On culture

Can a ‘Hindu-centric’ India become Culturally Influential Globally?

M. K. Raghavendra

With India gaining stature as an economic and military power it evidently also needs to extend its cultural influence, and participating in or hosting global platforms would be the obvious way of doing it. Since Hindu nationalism has gained ground and is dominating the political space one expects that it would take steps to strengthen India’s global claims as a cultural force. But going by the happenings at the IFFI 22 at Goa, it would appear that regardless of India’s growing stature, it chooses, culturally, to remain insular rather than reach out.

The IFFI is India’s premier platform for international cinema and that is where India’s best films are given an opportunity to become known to people from around the world. This year the Indian film chosen to be in international competition was The Kashmir Files, which has been highly successful commercially in India. This film deals with the massacre of Kashmiri Pandits by militants and one cannot deny that the massacres and a subsequent exodus of Pandits did take place in the 1990s. But the representation of the events in the film created other doubts and one was not surprised when the Israeli chairperson of the international jury castigated the selection of the film for competition, calling it ‘vulgar propaganda’. Subsequently the director of the film Vivek Agnihotri and actor Anupam Kher spoke out passionately on the plight of Kashmiri Pandits in the 1990s - although that was not relevant to the issue.

‘Propaganda’ is a term with an accepted meaning that cannot be ignored; it is a message put out on behalf of an identifiable cause and propaganda films use facts, but for their own purpose. The Kashmir Files is lamenting the killing of Kashmiri Hindus but it is also demonising all Kashmiri Muslims (including women and children) as people more loyal to Pakistan than to their Hindu neighbours and ‘friends’. The Hindu nationalist aspect of the film is transparent and one need not know the facts about Kashmir to understand it - just as one need not know German history to recognise the notorious Nazi film Jew Suss (Veit Harlan, 1940) as racist propaganda.

The Israeli jury chairman at the IFFI 22 was an independent filmmaker with no ties to the Israeli government and when the Israeli ambassador apologised it was evidently because of India’s political ties with Israel - which have little to do with cinema. The apology could have actually shown the cultural establishment in bad light - as interfering in artistic endeavour by bringing political pressure on jury decisions – when it needed to be seen as promoting artistic freedom. Eulogizing cultural pride is fine but the establishment needs to convince the world that it is tolerant of other viewpoints as well.  

Since India became independent this is the first time that the state has an opportunity to put forward a Hindu cultural viewpoint to the world - but the evidence points to the opportunity being misunderstood. Whatever the language Hindu nationalism speaks in trying to dominate the electoral space in India, that same language cannot be used on international cultural platforms. Where it needs to look outward at larger goals it is boxed in by its ideological considerations. In higher education, India’s recognized universities with global reputations are often being headed by party-affiliates with little academic stature. Looking at academic projects ‘Hindu history’ is unsound because historical research has to meet international standards and patently ideologically-driven history rewriting will not meet the standards of academic respectability. As regards our cultural ambassadors abroad, Amish Tripathi was made the Director of the Nehru Centre in London. He is a best-selling author in India but his contemporizing of Indian myth is too ludicrous (“The rotor-blades of Ravana’s Pushpaka Vimana could be heard in the distance.”) to be culturally impressive. An ambassador must necessarily speak the language of the court he is appearing at, not only of those he is representing. Since Hinduism is crucial to the cultural establishment today a question that can be asked at this juncture is whether Hindu-centric India can enter into a dialogue with other cultures to make itself heard.

The biggest cultural influences in world came from the Abrahamic religions and they believe in an external God, with the community of believers subject to His mercy. Curiosity about the world and documenting it resulted because it was ‘God’s world’ and understanding it would help one grasp the divine. Hinduism, on the other hand, pursues the notion of God within and the ideal is solitary interiority. When Hindus do puja together, the connection with God is still one on one for each individual. This has led many students of the religion to conclude that inter-religious dialogue is impossible for Hinduism - with religions like Christianity. Hinduism’s emphasis on interiority also resulted in the paucity of credible historical records, which has plagued researchers. In today’s world religious attitudes may not seem so important but they deeply inform mindsets. 

What are required are efforts to bridge the cultural gap between India and the world and the gap is still large despite ‘Indian cultural products’ getting some notice outside. When we celebrate the popularity of yoga, for instance, we fail to notice that yoga is simply physical training outside India, not representing knowledge or a deep philosophical outlook as we believe. It would seem that when Hinduism gained political traction within India for the first time after independence as Hindu nationalism, rather than expand Hinduism’s cultural influence outside, it has retreated into a kind of political interiority in which creating a tumult about one’s own culture and its antecedents to oneself is mistaken for having an impact outside.     

India being of reckoning internationally means that its interface with the rest of the world has become important. But it is not enough if a diplomat like S Jayashankar handles it at the political level instead of a mass leader. Culture means soft power and India needs to represent itself credibly in that arena as well – just as it has tested sportspersons representing it in the Olympics rather than people with the right political credentials. To reiterate what has been said, the cultural apparatus that India uses to approach the world must speak an international language and not only a tongue spoken locally - to say what needs to be said but also what will be heard. The tumult created at IFFI 22 suggests that the international moment for Indian culture is yet to arrive.

April 2022

On culture