Lithuania discovers Hinduism

This article first appeared in The Sunday Guardian on April 13th, 2019 – written by Mamta Chitnis Sen

It is summer in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania and I am seated in one of the classrooms of the historic old building of Vilnius University listening to Professor Nijole Laurinkiene’s presentation on the Sun in traditional context. Mid-way through her lecture, I hear distinct chants of “Hare Rama Hare Krishna” filtering in through the large windows behind me. A group of young boys are singing praises of Lord Krishna outside the campus grounds.  Looking at my surprised reaction, a musician who is also attending the lecture and is seated next to me says with a smile in his broken English laced with heavy Lithuanian accent, “That is Indian no? We have lot of Hindus here who follow Krishna and even Shiva.”

Baltic and Vedic traditions merged in the festival Goloka Rasos. Photo: V. Tumenas

Intrigued, over the next few days of my stay in Vilnius while I did come across several Lithuanians confessing to be fans of India and its culture, I also had opportunities to interact with a select few who have immersed themselves completely into becoming followers of Hindu traditions.  While some enrolled themselves with Hindu organisations like International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), Shri Sathya Sai Baba and Brahma Kumari, there were others who were seeking the internet to seek information on what it takes to become a good Hindu. Students of Indology in Lithuania appeared to be at an advantage over others as their curriculum enabled them to undertake trips to India to understand and explore the country and its religions.

Located in Eastern Europe, Lithuania is called a gem of the Baltics as it shares borders with the Baltic Sea on one side and countries like Latvia, Belarus, Poland and Russia on the other. That Hinduism should have reached its shores seems to be an interesting thought in itself.

Indologist and social anthropologist Samanta Galinaityt, a first year Master’s student at the Institute of Asian and Transcultural Studies at Vilnius University, who has travelled to India twice believes that though there are a lot of similarities between Lithuanian traditional Gods and Hindu Gods but it is hard to say that Hinduism as a concept exists in Lithuanian culture.

“In my strong opinion, different concepts of Hinduism are getting popular nowadays, but they are just concepts. For instance, we have a lot of different Yoga schools in Lithuania as well as a lot of houses related with Ayurveda. Of course, there are some individuals who practise or follow Hindu traditions but usually in small groups, communities or in private.”  Samanta continues that she has met quite a lot of Lithuanians following the religion too. “I have seen a lot of Lithuanian devotees from ISKCON community, but there are also some individuals who follow the Hindu Gods as well. There are people who follow Hindu religion, but there is no data based on this,” she points out.

I meet one such follower a 50-year-old art collector, (he wishes to remain anonymous) who claims he makes it a point to visit his favourite temple in southern India twice every year, and has also given up meat to become a full time vegetarian.

In her paper “Strangers Among Ours: Contemporary Hinduism in Lithuania” written by Dr Milda Alisauskiene, Professor with the Vytautas Magnus University as part of a special volume on Hinduism in Europe, she analyses the phenomenon of contemporary Hinduism in Lithuania from historical and sociological perspectives and discusses diverse forms of its expressions and public attitudes towards it. Her paper points out that Hinduism in Lithuania might be considered a new religious tradition.

Dr Alisauskiene writes that groups representing contemporary Hinduism are active in large cities and smaller towns of Lithuania. “The adherents of these groups are citizens, majority of them have higher education, usually within natural or technical sciences and have cosmopolitan worldviews. Majority of contemporary Hinduism communities in Lithuania have affiliates in smaller towns, they also organise meetings in the rural areas but these are allocated for mainly citizens. Women prevail among the followers of contemporary Hinduism and men make up around one third of the followers. With this aspect contemporary Hinduism does not distinguish among other religious phenomena as women religiosity and their active participation in religious activities is well known and widely discussed phenomenon among researchers of religion in Western and post-communist societies.”

The age of the members of contemporary Hinduism groups, she continues, varies; though around 35-50 year-old individuals prevail.

She further writes, “Two public surveys conducted in 2007 and 2014 showed the dynamics of Lithuanian population knowledge about religious groups existing in the country. Among groups of contemporary Hinduism best known was ISKCON (34% in 2007 and 48% in 2014). Public knowledge about other groups of contemporary Hinduism differed. In some cases like Osho community knowledge remained the same, in other cases like Sathya Sai Baba community, Sahadza Yoga and Brahma Kumaris public knowledge slightly increased.”

Dr Alisauskiene further states in the paper that historical analysis showed that interest in Orientalism and Hinduism might be traced to the sixteenth century, however the institutionalization of this interest took place in the nineteenth century with the establishment of study programmes in Vilnius and later other universities.

“During the Soviet times, religion was removed from public life, however private religious practices continued. ISKCON started its activities in the late 1970s and its adherents experienced persecutions from Soviet authorities. Since the 1990s, with new conditions for freedom of religion possibilities, groups of contemporary Hinduism became even more active. ISKCON and Osho were two organisations whose activities were mostly visible in the 1990s. Art of Living and other so called spirituality groups of Hindu origins were more active in Lithuania.”

She continues that groups of contemporary Hinduism in Lithuania are mainly global organisations with centred management and controlled content of teaching, even more if the leader is still alive. “Despite global aspect these religious organisations in Lithuania have localised their activities in a new social context. The manifestation of such localisation is emphasis on the spirituality essence of these groups instead of going into the competitive field of religion with mainstream Roman Catholicism. An important feature of contemporary Hinduism in Lithuania is the ethnicity of members who are Lithuanians and not Hindus.  Contemporary Hinduism in Lithuania is a social phenomenon indicating and manifesting social and religious transformations from homogeneous field of religion to religious diversity and reflecting the trends of religious individualisation,” she states.

But Dr Audrius Beinorius,  Professor of Indian and Buddhist Studies, Institute of Asian and Transcultural Studies Vilnius University thinks otherwise.

“Dealing academically with India for more than 30 years I don’t believe there has been a rise in people following the Hindu religion in Lithuania, because many people are becoming more and more secular and not intended to replace one religion (local Catholic Christianity) with another (Hindu). They are searching mainly for practical spirituality, that would conduct a healthy way of life, help control stress and emotions, increase self-conscious attitude and so on,” he says.

Gaura Purnima celebrations at the Dvarka Temple in Vilnius, Lithuania.Photo: ISKCON

ISKCON, he continues, is among the older Hindu religious organisations that was perhaps not most popular at the end of Soviet occupation period and was one of the spiritual alternatives of atheistic communist ideology.

“During last 10 years this movement is evidently decreasing in number of followers, perhaps it contradicts the local habits of social life.”

He points out that indigenous Baltic religion has many common elements with ancient Vedic religious culture and less with contemporary Hinduism.

“Lithuania was the last European country to accept Christianity. Baltic people have been fighting for almost 300 years against united European crusaders to project their own ancestral religion, language and culture. Thus similarities between Sanskrit and Lithuanian languages are tremendous, as the names of Gods namely Viešpatis (Višpati), Dievas (Devas), Vejas (Vayu), Ašvieniai (Ašvins), some mythological elements, fire rituals, polyphonic religious chanting etc.” He states that it’s a pity, not much is left during last 400 years of brutal Christianisation.

“The indigenous Baltic religion movement nowadays is mostly reconstructions. And thus these people are deeply interested in Vedic tradition and Hinduism, not because having intention to become Hindus, but because living examples of Hindu practices could help in reconstructing ancient Baltic religion.  To my knowledge except ISKCON movement members there are almost no cases of Lithunians consciously and formally converting into Hinduism. Even followers of numerous yoga schools, among which Shivananda Yoga Center is the most popular, never consider themselves as a Hindu. Because chanting of mantras is considered to be auspicious and purifying your mind and soul, but that does not imply becoming a Hindu.”

Dr Beinorius believes that he does not see any sudden interest in Hinduism among Lithuanians. “Yes many people are visiting India, travelling to historical and archaeological sites, relaxing in beaches, claiming Himalayas. People are interested in the cultural heritage of India: Indian classical dances, classical music, Ayurvedic treatment, Jyotish predictions, meditations or even Bollywood cinema, but as I said before cultural interest has nothing to do with intentions for religious conversion.  Lithuanians, like other Westerners are not entirely able to connect Indian gurus seriously and properly as Indians do, because too strong sense of individuality, pride and non-obeying that hinders their devotion. They are more interested in following a kind of ‘scientific raja yoga’ created by Swami Vivekanda, Advaitic perspective of Sri Ramana Maharishi and Nisargadatta Maharaj, or Intellectual Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo, than purely devotional bhakti of Sai Baba, Art of Living of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and similar. Perhaps our people trust themselves and their own efforts instead of waiting for blessings from gurus of divine anugraha,” he says.

Responding to the queries on whether ISKCON has seen a rise in Lithuanians seeking to follow the Hindu religion, Shatakula Das, of ISKCON Communications, Vilnius, Lithuania, said, “Yes, ISKCON has seen a rise in Lithuania for many years. ISKCON is part of the Gaudiya, or Chaitanya Vaishnava, tradition, which hails from the eastern regions of India. While we don’t have the exact number, an estimated 2,000 people are connected with ISKCON in Lithuanian through the Summer Vaishnava festival (which is hosted by the temple) and other program and events which are held regularly at the local centre. ISKCON Lithuanian’s  facebook group Lietuvos Vaishnavai has 2,166 members. There is no exact statistics on the number of followers we have every year but approximately 10 new people appear yearly at the temple or festival,” he states continuing that ISKCON in Lithuania started in 1979.

“In December 1989, the first community of Krishna Consciousness was registered in Vilnius and after a few months in Kaunas. Now we have 5 communities registered and many legal public entities such as Vedic Centers, or Vaishnava Culture Centres around Lithuania.”

A journalist for over 15 years, Mamta Chitnis Sen has worked with several reputed publications.

Another prize for the Tabla

Indian tabla player Sandeep Das wins prestigious Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship for Music Composition for 2019

SANDEEP DAS considered one of the leading Tabla exponents in the world today, has been awarded the prestigious Guggenheim Foundation fellowships in the category of Music Composition for 2019.

The Guggenheim Foundation was founded in 1925 in honour of John Simon Guggenheim to support the projects of artists and scholars in any field or discipline who have “demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts”.

Roughly 3,000 candidates were in the running this year and of those 168 were selected to receive fellowships across disciplines, with 11 awards being granted in the field of music composition. Amongst the other awardees are Nobel Prize Winners, Poet Laureates, members of the National Academy of Sciences, and many more distinguished individuals! You can view more on the Guggenheim Foundation website via this link. 

Sandeep’s collaboration with the Silk Road Ensemble for “Sing me Home” won the Grammy Award for the Best World Music Album. Prior to this win, he was nominated for the Grammy Award in 2005 and 2009. A professional career spanning 23 years has seen him composing and playing with the Legendary Cellist Yo-Yo Ma and The Silk Road Ensemble, String quartets and Orchestra’s such as The New York Philharmonic, The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the The Boston Symphony Orchestra to name a few.

International Cellist Yo Yo Ma says about Sandeep:

 “Sandeep transcends his instrument- when he plays the Tabla he is a creator of myths, a master communicator and an orchestra, all in one. In my decades of collaboration around the world, he is easily one of the greatest artists I have ever met. Not only is he one of the best artists I have met but he is also once one of the best teachers I have met. I believe there is no one he cannot engage!” 

It all started with a complaint that Sandeep’s father got from Sandeep’s school teacher.  “Sandeep has been disturbing the class…asked to stop tapping the desk with his hands, he starts tapping with his feet. Please take him to a doctor!” On reaching home that day, instead of being taken to a doctor Sandeep was gifted his first set of Tabla and taken to his first guru Shiv Kumar Singh where he spent one year in training.

Being a big fan of Pt. Kishan Maharaj of the Benaras Gharana, his father K.N.Das, sought and requested the legendary tabla maestro to teach his son. The Maestro proceeded to test his skills in various ways. At the end He was very happy and said –‘He has tabla in his blood and I will teach him.’

Sandeep learnt tabla under his Guru for 11 years in the Guru-Shishya parampara. Sandeep proudly mentions how everything he learnt was taught to him orally and thus all those years of learning live with him every second of his life and he doesn’t have to flip through any written diary of any sort.

For the first few years, he would travel from Patna to Benaras every Friday evening, stay overnight at his guru’s home and then return on Sunday. He would never spend a single vacation at home. Later his father took a transfer to Varanasi, so that his musical education could continue unhindered.

Under Pt. Kishanji Maharaj, Sandeep not only learnt tabla but also valuable lessons in life.


“When I was 9 or 10 years old, we were practicing in a room and Guru ji got very mad at us. He said why don’t you people clean the room before you sit down to practice and he asked me to clean the room. I had never done it at home so I couldn’t sweep the floor nicely. He took the broom from my hand and taught me how to sweep the floor and mentioned to me that if you sweep the floor nicely you can also be a good tabla player. Words which at that time didn’t make sense to me. How did sweeping the floor relate to tabla but as I grew up I realized that the other things he was teaching us to do, even doing the smallest jobs perfectly, taught us discipline, focus, attention to details and made the toughest jobs seem easy and that would also spill over in our playing.”

Pt. Kishanji Maharaj always discouraged his students from copying him. He would say, “As long as you are a Xerox you’ll never have any value. The moment you start playing, everybody should know which gharana you come from, but you must always have your own personality, your own thoughts imbibed in what you are playing.” Unlike many others, he advised his students to listen to every tabla player, but said, “Even if you like something, don’t try to play like them. Make it your own. It should sound that its Sandeep Das playing and not Sandeep Das copying or mimicking somebody else.”

Under his Guru’s guidance, Sandeep debuted on stage with legendary Sitar maestro, Pt. Ravi Shankar. He also won the national drumming championship thrice and became the youngest drummer ever to be graded by All-India radio.

One of the biggest turning points in his career came with his meeting the world famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma who invited him to play with the Silk Road Ensemble.

Interview with Sandeep Das:

Indian percussion is so well appreciated abroad, how can it be supported in India?

The major factor is that the percussion players have to understand that they are a very needed aspect of Indian classical music and stand up against exploitation. They have to believe in their hard work and realise that it is the quality of the playing that gets them concerts and not just by being subservient to someone, who in return will exploit them. They themselves have to stand up.


Is the domination of one or two great maestros distracting attention from a whole lot of young talented percussionists? Why do we always talk of only one or two great musicians for every instrument?

As you must have noticed, where are the art and culture pages or focus on anything of our own heritage and culture in today’s media, be it print or television. Whereas you pick up any media from the west and you will see dedicated critics and pages for the same. That is a very unfortunate situation in our country now that the media will only cover people who are already well known or people who can pay for PR.


What is the most important change happening in Indian percussion today?

There is no dearth of great individual talent in our country so we have talented younger players but the majority in a rush to get popular are ending up mimicking the west. That is where we are going wrong. I would say learn one this well enough and deeply first and be proud of your own music and culture.


What is it about the Indian tabla that makes it so universally popular?

When I think about it I am amazed at how smart and intelligent our predecessors were. Even one instrument like Tabla has such a vast repertoire that is unmatched with any percussion from anywhere in the world. It is an instrument that with the right training and application can be played with almost any kind of music. Thus I am playing with the biggest western classical orchestras of the world to String quartets and Jazz musicians.

Intrinsic Soft Power Manifest in the Art and Culture of India

Though art and culture may outwardly seem to be independent, they are intimately interlinked and always go hand in hand. Common elements like cuisine, ornaments, dress, language, behaviour, music, dance, literature etc underlie the customs of every culture, each having its own uniqueness.Culture is reflective of the ethos of a particular society and determines its character.

Art is a product of culture, a defined creative approach to interpreting ideas, drawing images on canvas or in space, and creating concepts. It is a creative expression of deep thoughts and situations that trigger transcendent experiences presented orally, visually or interactively.Art can re-enchant the way humanity sees the world, especially in times of challenges and struggles. For instance, it can rekindle a sense of patriotism, stir people into right action, uplift their spirit and aspirations.

This intrinsic power of art and culture has a universal value that infuses all relations and relationships both at national and international level. When districts in states, states in a country, and countries in the globe come together, art and culture provide a vital fabric of expression and cooperation. It provides a beautiful medium to educate and enlighten the significance of the cultural ethics and ethos of different regions.

Influence of Cultural Linkages

Cultural linkages develop mutual respect and honour in international relations and a certain peace and joy in human relations. Beyond theboundaries and differences, theypromote a common ground to unite. For instance, India and Russia recently celebrated the 70th anniversary of their diplomatic relations with the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin blogging a special message in the Times of India on May 30, 2017 and Prime Minister Narendra Modi visiting Russia to mark the historic occasion.[i]

Influence of Indian culture on Russia predates economic and trade relations between India and the then USSR, to the 15th century, when AfanasiyNikitin, a merchant from the land of Tver in Russia, in his three-year stay (CE 1466 – CE 1472), documented every aspect of the Indian society in his book, A Journey Beyond the Three Seas.[ii] Since then, cultural exchanges between the two countries have followed a consistent trajectory. Nikitin’s book became a major motion picture in Russia in CE 1950, with the Russian actor Oleg Strizhenov playing Nikitin and co-featuring the Hindi actress, Nargis Dutt.[iii] In my international travels, I am yet to meet a Russian who has not hummed “Awara hoo” or “MerajoothahaiJapani…sar pe laal topirussi…” with such pride to display his love of Indian culture.

The setting up of the Mayuri Dance Company in the Russian Republic of Karelia stands as a testament to this influence. Vera Evgrafova, who has always had a love of Indian dance was deeply moved by the 1985 movie “Mayuri”, which featured the story of an Indian Bharatanatyam dancer named Sudha Chandran. With aspirations of being a Bharatanatyam dancer, Sudha Chandran begins her training in the dance as a young girl, but as a teenager, loses a leg in a car accident.  Sudha fights her struggles to regain her dignity and identity as a dancer.  Vera Evgrafova, was so inspired by this feature film, that she appropriated the name of the character (Mayuri) for her dance group that she formed with dancers who shared the love for Indian dances in 1987 Railway Workers Cultural Center in Petrozavodsk, the capital of the Republic of Karelia. Winning the “Narodiny” award in 1995 by the Karelian Ministry of Culture, Vera secured a spot at the state-wide level.[iv]

There are many such inspiring stories of countries coming together for peace and cooperation where culture has been a major factor promoting the respective national interest and contributing to a more peaceful world order.

International Recognition to Indian Cities for its Art and Culture

Three cities in India – Chennai,Varanasi and Jaipur – have joined the prestigious UNESCO Creative Cities Network for its rich music and cultural tradition. This world organization has identified culture and creativity as integral and strategic factors for development at the local level and strengthen mutual respect and cooperation at the international level.

During the December – January “Margazhi” month of the Tamil Calendar, Chennai celebrates its rich Carnatic music and classical dance,predominantly Bharatanatyam, attracting host of artistes and art lovers from all over the globe. It is a beautiful coincidence that it is held in the Tamil month of Margazhi – a month traditionally dedicated to religious activities and spiritual disciplines. People wake up early morning, sing hymns and devotional songs on the deities, participate in processions and cook delicious delicacies!“Among the 12 months, I am Margazhi,” says Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita (verse 35, chapter 10).

For many in Chennai, “December season” as it has come to be known as, is like a pilgrimage. Around 3000 programs and performances take place in established and upcoming Sabhasor organisationsat over 300 venues in Chennai. Every Sabha reverberates with melody and rhythm in praise of the divine, through the composition of saints, sages and many great composers. In recent times, temples and ancient traditional houses also serve as venues for lectures, demonstrations and concerts.

I am a proud and happy Chennaite. Being a performer and a participant of this grand Dance-Music season, I have been enjoying this wondrous festival for decades now.The festival was launched  in 1927 as an adjunct to INC, and has now completed 92 glorious years!The schedule of at least the top 10 Sabhas, are published in The Hindu on December 1st supplement. There are apps now that track the schedule of sabhasandkutcheris(concerts) like MargazhiSangeetam, SaRiGaMa, Zeek and collection of favorite songs from Twang. Online websites like KutcheriBuzz are a great source of the season schedule too!

Performers save their best repertoire to showcase for the season, and the audience – their best ethnic attires! The ladies already plan a display of collection of their Kanchipuram silk sarees and jasmine flowers. The men join the show with their shawls,  Kurtas and veshtis!Margazhi is to Chennai as Ganges is to Varanasi. Perhaps no other city in the world has such a kind of festival.

“Varanasi was advocated as an ideal example of India’s intangible Cultural heritage as a combination of a temple city with its rich tradition in music. The Varanasi school of music or the Benaras gharana named after the city along with the semi classical genres like Hori, Chaiti, Tappa, Daadra are rich in musical heritage.The ghats, havelis and temples have housed the Benaras gharana and nurtured it backed with the Banaras Hindu University with its Music and Dance departments.The Government of Rajasthan nominated the Jaipur City under the Creative CitiesNetwork for its art & craft. 36 varieties of crafts were identified including the ones related to sculpture, pottery, textiles and jewellery making. Right from King Sawai Jai Singh II of Jaipur in 18th Century to his successors, the city has been nurtured as a centre of artistic excellence.”[v]As designated  members of UCCN (UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network), they reflect a hub for creativity and integrate culture into sustainable development plans.

Significance of Art and Culture in India

Indian culture is spiritual. It elevates and celebrates mankind, uplifts one to assimilate the four fundamental pursuits of mankind –(i) Dharma (righteous actions), (ii) Artha (securities like wealth, family, power and position), (iii) Kama (sensory, intellectual or emotional pleasures), and (iv) Moksha (enlightenment – gaining freedom from all limitations and sorrow). None of these pursuits are simple, because even though universal, the variety of human choices and the multiple layers of psychological complexities involved, give them a range of interpretations, perceptions and decisions.

The Vedic culture of India unfolds a universal vision that brings harmony in all these pursuits of mankind,with the environment. This harmony is easily attainable with the understanding that when the means or process of accomplishment of any pursuit is undertaken with commitment to right and ethical ways, harmony and fulfillment can be well orchestrated.

Art and Culture of India is Immortal

Do the expression of culture nurture and address all the needs of individuals? If they do not, that culture will not stand the test of time and would be outdated. The Puranas, Itihasaas, temple architecture, the folk lore, food, language, music, dance all seem to have an intrinsic strength to sustain, modify and adapt to the changing times without comprising on its integrity.Vedic culture seems to be relevant to all ages and at all times. Hence,in spite of many years of oppression, the culture today is still alive and celebrated!

For economic growth, technological, medical, industrial, and academic advancement is necessary but it cannot be used as a measure for inner growth or emotional maturity of a person.The struggling human heart always seeks fulfillment, wholeness, to be free from conflicts and pain. Vedic vision helps the individual resolve this fundamental struggle. Art and culture of India facilitates this resolution.

[i]https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/toi-edit-page/russia-and-india-70-years-together/

[ii]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/India–Russia_relations#Cooperation_in_the_cultural_sphere

[iii] Ibid

[iv]http://www.thediskcoordinator.com/mayuri.htm Also see, https://www.facebook.com/dancemayuri/

[v]https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/director-general-unesco-declares-varanasi-jaipur-under-creative-cities-network/articleshow/50143983.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst

India spearheads global music-ecology project

‘prthivim dharmana dhrtam’ signifies Dharma as sustainer of the earth

As the World celebrates World Earth Day on April 22, Indian musician Chitravina N Ravikiran is galvanising artistic support for the planet. His brainchild, the Planet Symphony Orchestra (PSO) has brought together celebrated performers, orchestras and students (of diverse countries and systems of music) to record music aimed to highlight the pressing issue of global warming and climatic change. 

A number of celebrity artists from every part of the world as well as select orchestras have been involved in the PSO’s historic global audio recording project of the Climatrix Symphony, a 8-minute, 12-part, 72-scale piece that symbolizes the dissonant rapid changes in the earth’s climate everywhere.  While a number of them have sent their recordings, many are in the process of doing so, as a sign of solidarity with the international music community. 

Artists can participate by download score and a rough audio of the Climatrix Symphony from:  http://melharmonymusic.com/planetsymphony (Parts will be shared upon request.) Then they need to record 10-20 seconds (orchestras 15-30 seconds) of the music in any noise-free location including home/normal rehearsal spaces and email a Wav (16-bit, 44100 Hz) or high-quality MP3s to melharmonymusic@gmail.com.

Chitravina N Ravikiran, the founder of Melharmony, which is co-ordinating the effort, says that many eminent Indian artistes have already sent their recordings including danseuse Dr Vyjayantimala Bali, Bansuri player Pandit Ronu Majumdar, Mridangam Vidwan Karaikkudi Mani, Bickram Ghosh, Sitar Maestro Purybayan Chatterjee, Mandolin U Rajesh, Violinist M Chandrashekaran and noted film violinist V S Narasimhan.

Several other musicians including violinists A Kanyakumari, Embar Kannan, Akarai sisters, mridangam vidwan T V Gopalakrishnan are also participating in this project.

As the project gains momentum, it is interesting to see the various links between India’s music and her unique Dharmic view of ecology. It is imperative that the world is aware of India’s unique position on Sustenance and Sustainability, Dr Pankaj Jain, Associate Professor Department of Philosophy and Religion University of North Texas, has written in his book Dharma and Ecology of Indian Communities.

As “the dharmic Indic traditions have [inspired] Indians to limit their needs” (pg 120), dharma could “be developed as an alternative anthropological category to study Indic traditions [and] successfully applied as an overarching term for the sustainability of the ecology, environmental ethics, and the religious lives of Indian villagers” (pg 3), writes Dr Jain. Etymologically, Dharma is derived from Sanskrit dhr meaning to sustain, support, or hold. In the Vedas prthivim dharmana dhrtam signifies Dharma as sustainer of the earth.

N Ravikiran says the sukshmas of Dharma as a concept has been brought out by several of India’s great composers many of them describing God as embodiment of Dharma. “Our culture is very close to the nature. The Saptha Svaras are derived, even if they are not exactly, from the sounds of animal calls. Sa is peacock, Ri Rishabham is the bull, Ga is the Goat, Ma is the Heron bird, Pa is nightingale, Dha is Horse and Ni is elephant. This symbolising ways also helped as a pneumonic for children to visualise sounds with some animal or bird. More than that, the learning of music used to be very close to nature, mostly outdoors.”

His composition the Climatrix Symphony, which forms the basis of this project, is an 8 minute, 12 part, 72 scale composition. It was composed for a full orchestra of 100 members and was performed by an orchestra in Wisconsin. Says Ravikiran, “From the Indian classical perspective it covers all the 72 parent scales of Indian music. The twelve chakras or twelve movements in this composition could be symbolising the twelve months of the year. Within these 12, there are certain consonants parts and certain dissonant parts. So the symbolism here is that weather patterns are getting random and dissonant. The idea is to get everyone to start taking note of the changes in our planet so that there is a dialogue happening. They aim to send this to decision makers in different countries. If we are able to inspire the common man to take small steps to help ward off global warming,” its aim will be fulfilled.

Prof Pankaj S Joshi, an astrophysicist who specializes in compact objects such as black holes and currently a vice chancellor and founding director of the International Center for Cosmology at the Charusat University in Anand, India, supporting the project, spoke of the Butterfly effect in modern environmental sciences. “This means that if a butterfly flaps its wings here, there could be a storm created thousands of miles away. The effect can multiply, that is the idea. The problem is that the common man all over the world is not aware of the magnitude of the problem and so as a result we keep on doing what we are doing. But the problem is that suddenly we hear that the disease is in the third stage, the cancer is in the fourth stage and there is no going back. That is why I think this project is important. The art can sensitise the masses, while science provides the core facts. Their coming together can create a magical effect.”

Many of the Indian artistes spoken in support of the cause

Tabla Virtuoso Bickram Ghosh – https://www.facebook.com/Taalacharya/videos/2264740576898725/

Trilok Gurtu – https://www.facebook.com/emilija.kercan/videos/10157208556271031/

Ghatam Karthik – https://www.facebook.com/1046103862/videos/10217293495343172/

Karaikudi R Mani – https://www.facebook.com/bhargavi.balasubramanian/videos/10215495377189818/

Sitar player Purbayan Chatterjee – https://www.facebook.com/apoorva.ravindran/videos/2167050300040844/

Bansuri player Ronu Manjumdar – https://www.facebook.com/melharmonyfoundation/videos/2368870759813621/

Vaijayanti Mala Bali – https://www.facebook.com/ravikiranmusic/videos/10156903637390155/

Russian designs a cool Veena

(This article first appeared in the Times of India on 13th April, 2019)

Russian pianist, mandolin player and guitarist Denis Petrov is a DIY musician who has the curiosity of an engineer but the heart of a musician. When he met his wife vainika Vijaya Kris, he was first introduced to the soulful sound of the Veena, but also observed at close quarters its limitations.

Denis wanted to gift his wife a beautiful, durable and handy Veena which would overcome the problems of limited portability, sensitivity to humidity and temperature changes, and tuning issues. It took six years of research and 100 hours of actual execution, using the craftsmanship he learnt from his grandfather in Moscow, to design the Shiva Veena, a Veena which fits into a guitar bag. The fretboard has regular guitar frets.

Denis’s initiation into Indian culture and fascination with Shiva began with his colleague in the US who was from Mumbai. “My friend introduced me to Indian culture, food, music and Hinduism. We have a large Ganesh temple in New York City which has Ganesha, Shiva, Subramanya and other deities. We go there every Saturday morning and watch the Shiva abhishekam. I cannot claim that I am a disciple of Shiva in a traditional sense. Someone told me that everyone is a Hindu and it’s just that not everyone knows about it. So that’s how I approach it.”

Denis began creating his version of the Veena as a gift to his wife

Denis says that while the initial inspiration was to gift Vijaya a Veena, as he started researching it became something deeper. “I realised that many people feel that playing the Veena is not a cool thing to do. Cool kids don’t play the veena, they play the electric guitar. Now, I can say that the instrument that I have created can be seen as a cool instrument for young kids.”

Most Veena instrument makers as well as Veena players tend to be conservative, but there have been a few innovators. Bangalore based Radel has one version of a modern Veena, and vainika Dr Suma Sudhindra has designed the Tarangini Veena.

Dr Suma Sudhindra says her intention of making the Tarangini Veena was to address the issues that Veena players face mainly while travelling. “It took me several years of research and experimentation to come up with a concert worthy (the sound has to be pleasing and as close to the sound of the Saraswati Veena as possible) and yet durable version. The Shiva Veena added the stand which made the Veena playing comfortable and it was also fitted with a magnetic pick up made exclusively for the Veena. Ofcourse all of these innovations will help in keeping Veena traditions alive.”

His aim in designing the Veena was also to make it more attractive to younger people by making it cool

There have been criticisms of bending tradition but Denis quotes a 2014 study of violins conducted by Claudia Fritz, a musical acoustician in Paris, and Joseph Curtin, a leading violin maker from Michigan, who reported that in a double-blind test with modern instruments and Old Italian violins, elite violinists preferred the new violins to the old.

Says Denis, “To me this is the favourite story that indicates that knowledge of the non-musical aspects of musical instruments biases the listener. So if you know that the veena was made from the jackfruit tree in a temple, it will sound good to you if you are from that tradition. It may be a cynical way of looking at things, but this is the way a western scholar thinks, where one has to prove things rather than accepting everything as given.”

It is a known fact that that the Western audience for pure Carnatic music is very small, as it requires prior ground work. This can be changed, says Denis who is a self-taught tabla player. “I am sure anyone who has studied music would be very interested in Carnatic music if it was explained to a Western musician in a way that made it accessible. Western musicians are very technique oriented. Based on my own experience I would rather have a plain explanation on the practical aspects, whereas most of the descriptions throw a lot of words at you which have no frame of reference.”

Hanuman, the real Superman

This article first appeared in The Hindu on 12th April, 2019.

Reading the verses of Sundarakandam, I began to wonder how I would be able to even select from among the 2,885 verses for my solo production on this most beautiful section of the Ramayana. Choreographing and getting music composed seemed highly formidable tasks. My spiritual Guru Swami Dayananda Saraswati had suggested that I work on ‘Sundarakandam.’ I realised that unless I undertook it as a Parayana (a dedicated daily recitation), I would not be able to give it a form in Natya. I spent days reading and contemplating on the verses and began to discover the timeless value of the journey of Hanuman to Lanka. When Mount Mainaka, the greatest among the mountains, rises from the ocean to request Hanuman to rest on its peak, Hanuman says that he will not rest until he reaches Lanka. This undivided focus gives him the strength to reach his destination.

“I have dedicated this performance to Shri Hanuman as I am inspired by his virtue and intelligence” says Pavithra seen here as Hanuman setting fire to Lanka

On gaining entry, Hanuman is awestruck by the city of Lanka, the opulence of Ravana’s palace, the retinue, and the magnificent Pushpaka Vimana. He enters the private chambers of the mansion but lust does not touch Hanuman’s heart, where Rama is enshrined.

Not to scare Mother Sita with his sudden appearance, He first sings the glory of Lord Rama and gradually earns her trust. The sense and sensibility with which he approaches Sita reassures her of reuniting with Lord Rama. Hanuman’s strategy is in full play in this Canto — he ascertains the strength of Ravana’s army, by engaging in a battle after destroying the spectacular Ashoka Vana, allows himself to be tied by Indrajit, invokes fear by burning Lanka with his tail set on fire and so on.

With the wise words “Drishta Sita” (Seen Sita), he brings joy and relief to a distraught Rama. None on earth, even in thought, can achieve this feat says Rama, who through an embrace conveys his gratitude and blessing for protecting the Dharma of the Raghu clan!

My first presentation of Sundarakandam was in the presence of Guruji in Arsha Vidya Gurukulam (2009) in Saylorsburg. He was so happy that he called me ‘Hanumani’ in front of the audience. With his blessings, I have presented Hanuman’s journey at several venues in Chennai and across the country and abroad.

‘Sundarakandam’ is a mine of spiritual knowledge, reading of which assures success in all endeavours along with the spiritual strength to face life’s difficulties. Sundara means not only beautiful but also regaining what is lost. It is said that to regain the Self is real Sundaram!

Ramayana is the Adikavya — the very first poem, Itihaasa (epic) in Sanskrit literature — of the ancient Indian civilization. The entire culture of India is embodied in this Itihaasa. It has a very deep influence on the ethos and ethics of people through the millennia. The power it has in moulding the minds cannot be described. Rama resides eternally in Hanuman’s heart. As a Naishtika Brahmachari, he is an embodiment of devotion and fearlessness. To me, he is the real hero, who adorns my Facebook page.

“Indian culture and music has shaped not just my sense of rhythm but my sense of time”

Los Angeles based drummer Greg Ellis is working on a documentary film called the ‘The Click’ looking at the effects of digital technology and mechanical time on drumming, music and culture. Named after the term used for the digital metronome, or ‘click track’, that virtually all recorded music is controlled by, ‘The Click’ delves into relationship between the drum and the clock.  He will be coming to India as well to do more interviews with musicians and scientists for the film. He says that Indian culture and music has shaped not just his sense of rhythm but also his sense of time. He wants to explore the more esoteric side of these two things so he says he will be coming back soon!

Ellis believes that all new recorded music sounds the same because of this technological invention, and if not used judiciously, it is not long before people will begin to see spontaneous, creative music as being ‘unnatural’.

Based on your film ‘The Click’, could you tell us how technology is impacting spontaneity and creativity in music?

I do think creativity remains intact as long as there is still a human using the technology. There is still a creative element in putting loops, programs and samples together but I believe the modern music making process has all but killed spontaneity. To me spontaneity is a property of organic interaction. Technology allows one to be clever rather than spontaneous. How many times as musicians have we hit a ‘wrong’ note or slipped from the rhythm only to turn it into something we have never played before?! Spontaneity cannot be programmed. It is one of the things I miss most in contemporary music.

Despite the ease of access that technology creates as a mediator, does the real power of music lie in listening to music live?

Definitely. But it’s not just listening to music live, it’s also listening to live music. We hear so much about fake news here in America. What about the fake music we have been hearing for years? I feel the lack of resonant frequencies in digital music diminishes the real power of music you’re referring to. Everything including the resonance of the tuned string or skin, the resonance of the instrument itself, the resonance of the musician playing the instrument and the resonance of the studio or auditorium. All these things occur before the sound even reaches the listeners ear and I believe it’s in these frequencies where the feel and soul of music lives.

Without live musicians playing live instruments, the music lacks what I call its nourishment. It becomes like fast food. It no longer has that thing that feeds a musician to want to play better every day or offer a listener a transcendent experience. The feeling we get from feeling music played live is something that has nourished our bodies and souls for millennia. That shared moment between the audience and musician should be a sacred space that unfortunately has been tampered with through modern music technology.

You have played with many Indian drummers (table artistes). How do you think an ancient Indian drumming system be impacted by technological intervention?

I’ve had the honour of playing with some of the best. I worked with Zakir Hussain as part of project with Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart. Bikram Ghosh has been a colleague and dear friend of mine for two decades, since his first Rhythm Scape album. I also became close with his father, Pandit Shankar Ghosh. We would discuss this issue often. Pandit Ghosh felt this ‘technological intervention’ as you say, began with recording technology. He was there 60 years ago as the first recordings of Indian music were being made commercially available. He felt that once musicians began hearing recordings of themselves, it altered their playing completely because the music was no longer an offering to the moment.

I wondered if it offered too much a reflection and was the onset of making it more about the musician rather than the music. Fast forward 60 years and it seems that’s definitely the case. Now we have the ability to edit recorded performances and auto-tune to absolute digital perfection. This is creating generations of musicians who are missing the beauty of imperfection. I see incredible technique in younger players but that connection to the essence of the music seems lost due to all the digital distractions. Indian rhythm is a language and like many other languages and dialects in India, it is in danger of obsolescence due to modernization. It’s one thing to know all the words there are to know but then you’re just a dictionary that doesn’t express anything. How you put those words together… that’s the artistry.

Does using low-end technological recording tools creative negative impressions on music listeners where they learn to expect less from music?

It does seem that listeners today in general seem oddly content with less fidelity in their music. We’ve allowed mp3’s, ear buds, phone and computer speakers as acceptable deliverers of music. I also feel the low-end digital recording platforms like garage band and others has allowed access to those who just want to make music but don’t want to become a musician. So if that is the level of music that is being offered by the artist, it would make sense that the listener wouldn’t care as much about the fidelity of what they’re hearing. Again, it’s similar to the fast food analogy in that it merely satisfies a hunger without offering any real nutritional value. Without the ability to both deliver and listen to music in its full dynamic range, listeners have had no choice but to expect less and be surprisingly okay with that.

Is there a kind of music that is of the best kind? Should there be a music that one must aspire to play or listen to, not just in terms of content but also the quality of delivery?

It really depends on the instrument. As a drummer I would say the four styles of music that pretty much encompass the full rhythm spectrum would be American Jazz, Indian Classical, African and Arabic. Just find the best of as many genres and cultures as you can. The best musicians I’ve worked with have a deep understanding of many kinds of music so I wouldn’t want to generalize one kind of music as the best kind in terms of genre or style.

All I listened to through high school was Rock and Roll and taught myself drum kit playing along to Led Zeppelin and Rush. I didn’t really hear Indian music until well into my 20s. When I did it blew my world apart. I had never experienced that kind of journey musically. But there was so much I recognized in the rhythms and it made perfect sense to me in a way I don’t think it would have at anytime before then. It set me on a path to find and listen to the best music of every culture. I started collecting drums from all over the world and developed a technique of hand drumming that has put me on stage with artists from more than 30 countries. But my entry point was Rock and Roll which really shouldn’t have brought me to the music and instruments I now play. What’s important is to find the best artists in whatever style you’re into. Masters are recognizable in whatever form they take.

How can musicians play a role in creating better quality recordings and listening experiences?

After all the tech talk this one is very simple. Every time we are on our instrument, our sole purpose should be to remind the listener or audience of why music exists in the first place. Leave the rest up to the moment.

Could you share a few thoughts on The Click, its production and what the project means to you?

The film looks at the effects of mechanical time and digital technology on our music, our lives and our sense of time itself. As we go from the clock, to the metronome, to automation, to the click track, to the drum machine and now AI and robotics, we see a systematic conditioning to mechanical time in all aspects of our lives. We now live our life to a click track. I’m still in production and fund raising mode but I hope to finish it up this year. It’s my first film but it’s the best way to tell this story and to reach people who have no idea how much their music is processed and how mechanical time has shaped our lives. I want to eventually show it as part of a live performance featuring drummers from different cultures in performance and discussion after the film. I’m also writing a companion book on these concepts as well.

(Ellis is a drummer and multi-instrumentalist born and bred in the Bay Area. He has recorded and performed with some of the greatest musicians and drummers in the world. As composer and session musician for film and television, his drum-set and percussion beds can be heard in the major motion pictures The Matrix: Reloaded and The Matrix: Revolutions, Fight Club, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Dawn Of The Dead, Dukes of Hazzard, The Devil’s Rejects, Brave Story, 300, Watchmen, and Argo, among many others.

He has performed and recorded with artists from almost every continent, including Zakir Hussain, Airto, KODO, Mickey Hart’s Planet Drum, Juno Reactor, Billy Idol, Sonu Nigam, Sussan Deyhim, Hamed Nikpay, Bickram Ghosh, Chiwoniso Maraire, Sugizo and many more.)

“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.

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

Introduction – our natural inheritance

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ecosystems, crafts knowledge, economy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The clash of materials

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Method and practice as cultural outreach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A new development dimension

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Google Images (http://www.definitivewebsites.com/work/images/craft-sales.jpg)