June 17, 2019: At India Foundation’s Center for Soft Power in Chennai, we hosted Mr. Shobhan Saxena and Ms. Florencia Costa from Brazil for an interaction on “From Soft-Power Influence to Economic and Political Gains: India’s Engagement with Brazil and the South American Region”.
Mr. Saxena is the President of Indian Association of Brazil. He is a scholar and cultural entrepreneur. He is the founder of BRIC Street, a Sao Paulo-based organisation working on creating a cultural communication, bridging the knowledge deficit and building people-to-people contact while promoting trade between Brazil and India. He is also the founder of Bloco Bollywood, the first and only Indian street carnival in Brazil.
Ms. Florencia Costa is a journalist and cultural curator. Costa has been a journalist for more than 20 years and has worked as foreign correspondents in Moscow, London, Mumbai and New Delhi. She is the co-founder of Bloco Bollywood and the co-founder of BRIC Street. She is also the editor of a Brazilian website on Indian culture.
In the sidelines of the interaction, we spoke to them on understanding more about their initiatives towards enabling India in Brazil through Bloco Bollywood and in other ways.
The interview with Shobhan:
When did you move to Brazil? What are some of your areas of work and initiatives towards enabling India’s image in Brazil and South America?
I moved to Brazil in the year 2012, as a journalist. In the past six years, I have reported extensively for various Indian and foreign publications about Brazil and South America, including the FIFA World Cup 2014 and Rio Olympics 2016. I have also focused on India’s bilateral engagement with Brazil and multilateral forums like BRICS, G-20, IBSA, G-4 and WTO, etc. Besides reporting, I have taught courses on Indian foreign policy, politics, society and cinema at the University of Sao Paulo. I regularly give lectures on Indian economy and foreign policy at Brazil’s top universities, think tanks and other institutions. In the past six years, I have given many lectures on the Indian Constitution, Dr B R Ambedkar, Sardar Patel, Yoga and Meditation, at the Indian Cultural Centre of ICCR at Sao Paulo.
As the president of Indian Association (2016-2020), I have been organizing Indian festivals like Holi, Diwali, Onam, Durga Puja, Independence Day and Yoga Day events in Brazil, which all attract a large number of Indian expats and our Brazilian friends.
My biggest contribution to the promotion of Indian culture in Brazil has been the creation of Bloco Bollywood, an Indian street Carnival in Sao Paulo where we play traditional Indian and Bollywood music. In just four years, our Bloco has become one of the top carnival parties in Sao Paulo, with huge media coverage in Brazil’s top TV channels, newspapers and magazines. This year, we attracted more than 8,000 people – Indians, Brazilians and other expat communities. Today, the Bloco is the biggest Indian gathering and festival in South America, with Indian associations from other countries asking us to take Bloco Bollywood to places like Argentina and Chile. The Bloco has helped in creating a very positive image of India and our vibrant and colourful culture.
What are some of the key areas of work for your wife, Florencia Costa?
Florencia Costa, also a journalist by profession, has lived and worked in India for seven years. She has a lot of interest and engagement with Indian culture and festivals. A co-founder of Bloco Bollywood, she is instrumental in promoting our Bloco among the Brazilians and also in the local media. She is also a regular speaker on India-related issues at various media outlets, think tanks and universities. She has just covered the Indian election 2019 for Brazil’s top magazine Veja, explaining to its readers the vibrancy of Indian democracy.
She has created a new website called Beco da India (The Indian Street), a Portuguese site aimed at Brazilians that takes a 360 degree look at Indian culture and Indian cultural activities in Brazil and other South American countries. We plan to launch the site in July.
Tell us about the Indian community in Brazil and their areas of work.
We may have a total of 5,000 Indians living and working in the country. The majority of these people (3,000) are based in the state of Sao Paulo and Sao Paulo city. All members of the community are represented by the Indian Association of Brazil, which is the sole Indian organization in Brazil. The members of Indian community are involved in trade (textiles and consumer goods), academics, education and businesses like IT, pharma, petroleum, food and cultural activities. Most Indian MNCs like TCS, Infosys, Wipro, Reliance, Lupin, Dr Reddy’s, Ranbaxy and Vedanta have their Latin American head offices in Sao Paulo. The community is slowly but surely growing in numbers as trade and other engagements between the two countries grow.
Bloco Bollywood seems to have gradually evolved into a fine show of strength for the Indian diaspora in Brazil. As its founders what do you have to say about its evolution?
The real Brazilian Carnival happens in the streets in the form of music and dance parties called Blocos. Somehow, the energy and nature of Blocos in Brazil reminded me of the street processions we have in India (Ganesha in Mumbai or marriage processions on the streets of any Indian city). In 2016, after living here for more than 4 years, I realized that many Brazilians had an interest in Indian music and dances, especially Bollywood, but they did not really understand its nuances. So I, with my wife, decided to create an Indian Bloco as an experiment. Our first Bloco happened in February 2016 in Sao Paulo. We invited the members of the Indian community and our Brazilian friends to the street party. More than 700 persons, mostly Indians but some Brazilians, turned up at the Bloco, which is a free, non-commercial event open to all. For five hours, we played Bollywood songs, Indian pop and bhangra and dandiya numbers, with people dancing non-stop to the music. Because of its unique nature, our Bloco got extensive media coverage as people turned up in colourful Indian costumes.
Today, in just four years, it has become the biggest Indian event in entire South America. In 2019, we had more than 8,000 people at two Blocos in different locations. It just shows the power of Indian music, dances and costumes to attract people. The Bloco has also given a big boost to all Indian restaurants in Sao Paulo and all Indian textile traders have benefitted from it, with a hike in sales of Indian dresses close to the carnival.
Given the Bloco’s popularity, we hope to turn it into an important vehicle for promoting Indian softpower in Brazil with the tagline of “Happiness and Peace”. We are also working on a social project to give free English classes to underprivileged children and young prisoners, with the purpose of boosting the image of the Indian community in Brazil.
What does the BRIC Street do? When was it founded?
BRIC Street was founded in 2018. We have just opened an office in Sao Paulo, with the purpose of increasing people- to-people contact between India and Brazil, besides promoting business and trade links between the two countries. We will have two websites: one to promote Indian culture in Brazil in Portuguese language and the other one (in English) to work as a resource centre cum online think tank for people working on India-Brazil relations. We also plan to organise an annual seminar and conference called India Dialogue Series in Sao Paulo, with the objective of promoting business, cultural and economic links between the two countries, besides showcasing India’s cultural prowess in Brazil and other South American countries. We plan to host the first India Dialogue in October 2019, in the run up to the BRICS summit in Brazil in November.
What is it about India that resonates with the Brazilian population?
Brazil is a country where India enjoys a very positive image. Also, as the Brazilian culture itself is a mixture of three cultures – European, African and indigenous – the people here are very open to other cultures. Indian things like Yoga, Ayurveda and classical dances are well-known here. Indian food and Bollywood are also becoming popular. Bloco Bollywood has generated a lot of buzz about India, with our team being invited to the top TV shows and getting live coverage on the country’s main channels and wide coverage in newspapers and magazines. Today, Bloco Bollywood has become the main vehicle of Indian culture in Brazil. We have introduced Bhangra, Garba and Bollywood-style dancing on the streets of Sao Paulo. We have also trained a team of drummers from University of Sao Paulo in playing Bhangra beats. Now, one of the top and iconic Samba schools in Sao Paulo has approached us to do a partnership with us. We are also exploring the possibility of getting Indian folk dancers from India to introduce different Indian dance forms in Brazil and create a fusion of Indian-Brazilian music and dance.
Do you see India’s soft power influence translating into strong economic and political relations with Brazil?
Yes, definitely the potential is there. But a concerted effort has to be made by the government, community organizations, Indian businesses, cultural centres, chambers of commerce and influential individuals to make that happen. In that direction, it is very important to bring all stakeholders on a common platform and to work on it regularly and intensely. The proposed India Dialogue by BRIC Street is a step in that direction. With resources and efforts, it can become a platform for promoting business and trade through Indian soft power in Brazil and all other South American nations.
When did the Indian Association for Brazil start and what is its vision and mission?
The Indian Association was founded in 1997. That time the community was really small and the activities of the Association were limited to organising a few festivals for the members of the Indian community. With the increase in the number of Indian people, businesses and cultural activities in Brazil, the Association has grown a lot since then, with a huge jump in its members and activities. The Association has three basic missions:
- Providing a platform for the members of the Indian community to organise Indian festivals and cultural programmes
- Promoting Indian philosophy and culture in Brazil
- Doing social activities for the local community in Brazil
The Association has a big piece of land (18,000 square metres) near the city of Sao Paulo and it is working on developing it as a community centre and a place to promote Indian culture, especially Yoga and Meditation.
Could you describe more about Florencia’s Brazilian website and its different facets?
Beco da India (The Indian Street) will take a 360 degree look at Indian culture with sections like Yoga, Meditation, Philosophy, Cuisine, Music, Dance, Bollywood, Travel, Social Enterprises and Innovation. The site, in Portuguese language, will be a complete resource centre for the Brazilians who are interested in Indian culture. At the same time, it will be a platform for all artists and musicians and dancers who are involved in Indian cultural activities in Brazil. The site will act as a bridge between innovators and social entrepreneurs for collaboration.
Yoga and movies are definite strong pillars of soft power. What are the futuristic aspects of India’s soft power that can bring both Brazil and the entire South America closer to India to strengthen relations?
Besides the Indian Embassy in Brazil and the Indian Consulate in Sao Paulo, which organise several Indian events, the main organizer of Indian events here is the Indian Association. We organize Holi, Diwali, Onam, Navaratri, Durga Puja, and the Indian Independence Day every year. With more resources, we plan to make these events bigger and better so that more Brazilians get an exposure to Indian culture.
Now, as Bloco Bollywood has become popular across Brazil, we plan to use it as a platform for promoting Indian Culture, Philosophy, Cinema, Cuisine, Meditation, Music, Dance and other art forms. We also plan to join hands with local organisations to create festivals around the theme of India.
The best way to promote Indian culture in South America is to create a roving Indian festival, which can travel from one country to another and also use the local talent in each country to give a complete exposure to Indian culture to our South American friends.
We are already working on creating the Federation of Indian Associations of South America (FIASA), a collective of all Indian associations in South America. Active by 2020, the Federation will help in pooling in resources for the promotion of Indian culture and trade links with South America.