Great Jewish Stars were at the heart of Bollywood

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

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

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

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


Picture source : Danny Ben Moshe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Picture source : Danny Ben Moshe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Picture source : Danny Ben Moshe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Picture source : Danny Ben Moshe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes and no! 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does the spiritual content of Indian music appeal to you?

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

What appeals to you most in your travels across India? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is it important to have diverse interests in Music?

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

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

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

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

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

How do you integrate music into theatre?

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

India gave birth to the universal language Sanskrit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please share your impressions about the science of Indian philosophy.

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

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

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

Have you studied any texts along those lines?

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

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

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

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

When Yoga came to UNESCO

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

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

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

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

How was India perceived in France during your early days?

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

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

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

How did you establish Tapovan in France?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soulmates – the story of India and Israel

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Source: Elite intelligence commando unit 1983

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Kallenbach Archive

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Art as a metaphor for India

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

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

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

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


Subodh Gupta’s exhibition at the Monnaie de Paris –


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indian Art in context

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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

The Unhotel holiday experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“In India,​I discovered the missing piece of my heart and soul, ​I cannot survive without India,”- Renee Lynn

Renee Lynn’s greeting itself is a warm Ram Ram. She is Indian in spirit and Hindu in her inner experience. Renee is an activist, author, columnist, and Founder of Voice for India Project – a project committed to elevating the eminence of India, to reestablish the many truths about India, and its magnificent cultural heritage. Hinduism has made her mind free of doubts and fears, she has found solace and happiness in its timeless wisdom. Renee derives inspiration from the Bhagavad Gita, likes to wear Punjabi suits ( sarees for special occasions) and dances to Bhangra. Her Hindu name is Pooja.

Here is CSP’s interview with the zestful American from New Jersey so smitten by India :-—

Why the title India “Stripped” for your book? What is the most urgent truth about India you wish to convey?

I had to write India “Stripped” because India is getting fake publicity about being a dangerous and dirty country. I have to tell the world that India is not like what the Indian or mainstream international media sells it to be. I am passionate and fervently getting this truth out. The truth that India is a safe and beautiful country and has the best hospitality in the world. It is very safe for women also, Indian women and foreigners. As a world traveler, I can honestly tell you this is a fact about India and its people.

 You are a global traveler, exposed to and experienced several cultures. What makes India so special to you?

I love the ancient traditions and culture of India. No other country has such intimate festivals with such a significant meaning behind each one. 

I really love Deepavali so much. I celebrate it with my Indian friends here in the USA. It’s heartening to see how everyone feels so happy and open-hearted.The gesture of the exchange of gifts/sweets etc. is so welcoming. People are just in full enjoy celebrating and the best meals are prepared. I love how each of the five days has significance to that particular day. Homes are decorated with lamps and lights, it is kind of similar to Christmas here in the USA. I love to do puja at the Akshardham Temple and BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in New Jersey. I go to both of these temples not just on Deepavali but anytime, any day, to do puja. After walking through the temple and doing puja I just sit on meditation at the temple for long. Most Indians go in for ten minutes and rush out, they don’t even give time for puja. I believe it is important to give your time for puja as much as your best offering.

 I love to indulge and participate in India and Hindu festivals. Each festival is so unique and touching to the soul!

When and how did you connect with India and Hinduism?

My first trip to India was January 2009 and since then I have been back 22 times. I fell in love with India on my first trip, it felt like DejaVu. Connecting with Hinduism was easy for me because it is practical and logical. It teaches love and respect as its main tenets and that for me was touching.Growing up in a Christian household and going to the church at that time, they would be ingrained with hell, doom and gloom to the folks and for me, this is a form of control and entrapment.

What is the loveliest thought and feeling you have about Hinduism?

Hinduism preaches non-violence and vegetarianism and I believe this is how we all should live our lives. I wish the whole world would become vegetarians.

What was not working in the Christian upbringing that you thought was working in Hinduism?

Growing up in the Christian environment brought on anxiety attacks and fear because they forcefully keep saying that you are going to burn in hell if you don’t get right with Jesus. This brings on many emotional and psychological disorders as; depression, anxiety, sleeping problems, etc. When I discovered Hinduism and what it teaches I felt free for the very first time, and I was free from anxiety and fear because I discovered the truth in Hinduism. 

According to you, is India missing to understand something or neglecting anything significant about itself? 

I feel the youth are missing out on the beauty of their country and Hindu heritage because they are too fascinated with the West.The youth have become very anti-Hindu lately. Firstly, they think the West is best and they are emulating everything from the West. They feel that if they proclaim their heritage they will be outcasted by other peers. Many have a very liberal education and thinking, so now they are thinking that it is “uncool” to be Hindu. I believe they also don’t want to act pro-Hindu because of the fear of getting humiliated and ridiculed by their peers. I see it all over the social media sites. I would like to speak to these youths about the beauty of Hindu heritage and the difference between India and the West. They need someone to educate them on the other side of the arena.

Hinduism is the oldest religion in the world and the most rewarding and meaningful. It is necessary to keep alive the meaning of this incredible ancient heritage- the various festivals and customs. Also, it is important to remember that yoga is one of the most beneficial gifts from India that we need to try to incorporate into our lives.

Many seem to be aware of the mistreatment of Hindus in India and they have a good sense of their accomplishments. In my book India Stripped, 2nd edition which just released, I spoke about all the inventions and contributions India has made to the world. Many are aware and many are not. I have received emails from folks that bought my book and said they never knew that about India! So if anyone is interested, my book 2nd edition is available on Pothi.com and Amazon India and Flipkart the first edition is available.

Where is your Voice For India project-based? What is the project about?

Voice For India is based in New York, USA.Voice for India is about motivating, inspiring and encouraging. Voice for India is about exposing the truth about India, that the media is falsely reporting. Voice for India is about supporting Hindu equality in India because Hindus are treated unfairly.

All over India the Hindus are treated unfairly.The government has control over Hindu temples but not Churches or Mosques. The Supreme Court is so unfair when it comes to decisions as in the Sabarimala Temple, the Supreme Court had no right to interfere with this Temple because deity resides in the temple and it’s the deity’s privacy which cannot be violated by constitutional interference. Also, in the case of Lord Ram’s birthplace, Subramanian Swamy Ji has been working hard to rebuild the temple and still the Supreme Court keeps giving date after date. In another example, the school syllabus is filled with Moghul’s stories and biased against Hindu heritage, Hindus will grow up without even knowing their heritage. Hindus are discriminated against so much and I am fed up with this discrimination!

So many folks want to join in on the Voice for India Movement, so it has been very successful lately. I receive hundreds of emails and comments from folks in India thanking me for making them more patriotic and giving them inspiration. I would like to see in the future everyone taking part and all of us being a voice together.

What are the causes you have stood for?

I have exposed people like Priyanka Chopra, in a video about a year ago, it went viral in India and around the world where she was making Hindus look like terrorists and Pakistan the victims, in her TV series. I have exposed Rahul Gandhi with his vicious agenda about Narendra Modi Ji. I basically will talk about issues where Hindus are discriminated against and I also talk about the importance of Hinduism, these are my main platforms.

Your love for India seems to be genuine and overflowing, have you thought about settling in India?

Yes, in the future I am definitely going to be living in Delhi. I will stay some time in the USA and some time in India, divide it up during the year. India is my Motherland, my Life and the air I breathe, I can’t survive without India.

 Any Indian languages that you can speak and understand well?

I am learning Hindi, am not fluent yet but I can speak basic Hindi and talk to anyone in that format. My reading and writing is much better than my listening and speaking Hindi.

Your best place in the world and why?Your best place in India and why?

India definitely by far, no place in the world can compare to its hospitality, traditions, and culture. I also love the anachronistic way about India.

Delhi is my favorite, it feels like home to me.  I spend most of my time in the Delhi area and I have everything I need at my fingertips and there are so many historic/tourist locations in and around.I also love so many places in South India, it is unique in its own way and very beautiful – Coimbatore, Kodaikanal, Ooty, Pondicherry, and Cochin, just to name a few.

What are the most endearing quality of Indian women ?

Indian women are very hospitable when I come to their homes. They are constantly checking on me to see if I need anything. I love when they invite me to dinner, I know I will be fed the best, and most food I can possibly handle!

Indian women are treated as equal, they have the freedom to choose things in life, not like other countries where women are suppressed.In a survey conducted by The Thomson Reuters Foundation and broadcasted by CNN, they reported that India was the most dangerous country for women. Again, I took revenge on CNN and did another video which also went viral.I stated the facts that how can Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, etc. be less dangerous? These women are not allowed to do anything freely. Indian women in India are educated, they work, make their own income. I have so many female friends in India that are doing just this and they are even driving also, which is banned in the countries that they said was least dangerous than India. So yes, Indian women in India have more freedom than a lot of other countries in the eastern hemisphere. Also, some parts of India are not as free as other parts for women but respectively overall to other countries in the East.

Hinduism has many names and forms of Deities as a symbolic representation of Isvara ( Lord) worshipped in all parts of the country. Any symbol or deity you are devoted to?

 I feel the most connected to Lord Shiva. I know Shiva is with me because I am with Him. 

Your favourite Indian menu.

I love all Indian food but Dal Tadka, Paneer Tikka, Dal Makhini, Sarso ka Saag and Punjabi Hariyali are my favorites.

Your thoughts on Bollywood industry and Yoga. 

I don’t care for Bollywood except for a few actors like Akshay Kumar because Bollywood keeps making a mockery out of Hindu Gods and discriminate against Hindus. 

Yoga is awesome, it is magic to the body, mind and soul.

Your most special Book on India.

Recently, Rajiv Malhotra sent to my house 5 of his books which I am reading, Academic Hinduphobia being the first.Other than that I just love to read anything about India. I am so in love with India you can’t even imagine.

“My statement to India: Please never relinquish your beautiful ancient traditions to follow the West.”- Renee Lynn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Learning and teaching Samskritam has made my life complete!”- author Medha Michika

Michika Inuzuka transformed herself from being a student of  Environmental Science at California State University into a life long student of Vedanta. She is a former software engineer at Bandai America and Panasonic USA. 

Michika left everything in pursuit of the study of Vedanta scriptures such as Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, and Brahma Sutras under Pujya Shri. Swami Dayananda Saraswatiji, a world renowned and revered traditional teacher of Advaita Vedanta. She started studying under Pujya Swamiji from 2007. 

Now Medha Michika is a Sanskrit teacher and author of books on Sanskrit Alpabhets, Sanskrit Grammar, book of verbal roots based on dhaatupaaTha of paaNini and many more! Her books  are available at www.arshaavinash.in under “Books on Sanskrit Grammar”for free download. Printed version of her books are available at amazon.com and createspace.com. All profit from the sales of her books go towards  charitable works, mainly for printing books in India to be donated to Arsha Vidya Gurukulams in Anaikatti, Rishikesh, and Saylorsburg, or as direct donation to these ashrams.

Here is CSP’s  interview with Medha Michika:

According to you , what is the significance of Samskritam ?

Samskritam is a language of the Veda.The Vedas teach Dharma ( righteous deeds) and Moksha (ultimate freedom), the goals only human beings can achieve due to their faculty of thinking and ability to make choices. Samskritam is a unique language which helps you understand the language of the Veda, that fulfills you and makes you a complete human being. 

How did you get adept in speaking the English language?

Besides reading and talking with college students in USA, our family used to host people that really helped me in speaking good English.

When did you begin teaching Samskritam, what methodology have you developed in writing your books?

When  I was in Rishikesh studying under Pujya Swamiji, I started helping other students of Vedanta in learning Samskritam, from Devanagari script to Panini sutras.

I just follow the methodology of traditional learning and teaching method of Panini-sutras while writing. In my books,I have presented this traditional method in visual forms so that students with modern educational background can easily learn and grasp.

Let me explain a few terms. To understand these terms, one should have studied Panini to some extent. This discussion is meant only for those :-

As a prakriya , the methodology of leaning Panini-sutras, Kaumudi  is the best. Not many people know that this book is for studying Ashtaadhyaayii.When you study a sutra in Kaumudi, you must look up Ashtaadhyaayii sutra-paatha and pick up anuvrttis, then bring necessary words by referring to appropriate Paribhaashaas,and finally make a complete vrttiby rearranging the entire words. One can also refer to commentaries of Kaumudi and Kashika.

How has teaching Samskritam changed your life?

It has made me more patient, relaxed and accepting of myself and others.Of course Samskritam is essential for studying theShaastra! Teaching has given me the depth of understanding the language and  has got me  involved  in the parampara of teaching too!

How is Hindu tradition different form Japanese tradition, what are their similarities?

Differences :

Most of the things are diagonally opposite in the two traditions. For example, in Hindu tradition, people have trust in Bhagavan, the cosmic order, while Japanese people trust in the orders made by human beings  and follow them rigidly.

In India, Vedic values such as study of Shaastra, being a Sanyaasi, giving, selfless service, knowledge of Samskritam, etc. are highly regarded, while in Japan, these principles are not even known.

Similarities:

While listening to the teacher, interrupting the flow of teacher’s words by asking question is not considered to be proper in both traditions in India and Japan.Though we don’t have the idea of the Lord, the creator, the omniscient and omnipotent, we are in general quite open to see divinity in everything and in worship.Another similarity is we also keep quiet while listening to the teaching !

What motivated you to study scriptures/Vedanta? How did you join Arsha Vidya Gurukulam?

When I was a little child around 5/6 years old, my mother told me  that my existence cannot be defined by “girl” or “Japanese”.That really gave me a solid trust in myself, and easily paved the way for the study of Vedanta.

Years later, during my stay in Rishikesh,I was learning Hindustani music and fond of witnessing Hindu rituals, chanting and reciting prayers.The interest to know the meaning of the prayers made me study Samskritam by myself, which of course did not work!

Some people suggested  I go to Shri.Dayananda Ashram. I went to the Ashram in Rishikesh to learn Samskritam, not knowing what exactly to expect.There were no Samskritam classes when I visited the Ashram. Instead, there was a class on Mundaka Upanishad. I heard the class, and immediately  understood that everything that happened in my life was meant to pursue the study of Vedanta. From that day onwards, there has been no turning back in my life. Now, my whole life is centered on the study of Vedanta.

What does your name mean then and now ? 

Michika means “auspicious and gorgeous”. The name Medha is given by Pujya Swamiji which means “intellect “. This is a great blessing to me!

What do you find about India that you don’t find anywhere else?

I am inspired by the value systems in India in keeping with higher human goals like – Dharma, Moksha, study of Shaastra, life style and attitude of a Sanyaasi, values of giving, selfless service, and knowledge of Samaskritam.P

Is there any other way to find peace besides studying Shaastras?

Shaastra is meant for finding ultimate peace, which cannot be found in any life  experience or philosophy!

What has been you most gratifying experience so far?

That I was lucky enough to study under Pujya Swamiji.

How do you wish to carry on the legacy of your revered Guru?

By continuing the study and teaching the Shaastra, as guided by Pujya Swamiji.

What keeps your life busy?

Studying and teaching, and moving around the world for that purpose.

Where do you teach Samskritam?

I teach at Rishikesh Ashram,Anaikatti Gurukulam,Japan,Bali and Singapore on a regular basis. In Japan many Yoga students also attend my classes. 

If you wish to change something in your life, what would it be?

Nothing. Meeting Pujya Swamiji and studying the Shaastras has made my life complete and perfect!

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