‘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. 

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).

Art as a metaphor for India

Aparajita Jain, Co-Director, Nature Morte, one of India’s leading art galleries, in a talk on Art as a soft power, says Art plays an important role in society because it is an indicator of “who we were, who we are and most importantly who we can be.”

Those unfamiliar with the world of Contemporary Indian Art may wonder how the above finds expression today in paintings, photography, sculptures, murals, graffiti, antiques, miniatures and installations which constitute the entire spectrum of visual art.

By looking at the works of three artistes, which Aparajita says are her favourites, I was amazed at the ingenuity of the artists in taking themes one can only describe as quintessentially desi, and exhibiting them to popular acclaim abroad.

Given below are three artists and their shows as exemplars of contemporary art:


Subodh Gupta’s exhibition at the Monnaie de Paris –


Showcasing the diversity of Subodh Gupta’s practice, the exhibition features iconic sculptures using stainless steels pots and pans, such as Very Hungry God (2006), for which Gupta is best known and cast found objects, such as Two Cows (2003), alongside very new works, like Unknown Treasure (2017) and the video titled Seven Billion Light Years (2016). While varied in material, the body of work is defined by the artist’s continuous exploration of ritual and spirituality in everyday life.
Subodh Gupta is mostly known for working with everyday objects that are ubiquitous throughout India, such as the mass-produced steel kitchen utensils used in virtually every home in the country. From such ordinary items the artist produces sculptures that reflect on the economic transformations of his homeland while acknowledging the reach of contemporary art and its ideas. While stainless steel is Gupta’s signature medium, he has also masterfully executed works in bronze, marble, brass and wood while dialoguing with found and manipulated objects that encapsulate multiple meanings and reflect on the circumstances of contemporary India.

As the kitchen is the centre of every Indian household, Gupta’s practice too is grounded in the quotidian pantry and it is from here that he reflects on not only personal practices, but also on how often intimate and seemingly insignificant objects and experiences can offer a glimpse into the cosmos at large.

Jithish Kallat’s show Here after Here at National Gallery of Modern Art Delhi-

Jitish’s vast oeuvre, spanning painting, photography, drawing, video and sculptural installations, reveals his persistent probes into some of the fundamental themes of our existence. His works traverse varying focal lengths and time-scales; from close details of the skin of a fruit or the brimming shirt-pocket of a passer-by, it might expand to register dense people-scapes, or voyage into inter-galactic vistas. Some works are meditations on the transient present while others reach back into history and overlay the past onto the present through citations of momentous historical utterances.

Thukral and Tagra: Bread, Circuses & TBD at Yorkshire Sculpture Park (ongoing)

Thukral and Tagra’s work invites people to wrestle with the issues faced by farmers in India through their immaculately conceived installation Bread, Circuses & TBD, which inaugurates The Weston Gallery in Yorkshire Sculpture Park’s (YSP) new building, The Weston. Known internationally for their highly engaging and profound projects that raise awareness of important issues in the world today, the Delhi-based artists continue their ongoing investigation into ‘kushti’, a traditional form of wrestling practiced across India and especially by farmers.

The artists have been interested in the act of kushti as a social construct, the coded vocabulary of sport and the playing field – in this case, the ‘akhara’ – since 2006, when they first began supporting the akhara community in Jalandhar, the hometown of Jiten Thukral. In their first wrestling project, Match Fixed (2010), the artists began to understand the intricate details of the lives, trials, and tribulations of the agricultural community. Their involvement has evolved to support the establishment of a kitchen, run by the families of farmers that have been affected by suicides in order to provide meals for their children.

Informed by their long enquiry into game theory, including their research into the Don Pavey Collection, held in the National Arts Education Archive at YSP, the central installation Farmer is a Wrestler is an interactive challenge that invites participants as players to try out seven traditional wrestling manoeuvres, echoing the game of ‘Twister’. Participants land on numbers, rather than colours, where each represents a trial faced by farmers in India, and across the world, such as global warming, suicide, agrarian distress, and drought. The participant gets to interact with the space to better understand and comprehend the hardship of this present-day situation. The exhibition shows the duality of the figure of the farmer as a wrestler, staging strategies for survival against a complex set of challenges. The work explores not only their psyche but the body and human form as a site for endurance and strength.

A huge and intricate painting in the shape of a wrestling arena is split into sections and shown on the gallery walls. The paintings are comprised of five layers, which link to the hardships and dire situations faced by the farmers in Farmer is a Wrestler, including wrestling figures inspired by the artists’ interviews with the farmers and their families; the crops and the associated activities vital to their livelihood; and a highlight, which gives emphasis to the issues under discussion.

The ongoing series title of ‘Bread, Circuses’ draws from the metaphor of the Roman arena as a stage not only for competition and for the display of sportsmanship, but equally as a mode of survival strategies and the earning of daily bread. It is a body of work that reflects on the lives of Indian people as affected by daily politics, society, and cultural norms. The YSP iteration ‘TBD’ (‘to be determined’), references the precariousness and uncertain future faced by Indian farmers and is represented by the white areas of incomplete canvas in the paintings.

Over the past few decades, farming and agriculture communities across the country have faced extremely difficult situations, living in poverty and oppression, with little or no control over their land or livelihood, leading to suicides. While there are constant protests and uprisings by farming communities, their pleas are often unheard by the government or go unnoticed. A tiny grain of sand or wheat becomes a metaphor that carries through the installation, sand being an element that is sacred for the akhara wrestler and wheat for the farmer.

This project aims to interrogate a larger set of political issues through the act and metaphor of wrestling, applying artistic agency to question the status quo but also offer hope.

Indian Art in context

The net worth of the Indian Visual Art market is approximately 250 million dollars. Seems like a lot? Not really. Neighbouring China commands 11 billion dollars from art.

Museums exhibiting these works attract large audiences abroad as compared to India. Aparajita compares Paris where three museums alone receive approximately 14.5 million visitors annually, to India where all the museums put together receive around 10 million visitors.

However, one can take heart that the international success of Indian artists, an increasing collector base, a rise in the number of curatorial galleries has helped the Indian Visual Arts industry make inroads into art markets abroad.

So how can India leverage her long history of art creation and promotion? What are the problems holding her back? Like everything involving culture, the main issue seems to be lack of Governmental support. “There is no institutional support in terms of government involvement. When we have museums and institutions it helps explain to people what art is. It becomes a place to go to with the kids and there is more awareness and support for artists. We have to start with awareness,” says Aparajita.

Aparajita, listed as one of the 50 icons of Indian Art by Platform, is on the board of the Delhi Chapter of YPO and is a founding member of the Harvard South Asia Institute Arts program. Her non-profit endeavour, Saat Saath Arts Foundation (SSAF), is a first-of-its-kind initiative built to catalyse international art exchange between India and the world. SSAF, working with the Rajasthan government, created the first permanent International Art Space in the state, at Nahargarh Fort.

She says when she began working in art she was constantly complaining, only focusing on the lack of everything when a friend told her to do something about it. “I began thinking, wondering and speaking to people. I spoke to economists, to advisors to policymakers to patrons and to other great thinkers on what it would take for us to get India on the soft power map. We have an amazing number of Heritage sites many of which are languishing that could be used. The ASI lists 3,650 sites and who knows how many are unlisted. The second thing was using the private public partnership model to further the cause of museums art and soft power in India.”

Aparajita along with two others, began an experiment to create India’s first
Sculpture park in a heritage site. “However we had no funding and no site, only a deep desire and love for art in India. So we approached the Government of Rajasthan who were very willing. They showed us about 10 sites and we finally we chose a jewel called Nahargarh atop a hill on the periphery of Jaipur.”

It took them nine months from signing the MOU to opening India’s first international sculpture park with 61 sculptures with 23 artists in a 500 year old fort funded by the CSR of over 12 companies. While proceeds from the ticket sales goes to the Government, the park saw a cross section of people visiting including school and college students, celebrities including Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post, as well as the local people. The Wall Street Journal mentioned this as a must-visit place in Jaipur.

Aparajita says more and more people should adopt such sites and create experience centers by infusing contemporary art into such places that were once bustling with life. They should then be put online and made to come alive with technologies like Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality so that they can reach the farthest corners of the world thus bringing focus on the intangible assets India has through her built tangible assets.

Aparajita is the co-Founder of New Delhi’s most avant-garde art space, Nature Morte along with Peter Nagy, and is now the Co-Director. Founded in New York’s East Village in 1982 and closed in 1988, Peter revived Nature Morte in New Delhi in 1997 as a commercial gallery and a curatorial experiment. Aparajita says Peter was a very successful artist in New York and fell in love with India when he came for a visit. “He started discovering contemporary artistes who were doing really good work, but there was nobody there to show them. He decided to stay back and open a gallery so that there could be a conversation and viewing for these people. He is so successful because he is sincere, extremely committed to the cause and so good with his eye.”

Peter Nagy sums up it all up in an interview where he says that most Western curators are looking for a type of art coming out of India that corresponds to what is considered “progressive” art practice. “They are able to find such works in the practice of artists such as the Raqs Media Collective, Bharti Kher, Anita Dube, Amar Kanwar, Jitish Kallat, Sonia Khuranna, and others. Unfortunately, these curators (and also critics and gallerists) often approach Indian contemporary art with very little knowledge of India itself, so they tend to misinterpret or even ignore artists that may have great relevance to the Indian context but seemingly little to the international context. But, hey, cultural translation is one of the obvious pitfalls of the globalization of the contemporary art world.”

Nature Morte has become synonymous in India with challenging and experimental forms of art; championing conceptual, lens-based, and installation genres and representing a generation of Indian artists who have gone on to get international exposure.


Nature Morte was the first gallery from India to be included in important international art fairs (starting with The Armory Show in New York in 2005) and has participated in Art Basel, Fiac Paris, Art Basel Miami Beach, Paris Photo, Art Dubai, Tokyo Art Fair, Art Basel Hong Kong, Abu Dhabi Art Fair and Frieze New York, among others.


Nature Morte has also organized projects and exhibitions with international artists coming to India and combining their works with those of Indian artists to foster cross-cultural communications. Today, Nature Morte represents such well-known artists as Subodh Gupta, Jitish Kallat, Anita Dube, Mithu Sen, Bharti Kher, Imran Qureshi, Mona Rai, Pushpamala N., Seher Shah, Thukral and Tagra, Raqs Media Collective, and Asim Waqif, as well as others.


Aparajita says that Indian art has a lot of traction in America, but more and more Indian art is getting visible and credibility world over. “We had a survey between 2003 and 2005 which showed that people were keen on doing generic shows of India but now we are moving to in-depth shows of artistes. Right now we have three shows of our artists in different parts of the world. There is a fair amount of interest of Indian contemporary art abroad.”


Most of Nature Morte’s artists are “international artists and not necessarily only artists who have an Indian aesthetic. The idea in contemporary art is for people of Indian origin to become so international that people do not know where they are from. It is about how good the artist is and how many very good thinking artists a country can produce,” says Aparajita.

The Unhotel holiday experience

Co-founder of the famous OYO Rooms, Manish Sinha left the ad world behind to create a collection of hand-picked cottages, heritage homes, luxury camps, jungle lodges, homestays, beach villas and other accommodation which he calls Unhotels.

Environmental friendly, the Unhotel is not a typical commercial establishment which is usually incidental to the whole travel experience. Manish describes the Unhotel as collective of ‘home-inside-a-hotel’ kind of places.

Their clients are people seeking new experiences, “whether they are adventure-lovers, heritage-enthusiasts, want to explore art, culture, wildlife, anything. It’s all about wanting to travel different. They are often well-travelled people who aren’t particularly focused on digging deeper but rather on digging smarter. Sometimes that means focusing on their end goal – what they want to achieve from the trip – over a tight budget. They’re people who interested equally in seeing more of India but also experiencing things outside, all over the world,” says Manish.

Goa is dream for the nature lover. But even for the frequent Goan vacationer, Unhotel seems to offer a uniquely different experience, away from the mesmerising beaches. Wading through semi-hidden waterfalls and streams; spotting the rare Sambar deer, sloth bear, porcupine, ant eater or the more elusive leopard one can trek through the forests and Savannah-like grasslands. A bird lover’s paradise, one can catch glimpses of the Asian Fairy Bluebird, Rufous Babbler, Great Indian Hornbill, White-bellied Blue Flycatcher and many more.

The Forest Refuge in Goa is hosted by Sylvia Kerkar and John Pollard who together, with a dedicated staff, tend to a variety of tasks at the homestay. John, who is English, is an adventure sports enthusiast and the first to pioneer white water rafting in South India in 1999. He started the first Rafting operations in Peninsular India which later opened up South India’s rivers for recreational white water boating. Pollard, a veritable rafting legend, has taken more than 50,000 people through swirling rapids in rivers in South India. Sylvia is passionate about ceramics and runs her own pottery studio at the Unhotel. She offers classes on demand to visitors.

To capture the essence of Goa, rustic and earthy, the Forest Refuge uses its own basic energy supply which is solar-powered; water is supplied by a waterfall nearby and firewood from the forest is used for cooking in ovens, grills and stoves. And there is no internet or telephone connection, offering a total digital detox.

The Unhotels offer a variety of culinary experiences, depending on what kind of experience a guest wants. “Simple homestays, home cooked food, grandma’s secret recipes, and regional delicacies are paired up with gourmet menus and fusion food inventions. Malabar, Chettinad, Goan, Assamese, our culinary options are diverse and inspired,” says Manish.

A celebrity client whom Unhotel hosted at their Granny’s Inn homestay in Varanasi was cine star Dia Mirza who stayed with them while doing a food show for Zee TV. “She was looking for an authentic UP-Bihar meal experience, and we were happy to have her at our inn. We are also very happy to have had her since she’s a UN Environment Goodwill Ambassador and a future leader, and our company believes in sustainability.”

The Banarasiya experience is all about traditional sarees, ​a visit​ to a weaver ​family, the history of the ghats, and a thousand temples – while staying at Granny’s Inn run by Manish’s mother in law. The beauty of sur and taal can be experienced during the famous Sankat Mochan Music Festival in April every year. One can take it in in the sprawling verandahs of the Sankat Mochan Hanuman temple.

For the conscious traveller, there is a homestay in the Himalayas to support Ladakhi women. And also an opportunity to visit Sonam Wangchuk’s school in Leh and see his work in water conservation through artificial glaciers. Wangchuk’s solution for the water crisis in Ladakh was to conserve a tower of ice in summer so that when it melts, it feeds the fields until the glacial melt waters start flowing in June. Artificial glaciers formed horizontally on a flat surface melt faster as compared to ice cones which extend vertically upwards towards the sun and which receive fewer of the sun’s rays per volume of water stored; taking longer to melt.

The vacation itch for most people is not predictable. The ‘want to get away’ feeling usually strikes one suddenly and people frequently make choices based on budgets, ticket availability, and the experience itself. But apart from all the mundane considerations, Manish says, “People are always looking for meaning and purpose – that is one of the main goals of travel. They are looking to enrich their lives and souls, by seeking local and authentic experiences. There is a dedication to spending time learning about a place, and discovering the land through its art, cuisine, architecture, you name it.”

The serene cottages and homes are located in offbeat places near metros but also away at Varanasi, Goa, Kerala, Rajasthan. “One thing I want people to know is that we are not just a market of homestays and unhotels – we are an experiential travel company. The marketing of properties is only a small, technical part of what we do. Our main focus is on crafting uncommon experiences around wellness, art and culture, conservation, adventure, and the culinary world. We are aimed at the discerning audience towards the premium end of the market.”

Unhotels also offers a good place for writers to beat the block. “We have hosted writers’ retreats and creative writing workshops at our Unhotels in the past. We also do book readings, and foster a space where literature and knowledge lovers can work passionately.”

While remote, the places offer luxury. “A major pre-requisite for selecting an Unhotel is safety and comfort. Equally important is service quality and eco-sensitivity. The rest is all about finding a unique story to tell and what captures the imagination when one visits the place – that sums up our entire Unhotel selection process.”

While the hospitality industry relies on standardisation for better recall and branding in its décor and utilities the Unhotel has steered away from stereotypes. “We are not a cookie-cutter travel company, as our name suggests. As a result, we don’t have one dominant colour in our decor. Rather, we have dominant themes that reflect fresh-ness, positive energy, softness and tranquillity.”

Manish and his team is constantly on the move, enjoying holidays of their own. Be it boutique hotels in Italy, cosy bed and breakfasts in Scotland, Airbnbs in Switzerland, or eco-hotels in Bali – they are eager to sit back and enjoy a holiday once in a while themselves.

“There is no doubt that if India strives to harmonise its domestic and international responsibilities, this can do nothing but benefit its international standing: put simply, it will make people around the world feel glad that India exists”

In his popular TED talk – Which country does the most good for the world?  – Policy advisor Simon Anholt asks the question- why do some people prefer one country more than another?

Based on years of study, he says, “the kinds of countries we prefer are good countries. We don’t admire countries primarily because they’re rich, because they’re powerful, because they’re successful, because they’re modern, because they’re technologically advanced. We primarily admire countries that are good. What do we mean by good? We mean countries that seem to contribute something to the world in which we live, countries that actually make the world safer or better or richer or fairer. Those are the countries we like. This is a discovery of significant importance — you see where I’m going — because it squares the circle. I can now say, and often do, to any government, in order to do well, you need to do good. If you want to sell more products, if you want to get more investment, if you want to become more competitive, then you need to start behaving, because that’s why people will respect you and do business with you, and therefore, the more you collaborate, the more competitive you become.” 

Working with Heads of State and Heads of Government, Simon Anholt has helped more than fifty countries to engage more productively and imaginatively with the international community.

In 2014, Anholt founded the Good Country, a project aimed at helping countries work together to tackle global challenges like climate change, poverty, migration and terrorism.

Measurement of Good Country progress is done through Anholt’s Good Country Index, the only survey to rank countries according to their contribution to humanity and the planet rather than their domestic performance. Since 2005, his research into global perceptions of nations and cities has collected and analyzed over 300 billion data points. 

In 2016, Anholt launched the Global Vote a project that enables anybody in the world to vote in other countries’ elections, choosing the candidate who is likely to do most for humanity and the planet: three months later over 100,000 people from 130 countries took part in the Global Vote on the US Presidential Election. The Global Vote now covers an election somewhere in the world almost every month.

In this interview, he answers questions about positioning and responsibility.

How important is a country’s Good Country Index Ranking to its Soft Power Rankings?

I created the Good Country Index in 2014 because analysis of the research I’d conducted during the previous nine years on international perceptions of countries showed that the most significant driver of a powerful and positive national image was the perception that a country contributes to humanity and the planet, outside its own borders and beyond its own population: what I call being a “Good Country”. If we define soft power as a country’s ability to influence by attraction, then there appears to be a strong and direct correlation between the two phenomena.

India is culturally very rich and more diverse than any other country but her rankings for Culture are surprisingly low. What determines cultural soft power?

It’s important to emphasize that in culture, as with all the other rankings in the Good Country Index, we are not measuring domestic achievements or assets, we are measuring external impact (and we’re measuring it at a specific point in time, not attempting to take a historical overview, which would be impossible to achieve in an objective way). The culture rankings in the GCI are not a measurement of each country’s cultural heritage, they provide an indication of the degree to which each country shares and spreads the benefit of its cultural activities and resources, year by year, with the rest of the world outside its own borders, and its contribution to the shared wealth, wellbeing and smooth running of the international community in the area of culture. So India’s undoubted cultural richness and diversity is not what is being measured here: it’s the measurable extent to which this richness and diversity is shared, in a given year, outside India’s own borders.

 It’s also worth stressing that the Good Country Index is entirely driven by hard data that measures the actual behaviours of each country: it does not reflect mine or anybody else’s opinions. This means of course that it is limited by the available data: we use 35 datasets produced by UN agencies and other reputable international organisations. Every indicator must measure the actual behaviours of at least the 165 countries in the index, be conducted every year, and be sufficiently robust, neutral, objective and scientific. Of course, many of the behaviours that I would like to include just aren’t measured in this way, and the Culture rankings are no exception: the Good Country Index can’t and doesn’t claim to offer a complete and exhaustive account of what each country does, it’s just an indicator.

 The indicators we use for the Culture rankings are: Exports of creative goods (UNCTAD’s Creative Economy Report categorisation) relative to the size of the economy; exports of creative services (according to ITC’s ‘trade in services’ categories 10 and 11) relative to the size of the economy; UNESCO dues in arrears as percentage of contribution (a negative indicator); freedom of movement, i.e. the number of countries and territories that citizens can enter without a visa (according to Henley & Partners); and freedom of the press (based on mean score for Reporters without Borders and Freedom House index as a negative indicator).

India’s highest ratings are for health and wellbeing. Again what determines health ratings?

Once again, what we are attempting to measure here is each country’s contribution to international health and wellbeing, not the state’s provision of health and wellbeing to its own citizens (this is not, of course, because I consider domestic behaviour to be unimportant – far from it – but simply because such factors are already measured so thoroughly in so much other research and there’s no point in my repeating all of that excellent work). So the indicators we use in this category are: Food aid funding (according to WFP) relative to the size of the economy; exports of pharmaceuticals (according to ITC) relative to the size of the economy; voluntary excess contributions to World Health Organisation relative to the size of the economy; humanitarian aid contributions (according to UNOCHA) relative to the size of the economy; and International Health Regulations Compliance (according to WHO).

How important is the setting up of cultural centres like the British Council or Alliance Français?

Setting up cultural centres provides a valuable resource for countries to share their cultural wealth with other populations and is always to be encouraged. However, in my experience, the more such initiatives are geared towards genuinely sharing national culture with others, the more value they provide and the more popular they prove: cultural centres that exist purely to promote a nation’s cultural assets and achievements tend to be far less cost-effective. The UK’s British Council often refers to the concept of mutuality: the idea that cultural relations works best when it’s about sharing and mingling cultural engagement rather than promoting cultural assets or achievements, and I endorse this view wholeheartedly. 

What role does Government play and what role does the private sector in diplomacy?

Whilst the private sector can play a useful supporting role in cultural relations and even public diplomacy, it must be absolutely clear that the profit motive can never be relied upon to coincide perfectly or permanently with the national interest, still less the international interest. So strategic and policy decisions should never be relinquished by government to other players, no matter how expedient this may appear in the short term.

What would your advice be for a country like India in improving her rankings…a country which is ancient, peace loving and accepting of all cultures? She does not make overt attempts to convert people’s perceptions. Will that go against her?

I certainly do not encourage countries to ‘convert people’s perceptions’, which I regard as a waste of time and money, as well as being an unsuitable and undignified aim for a responsible government. A country improves its rankings in the Good Country Index simply by doing a better job of harmonising its domestic and international responsibilities: doing the right thing for its own people and its own territory without harming – and ideally benefitting – people and places beyond its borders. This is the only way that the community of nations can survive and prosper in the coming years. “America First”, “India First” or “Britain First” is a frankly suicidal approach to governance in the twenty-first century, as long as it means that everyone else needs to come last: the real challenge is helping everyone to come first. There is no doubt that if India strives to harmonise its domestic and international responsibilities, this can do nothing but benefit its international standing: put simply, it will make people around the world feel glad that India exists. 

How important is economic and military influence in Good country rankings.

A country tends to rise in the ranking of the GCI if it uses its economic and military power to help make the world work better (so, for example, participating in UN peacekeeping missions will improve a country’s rank whereas causing deaths outside its own borders in other conflicts will reduce its rank).

Can evaluators and rankings agencies be truly sensitive to indigenous cultures?

 Since the Good Country Index focuses exclusively on the external impacts of countries, the amount of sensitivity shown by any individual government towards indigenous cultures will not affect its GCI ranking. Again, it should be stressed that the reason why I don’t measure this factor in the GCI is not because I think it unimportant – quite the contrary – but because the purpose of this particular index is to measure each country’s contribution to the international community rather than towards its own people. There is a good deal of research conducted each year on such purely domestic issues, and I would recommend that anyone who is interested in comparing countries on this basis should refer to this other research.

(Anholt is an Honorary Professor of Political Science and the author of five books about countries, cultures and globalisation. He is the founder and Editor Emeritus of a leading academic journal focused on public diplomacy and perceptions of places.)

Abhanga Repost – taking Bhakti poetry to youngsters

In an informal jam recording of the song – Pundalik Varde, the members of the Abhanga Repost band can be seen sitting in a tiny room in t-shirts and shorts, reciting the names of all the sants of the Varkari Sampradaya.  Not the lyrics one would expect from geeky youth – the names of the gurus of the bhakti movement associated with the Varkaris including Jnanesvar, Namdev, Chokhamela, Eknath, Tukaram and Gadge Maharaj.

Abhanga Repost is a folk fusion band which performs Abhangas written by these composers who worshipped Vittala (or Vithoba) in Maharashtra. But they have given these age-old compositions a modern twist.

Guitarist and vocalist Ajay Vavhal, harmonium player Piyush Aacharya, bass guitarist Swapnil Tarphe, tabla player and multi-percussionist Viraj Aacharya and drummer Dushyant Deorukhkar have come together to create a buzz around the Abhanga.

Historically, the Abhanga has influenced many musical traditions in India. The Sangeetha Ratnakara of Sarangadeva, one of the most important musical texts of India, was from Devgiri, which is in present-day Aurangabad. Both Hindustani and Carnatic traditions consider this to be a definitive text on music.

One expert on Abhangas told this author that while the first example of a scientifically composed South-Indian krithi was Jayadeva’s Ashtapadis, it happened at the same time as the Marathi Abhangas during Sant Gyaneshwar’s period. Marathi Abhangas have the same structure as krithis — eight lines and then the writers’ name at the end. Ashtapadis are sung in different locations in different manners. And the dhruvapada, which is the most important part in a composition is still sung in a chorus only in Marathi abhangas today.

He adds that the Varkari Sampradaya (those who walk by foot every year to Pandharpur on Ashada and Karthika Ekadashi) laid a lot of stress on community development and music in the community had to come through the participative element, irrespective of gender.

The dhruvapada is structured in such a way that the pitch is common to male or female voices. This unique feature of the Marathi abhanga is not to be found anywhere else in the world. It uses pakhawaj (percussion instrument) as an accompaniment which has a lot of base frequency. It also uses a very different tala structure of high frequency. Anyone listening is touched as it traverses the entire range of frequency of human receptivity. 

All the members of the Abhanga Repost band have a good sense of Indian classical music as they have performed with different classical/fusion bands/artistes. “We have been listing to Indian classical music since our school days and we also try to incorporate classical music in our compositions of Abhanga,” says Swapnil.

Tabla player Viraj is undergoing training under Pandit Ramdas Palsule and his brother and harmonium player Piyush has been trained by Pandit Ajay Jogalekar. He is also undergoing vocal training from Vidushi Nandini Bedekar. The band members also try to attend different classical baithaks to experience the nuances of Indian classical music.

The band was started in 2016 by Swapnil and Dushyant whose families are from the Varkari Sampradaya and so were familiar with these Abhangas. College mates, their mutual love for music and a sense of community brought them together. The lyrics of the Abhangas, deeply allegorical, appealed to the two youngsters. “Each Abhanga has message for a society. It is so commendable that whatever these saints wrote hundreds of year ago, is still applicable in the 21st century, be it be a call for revolution by Tularam, Bhakti worship by Dnyaneshwar or social awareness by Eknath.”

Abhangs are typically very high energy renditions, where the devotees dance, play the dholak and cymbals and everyone joins in the chorus. “In the traditional renderings many Indian instruments were used as accompaniments while presenting the songs. So we too decided to retain its originality by using the tabla and harmonium (which are a must in an Abhanga rendition.) The guitar imitates ‘iktari’ and drums and the bass guitar plays the role of the Pakhwaj and Dhol and this is how we ‘Repost’ it!” says Swapnil.

He adds, “Our performance is nothing but a modern ‘Kirtan’. We also dress traditionally while performing to keep that folk feel intact. We don’t wear the clothes which the varkaria wear but yes we make sure our clothes don’t look out of place.”

The band spends a lot of time on research on every Abhanga they render before tuning it, to maintain integrity with the original as well as to retain the meaning. They say while they themselves like all Abhangas, ‘Lahanpan dega deva’ and ‘Amhi bi-Ghadalo’ by Sant Tukaram are immensely popular amongst listeners.

Lyrics of ‘Lahanpan dega deva’

lahan pan dega deva | mungi sakhrecha rawa ||

airawat ratan thor |tyasi ankushcha mar||
 
jaya angi mothepan |taya yatana kathin ||

tuka mahne barve| jan whave lahahuni lahan||

mahapure zade jati| tehte lavhael wachati||

The lyrics refer to Sant Tukaram beseeching the Lord to give him back his childhood because it is the only time when man is without Ahamkara or pride.

The band members say for them Bhakti, revolution, art and music are the same. “One has to practice dedicatedly to achieve these things. We can say these are different roads leading to one destination that is divinity or inner piece!”

Their novel approach has brought new audiences to Indian music. “We have received messages from many people who are non-Maharashtrians telling us they were touched by the beauty of the Abhangas. We have also been successful in taking this literature to youngsters who identify with a young band like us.”

The Abhanga has travelled far from its early underpinnings. Sant Namdev has written poetry in Punjabi and his work feature in the Guru Granth Sahib. It is also commonly believed that Abhangas influenced Carnatic music, more specifically the Dakshina Bhajana sampradaya first started by Maruthanallur Swamigal. This in turn influenced the Trinity when Thanjavur was under Marathi rule. “So basically the concept is not confined to Maharashtra. We haven’t yet played in the southern part of India but we would love to perform there and spread the wisdom of these beautiful poems,” says Swapnil.

Divya’s Kitchen – healing food in New York

Ayurveda is becoming more and more popular in the USA, so much so that large companies like Unilever and Pepsi reached out to me to consult them on Ayurveda in relation to food – Divya Alter

Divya Alter grew up in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. She says her conscious relationship with food began when she was 18; while interning at the kitchen of an underground yoga ashram. She has been a vegetarian and a cook since then (27+ years). She says for her food is more than a means of sustenance, it is a friend that has “transformed and uplifted me on levels way beyond the physical.”

The chef/author of “What to Eat for How You Feel: The New Ayurvedic Kitchen” cookbook, Divya runs her kitchen ‘Divya’s Kitchen’ in New York City serving conscious food.

How did you get your name and identity from Vrindavan? What fascinated you about Hinduism?

I am an initiated practitioner in the Gaudiya –Vaishnava tradition of Hinduism, and my Guru Maharaja, Krishna Kshetra Swami, gave me the spiritual name Divyambara Dasi. Divya is a shortcut of that, my nickname.

I studied in Vrindavan, at the Vrindavan Institute for Higher Education, on and off for about 5 years. Vrindavan Dhama is my favorite place on earth because it is saturated with the deep spiritual sweetness of bhakti.

I was attracted to bhakti-yoga because of the purity of the practice. Reading Sanskrit texts such as the Bhagavad-Gita and the Bhagavata Purana made a lot of sense to me (and it still does!).

Where did you learn Ayurveda and from whom. Ayurveda has many strict rules about cooking and diet. Was it easy to make the shift from your earlier diet and way of life?

I first encountered Ayurvedic doctors and treatments while I lived in India. Dr. Partap Gupta treated me in Vrindavan and inspired me to begin my studies in Ayurveda. It just made so much sense to me. My main teacher is Vaidya Ramakant Mishra of the Shaka Vansiya Ayurveda lineage. He truly transformed my health and my life. I’ve completed his Pulse and Marma training as well as many other classes, including cooking classes.

I was already following some of the Ayurvedic dietary and lifestyle recommendations with bhakti-yoga; bhakti is a very sattvic practice. Adapting to even more Ayurvedic principles took some adjustment but it was not that difficult because I was committed to do everything in order to cure my autoimmune disorder.

In terms of lifestyle, it is still a bit hard for me to go to bed before 10 pm because I run a restaurant in Manhattan that closes at 10 pm. But I’m working towards it.

Please could you tell me something more about your restaurants, who are the clients who come back again and again, what do they like the most there?

My husband Prentiss and I started Divya’s Kitchen at the end of October 2016. It was the expansion of the culinary education (www.bvtlife.com) and Ayurvedic meal subscription service we’ve been doing in New York for 10 years. It is a vegetarian-vegan restaurant, and the menu incorporates the Ayurvedic principles of food compatibility and digestion.

Our clients are very nice people, from a wide range of backgrounds. We also attract a lot of yoga/Ayurveda practitioners, health conscious folks, people with special dietary needs, and more. Many of our regular clients consider Divya’s Kitchen a home-away-from-home because we serve fresh, delicious home-style food and also the ambiance is relaxing, home like. I think our regular guests appreciate not just the quality of our food but also the friendly service and calming atmosphere.

Is it difficult to source Ayurvedic herbs and ingredients in the US? Are people aware of Ayurveda as a medical practice?

I can easily find almost all specialty herbs and ingredients that we use at our restaurant and cooking classes—that’s one of the perks of living in New York City! Ayurveda is becoming more and more popular in the USA, so much so that large companies like Unilever and Pepsi reached out to me to consult them on Ayurveda in relation to food. The interest and appreciation of Ayurveda is only growing.

A lot of people in the West are moving towards Vegetarianism. Do you think Ayurveda can sensitise us to the environment and the change that needs to happen for people to be more environmentally conscious, responsible?

Yes, definitely. At the core of Ayurveda lies respect for all life and living in harmony with nature. Ayurveda regards the environment we live in as one of the pillars of health (along with diet and routine). The way we treat or mistreat Mother Earth has a direct impact on our health. By applying the universal principles of Ayurveda in our local environments, we can definitely contribute to the betterment of our life on earth and inspire others to do so.

Which is your favourite Indian dish. Where and from whom did you learn it from?

I like a lot of Indian dishes, but perhaps the one I eat the most is khichari. Of course, there are as many cooks as many khicharis! The way I prepare it is very nourishing and balancing. It is the healthiest comfort food!

Have you personally experienced the benefits of Ayurveda in terms of healing and well-being.

Yes, of course. This is what got me into Ayurveda in the first place. Over the years, Ayurveda has come to help me with different health struggles. In India, it helped me with a severe digestive disorder, jaundice, and other ailments. In the USA, it helped me cure an autoimmune disorder, chronic fatigue, and more. I believe in having a healing team—for dealing with health issues, we need to work with specialists in different medical and holistic fields, to approach the issues on all levels. I always make sure to have an Ayurvedic doctor on my healing team.

Hinduism accepts that no matter who you pray to, it is prayer and not a ‘sin’

Janani Chaitanya, aka Jananisri, has studied Vedanta since 2007. She completed a three and a half year intensive Vedanta and Sanskrit course in India with Swami Dayananda Saraswati, scholar of Sanskrit and Vedanta. Swamiji blessed her with the name Jananisri, meaning Divine Mother, at the end of her study in India.

“At the end of the residential course Pujya Swamiji told that one should never judge oneself by the ‘state of the mind.’  At the time one person next to me was crying while another was laughing; it is such a relief that the thoughts and emotions which come and go are not representative of ‘I’.”

Today Jananisri teaches beginning Sanskrit, Vedanta and Vedic chanting and assists her teacher, Swamini Svatmavidyananda, editing and publishing teachings of Vedanta. Quoting Swamini, she says, “When there is a pause to re-collect the mind and see that it is ‘a state’ and not the truth of ‘I’, Swaminiji’s description arises of walking the ‘I-notion’ from its mistaken identification of being one with the mind to simply being ‘I’. ‘Walking’ the incorrect understanding of ‘I’ to repatriate it with its true nature is an image that I never tire from.”

Why did you choose to come to Swamini Svatmavidyananda and explore Hinduism?

                Thankfully I was in the right place at the right time.  Within the first hour of hearing Swaminiji talk I felt confident that the questions I had about the inner world of humans and how it impacts the outer world, could be answered.  Because Swaminiji’s teachings seemed so relevant to this question and to me, it did not matter whether it was Hinduism or not. 

I love how the teaching operates at a subtle level with clarity about the truth of one’s own nature resulting in being non-demanding, appreciative and compassionate.  I have found that as clarity grows the struggle to either conform or go against societal expectations decreases.  I see the texts and shastras to be open and all inclusive in a way that I’ve not encountered in other traditions.  For instance, in Hinduism it is accepted that no matter who you pray to, it is prayer and not a “sin,” as other traditions might call prayers to a Divine Being other than the one identified with their tradition.  No matter whether one believes in Allah, God, Ishvara, or any other Divine Being, for a Hindu prayer will bless one.

Is it possible be spiritual and yet a-religious? How is it beneficial to take the religious and spiritual path instead?

                I don’t think there is a spiritual path that is devoid of an altar of worship.  The knowledge that ‘I’ is non-separate from what is, the whole, Brahman, requires a place to lay down incorrect notions, a place where one can ‘as though’ let go of what is not ‘I’.  Those who know themselves to be whole, however, do not see a ‘path’ or for that matter any differentiation between religious and spiritual, so naturally they have no need for religion.

Does one have to undergo pain and sorrow in the path to inquiry?

                Any inner inquiry usually begins from a place of pain and sorrow and so it might be that one confuses the pain and sorrow resulting from not knowing oneself – even after one has started one’s inquiry – with pain and sorrow related to the inquiry.  Indeed, inquiry tends to push one out of one’s comfort zone therefore leading to increased opportunities for pain and sorrow to arise.  However, the pain and sorrow is not related to the inquiry and one finds that as one’s clarity increases, pain and sorrow become less frequent, less intense and more quickly recovered from.

Has learning Sanskrit and listening to Sanskrit changed you. Was it difficult? Does it offer inroads to greater understanding of Indian philosophy?

                Sanskrit is a beautiful language that carries the culture of Indian traditions within itself.  For instance the word anilaḥ is translated as ‘wind,’ but etymologically we can break it into the negative particle ‘an’ and the root verb ‘il’ which means to stay still, resulting in a definition of wind itself as that that which does not stay still.  There have definitely been challenges in learning Sanskrit but as the teachings of the Upanishads and shastras grows clearer, it seems so too does Sanskrit.

“We love India…and since a very long time”

French historian and author Dr Jean-Marie Lafont says India and France shares a long military and social history that goes back to the 18th century. Dr Lafont is a French historian specialising in exchanges and mutual enrichments between civilisations, mainly between France and India. 

What in your opinion is the most lasting impression of France’s historical presence in India?

Dr Lafont: France has always considered India as one of the oldest and best civilizations in the world, like the Egyptian Pharaonic civilizations, the Greek and Roman civilizations, the Chinese civilizations. This explains its decision, after the attempts of Dupleix to establish an “Indirect French rule” in Deccan in 1741-1754, not to colonize India, but, just as the French did in America during the Independence War of the USA, to protect its independence and help the Indian States protect (or recover) their Independence from British Colonial rule.

Another impact for India was the French Revolution, when the French got rid of the Ancient Regime and proclaimed the motto of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. All the Indian Freedom fighters, from sovereigns like Tipu Sultan or individuals, from Ram Mohan Roy to Shri Aurobindo, and even now so many people in India acknowledge the ideas of the French Revolution as international values.

For the French, they got immense intellectual benefits from their interest in Indian cultures and civilizations. One of the lesser known and the most important is the freedom from time: the French in old time, being most of them Christians Roman Catholics, believed that the universe was about 6000 years old. The Indians already knew that it was millions of years old. It took a lot of time for Europeans to understand that the Indians were right. The French also purchased many artisanal and industrial products from India through their Companies des Indes Orientales (we had successively 3 EICs, from 1664 to 1793, and we paid in gold and silver bullion for what we bought, thus increasing the richness of India). This led to develop the French taste, and it influenced the French mind through what we called the Indomania (17th to 19th centuries).

We kept in our Royal Libraries and Archives many Indian manuscripts in Sanskrit, Indo-Persian, Bengali, Tamil, and Telugu etc… which we started to collect from the 16th century onward, and French Indology was one of the most advanced in Europe by the 1830, when the French had been excluded from India by the British. Some of the best European scholars, even German ones like Max Müller, were trained in Paris before returning home or moving, like Müller, to Oxford and work for the British.

What inspired you to write your book – ‘Maharaja Ranjit Sing – Lord of the Five Rivers’

Maharaja Ranjit Singh had a crucial French connection: his fauz-e-khas, an inner cordon of blue-chip warriors dressed in trousers and crocheted jackets, was raised by Allard and Ventura, former officers of Napoleon. When I landed in Rajit Singh’s old capital Lahore in 1972, I learn that Allard had married a Hindu princess of Chamba and taken her to what is now a resort called St Tropez.

I found a 1836 painting of the general and his family possibly authored by the great French artist Eugene Delacroix. It was the Allard adventure that got me interested in the man who began it all, Ranjit Singh.


General Allard had married a Hindu princess of Chamba and taken her to what is now a resort called St Tropez

The book examines the achievements of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, ruler of the last great Indian state which successfully resisted British expansionism until 1849. The main emphasis is on the dynamism and energy of the Maharaja and the Punjabi people in establishing a state in the Land of the Five Rivers.

Ranjit Singh’s empire ultimately came to include Kashmir, Ladakh, and Peshawar, extending as far west as the Khyber Pass. Ranjit Singh respected the ethnic and religious diversity of the people of the Punjab and successfully forged a political, social, and cultural synthesis among them. He also introduced innovative administrative measures in the political, economic, and cultural spheres of his kingdom. His secular policy was matched by his modernising drive, seen most spectacularly in the military field where innovative measures were introduced with the help of French and Italian military officers who had served under Napoleon.

Among the most serious military challenges which the British encountered in their century-long conquest of India (1757-1849) occurred on the battlefields of Ferozeshah and Chillianwala. In addition to the political, military and economic aspects of Ranjit Singh’s administration, the book also throws light on some of the little-known yet fascinating cultural achievements of his rule. These include the Imam Bakhsh Lahori school of painting, the discovery of Gandhara art, and the exploration of the Himalayas, which are presented here for the first time.
It is lavishly illustrated with 216 colour illustrations and six maps.


The book examines the achievements of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, ruler of the last great Indian state which successfully resisted British expansionism until 1849

Does India have a positive historical memory of France as compared to British rule?

Dr Lafont: That is left to the Indians to assess the situation and reply to that question. But it must be clarified that there was never a French Colonial rule in India, for the reason I gave above. It was one of the many myths and excuses advanced by the English East India Company to justify at home its conquests of more and more Indian territories. There was only a strong French political influence in the Deccan (Hyderabad and Aurangabad) under Dupleix through his second in command, Marquis de Bussy, and that lasted only from c. 1741 to 1759.

What role has France played in designing India’s landscape?

Dr Lafont: The French in India had only five places called in French ‘Comptoirs’ (in English Settlements): Pondicherry, Chandannagar, Yanaon, Karikal and Mahe, plus a cluster of small ‘factories’ called ‘Loges’, essentially around Chandannagar and Mahe. But they did develop specific French taste and architectural habits in their Comptoirs. Most important was Pondicherry, being the residence of the French Governor General, and one of the most beautiful cities of India at that time, as it had been developed by Governors Dumas, and then Dupleix, (c. 1730-1754). Many Indian ambassadors and high ranking VVIPs came to Pondicherry to visit the city, the ramparts, the Fort, the artillery park and the Palace of the Governor. That is why the British razed the city, the Fort and the Palace when they captured Pondicherry in 1761. There is an interesting engraving dating 1763 showing the ruins of Pondicherry.

One of the distinctive aspects of French urbanism was the ‘bords de mer’, which we developed in Pondicherry and the ‘Riversides’, as we did in Chandernagor. Even in Lahore, during the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the French Generals Allard and Ventura developed what they called ‘Le jardin du Soldat’ (The Soldier’s garden) along one branch of the Ravi River flowing near the Cantonments of the Fauj-i-khas, the elite brigade of the Punjab created and commanded by the former officers of Napoleon serving in the Punjab.