it makes us more even tempered and quietens the mind. It also gives us good health and opens up our consciousness.

She suggested immediately that we start a Yoga class in UNESCO. We had regular classes and I asked them for a place for meditation in the UNESCO building. So slowly people started taking keen interest in yoga and meditation. But my serious work started in 1982 when I founded Tapovan – a Centre for Yoga and Ayurveda. Now it has developed into Tapovan Open University of Yoga and Ayurveda with the head office in Paris.

In Normandy we have around 25 acres of campus where we have planted more than 7,000 trees. It has become a very friendly, eco-friendly place like some of the old ashramas. That was the concept I had in my mind and we have developed it accordingly. The climate here does not allow us to grow all the medicinal plants so we bring some of them from India. But France has some West Indies islands like Guadeloupe and Martinique which have a similar climate as that of India where turmeric and some other spice can be grown. We try to grow as much as we can as there are very strict restrictions regarding the importing of medicines from India.

What is the policy and attitude towards Ayurveda in Europe today?

At present most of the Western Governments are against Ayurveda as a medicine. The WHO has accepted Ayurveda as a medicine but the world at large is allopathic minded, even though it is allowed as a medicine. We can use it as a well-being programme in Europe and elsewhere. I was perhaps the first in Europe, especially in France, to practice Ayurveda.

When I started in the 1970s, the word was not even known. It has taken 40 years to get Ayurveda introduced into society. At present I am even teaching Ayurveda in the Medical College here. Certain practices of Ayurveda they are now willing to accept in what is known as ‘pain management’ and ‘wellness programmes’. To help in prevention and also to have it as a secondary practice to help patients. But as a medical practice, let us be very clear, as yet, it is not a legal medicine.

For the last 10 years I have been bringing many doctors to India to learn Ayurveda and since the last 20 years I am holding an international symposium in Normandy, and slowly more and more people are accepting the basic principles of Ayurveda.  

I usually start by telling people that Yoga and Ayurveda are the two greatest gifts of India to humanity, to planet earth. I tell them that the health of a human being depends on the health of our planet earth. I also tell them that a human being’s health health is not just for the body – it includes the body, mind and feelings. There is the pranamayakosha – the body of energy, the manamayakosha – the body of the mind, and then ofcourse the psychic and spiritual body. All of our being should be treated, to be in good health. People are becoming more and more aware of this. 

Should Ayurveda and Yoga be practiced and preserved as a traditional Indian science?

I believe that since these two traditions have come from India, they should remain faithful to our ancient Ayurvedic texts like Charaka, Sushrutha, Vagbhata and Yoga to Patanjali’s Yogasutras. But these practices should also be seen from the modern perspective. The 20th Century as far as Yoga is concerned, right from the Raj Yoga practices of Vivekananda, and then Sri Aurobindo, has given us some of the most scientific approaches towards Yoga and a spiritual life. Intellectually and scientifically, I would say that Vivekananda, Ramana Maharishi and Sri Aurobindo are the three great personalities of modern yoga.

Westerners have only taken yoga as a physical exercise that too only asanas. This is a very limited approach to Yoga. The spiritual quest is the approach of India. However, even while the world is practicing these asanas they are turning by themselves to Indian spirituality and that is the beauty of the practice of yoga. Even though they only practice the asanas, they feel the need within themselves to go towards the source that is India, to go towards that hidden thing which is spirituality, which is behind each of these things. I find that a very great achievement on the part of all the teachers, and all the practitioners of Hata Yoga. In the last 40 years that I have been teaching here, I have seen a transformation take place.

Has the practice of Ayurveda and Yoga influenced people’s lifestyles in France?

Since the time I started, these two practices have played a very important role in people becoming vegetarian. Basically, Ayurveda is not a vegetarian practice. In Ayurveda one can eat meat, fish, anything. But at the same time, as far as health is concerned, Ayurveda recommends that one be a vegetarian after the age of 40 or 50 as eating meat causes more pain due to arthritis and other problems.

If you want to practice yoga, becoming vegetarian is almost a necessity. It is true that without imposing on anybody, the influence of Tapovan and our classes have made so many people vegetarian. They may be eating things when they are with their families from time to time for some social functions but they are largely vegetarian otherwise.

Soulmates – the story of India and Israel

Artist, writer, photographer, curator and researcher in the fields of Indian Studies, art and literature, religion and travel, Shimon Lev has extensively studied the mutual influence of Jewish and Indian cultures not explored before.

When he first came to India in 1985 after completing three years of Army service in an elite intelligence commando unite, it was almost impossible for Israelis to get a visa to India. Since his father’s escape from Berlin and Nazi Germany to Canada, the family got a Canadian citizenship due to which Shimon got his visa to India easily. While travelling around India for eight months, he rarely met any fellow Israelis, unlike today where there are many Israelis visiting India. He says India is his second home, which he has been visiting regularly for 30 years, and his personal journey is reflected in the political and cultural changes in the relationship between the two countries.


You have such varied interests – art, photography, and writing. What influences have shaped your artistic sensibilities?

This is very difficult to answer and personally in some ways I pay a price for the fact that I am involved in different fields. At least in Israel, people especially from the art world expect you to ‘decide’ who you are.  But through the years, I learnt to be in peace with living in different worlds. I was a very bad student at school and even when I was thrown out from high school, I didn’t study anything and I was mainly interested in outdoor activities doing a lot of dangerous things.  I never thought that I would write. I studied photography after returning from my first trip to India in 1986, but like many other things in my life, my writing started in India. I photographed the Kumbh Mela of 1991 at a time when no one in Israel knew anything about it.  I offered the photos to the leading Israeli geographical magazine and the editor told me to write an article along with the photos. So I had no choice but to write the first article in my life about India. This was followed by many articles about India. When I saw that I was going to get divorced, I thought ‘what should I do next?’ I decided to start studying Indian studies at the Hebrew University. All my lecturers knew my name because I was publishing extensively about India and knew India practically (but not academically) much better than most of them. So I did my BA, MA and PHD, one degree after the other and at the same time raising my three babies since the custody of the kids after the divorce was mine. It was a crazy time. Generally speaking, for me the main motivation in my life is ‘doing’ and for this I use different mediums – photography, writing, films, exhibitions and publications. In the recent years I discovered that being a curator is really a good option for me, since I can combine the ability and the love of research and the love for art and photography. This for example can be seen in the last major exhibition about The Temple Mount at the Tower of David Museum.  So in many respects everything started from my Indian experiences and from that I developed gradually as a person.   

How have your writings and pictures of India become a channel to inspire people from Israel to visit India?

I cannot forget the day I crossed the border from Nepal to India at the end of 1984 and stayed in a small temple in Gorakhpur. I do not want to (and I am not trying to) sound romantic. Since then my perspectives have changed and developed but in that moment I knew India was the place for me.     

I began my travels after my Army service which was very demanding and ended with the Lebanon War in 1982. But I decided to travel to the Far East and not South America as my brother Nachum traveled to South America and as I jokingly say, ‘who wants to follow his brother’. I have been to India many times and sometimes for long periods.  In 1988 I travelled to India on an Enfield motorcycle and when I returned to Israel there was a huge article about me. This led many Israelis to visit India.

I even lived with my ex-wife with our three small babies for almost a year in South India. I love trekking in the Indian Himalaya – in my opinion it is much better than trekking in Nepal. Of course some of the places have become more difficult to stay due to the pollution and traffic jams. I have seen so many layers to India, it is difficult for me to say which places I like more. I was the first Israeli to write and photograph the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad in the early 90s – and this was a very unique and fascinating experience for me. 

Over the last few years, I have come mainly for academic conferences, lectures and for conducting research. One of the most interesting researches I have am involved in now is studying the ‘similarities’ but also actually the differences between the sensitive and explosive subject of The Temple Mount in Jerusalem and the Ram Janmabhoomi Temple. My last big curatorship project was dealing with the history of photography of The Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The exhibition is still going on till Jan 2020 in the Tower of David Museum in Jerusalem. I would love to exhibit it also in India – I think it is very relevant – https://www.tod.org.il/en/exhibition/the-mount/

 Much has written in India about Ayodhya but very little on comparing Ayodhya and The Temple Mount (and what I read is not good enough in my humble opinion), so I really want to work on it. I have never been to Ayodhya and I hope to visit it during my next trip.

Your book ‘Soulmates – The Story of Mahatma Gandhi and Hermann Kallenbach’ threw light on an important friendship in Gandhi’s life. How much were Gandhi’s thoughts on nationalism influenced by this friendship?

My book Soulmates – The Story of Mahatma Gandhi and Hermann Kallenbach deals mostly with the formative years of Gandhi in South Africa and the role of Kallenbach as his soulmate’ between the years 1903-1915. But what makes this story more interesting is that their relationship had a second round after their separation in the end of 1914. When the Zionist leaders hear that Gandhi was a close friend of Kallenbach, who had become a Zionist himself in South Africa, the future Prime Minister of Israel approached Kallenbach asking him to influence Nehru and Gandhi’s objection to Zionism. It is a very complicated and fascinating history which is very much connected to the shared history between the two national movements and the formation of India and Israel almost at the same time (1947, 1948 respectively). I have published this story widely since this history is relevant to anyone who wants to understand the great relationship between India and Israel.

Kallenbach’s personal relationship with Gandhi effectively made him the most significant link between the Indian National Movement and the Zionist movement. The complete absence of any diplomatic relationship between India and Israel (which ended only as recently as in 1990s) can only emphasize the importance of this story. 

Recently I published my last major research, which is still waiting the English edition: Clear Are the Paths of India: The Cultural and Political Encounter between Indians and Jews in the Context of the Growth of their Respective National Movement. This book examines key trends and elements of the Jewish and Zionist world’s perception of and affinity with India and its culture from the end of the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) till India and Israel were granted independence. The encounter between the two cultures is characterized by rich, diverse facets: textual, intellectual, interpersonal relationships, and political efforts that played a significant role in the Jewish and Zionist self-perception in relation to their environment in Europe and as a component in the establishment of the Jewish national identity as Asian (returning to Asia). The book serves as an analysis of these trends, which point to discourse on the textual and intellectual level, as well its accompanying and consequent political activity that emerged concurrently to historical events.

On the occasion of the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, do you think his dharma of Non-Violence can be practiced today when everyone is going nuclear?

This is a good question and the answer is not very clear. Actually the question could be put up in a broader context – What is the relevance of Gandhi’s teachings today? It is important to ask ourselves this question even before we are discussing the question of nuclear weapons. Obviously the Non-Violence strategy would remain a Utopian idea especially when speaking about states’ relationship and terror groups.

 I personally always prefer to look on the positive sides – meaning, what one can take or benefit from Gandhi and not what one should give up. It is too easy to give up Gandhi’s teachings especially Ahimsa in the political world as naïve, impractical or even dangerous in a cynical-political world. I think that the most important lessons that we can learn from Gandhi has implications for state powers, but can be realized (even only partly) more profoundly on the personal life then on a national policy.

One of the main contributions of Gandhi on the political and state studies is to try not to ignore as much as possible the complicated relationship between Morality and Politics – not to take it as granted that politicians are allowed a different kind of Morality then the lay person. We shouldn’t accept the prevailed and common separation between the two as a fact.  We should demand from our politicians and decision makers, whenever it is possible, to minimize the gap between the two.

In our private and close social circles we can use Gandhi’s teachings in many ways especially with respect to technology. One has to only look at Gandhi when trying to deal with the cellphone addiction, especially of the young generation. You do not have to be a Gandhian in order to understand who is controlling who and how much you allow yourself to be controlled by technology.    

How did you come upon Gandhi’s letters and how did your book lead to installation of Gandhi’s statue in Lithuania, where apparently there is a significant population following Hinduism.

Though I was already pursuing Indian studies, my knowledge of Gandhi was not extensive. A strange coincidence led to the Kallenbach archive. I was writing a series of 27 articles as I followed a hiking trail – the ‘Israel Trail’ cross Israel. As I reached Kibbutz Degania Alef, near the Sea of Galilee, I visited a famous cemetery and chanced upon the grave of Hermann Kallenbach. In the piece I filed, I wrote a few lines based on whatever I knew about Kallenbach back then. Two weeks later, I got a call from Isa Sarid, the daughter of Kallenbach’s niece, who invited me to Haifa to see an entire archive dedicated to him. I was amazed. This tiny room was packed with files and most bore the name Gandhi. One of the first files that caught my eye carried the name ‘Tolstoy Farm’. Kallenbach’s niece Hanna Lazar had brought the archive from South Africa. In that very first meeting, I knew that this material was going to make a book.

The archive comprised Kallenbach’s correspondence with Gandhi and other close associates, original glass-plate photos of the time spent on Tolstoy Farm, official documents from the period, Kallenbach’s architectural drawings, material related to Zionism from Kallenbach’s visit to Palestine in 1936-37, and his endeavor to spread the Zionist cause in India.

The discovery of this archive in Israel pointed to an entire missing chapter in Gandhi’s biography. I took (writer-historian) Ramachandra Guha to the archive and he brought the Indian ambassador. This started the Indian government’s negotiation with the family to buy this archive. It was eventually purchased for the sum of $1.2 million (around Rs 7.6 crore now) in 2012 and is now housed in the National Archive in Delhi.

Later I was approached by the Lithuanian ambassador in Delhi who initiated, after reading my book, the joint monument in Kallenbach’s birth place in a small village named Rusne. It is quite surprising to see in that small and remote place on the banks of the river the beautiful Gandhi and Kallenbach statues.


Source: Elite intelligence commando unit 1983

Your research includes studying the common thread between India, Israel and Lithuania, seemingly very different kind of nations. What have you found?

There is a special bond between Lithuania and Israel.  Probably the largest number of murders of Jews during the Holocaust occurred in Lithuanian (over 90 percent of the Jewish Lithuanian population was murdered).

I think that it is quite fascinating that two Lithuanian Jews  Schlomith Flaum and Hermann Kallenbach – were in a very close contact with the most important Indians and ‘representatives’ of India of the Pre-Independence time. Flaum was born in Kaunas (Kovna), Lithuania, in 1893 and died in Israel in 1963 lonely, miserable, penniless, and forgotten. Flaum traveled extensively and as an educator and kindergarten teacher, she focused mainly on studying new methods of teaching. Of all the people she met, however, it was the Indian poet, Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), who became the most important and influential figure in her life. This contact was long lasting and one which she yearned for again and again. Her sojourn of almost two years in India (1922–1924) divided her life into the time before and the time after she met Tagore. After meeting the poet, Flaum felt “as one who had been privileged to receive God’s blessing” and she regarded him as one of “our generation’s prophets.” She recounted years later that she found herself so deeply involved in the world of creativity and intellectual thinking “that I reached the state of mind that Indians describe as a state of permanent ecstasy.” This encounter with Tagore, his writings, his philosophy, and above all his personality, meant that she devoted most of her publications to Tagore. Her two-year stay in India also made her the informal ambassador of Tagore, Santiniketan, Gandhi and every aspect connected to India and its culture during her extensive travels all over the world. Flaum corresponded with Tagore until his death in 1941. She addressed him in her letters with the traditional Indian “Gurudeva.”

My recent book about her accounts of Tagore and his unique establishment, Santiniketan, has been published in English in India in 2018 titled – From Lithuania to Santiniketan: Schlomith Flaum and Rabindranath Tagore. I have long felt the need to publish these accounts, which provide a firsthand, romantic and idealistic view of Tagore and Visva Bharati (which had opened shortly before her arrival) and describe her meetings with key figures during her time in India.

Flaum was not the first Jewish Lithuanian to write a travel book or to establish a close relationship with prominent figures in India. If we examine this subject from a broader perspective, at least two other names should be mentioned: Rabbi David d’Beth Hillel, about whom little is known, and Hermann Kallenbach (1871–1945), Gandhi’s close associate and his “soulmate,” who had an important relationship with Gandhi during Gandhi’s formative years in South Africa.

One of the earliest and a very rare travel book, which was also the first book printed by a Jew in India, was The Travels of Rabbi David d’Beth Hillel, published in Madras in 1832. Another prominent Jewish Lithuanian scholar, Kalman Shulman (1819–1889), published many books about geographical and cultural aspects – all were published in Vilnius. In 1874, Shulman published an eight-volume book entitled Mosdey Eretz.[1] The second part of the book discussed the East, including ‘Arabia, India, and China’. In addition to his encyclopedias, however, Shulman appears to have been the first to fully devote an essay in Hebrew, Sefer Eretz HaKedem (Book of the Land in the East), to India’s geography and culture. Shulman chose this title because of the ambiguity of the word Kedem in Hebrew, which means both precedence and East, the land of Kedem.

It is also worth mentioning other important and popular books about India, published in Vilnius in Yiddish and Hebrew by Jewish writers. The first, India,[2] is by the Yiddish playwright, novelist, journalist, travel writer, and theater director, Peretz Hirschbein (1880–1948), who identified personally with Tagore’s poetry. Hirschbein’s book about his travels in India generated much interest in Europe and among the small Jewish population of Palestine. They found their acquaintance with India deepening. Hirschbein devoted a large part of a chapter to Tagore out of solidarity with “gentle-souled poets” who see the world via their poetry. The two spoke about the discrepancy between the world of poetry and practical politics. Another important book was the Yiddish translation of Tagore’s political essay, Nationalism (1917), published in Vilnius in 1929.[3]

Finally, a prominent Jewish Lithuanian woman traveler to India, Bracha Habas (1900–1968), deserves a special mention. Upon growing up, Habas became one of the first women journalists in the small Jewish Yishuv in Palestine. She was also a proficient author who published her works widely. In 1948, she published a book, Twenty Days in India, a collection of her mostly political accounts of her visit to India. She was one of the senior delegates to the Inter-Asian Relations Conference, which took place in New Delhi from 23 March to 2 April 1947.

Source: Kallenbach Archive

What are the things that connect India and Israel today in terms of culture, cuisine, music? A lot more Indians are traveling to Israel and vice_versa. Are there more Indian cultural products being consumed in Israel now?

Apart from the increasingly strong relationship between the two governments, one has to talk about the travel experience of thousands of Israeli backpackers each year to India.  This has many implications on the Israeli social – cultural life. For most of these visitors it was a very positive and fundamental experience and many are coming back again and again. Obviously, some of it is a very fake and superficial image of India, but the bottom line remains that India and its culture is very present in Israel due to the huge numbers of travelers.

One example is the popularity of Indian studies and culture in various universities. As a result of that and due to the work of Professor Shulman, Israel had become an important hub for Sanskrit Studies. Some works of Indian literature are being translated into Hebrew. Over the years, I have had the privilege of writing many reviews about many Indian literature books. 

There are of course Indians restaurants and many festivals celebrated – mostly ‘Goan style’ but also others. Many are learning Indian music and dance and of course there is Yoga. Tel Aviv is privileged to have the highest rate of people practicing Yoga per capita in the world.  There is also growing self-awareness among the descendants of the three Jewish communities who existed in India and immigrated to Israel after independence.


[1] Kalman Shulman, Mosdey Eretz,Vol. II (Vilnius: The widow and the brothers Reeam, 1874).

[2] Peretz Hirschbein, Indye fun Mayn Rayze in Indye, (Yiddish) (Vilnius: B. Kelektzin, 1929).

[3] Rabindranath, Tagore, Nationalism (Yiddish) (Vilnius: B. Kelektzin, 1929).

Discussion on “Towards Redefining Women Travel in India”

CSP hosted the Founder and Co-Founder of F5 Escapes, Ms. Malini Gowrishankar and Ms. Akanksha Bumb, for an interaction on “Towards Redefining Women Travel in India” in Chennai on 01.08.2019.

F5 Escapes is a unique startup travel company enabling solo and group women travel in India.

Excerpts from their session:

“We aspire to make women travel the length and breadth of India. If women start travelling, families will start travelling.”

“Our key features: 
1. Safety
2. Responsible Travel
3. Cultural immersion
4. Focus on local businesses”

“Our aim is to make the local economy in India work while having a razor sharp focus in redefining the way women travel in India.”

“One of our success stories has been to work with organisations like YUWA in Jharkhand, where we undertook safety workshops for women football coaches and subsequently took them on a tour to Sikkim.”

“India’s Northeast remains a great traction for foreign inbound tourists.”

The event ended with Q&A session.

Of India, Arts and Multicultural Australia

Australia is home to scores of Indians. According to the recent statistics Indians account for 2.4% of the Australian population and are the third-largest migrant group in the country.  There are so many of us here that every suburb in Melbourne has an Indian grocery store that not only sells ready-to-eat rotis and freshly ground dosa batter besides the regular pulses and spices but also rents South Indian films DVDs.  Coles and Woolworth (supermarket chains) have a whole section dedicated to Indian food. Even the Chinese markets sell ‘India Gate Basmati rice! The very thought of Australian Chinese relishing ‘Made in India’ rice makes me gloat with national pride! We all know about desi restaurants and the Indian-born restaurateurs’ who hit it big overseas, but we seldom hear about the long wait on Friday nights outside Saravana Bhavan restaurants in Melbourne and Sydney.  Butter chicken is so popular that the cruise boats in Sydney have the dish on their buffet menu. Mind you, it’s not all about gastronomy; you can spot quite a few Yoga studios in Melbourne and Sydney suburbs.

If all of the above sounds cliché then consider this – Network Ten’s new dramedy, Five Bedrooms has an Indian character – a 30-year-old Indian doctor who is still living with his Indian mum and typically the mum doesn’t know he’s gay.  In 2017, Melbourne Theater Company (Australia’s largest theater company), had programmed an Indian play, Melbourne Talam in their Education season that went on to win awards and nominations. More recently, Australia’s iconic playwright, Patricia Cornelius, has woven an Indian story in the fabric of her new play. Last year Australian Shakespeare Company cast actors of color in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Karanvir Malhotra, the 23-year-old actor, best known for his work in Selection Day (Netflix Series), played the part of Paris in Shakespeare’s classic tragedy. Karanvir had trained at 16th Street Actors after moving to Melbourne with his parents.  Karan is excited about the emerging trend to cast diverse actors in the roles that were traditionally played by white actors. He is thrilled that the Australian performing arts industry is becoming more inclusive.


Karan is excited about the emerging trend to cast diverse actors in the roles that were traditionally played by white actors.

Just a couple of years back a veteran Indian actor had said in the passing, “25 years back you wouldn’t have seen any Indian in and around the Southbank Theater, leave alone on the stage at the Southbank.” If you take his statement as the reference then 21 shows of an Indian play (Melbourne Talam) at the landmark Southbank Theater or an Indian actor playing a part in a Shakespeare play becomes a political statement.  There’s no doubt we are seeing more Indian actors and works by Indian artists in the performing arts industry.  Is it because Indian influence is growing in Australia or is it a game of numbers? As the Indian population grows it needs more stores to shop in and more stage/platforms to show its stories. But what does culture mean to Australia?

Though Australia is geographically closer to Asia its culture is Western. There are at least 200 migrant communities living in Australia but the Australian culture is not a cocktail of the cultures of the diverse groups inhabiting the country.  Bernard Joseph Salt, an author, and columnist with The Australian and Herald Sun newspapers, recently published an article entitled, ‘Where is Australian culture now?’ in The Australian. Mr. Salt writes traces the history of Australian culture that has absorbed influences over the years to become seemingly more sophisticated. Mr. Salt ends his piece on a cautionary note, “Culture isn’t something that happens along the way of life, by accident; it is a powerful dividend of a people who know who they are and where they’re headed. And wherever we’re headed, we’ll be better placed to get there if we’re united by a uniquely Australian culture.”

Now what remains to be seen is where Indians will fit in this uniquely Australian culture. Jiva J. Parhipan, a Sydney based performing artist, producer, and educator who is working internationally in the cross-section of performing, visual and community arts thinks the growing presence of Indians on stage or screen does not mean Indians have been accorded a special status. Jiva has worked in the performing arts sector in the United Kingdom and Australia for over two decades. A Sri-Lankan Tamilian, Jiva, is trained in the Western and Indian classical dance forms and has an insider-outsider perspective.  Jiva considers the inclusion of the diverse people in the art world as a natural progression where Indians are a part of the bigger mix. The important thing to remember is that Indians are merely one of the diverse ethnic groups that make up Australia, just another story in the multiple stories of a play. This year a new Australian play about Sri Lanka’s civil war, ‘Counting and Cracking’ bagged seven Helpmann Awards. One year it is a Sri Lankan play, the next year is the turn of a Malaysian-Chinese story on stage.

Suhasini Seelin, an Indian actor in Melbourne is of the view that the attempts at inclusivity and multiculturalism are not enough.  “There is blindness when it comes to casting, where people of colour aren’t considered for general roles unless ethnicity is specified.” She adds, “I’ve been an actor in Melbourne for about 8 years and the only real embracing of an Indian form I have experienced is that of Bollywood Dance.”  While this statement will rattle the cultural pundits of India, the truth is India is synonymous with Bollywood.  I have heard young Australians talk about Bollywood dance on trams, “Is Bollywood dance from In..dia?” That’s right some of them can’t pronounce India.

Suahsini has had to consciously downplay what she refers to as ‘my Indian-ness’. “I have auditioned for characters that have needed an accent, and mine has either been too little or too much. As a female, I’ve been offered a lot of ‘mum’ roles and less complex characters than I’d like. This is not Australia specific, gender disparity exists across the world and here is no different.” She wonders sometimes whether working in India would have been more satisfying. 

Suhasini is trained in the Indian dance forms and Western style of acting. But her training in Bharatnatyam has not served her in the acting jobs in Australia.  The modern theater in Australia is text- driven, taut and minimalistic. Contemporary Australian theater has little use for Indian classical dance or exaggerated acting.  On the other hand, Suhasini has been able to draw from Japanese forms like Butoh and Suzuki in some of her performances. Suahsini feels, “an intermingling of ideas or art forms is too complex for consumption!”  The problem is that the Indian classical dance and music are inaccessible to the uninitiated audience. Unlike yoga that can be consumed by the masses, Indian dance forms are of little use to a foreigner.

This brings us to whether there is any place for the Indian Classical dance in Australia? Most classical dance performances are considered community events rather than professional concerts. The sub-text is that a community event is not high art. The Australians (non-Indians) who come to attend such concerts tend to be dancers, academics, or those working in the Multicultural Arts Department. Jiva points out that the Indian dances (referred to as the Hindu Temple dances) have been performed on the global stage by dancers from outside India such as Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Indonesia and other countries in the sub-continent. The cardinal question that Jiva raises is whether Indian dance should be located in the ambit of dance? Or is it a theatrical form? Western dance is centered on movement and precision but Indian dance places a lot of emphasis on abhinaya.  

Dr. Amit Sarwal’s upcoming book traces the early links between the Western and the Indian dance in Australia. Dr. Amit Sarwal is the Founding Convenor of Australia-India Interdisciplinary Research Network (AIIRN) and has a nuanced understanding of aesthetics. Published by Routledge, Dr Sarwal’s book, ‘The Dancing Gods: Staging Hindu Dance in Australia’ explores how a unique dance form (Kathakali and Manipuri especially) evolved in the meeting of travellers and cultures during 1930s-50s.  The blurb on the cover reads, ‘The intricately symbolic Hindu dance in its vital form was virtually unseen and unknown in Australia until an Australian impresario, Louise Lightfoot, brought it onto the stage. Her experimental changes, which modernized Kathakali and Manipuri dance through her pioneering collaboration with Indian dancers Ananda Shivaram, Rajkumar Priyagopal Singh and Ibetombi Devi, moved the Hindu dance from the sphere of ritualistic practice to formalized stage art. This movement enabled both the authentic Hindu dance and dancers to gain recognition worldwide and created in their persona cultural gurus and ambassadors on the global stage.’ When asked whether there is a need to metamorphose the Indian dances in order to appeal to the global audience Dr. Amit replied that Indian dances have already been transformed either for an Indian or Western audience. He cites Bhatatnatyam’s example that has evolved from Sadir which was performed by Devadasis. Louise Lightfoot had to actively transform the dance because the requirements of a stage are different from that of a pandal or a temple.

We Indians are an ethnocentric lot. We have grand notions about our civilizational superiority and the stature of our art forms. We are so self-aggrandizing that we remain oblivious to the world art forms like the Japanese musical drama Noh, African music, Sudanese drums, Chinese dance, Russian ballet and more.  In multicultural societies such as Australia Indians can only hope to be the seasoning with a distinct flavor. We are not the whole dish. Australia encourages equal participation of all cultures and accords the same status to all art forms. We are obliged to transform, translate, and blend our art in their art and culture landscape. Else, we remain a foreign dish savoured out of curiosity.

(The author Rashma N. Kalsie’s plays have been performed around Australia and India. Rashma’s writing credit for the theater include Melbourne Talam, Padma Shri Prahasana, The Lost Dog, and The Rejected Girl. TV credits include scripts for close to 100 episodes of Indian TV shows/docudrama with B.A.G. Films and News and Entertainment Television. Book Credits:  Ohh! Gods Are Online (Srishti Publishers, India) co-authored with a British writer. The Buddha & the Bitch (Hay House, India) co-authored with an American writer, released in May, 2018. Melbourne Talam (MTC Education production) won Drama Victoria Award for ‘Best Performance by a Theater Company for VCE Drama 2017’ and was nominated in 5 categories for the premiere theatre awards “Green Room Awards 2018” including Rashma’s nomination in the ‘New Writing for the Australian Stage’ category.)

(Cover image credit: Jeff Busby; Image source: Melbourne Theater Company)