Suresh Goel, former Director General of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, goes over the hits and misses of his tenure

Looking back at his tenure, Suresh K. Goel, former Director General of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations — who relinquished office on July 31 — says he is happy to be known as someone who made a difference to the ICCR and hopes his “future direction will remain in the area of promoting such collaborations,” but doesn’t claim it was a path of roses either. Bureaucrats are known to blame the usual conditions — shortage of cash and people — to defend their actions, or, more commonly, their inactions. This is especially the case in the cash-strapped culture sector. But Goel proved to be one who did not stick to the script on these matters. Even as he remained a true diplomat, he also helped things move and change at ICCR at a time when the economic crisis was uppermost in the public mind.

“There are always areas where one is full of a sense of un-fulfilment,” he concedes. “For example, our delivery on various projects remains hesitant mostly because of the resources available and the fact that the new approaches require a new thinking on part of the people who implement the vision of the President or the DG of ICCR. It is not always easy to change the traditional ways of thinking, even if they tend to impede or slow down the agenda. I have tried to introduce a training programme to develop a cadre of cultural administrators but have not succeeded so far.”

Now that he is free from government service, would he try to further this idea through some other route in the private or public/private sector? He submits, “It requires considerable resources and organisations who would directly benefit from it. I need to think how I can bring it to fruition.”

Analysing his last three years in office, he notes it has been a period marked by a departure from the traditional work of ICCR and consequently, an image change. “Today ICCR is considered not just as a promoter of Indian arts or culture abroad, but as an organisation which primarily works in the area of developing a cultural dialogue with other societies. The departure from a performing organisation to a seriously thinking organisation is extremely satisfying for me personally,” he says.

“On the whole, I feel that ICCR as an organisation promoting intellectual and academic interactions in civilisational areas is on the right path and we could do more of the same.”

The last three years have seen more panel discussions, seminars and workshops on “highly inspiring and important subjects” than before, enumerates Goel. “Many of these were in collaboration with other thinkers and quite a few were the initiative of ICCR. However, ICCR has become the first stop for an artiste or a scholar when they want to do projects promoting cultural interaction or dialogue.”

Among the last events while Goel was at the helm was the seminar “Roots, Identity and Modernity” coordinated by Aruna Vasudev. The subject of the conference was important, he points out, “because our identities which derive from our basic roots through the route of modernity are an important player in the cultural conversation. For ICCR, dialogue of civilisations is the most fitting response to the conflict of civilisations, and adjustment to each other is a counter balance to confrontation between different identities.”

As for adjustment, the former DG’s views on soft and hard power are convincingly spelled out: “Both of them, equally valid, are means available to a nation to achieve their national interests. The only difference being that hard power requires much more State intervention while soft power is more oriented towards civil societies.”

This makes sense. But how can the idea be constructively applied to relations between India and its neighbours, for example Pakistan? Both countries have done a pretty fabulous job of exercising soft power on each other, in the sense that ordinary citizens of both countries realise they have so much in common with each other and everyone feels moved at our shared culture. But that doesn’t take us forward as nations that will cooperate with each other.

“Cultural diplomacy requires an effort to accommodate each other,” admits Goel and hints at an MOU in the area of culture but prefers caution to trumpeting anything prematurely. “What can be said with some confidence is that the people to people interaction in a range of areas has already started which is making an impact on the public opinion.”

Besides supporting artistes, the ICCR also has research schemes aimed at the publication of new work. On the health of these schemes, he states, “Our research fellowships are highly in demand and are contributing high value research on historical, civilisational and cultural relations between India and other countries. All of them have produced significant works and research papers.”

He feels ICCR can truly claim today to have become the organisation envisioned by its founder Maulana Azad and by India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, “by truly supporting the cultural conversations between different societies.”

Cultural conversations are inspiring, yet incidents such as the reported abuse and manhandling of Italian-born Odissi and Chhau dancer Ileana Citaristi show that this dialogue has not trickled down to the level of the common man. How can a publicly funded body like the ICCR help in this situation?

Describing the event as “indeed regrettable”, he points out, “This intolerance for others and greed for dakshina is not part of Indian ethos. Incidents such as this can only be countered by an on-going spread of our civilisational ethos of inclusivity. ICCR does that by including these artistes for Indian performances without making any distinction on the basis of their nationality. It must be realised however that a solitary incident cannot generalise the truth. For every incident of such intolerance, there are many where the Indian common man has shown his tolerance and accommodation for others.”

Another area of success he describes is ICCR “changing its direction from externalising India’s cultural traditions to equal opportunity for foreign art forms to come to India and establish a dialogue between the two.” Here, he proudly names the International Jazz Festival started in 2011 at New Delhi’s Nehru Park, which “not only introduced the concept of Jazz in public places, it also promoted a better interaction between the Indian and the international Jazz groups on the same platform.”

He recalls, “I had said at that time that an effective cultural dialogue cannot insist on just my language but must incorporate the language of the other side too. This is what is reflected in the collaborative programmes of ICCR.”

In the past, ICCR has had DGs who are also artistes, but Suresh Goel has endeared himself to observers by his mere love of the job. That, in an era of self-serving cynicism, has been a breath of fresh air.