Great Jewish Stars were at the heart of Bollywood

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

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

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

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


Picture source : Danny Ben Moshe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Picture source : Danny Ben Moshe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Picture source : Danny Ben Moshe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Picture source : Danny Ben Moshe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

India gave birth to the universal language Sanskrit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please share your impressions about the science of Indian philosophy.

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

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

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

Have you studied any texts along those lines?

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

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

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

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

INDIA’S LEGACY IN THAILAND

In a recent interview published by India’s public service broadcaster DD News, Sanskrit scholar Professor Chirapat Prapandvidya, from Thailand, exclaimed, “Thailand is the most crucial place for study of Sanskrit. We started to study Sanskrit long back. Hinduism and Buddhism existed in Thailand and have very strong influences. The influence of Sanskrit in Thai life is very strong and is intact. ”

Prof. Prapandvidya, who was also a speaker at the India Foundation’s Conference on Soft Power held in December 2018, is an archaeologist by profession. He has dedicated his entire life to the study and propagation of Sanskrit in Thailand. He continues to teach Sanskrit to the youth of Thailand, and he was the first to conceive both a post-graduate course and a PhD course in Sanskrit. He has also archived every inscription relating to the historicity of Indians who have visited Thailand. Prof. Prapandvidya continues to inspire scores of youth in Thailand, thereby bringing Thailand and India closer.

India and Thailand have over a millennia-old religious, cultural and trade links; these links have been concrete enablers of cultural and public diplomacy contributing to the convergence of New Delhi’s “Act East Policy” and Bangkok’s “Look West Policy.”

India’s Legacy in Thailand

As the world’s focus shifts from the British royal family to Thai royal family, Thailand has just recently witnessed the coronation of its first monarch since the people’s king, King Bhumibol, who ruled over Thailand for an exceptionally long duration. The elaborate coronation of King Vajiralongkorn that took place over three days, from May 4 to 6, in the capital Bangkok saw many Buddhist and Hindu rituals performed in the month leading up to the event. The 66-year-old King Vajiralongkorn became Thailand’s constitutional monarch after the death of his father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, in 2016 following a 70-year rule.

In what is rare footage released by Thai film archivists, glimpses of the 1950 coronation of King Bhumibol Adulyadej show him pouring sacred water on himself as part of the purification process, soon after which he wears the crown. Available reports state that the use of water is based on a Hindu tradition that dates back to 18th century coronation ceremonies, since the founding of the Chakri dynasty.


To date, the special relationship between India and Thailand exists and is there for all to see. This bond has been carefully preserved and carried forward for generations together, so much so that it plays an integral part in the anointment of the King of Thailand, even today.

Hindu touches of Thai coronation are not new. In ancient India, Rajabhisheka referred to the coronation of ordinary kings. “For the Siamese, Rajabhisheka is rather a Rajasuya, a ceremony for the consecration of an emperor, and it is extremely interesting to find that some of its features can be traced back to the Vedic Rajasuya described in the Satapatha Brahmana,” wrote author Horace Geoffrey Quaritch Wales, advisor of Siamese King Rama VI and Rama VII.

Pertinent here also is the fact that the Thai royal family has never let a ritual in their family be performed without the presence of Indian priests or those who have learned the hymns in Sanskrit and Tamil. “Thai priests have been taught Sanskrit and Tamil hymns, including Thiruppavai and Thiruvempavai,” said Krongkanit Rakcharoen, the former Consul-General of the Royal Thai Consulate-General in Chennai. “Over a period of time, these hymns formed a salient feature of Thai rituals. The monarchy in Thailand reveres these Indian priests, and no ritual is performed without their presence.”

The similarities between Indian and Thai culture are not restricted to the Royal family and do not stop there. The Island of Phuket has a long-recorded history dating back to 1025 CE, which indicates that the island’s present-day name derives its meaning from the Tamil word manikram (crystal mountain), which is equivalent to the Thai words phu meaning “mountain,” and ket meaning “jewel.”

Admiration for Indian deities is perhaps engrained in Thai culture. Dr. Padma Subramaniam, who has honed herself not just as an performing artist but also as an academic, in an interview described, “Once in Thailand, I was invited to the puja room of the Royal Thai Opera and there I saw masks of four deities being worshipped—Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh and Bharatamuni.”

Another striking example is that of the Si Thep Historical Park in Phetchabun’s Si Thep district, for which the Thai authorities are striving hard that it be declared a UNESCO world heritage site. Architecture at the site is a mixture of the Buddhism-based culture of the Dvaravati kingdom and Khmer culture, which draws on Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism.

Indian-Thai Relations

This civilizational base on which India-Thailand relations have consistently been nurtured, is a true testament to the countless similarities that exist between both countries. Be it Hinduism or Buddhism; be it any branch of Buddhism or even Indian epics like Ramayana, all have had a deep profound impact in the milieu of Thailand. It will not stop at just one Prof. Pranpandvidya; there will be many more such scholars and ambassadors for India who will emerge from the beautiful country of Thailand.

This significant cultural exchange is not a one-way street. In March, Delhi’s Namaste Thailand Festival was organized by the Royal Thai Embassy and showcases many aspects of Thai culture to Indians. This year’s festival also featured the popular folk jazz music band, Asia 7, from Thailand.

While there is much more to achieve, trade relations between the countries have witnessed a steady rise between 2017 and 2018; bilateral trade has witnessed an increase of 30 percent. An interesting annual study brought out by the North American Cultural Diplomacy Initiative has asserted how aspects such as cultural diplomacy and soft power can catapult enhanced bilateral trade. Historically, too, it is trade that actually played an important role in the expanse of India’s culture reaching the shores of Southeast Asia.

The deep significance that India attaches to Thailand was discernible when Prime Minister Narendra Modi, en route to Japan, stopped in Bangkok to pay homage to late King Bhumibol, in November 2016. Describing King Bhumibol as a “world statesman,” PM Modi said, “His Majesty will always be remembered for his compassion, foresight and commitment for the welfare of his people. His departure from this world is also a loss for the international community.”

As cultural commentator Tiffany Jenkins once put it, “The value of the arts, the quality of a play or a painting, is not measurable. You could put all sorts of data into a machine: dates, colours, images, box office receipts, and none of it could explain what the artwork is, what it means, and why it is powerful.”

Looking Ahead

To date, the special relationship between India and Thailand exists and is there for all to see. This bond has been carefully preserved and carried forward for generations together, so much so that it plays an integral part in the anointment of the King of Thailand, even today.

Traditionally, soft power ties have strengthened strong civilizational links between India and Thailand. There are a number of forms of Indian literature that have influenced Thai culture. It was a means for India to forge ties with Thailand and the larger ASEAN region, and these ties will only grow with contemporary relevance. Recently the ASEAN member countries in Bangkok proposed a distinct outlook toward cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region, and vibrant soft power ties will only enable this key objective bringing India, Thailand and the ASEAN more closer in the economically powerful Indo-Pacific region.

(The article was originally published in the USC CPD blog)

Image source:
Tris_T7 via Wikimedia Commons 

From Bahrain to India: How Yoga Changed My Life

CSP caught up with Fatima Al Mansoori, the internationally renowned yoga therapist from Bahrain on how she took to yoga, her keenness to study yoga in India and the ways in which she is influencing Bahrain and the Middle East in enabling them to be self-aware:

Image source: Fatima Al Mansoori

How did you take to yoga?

In July 2006 I had a major car accident and had mild concussion, bruises and stitches. After that there were a couple of years of struggling with fatigue, not feeling refreshed after sleep, and widespread pain. In 2008 I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue. Doctors said that there was no cure for it. I tried to find a cure, believing there must be a treatment that would work, but nothing worked. I finally decided to accept this dis-ease and be at peace with it rather than try to fight it. Acceptance was the key, and then I found myself guided to live a healthy lifestyle, practice yoga, eat healthy, and meditate. We live in a society that constantly teaches us to fight and never give up, but not everything can be sorted out with resistance; some things need acceptance. There’s a difference between giving up and surrendering to God, and only through complete surrender do we find peace and guidance. I didn’t know much about yoga but I knew that it was more than what was being offered at the gym halls! I was God-guided to travel to India to learn yoga. I never expected that I could be cured. My intention was to improve my quality of life and manage the symptoms. As I kept practicing an authentic holistic way, I started to notice results after three months, and I felt noticeably better in six months. Within eight months I was back to normal and my energy levels were even better than at any time before.

Image source: Fatima Al Mansoori

What specifically pushed you to come to India to study yoga? What made you want to teach yoga to others?

I knew that there was something more to yoga other than just a physical practice; I wanted to learn the therapeutic approach… I was looking for authentic knowledge so I had to seek from the origins of yoga… India.

After recovering I wanted to resume my career (previously a founder and director of a graphic designing company). I was so attached! However, when I started sharing my experience on social media many people were inspired by my recovery and needed help and guidance, so I chose not to look back and decided to take a new path to serve humanity. It was one of the hardest decisions I have ever made and one of the most important lessons I needed to learn and practice/apply in order to grow. Let go.

What specific aspects of yoga were you most drawn to? Have you been able to relate to the spiritual aspects of yoga? Were you aware of the spiritual side of yoga when you first began practicing?

Patanjali’s Yogasutra and Ashtanga yoga. Practising Yoga gave me a compatible perspective on my own spiritual practice as a Muslim. Yes and I loved the interfaith aspects of spirituality.


Image source: Fatima Al Mansoori

How would you describe the perceptions that people have about yoga in Bahrain today?

When I first started offering sessions most locals who joined had never heard about yoga and some who had heard about it thought it was a Buddhist ritual, some thought it was a Hindu religion and some thought it was what they see in western movies – acrobats and stretching or posing. Some even thought it was a Chinese form of cultural art!! Bahrain always had groups who knew what yoga was and practiced it since the 90s – mostly foreigners with few Bahrainis. Gyms and sport centres have been offering yoga asana sessions almost everywhere in Bahrain but that doesn’t help in terms of propagating the science, it actually gives a wrong perception of what yoga is! Since I came back from India my mission was to share the health benefits and to propagate yoga therapy which wasn’t popular. It has come a long way since 2011. It’s never easy to get the acceptance and recognition from the medical community but I had my recovery experience and that attracted a lot of medical doctors to pay attention; they even started referring patients. Soon I was asked to offer sessions in government and private hospitals and medical centres. It’s all about integrating a scientific approach and using the right terminology and continuing regardless of disappointments and shut doors. It’s also about learning the gaps and where to fit. Soon it spread like wild fire… I started getting invitations to deliver sessions at schools, community societies, institutes and universities, cultural centres, EVERYWHERE – to all groups and societies!

Is yoga officially recognised by your country’s government? Do you require an official license or certification to teach yoga in your country?

No, when I went to the National Health Regulatory Authority to inquire with regard to applying for my accreditation as a yoga therapist so that I can get the necessary license to practice, I was told that it is not categorised as a therapy since it’s not invasive so no license is required and it can be taught as a sport! Since then I have been demanding categorisation and sharing why it is essential on local media like TV, radio and newspapers and on my social media accounts. It was a great achievement to hear the Minister for Health at the Yoga Day in 2016 stating that “Yoga is a medical modality” during her opening speech at the International Yoga Day event.


Image source: Fatima Al Mansoori

You are an adjunct professor at the Human Consciousness & Yogic Sciences department in Mangalore University. Tell us about how you got into the role and what aspects of yoga do you teach?

I was a student at the Department of Human Consciousness and Yogic Sciences in Mangalore University and I completed the basics of Yogic Science Course at the department. After two years I returned to deliver case presentations and joined the Yoga for Stress Disorders International Conference. I kept submitting my activities and after another year, I was honoured with the professorship due to my achievements in the field. I have been visiting to deliver special lectures to the students. “Teaching Yoga in GCC Countries, Compatibility and Challenges”, “Public Speaking for Yogis”, “Yoga and the Sustainable Development Goals”, “Yoga for Humanitarian Crisis”, “Integrated Yoga Therapy Clinical approach” – these are some of my lecture topics.

Do you think there would be a demand among university students to come to India to study yoga at an official institution like you did?

It’s challenging to live in the hostel or ashrams. They need to adjust to the living conditions but I think it’s part of the experience, to eat what is given to you and to not have the luxury to select your food or room… acceptance and adjustment, becoming flexible and adapting to different living conditions is a very important lesson. My first night wasn’t easy, I remember walking to the registrar’s office the next morning with a swollen eye due to a mosquito bite, and I remember she said “Which course are you signing up for? I’m sure it’s the shortest course and I don’t think you will finish it!!”

Can you give us a sense of the students that you cater to by teaching yoga?

My sessions are individual, by booking. For therapy purposes I don’t believe in group sessions… It’s a clinical approach. I have designed a therapy course for chronic conditions. A lot of doctors refer patients with stress disorders, breathing issues, IBS, obesity, diabetes, skin issues due to stress, sleep disorders, headache, chronic pain as well as pregnant women. Some come for prevention and some come seeking a cure. I do not and I will never claim to give cures but all they need is guidance and they find their own way to recovery. I’ve seen and documented that over and over again. Doctors are happy with the results we are achieving.


Image source: Fatima Al Mansoori

How often do you visit India? Your impressions of India?

I love visiting India; I learn something new every time! I should visit more often (every semester to deliver lectures) but I can’t always visit due to needing to renew the visa. It becomes a stretch because I get invited all over the world to speak in conferences and sometimes I can’t jump to India from another country due to visa expiration!

On average what are the demographics of your classes? Is it mainly a local audience? Are there Indian nationals who attend? What is the average age of attendees roughly?

Everyone is welcome; mostly locals come – both male and female, from children to teenagers, all ages up to retirement age. Some Indians and Saudis cross the bridge to seek the therapy sessions as well as few Europeans and other Arab nationalities, due to appearing in the most famous Arab talk show on TV, which attracted people of different nationalities.


Image source: Fatima Al Mansoori

Finally, tell us about the vision and mission of your entity, the Sustainable Humanitarian Development.

Apart from the clinical sessions, many group sessions are offered free of charge to support the community groups of special needs, blind, sickle cell patients and lots of other groups and there is an increased demand. I have also witnessed from my humanitarian missions that the experience is of great benefit and we get amazing feedback for providing the sessions to refugees. Due to the increased demand and the need to grow, in 2018 humanitarian initiatives became a priority and I established SHD (Sustainable Humanitarian Development) Educating, Training and Consultancy, so that I could provide services and overcome the challenges much more efficiently. There is no sustainable funding or support to such initiatives and that is why I ultimately decided to launch Sustainable Humanitarian Development as a registered entity so that it can sustain itself by offering payable corporate services, educational programs and workshops that can provide basic logistic fees for the missions.

The vision was:

– Establishing a Not for Profit, social entrepreneurship entity in this part of the world was a challenge to begin with, due to the lack of understanding of social entrepreneurship. Promotion of human welfare, while working towards advancing the wellbeing of humanity and promoting human dignity in the middle of man-made crises or natural disasters with active participation to alleviate suffering and maintain human dignity.

–  Promoting sustainable lifestyles which can have a great Impact on quality of life, health and wellbeing.

–  Integrated Health Promotion and community wellbeing.

–  Providing corporate training programs to boost occupational health and wellbeing

– Spreading awareness of clinical yoga therapy in Bahrain and the GCC region so that it becomes an essential supportive component in governmental hospitals and primary care centers and gather evidence on the effectiveness for the treatment of different ailments and to promote and encourage research in the field.

– To introduce mindfulness and yoga in schools in Bahrain and the region.

-To conduct educational training programs and create career opportunities in the field.

Redefining the Way Women Travel in India

F5 Escapes is a unique start-up company committed to enabling and ensuring safety of women-only travel in India. Founders, Malini Gowrishankar and Akanksha Bumb started the company with the premise to change the perception that India is an unsafe travel destination for women. Today they curate many experiences for single and group female inbound tourists and also keep the local economy alive.

CSP caught up with the founders of F5 Escapes on why they took to entrepreneurship, what drives them, and out-of-the-box ideas to promote responsible tourism in India:


Image source: F5 Escapes

What inspired you to take up entrepreneurship and why tourism?

Akanksha: Travel planning has been a passion. I wanted people to experience India in a way that forms a connection and not just as a tick on the box. Tourism in India is an exciting place to be. It is challenging, no doubt, but that is all the more reason to be in this space. Entrepreneurship gave me the freedom of experimenting and approaching an itinerary in a non-conventional way. Building something from ground up and creating a work culture that is unique and reflects our shared values, is what keeps us motivated.

Malini: Travel and giving back to the community are things that keep me going. Hence entrepreneurship, that too in tourism, was a natural choice for me. The choice of women travel weighed heavily in the fact that India wasn’t considered a women-friendly destination and the time was ripe to solve that problem.

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

Akanksha: If it has to be one thing I pick, it will be people. We are a beautiful chaos. India is such a diverse country and every nook has a different story to tell. Although the people are so different from one another – even within the same state boundaries – the warmth is consistent. Once you start immersing yourself in the lives of your hosts, your experience becomes layered, multi-faceted and so much more emotional.

Malini: For me, it is the mind boggling cultural diversity again, over and above the rich geographical diversity and ancient history. No other country has such a unique combination of features and I truly feel honored to represent and showcase India in the travel arena.

Yes, Padhaaro Mhaaro Des. Vaango!


Image source: F5 Escapes

Your motto is to redefine the way women travel in India through F5 Escapes. Can you explain?

Akanksha: Growing up, I never thought travelling as a woman will be difficult or any different from travelling as a man. My naïveté stemmed from the fact that as a young woman, I was accorded the same freedom and confidence at home as my male counterparts. It was only when I looked around at my female classmates and colleagues and saw their and their families’ inhibition to go out alone, I realised that I was raised as an exception. When I started travelling on my own, I understood some of their fears and inhibitions. Travel for women needs to be redefined in India, not because women lack capability, but because our mind-sets and general infrastructure do not support our free movement. As a country, we are still not used to seeing a woman on her own; and as women, we are seldom taught or encouraged to be on our own. F5 Escape’s approach is two-pronged – change the mind-set that still isn’t very comfortable seeing a woman by herself and create support systems, safety measures and a vetted list of vendors to enable a safe and comfortable journey.

Malini: Interestingly, my life had been the other extreme and that’s what made me take up to travel. I grew up in a very protected environment where I was not allowed to venture anywhere in the same city on my own, let alone travel to somewhere else by myself. I know for a fact that it takes tremendous guts to take that first step. The presence of a support system like F5 for women can accelerate this process of claiming their own space and help them feel way more confident in the process. The rest, Akanksha has explained very well.


Image source: F5 Escapes

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

Both: Based on the data we have, the USA has been a major contributor to inbound tourism. A lot of first generation NRIs – across countries – have a great interest in rediscovering their roots. This segment is also potentially more open to experience authentic local tourism.

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

Akanksha: Civic sense. As a country we have failed so many of our heritage monuments and natural landscapes.  Most of our hikes are littered with plastic. Some of our monuments are defaced with spit marks and graffiti. As citizens, we need to be more aware of how we dispose of what we consume and how we leave a place we enjoyed, intact for other to enjoy it as well.

From the government and civic bodies, we need better waste management systems and not just in cities. Most of India’s tourist destinations are smaller towns and they just don’t have the wherewithal to handle the waste that tourism generates; mountains especially.

Malini: Clean toilets – there is a lot of work to be done in this area. Natural loos, compost toilets, etc., I am sure would find acceptance among tourists as long as they are clean and hygienic. Embracing technology – a tourist will feel much safer in a country if they have access to local amenities – police, hospital, judiciary, etc. With the connected world that we have, time is ripe to cut thru the red tape and make important services accessible to tourists via technology.  Encourage problem solvers – encourage more and more problem solvers / travel entrepreneurs – ensures that the benefits of the various schemes actually reaches the folks who deserve to be helped.


Image source: F5 Escapes

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

Akanksha: I would like to believe that tourism is getting more local in terms of experience.

Malini: I strongly agree with Akanksha. With travel infrastructure becoming standardised across the world, local experiences are the key differentiators of the future. I think language based tourism can be a great idea. For example, someone from Japan can come to Tamil Nadu to study Tamil. India is home to some of the most ancient languages in the world and we have a ripe opportunity there for the future.

Medical tourism and film tourism seems to be lucrative and are picking up. Your thoughts?

Both: As long as the money flows back to local operators and the practices are ethical and unexploitative, why not!

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

Both: Sensitisation. The one thing we hear the most from our foreign and domestic clients is that they get stared at a lot. The curiosity of seeing someone who looks very different or even seeing a woman alone, results in stares. It is often harmless and occurs just because it is not commonplace. Sensitising the workforce about interpersonal communication – verbal and non-verbal can go a long way in making India a women-friendly country for travel.

Image source: F5 Escapes

What would be your recommendations for India to tap into the potential of social media to attract inbound tourists?

Both: Responsive tourism boards. Encouraging local operators. Regular meets of stakeholders and more ease of doing business.

If you were to suggest a possible campaign for tourism in India, what would it entail?T

Think Beyond the Taj Mahal!

India enjoys a strong, positive image in Brazil

June 17, 2019: At India Foundation’s Center for Soft Power in Chennai, we hosted Mr. Shobhan Saxena and Ms. Florencia Costa from Brazil for an interaction on “From Soft-Power Influence to Economic and Political Gains: India’s Engagement with Brazil and the South American Region”.

Mr. Saxena is the President of Indian Association of Brazil. He is a scholar and cultural entrepreneur. He is the founder of BRIC Street, a Sao Paulo-based organisation working on creating a cultural communication, bridging the knowledge deficit and building people-to-people contact while promoting trade between Brazil and India. He is also the founder of Bloco Bollywood, the first and only Indian street carnival in Brazil.

Ms. Florencia Costa is a journalist and cultural curator. Costa has been a journalist for more than 20 years and has worked as foreign correspondents in Moscow, London, Mumbai and New Delhi. She is the co-founder of Bloco Bollywood and the co-founder of BRIC Street. She is also the editor of a Brazilian website on Indian culture.

In the sidelines of the interaction, we spoke to them on understanding more about their initiatives towards enabling India in Brazil through Bloco Bollywood and in other ways.

The interview with Shobhan:

When did you move to Brazil? What are some of your areas of work and initiatives towards enabling India’s image in Brazil and South America?

I moved to Brazil in the year 2012, as a journalist.  In the past six years, I have reported extensively for various Indian and foreign publications about Brazil and South America, including the FIFA World Cup 2014 and Rio Olympics 2016. I have also focused on India’s bilateral engagement with Brazil and multilateral forums like BRICS, G-20, IBSA, G-4 and WTO, etc. Besides reporting, I have taught courses on Indian foreign policy, politics, society and cinema at the University of Sao Paulo. I regularly give lectures on Indian economy and foreign policy at Brazil’s top universities, think tanks and other institutions. In the past six years, I have given many lectures on the Indian Constitution, Dr B R Ambedkar, Sardar Patel, Yoga and Meditation, at the Indian Cultural Centre of ICCR at Sao Paulo.

As the president of Indian Association (2016-2020), I have been organizing Indian festivals like Holi, Diwali, Onam, Durga Puja, Independence Day and Yoga Day events in Brazil, which all attract a large number of Indian expats and our Brazilian friends.

Image source: Bloco Bollywood

My biggest contribution to the promotion of Indian culture in Brazil has been the creation of Bloco Bollywood, an Indian street Carnival in Sao Paulo where we play traditional Indian and Bollywood music. In just four years, our Bloco has become one of the top carnival parties in Sao Paulo, with huge media coverage in Brazil’s top TV channels, newspapers and magazines. This year, we attracted more than 8,000 people – Indians, Brazilians and other expat communities. Today, the Bloco is the biggest Indian gathering and festival in South America, with Indian associations from other countries asking us to take Bloco Bollywood to places like Argentina and Chile. The Bloco has helped in creating a very positive image of India and our vibrant and colourful culture. 

What are some of the key areas of work for your wife, Florencia Costa?

Florencia Costa, also a journalist by profession, has lived and worked in India for seven years. She has a lot of interest and engagement with Indian culture and festivals. A co-founder of Bloco Bollywood, she is instrumental in promoting our Bloco among the Brazilians and also in the local media. She is also a regular speaker on India-related issues at various media outlets, think tanks and universities. She has just covered the Indian election 2019 for Brazil’s top magazine Veja, explaining to its readers the vibrancy of Indian democracy.

She has created a new website called Beco da India (The Indian Street), a Portuguese site aimed at Brazilians that takes a 360 degree look at Indian culture and Indian cultural activities in Brazil and other South American countries. We plan to launch the site in July.

Tell us about the Indian community in Brazil and their areas of work.

We may have a total of 5,000 Indians living and working in the country. The majority of these people (3,000) are based in the state of Sao Paulo and Sao Paulo city. All members of the community are represented by the Indian Association of Brazil, which is the sole Indian organization in Brazil. The members of Indian community are involved in trade (textiles and consumer goods), academics, education and businesses like IT, pharma, petroleum, food and cultural activities. Most Indian MNCs like TCS, Infosys, Wipro, Reliance, Lupin, Dr Reddy’s, Ranbaxy and Vedanta have their Latin American head offices in Sao Paulo. The community is slowly but surely growing in numbers as trade and other engagements between the two countries grow.

Bloco Bollywood seems to have gradually evolved into a fine show of strength for the Indian diaspora in Brazil. As its founders what do you have to say about its evolution?

The real Brazilian Carnival happens in the streets in the form of music and dance parties called Blocos. Somehow, the energy and nature of Blocos in Brazil reminded me of the street processions we have in India (Ganesha in Mumbai or marriage processions on the streets of any Indian city). In 2016, after living here for more than 4 years, I realized that many Brazilians had an interest in Indian music and dances, especially Bollywood, but they did not really understand its nuances. So I, with my wife, decided to create an Indian Bloco as an experiment. Our first Bloco happened in February 2016 in Sao Paulo. We invited the members of the Indian community and our Brazilian friends to the street party. More than 700 persons, mostly Indians but some Brazilians, turned up at the Bloco, which is a free, non-commercial event open to all. For five hours, we played Bollywood songs, Indian pop and bhangra and dandiya numbers, with people dancing non-stop to the music. Because of its unique nature, our Bloco got extensive media coverage as people turned up in colourful Indian costumes.  


Image source: Bloco Bollywood

Today, in just four years, it has become the biggest Indian event in entire South America. In 2019, we had more than 8,000 people at two Blocos in different locations. It just shows the power of Indian music, dances and costumes to attract people. The Bloco has also given a big boost to all Indian restaurants in Sao Paulo and all Indian textile traders have benefitted from it, with a hike in sales of Indian dresses close to the carnival.

Given the Bloco’s popularity, we hope to turn it into an important vehicle for promoting Indian softpower in Brazil with the tagline of “Happiness and Peace”. We are also working on a social project to give free English classes to underprivileged children and young prisoners, with the purpose of boosting the image of the Indian community in Brazil.

What does the BRIC Street do? When was it founded?

BRIC Street was founded in 2018. We have just opened an office in Sao Paulo, with the purpose of increasing people- to-people contact between India and Brazil, besides promoting business and trade links between the two countries. We will have two websites: one to promote Indian culture in Brazil in Portuguese language and the other one (in English) to work as a resource centre cum online think tank for people working on India-Brazil relations. We also plan to organise an annual seminar and conference called India Dialogue Series in Sao Paulo, with the objective of promoting business, cultural and economic links between the two countries, besides showcasing India’s cultural prowess in Brazil and other South American countries. We plan to host the first India Dialogue in October 2019, in the run up to the BRICS summit in Brazil in November.

What is it about India that resonates with the Brazilian population?

Brazil is a country where India enjoys a very positive image. Also, as the Brazilian culture itself is a mixture of three cultures – European, African and indigenous – the people here are very open to other cultures. Indian things like Yoga, Ayurveda and classical dances are well-known here. Indian food and Bollywood are also becoming popular. Bloco Bollywood has generated a lot of buzz about India, with our team being invited to the top TV shows and getting live coverage on the country’s main channels and wide coverage in newspapers and magazines. Today, Bloco Bollywood has become the main vehicle of Indian culture in Brazil. We have introduced Bhangra, Garba and Bollywood-style dancing on the streets of Sao Paulo. We have also trained a team of drummers from University of Sao Paulo in playing Bhangra beats. Now, one of the top and iconic Samba schools in Sao Paulo has approached us to do a partnership with us. We are also exploring the possibility of getting Indian folk dancers from India to introduce different Indian dance forms in Brazil and create a fusion of Indian-Brazilian music and dance.  


Image source: Bloco Bollywood

Do you see India’s soft power influence translating into strong economic and political relations with Brazil?

Yes, definitely the potential is there. But a concerted effort has to be made by the government, community organizations, Indian businesses, cultural centres, chambers of commerce and influential individuals to make that happen. In that direction, it is very important to bring all stakeholders on a common platform and to work on it regularly and intensely. The proposed India Dialogue by BRIC Street is a step in that direction. With resources and efforts, it can become a platform for promoting business and trade through Indian soft power in Brazil and all other South American nations.

When did the Indian Association for Brazil start and what is its vision and mission?

The Indian Association was founded in 1997. That time the community was really small and the activities of the Association were limited to organising a few festivals for the members of the Indian community. With the increase in the number of Indian people, businesses and cultural activities in Brazil, the Association has grown a lot since then, with a huge jump in its members and activities. The Association has three basic missions:

  • Providing a platform for the members of the Indian community to organise Indian festivals and cultural programmes
  • Promoting Indian philosophy and culture in Brazil
  • Doing social activities for the local community in Brazil

The Association has a big piece of land (18,000 square metres) near the city of Sao Paulo and it is working on developing it as a community centre and a place to promote Indian culture, especially Yoga and Meditation.

Could you describe more about Florencia’s Brazilian website and its different facets?

Beco da India (The Indian Street) will take a 360 degree look at Indian culture with sections like Yoga, Meditation, Philosophy, Cuisine, Music, Dance, Bollywood, Travel, Social Enterprises and Innovation. The site, in Portuguese language, will be a complete resource centre for the Brazilians who are interested in Indian culture. At the same time, it will be a platform for all artists and musicians and dancers who are involved in Indian cultural activities in Brazil. The site will act as a bridge between innovators and social entrepreneurs for collaboration.

Yoga and movies are definite strong pillars of soft power. What are the futuristic aspects of India’s soft power that can bring both Brazil and the entire South America closer to India to strengthen relations?

Besides the Indian Embassy in Brazil and the Indian Consulate in Sao Paulo, which organise several Indian events, the main organizer of Indian events here is the Indian Association. We organize Holi, Diwali, Onam, Navaratri, Durga Puja, and the Indian Independence Day every year. With more resources, we plan to make these events bigger and better so that more Brazilians get an exposure to Indian culture.


Image source: Bloco Bollywood

Image source: Bloco Bollywood

Now, as Bloco Bollywood has become popular across Brazil, we plan to use it as a platform for promoting Indian Culture, Philosophy, Cinema, Cuisine, Meditation, Music, Dance and other art forms. We also plan to join hands with local organisations to create festivals around the theme of India.

The best way to promote Indian culture in South America is to create a roving Indian festival, which can travel from one country to another and also use the local talent in each country to give a complete exposure to Indian culture to our South American friends.

We are already working on creating the Federation of Indian Associations of South America (FIASA), a collective of all Indian associations in South America. Active by 2020, the Federation will help in pooling in resources for the promotion of Indian culture and trade links with South America.

Ramayana of India, Loved in Indonesia: How the great Indian epic ties India to Asia and ASEAN in an unbreakable bond

This article first appeared in DailyO on 1st May, 2019.

To mark 70 years of diplomatic ties between India and Indonesia, Jakarta released a special commemorative stamp — what is unique about this gesture is the fact that the stamp was premised on the Ramayana, India’s legendary epic.

As per a statement by the Embassy of India, “The stamp, designed by renowned Indonesian sculptor Padmashri Bapak Nyoman Nuarta, featured a scene from Ramayana in which Jatayu valiantly fought to save Sita. A specially signed version of the stamp will be on display at the Philately Museum in Jakarta.”

A glorious moment: Indonesia releases a commemorative Ramayana-themed stamp. (Source: PTI)

One can observe the growing strategic significance of the overarching ASEAN region as the cynosure of all eyes from the global prism. The ASEAN countries are among the fastest growing economies, as an addendum to India and China — they are also among the most favoured for foreign direct investments. From a strategic perspective, the region is key because it remains in the middle of Asia, the Indian and the Pacific oceans.

As a case in point, Indonesia has grown as a significant country, taking rapid strides in the ASEAN region. In one of his statements, the previous US secretary for defence, James Mattis, called Indonesia a fulcrum in Southeast Asia. In a first time for the country, Indonesia has also recently completed voting to elect their president, vice-president and members of national, provincial, and local assemblies, all at the same time.

India has not just transformed the Look East Policy to Act East Policy but has also set up a special Act East department under the Government of Assam, to continue specific and sustained efforts aimed at the ASEAN countries. In addition, India has also begun to pursue relations with the ASEAN countries through enhanced soft power diplomacy — by highlighting civilisational links.

Therefore, the special commemorative stamp released by Indonesia comes as a certain enabler towards the same.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi in one of his addresses affirmed how the Ramayana connects India and the ASEAN region. “The Ramayana continues to be a valuable shared legacy in the ASEAN region and the Indian subcontinent,” he said. When it comes to enhancing cultural and soft power diplomacy with ASEAN member countries, India has kept Ramayana and Buddhism as the main catalysts in forging deeper, meaningful relationships.

At the ASEAN-India commemorative summit held in January 2018, New Delhi invited cultural groups from the eight member-countries of the ASEAN region to present performances based on the Ramayana.

Familiar figures: The Ramayana connects India and the entire ASEAN region. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In relation to Indonesia, Sonal Mansingh, member of Parliament, in one of her columns titled Ram Diplomacy, had succinctly written of how Indonesian President Joko Widodo had once hosted Prime Minister Narendra Modi and members of the visiting delegation for a special meal  During the banquet, he surprised all attendees with a small box containing a figure depiction of a famous character of the Ramayana.

Indonesia’s fascination towards Ramayana is not new — the country has taken inspiration from both Sage Valmiki’s Ramayana and Tamil poet Kamban’s Ramayana and thus, the Ramayana remains in the imagination and cultural milieu of the country.

Indonesia has also hosted the International Festival for Ramayana, inviting countries from the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia to perform in the field of theatre. I vividly remember 13 years ago, in 2006, I first visited Bali Island to represent India at the International Festival of Ramayana. We were an ensemble from the Chinmaya Yuva Kendra that performed Kamban Tharum Katchi, Ramayana from the eyes of the Tamil poet Kamban. The sound and light show had playback songs by inspirational singers SP Balasubrahmanyam and Vani Jairam, among others.

The play that had a Balinese translation at the end of each scene was warmly received by the native population. The festival had participation from the US as well and it was heartening to see the participants of the ensemble from the US were also non-resident Indians. That is perhaps the impact Ramayana has from a global perspective.

In May 2018, during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the country, both Widodo and Modi signed a MoU between the Layang-layang Museum in Jakarta and the Kite Museum of Ahmedabad — at the signing of this MoU, both countries jointly organised the first kite exhibition on the theme of Ramayana and Mahabharata at the national monument in Jakarta. What is pertinent to note here is the fact that the Ramayana part of the proceedings was organised by the Indonesian curators and organisers.

Common skies: Indonesian president Joko Widodo flying kites along with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (Source: AP) 

Being a Muslim-majority country has not prevented Indonesia from embracing the Ramayana in unique ways — each and every interpretation deserves careful study and analysis. The performers of the famous Ramayana ballet at the Prambanan temple are all Muslims — even when it is during the occasion of Ramzan; the performers participate while observing their customary fast.

Going beyond barriers: Despite being a Muslim-majority country, Indonesia has embraced the Ramayana with total love. (Source: PTI)

In fact, the first time Indonesia actually released stamps featuring characters of Ramayana was back in 1962. India-based N Sridevi, who has collected over 300 stamps in the last two decades, featuring scenes from the Ramayana, has commented on how Ramayana’s expanse in Southeast Asia is discernible in countries like Indonesia and Thailand, where they have taken to represent the epic in several ways. In her possession are stamps dating back to 1962 that were released by the Indonesian government then, with select scenes from the Ramayana.

She has also gone on record to state, “The epic originated in India but has been a source of artistic inspiration to countries across South-East Asia and references to it can be found in the cultures of Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. Indonesia does a Ramayana ballet.”

The Ramayana has always traversed Indonesia with a variety of interpretations of it. Another very interesting example is of the Ayu Balan dance troupe from Bali that seeks inspiration from Sita in the Ramayana. The troupe leader — a Muslim named Bulan Trisna Djelantik — has affirmed that the Ramayana goes beyond the barriers of ‘religion’ and spoken about the fact that it is a philosophy of life and integral to every house in Indonesia.

For the people of Java, their culture is not possible without the Ramayana.

In 2012, this ballet was anointed by the Guinness Book as the most continuously staged performance in the world.

Bulan Trisna Djelantik, a Muslim artist, has affirmed how the Ramayana goes beyond the barriers of religion. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In order to give appropriate strategic focus to the immense potential of growing soft power diplomacy between India and Indonesia, as a first step, Indonesia could be included in the Ramayana circuit that is envisioned and implemented by the Ministry of Tourism, Government of India. India has successfully ensured that Nepal is an active and enabling part of the Ramayana circuit. Therefore, the time is ripe for countries in the ASEAN region, in specific, Indonesia, to be brought into the Ramayana circuit.

As India’s Act East compliments Indonesia’s Look West, efforts like this can certainly bring both countries closer.

“In today’s global information age, victory often depends not on whose army wins, but on whose story wins,” once asserted American political scientist John Arquilla. This underlines the vital significance of soft power and the emerging need to strongly communicate in order to carve a global winning narrative.

The expanse of Ramayana in Indonesia and ASEAN countries is a story that must be keenly observed as it is evolving as time goes by. What is now needed is a futuristic strategic dimension to cement these soft power relations into civilisational pillars.


“India is my favourite place to visit on the planet, my spiritual battery.”

Eddie Stern is a rockstar for Yoga in the West. A student of Pattabhi Jois, Eddie has taken Ashtanga Yoga not just to the West but to the global audience at large. At a young age, he took to alcohol and narcotics but soon transformed and embraced Yoga. His students include Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow, to name a few, and he has also shared the gift of Yoga with the Chicago Bulls and the Kansas City Chiefs. His movement “Put down your guns, pick up your mats” is an inspiring case study.

In this eye-opening conversation, he calls India his “spiritual battery”. Read on:

Can you tell us about your journey? What inspired you to take to Yoga?

Quite honestly, I was inspired to begin practicing Yoga because I was on a spiritual quest. In the 1980s, Yoga was primarily thought of as a path of Self-knowledge. There was no wellness or wellbeing industry. While everyone who was teaching and practicing recognised that there were auxiliary health benefits to be gained, those health gains were so that you could have a fit vehicle for realizing the Self. If you are sick, have low energy, or are unenthusiastic, it is harder to focus the mind. There were only a few Yoga schools in Manhattan, and all of the teachings were couched in esoteric terms, and within the Hindu mystical traditions. It was quite wonderful, and completely changed my mind, my perspective on myself and the world, and eventually my life.

“I was inspired to begin practicing Yoga because I was on a spiritual quest.” (all images sourced from Mr. Stern himself)

At an early age you took to alcohol and narcotics, how did you transform to embrace Yoga?

Drugs and alcohol were a way that I could change my mental state in an easy fashion. I stopped all of those things when I was around nineteen or so because I was reading books on Yoga and hanging out with a couple of people who had practiced yoga in the 1970s. From what I was reading and hearing, the higher states of Yoga were the same types of states that I experienced on psychedelics. And what I was truly looking for was a deeper, or what some people call higher, state of consciousness. There’s no coincidence that there is a similar wording for the two: getting high, and higher states of consciousness. The second one – the higher states – puts you in touch with your true, inner nature, and the first – getting high – keeps you stuck in the world of gravity: eventually you have to come down. Another plus side to Yoga was you could get to deeper states on your own, and stay in those states without the side effects of psychedelics (or wasting money) – or the risk of a “bad trip”. So I started focusing on an inward journey through meditation and chanting, and then later through asanas and pranayama. I left all of the external methods behind.

Tell us about your teacher, Pattabhi Jois? What drew you to him and how do you contemporise his teachings through Ashtanga Yoga?

I met Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in 1990 when I was traveling through India looking for Yoga teachers and visiting temples. I was drawn to him because I felt that the Yoga he was teaching was the most direct of all the practices I had experienced so far. I practiced with him from 1991 until he passed away in 2009, visiting him in India once or twice a year, and hosting his visits to America from 2000 until 2007 (and one co-hosted visit in 1993).

I don’t see that I purposefully contemporise his practice or teachings, but I do filter them through the lens of an American, and can adapt the language and messaging to the needs of the Western practitioner. But the practice itself is excellent in and of itself. It does not need to be changed or adapted for the West in any radical manner. Yoga speaks on its own, if the practice is a true practice. It doesn’t need embellishments from a teacher. We should simply be conduits for the knowledge passed down through the practices the Yogis have left us. We’ll have our own experiences, but those experiences seem, by and large, to mimic the experience of others: when you know yourself, you know that same thing that everyone else experiences as themselves. That’s unity consciousness.

You are an Ashtanga Yoga specialist. Ashtanga Yoga is a relatively new concept for the US… Does this resonate with the native communities? How has this impacted the people in the US and worldwide?

Ashtanga Yoga has been in the States since Pattabhi Jois’s first visit in 1975, and has been steadily growing since then. In 1975, there were about 30 people practicing in California. At present there are tens of thousands, if not more, in practically every state. The primary series video that we recorded in California in 1993 has been viewed almost four million times on YouTube. His teachings have had a huge impact. Also, it was really through Pattabhi Jois’s influence that the Vinyasa and Power Yoga movements came about. The first two teachers of “Power Yoga” were his students, and the word Vinyasa became a popular word in the Yogic lexicon because he introduced it to the West. T.K.V. Desikachar, Krishnamacharya’s son, was also introducing Vinyasa to the West, but in a much gentler fashion. It was Pattabhi Jois’s approach, that was adapted and then modified, that has become what is today called Vinyasa Yoga. Twenty years ago, “Vinyasa Yoga” or “Vinyasa Flow” as a type of a Yoga class, did not exist.

“…the practice itself is excellent in and of itself. It does not need to be changed or adapted for the West in any radical manner.”

In your view, how and in what ways has the world Yoga movement expanded in the US?

The Yoga movement in the US has expanded in the past thirty years, primarily in its sheer numbers. There were an estimated thirty-six million plus people in America practicing some form of Yoga in 2018. It is annually a seven billion dollar industry. Industries that foster positive growth, products that are beneficial to the world, and create stress-free work environments, are in my opinion, worthwhile industries to be engaged in. I do think, though, that there are too many Yoga mats for sale in the marketplace—they litter the planet like any other plastic. There is a trend toward recycled mats, and I hope those do less environmental harm.

Yoga is taught in public education, in prisons, in healthcare and in corporate environments. It is used to reduce gun-violence, and is used in addiction recovery. I think that Americans have made extremely good use of India’s gift of Yoga that it has given to the world. While there is some advertising and use of Yoga that I personally find unpalatable, for the larger part, Yoga seems to have settled in to America in very beneficial ways. I am sure that it will continue. American Yoga practitioners should strive to keep studying, to keep practicing, and to keep expanding their understanding of the deeper practices of Yoga in order to not stop at asanas. Sometimes we pay lip service to things like the yamas. It’s hard to sincerely practice them, but that is where it is all at. To be kind and honest is one of the highest Yogas, as far as I can see it. In fact, it’s the highest we can offer of our humanity, not just of Yoga.

Would you say Yoga is not just a fitness regime but a way of life? If yes, why?

Yoga is a practice, and like any other practice, you have to do it consistently, and for a long period of time, before the benefits it confers become a part of you. We can make big changes quickly, but transformation comes about slowly. In a fitness regime we can see quick gains, but they leave once we stop the regime. In Yoga, we transform ourselves into the level of consciousness that we are striving to reach, so that when we attain that level, there is no coming back; there is no loss of awareness because we have come to know who we are. When we know who we are, then there is nothing left to gain; and if there is nothing to gain, then there is nothing to lose as well.

Can give us a sense of the students you cater to?

I cater to anyone who walks into my Yoga school and wants to commit themselves to learning Yoga.

Can your share experiences of teaching Ashtanga Yoga to Madonna, Gwyneth Paltrow, Chris Martin?

It is the same experience as teaching anyone who is dedicated, determined, makes an effort, and is focused on learning their practice: fully gratifying, encouraging, and joyful.

Yoga has captured the imagination of people all across the world. In your view, has India fully tapped into the potential of Yoga as its Soft Power? What are some of the opportunities and challenges going forward?

This is more of a political question so not one that I think I can answer well, as it is not my background. India is a great example of a country that has many soft powers, and it seems like the use of them is ingrained into the philosophical basis of the country: India has never invaded another country, it has philosophical systems that are practiced by millions as part of daily life, it has a tremendous capacity for tolerance, flexibility and openness.  India is the only country in the world where the Jews were not persecuted, and were embraced and welcomed. It has a great culture of art, music, architecture (more UNESCO sites than any other country), and is the birthplace of Hinduism, Buddhism (perhaps its most successful religious export) and Jainism – as well as Yoga.

How often do you visit India? Your impressions of India?

I’ve been visiting India pretty much every year since 1988, sometimes more than once a year. I’ve missed only a couple of years. It’s my favourite place to visit on the planet, and it is my spiritual home and spiritual battery.

“I’ve been visiting India pretty much every year since 1988, sometimes more than once a year.”

Can you tell us about your movement, “Put down your guns, pick up your mats”?

Yes, this is a program called the Urban Yogis, and it was born out of a program called LIFE Camp in South Jamaica, Queens, in NY. This is a particular area of NY that saw a tremendous amount of gun violence due to the crack trade in the 1980s and 1990s. A woman named Erica Ford started the program to protect the young kids of that area from going in the wrong direction. In 2012, she invited Deepak Chopra to meditate with a group of 75 kids and 25 adults who had all lost someone to gun violence in Queens, and he invited me to come along to teach them Yoga. That’s how it all started. Since then we’ve trained several hundred youth in the area in Yoga and meditation. Five of the young adults have since been trained as Yoga teachers, and they now work as wellness teachers in public schools in Queens and Brooklyn, reaching several hundred kids every week from elementary to high school. We’ve had partnerships with the Chicago Bulls and currently the Kansas City Chiefs (both American football teams), and the Urban Yogis are currently training public school teachers how to teach 5-10 minute long stress reduction and mindfulness practices in the classroom to include during the school day.

Tell us about your love for Sanskrit.

I started studying Sanskrit in 1989. I was drawn to the language from the chanting, homas, and pujas that I took part in at the Sivananda ashram both in NY and in India. During my first trip to Indi, I travelled throughout the country visiting temples, and I felt that both Yoga and a draw towards chanting came alive for me in a totally new way in the atmosphere of these holy places. When I got back to NY, I saw an ad for a weekend Sanskrit immersion with a teacher named Vyaas Houston, and I signed up. We had twelve hours of classes each day for a three-day weekend, and on the third night I had a dream that I was floating on an ocean of Sanskrit vowel sounds, and I remember distinctly feeling in the dream that the universe was stitched together through an ocean of Sanskrit, of sound. I continued studying with him for many years, memorising grammar tables, verses and texts, and eventually was trained in India on how to do rituals. Later Pattabhi Jois taught me how to chant some Upanishads, and I studied with two teachers in Mysore, Professor Varadarajan, and Swami Nitysthananda, who was then the head of correspondence for Ramakrishna Institute for Spiritual and Moral Education. We built the Ganesha temple in NYC in 2001, that Pattabhi Jois consecrated, with the prana pratishta performed by Pandit Ramachandra Athreiya and Pandit Rami Sivan shortly after 9/11.

Do you see an economic value for India in enhancing Yoga abroad? While there are stringent views vis-a-vis commodification of Yoga, the opposite is also true because it could enable India to export Yoga teachers abroad thereby generating employment?

I think that India is already creating economic value for itself and for many, many others through Yoga. It’s been a tremendous and unexpected boon to millions of people. In the 1980s and even in to the early 90s when I was starting as a teacher, it was ridiculous to think that you could make a living as a Yoga teacher. We taught as seva, and did other jobs for money. Now, not only is it possible to make a living teaching Yoga, there are many people who do extremely well with it—in India and in the West . There are many institutions that are running training programs that are attended by foreigners. It seems apparent at this stage that you do not need to be Indian to be an effective Yoga teacher, so I am not sure that the focus on exporting Yoga teachers is a necessary, primary goal. Perhaps the type of education that is already being conducted is a better place to focus.

While it is true that there are cultural facets that make it easier for Indians to grasp certain philosophical concepts and to have a natural feel for the purpose of Yoga, it’s also true that many of the newer generation have not grown up with Yoga at all. Many of the Indians practicing Yoga at my school in NYC started learning Yoga in America! The most important thing is that people are well trained, and understand that Yoga has originated from within Hinduism, and pay respect to the history, culture and purpose of Yoga.

India’s Tourism needs to move beyond the Taj Mahal

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

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

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

Our exchange:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How The Mahatma’s Values Resonate Across Australia Even Today

This article first appeared in Swarajya Mag on24th November 2018.

A landmark moment of Indian President Ram Nath Kovind?s recent visit to Australia was the unveiling of Mahatma Gandhi?s statue at the Paramatta City Council in Sydney. The Indian government of the day has left no stone unturned to celebrate the 150th anniversary of India?s foremost thought leader, Mahatma Gandhi. Ahead of the President inaugurating this new statue, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was the first Indian prime minister to visit Australia in 28 years, had unveiled a 2.5-metre tall bronze statue of Gandhi, which was sculpted by Ram Suttar, in Australia?s south-eastern state of Queensland.

In his speech during the ceremony, President Kovind recalled and expounded the famous lines of Gandhi?s favourite song, ?Vaishnava Jan To Tene Kahiye?, saying this about it: ?The essence of it is compassion, kindness, and goodness for others, for once and for always, without letting pride enter one?s mind. This captures the inner voice of the Mahatma.? He even thanked one of Australia?s popular singers, Heather Lee, for giving her voice to the song as a tribute. This perhaps gives us a curtain-raiser peep into how Gandhi has permeated Australia in significant ways.

I began research to see when the Australian media first reported about Gandhi, or whether at all they did, what was their sense, and what was the proportion of coverage. Some of the examples were noteworthy and striking as the reportage ranged from defining Gandhi as a persona to elaborating on some of the tools that Gandhi began to use to garner people together for a cause that began to find substantive resonance.

Mahatma Gandhi first appeared in the Evening News from Sydney on 8 January 1897, exactly four years after he arrived in South Africa, when he was just 27 years of age. Soon after that in 1906-1907, the World Australian news section of newspapers reported Gandhi?s first tryst to use ?Satyagraha? as a tool against the British in South Africa. He was far away in South Africa when the Australian media began to actually notice and showcase who Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi actually was and what were some of the ideals that he stood for.

It is fascinating to look at some substantive examples from academia and educational institutions in an attempt to contemporise history and its essence. The key is to extract the right lessons in order to learn from some of the leading lights of the past, like Gandhi, for example, and to share the learning with the present-day generation in an objective and nuanced manner.

In 2015, to mark Gandhi?s birth anniversary celebrations, the University of Sydney organised a programme celebrating his statement, ?No culture can live if it attempts to be exclusive.? As per available event reports, the discussion saw the participation of more than 250 prominent Australian and Indian leaders from the business, government, and education sectors. At this discussion, Professor Duncan Ivison, deputy vice-chancellor (research) at the University of Sydney, emphasised how his thinking was shaped by a simple quotation from Gandhi: ?My life is my message.?

Another interesting example is of the University of New South Wales (UNSW), which hosts Gandhi?s birth anniversary celebrations every year, and they even have a bust that was installed in 2010 at the library lawn. Marking the 150th birth anniversary this year, Prof Laurie Pearcey, who leads the UNSW?s global partnership team and who also happens to be the youngest pro-vice-chancellor in Australia, urged all who had gathered to reflect on the values of Gandhi in today?s world. To quote Pearcey, ?Gandhi stressed that education is the key for not only changing attitudes, but also to shaping the new generation. He challenged us to be thoughtful and to be educated. He was an advocate of change and resistance, but also of harmony and tolerance and cooperation, which is why commemorating his birthday is just as important here in Australia as it is in India and in many countries around the world.?

At the event, Pearcey also confirmed that the UNSW views India as a key partner in its 2025 strategy. The university?s impressive Gandhi tribute this year also included an illumination of the library tower in Indian colours, and the digital display of Gandhi?s silhouette as well.

Think tanks in Australia are leading the way, too. One is the unique Center for Stories, which describes its mission as, ?To create a vibrant, inclusive arts and cultural organisation that uses storytelling to inspire cohesion and understanding through rich and diverse programs.? This centre, which is in Perth, has scheduled a panel discussion on the topic, ?Mahatma Gandhi: His Influence and Impact?, for December 2018.

The Australian legislature is doing its bit, too. From 2 October to 9 November this year, the Parliament of Western Australia hosted an exclusive exhibition of 30 photographs of Mahatma Gandhi to honour his message as well as the International Day of Non-violence. The exhibition was called ?Borderless Gandhi?, and the Parliament described this significant collection in the following words: ?Mahatma Gandhi was the leader of the Indian Nationalist movement against the British rule of India, and used and promoted nonviolent civil disobedience to effect social change. His birthday of 2 October is now known as the International Day of Non-Violence. The collection emphasises the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi and the on-going relevance of his values of peace, equality and nonviolence.?

In 2017, the ?Soft Power 30? report was brought out by the University of Southern California and Portland Communications. This is a column on how museums can power a country?s soft power. The report notes, ?Museums become more prominent as soft power platforms when they amplify civic discourse, accelerate cultural change, and contribute to cultural intelligence among the great diversity of city dwellers, visitors, policymakers, and leaders.?

It is no wonder, then, that the state government of Victoria in Australia rolled out a four-month-long digital interactive exhibition at their Immigration Museum in April 2018, showcasing the life and achievements of Mahatma Gandhi. This exhibition had more than 1,000 archival photographs, over 130 minutes of footage, over 60 minutes of film clips, and over 20 voice recordings of various episodes of the Mahatma?s speeches. The curators of the museum had featured the period of Gandhi?s life in which he migrated from India to England and then South Africa, as well as the change he helped bring about in India on his return.

Whether it is the media, world-renowned academic institutions, legislatures, museums, libraries, you name it ? Mahatma Gandhi continues to inspire much of Australia in many ways. The Indian and Australian cricket teams may be at loggerheads now, but the cultural exchanges between the two nations tell a different story altogether. That so many Australians draw inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi speaks volumes for the reach of the Indian value system, as much in demand now as ever before.

Sudarshan Ramabadran is a Senior Research Fellow and Administrative in-charge of India Foundation’s Centre for Soft Power Studies.