Interview As the Indian Council for Cultural Relations celebrates its 60th year, its Director General Suresh Kumar Goel looks at the institution's accomplishments. ANJANA RAJAN
T he Indian Council for Cultural Relations has been the cultural face of India abroad ever since its inception six decades ago. Though often remembered only as an institution that flies artistes across the world, showing India's arts abroad and bringing foreign artistes to Indian audiences, its role has always been broader, both when it was conceptualised by India's scholar and nation builder, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, and today. Still, performing arts remain a strong part of its image, and the ICCR can be credited with introducing the cultural face of India to ordinary folks across the world. Yet it has more than once been in the eye of a storm, whether it is over empanelment of artistes or selecting performers for festivals of India abroad. Here ICCR's Director General Suresh Kumar Goel takes a few questions on the role of this premier cultural institution, an autonomous body under the Indian Government's Ministry of External Affairs, as it celebrates its 60th year and the 122nd birth anniversary of its founder Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. Excerpts from the interview:
India has changed greatly since 1950. Does ICCR need to reinvent itself accordingly?
I would not use the word reinvention. Maulana Azad's vision was so futuristic, he saw the need for building cultural relations. We had dance groups, music groups, etc., but he was a scholar, so he had not ruled out academic interventions. So it is an expansion of ICCR's mandate. For one, we have gone beyond traditional cultural forms. For example, we have sent jazz groups. We will be doing a jazz festival. And the South African Band Festival will be coming up at Purana Quila. Many of the dance groups we send are not just solo dancers, but choreographic groups — groups that project what India is all about (today). Number two, we are focusing more on academic dialogue between people and intellectuals. We have about 70 chairs in universities abroad. We send professors to fill these chairs, and this number is going to go up to 100. We do conferences all over the world on Buddhism, Sufism, Indian history and philosophy, send people on lecture tours. So we are doing much more of this. The vision was already there. Many of today's leaders studied in India, for example, the Foreign Minister of Iran, the President of Malawi…We gave about 200 scholarships a year in the '60s. Now this number is about 3000. This includes areas like IT, languages, history, management, engineering and performing arts.
Given the huge spectrum of Indian performing arts, it is difficult to evaluate standards empirically. What systems are in place to minimise the possibility of error/personal preferences, etc., interfering in the selection process?
Empanelment of artistes in different categories of performing arts such as Hindustani music, Carnatic music, Bharatanatyam, Odissi, etc. is done by Empanelment Committee of eminent artistes in that particular area. All applications from interested candidates are submitted to this committee who take the decision on the basis of the information given by the candidate. The information comprises recordings of his/her performances which is also viewed by the committee. ICCR serves only as Secretariat in the process and does not interfere in the decision making under any circumstances. Obviously, the committee comprises at least three or four experts minimising any errors because of personal preferences.
Classical artistes performing abroad sometimes find posters and backdrops featuring Bollywood stars, usually an unwelcome situation. Since non-traditional performers like Jazz and Bollywood artistes are also sent, should ICCR ensure a distinction between the different forms? Or do you think Indian artistes should be more tolerant, considering Indian culture is vast and confusing for outsiders?
The backdrops for performances along with technical requirements are chosen by the artistes themselves. ICCR does not interfere in the process. As you said yourself the Indian culture is vast and is capable of absorbing many different trends. I do not believe it confuses the outsiders who in fact admire our cultural openness, tolerance and capacity to accept different ideas and thoughts without compromising on the basic texture of our own thoughts. Popular entertainment which is based on cinema from different parts of India, is an acceptable form of Indian culture now. An artist is free to choose his own medium of expression either purely traditional or combining several forms. ICCR would give opening to those artistes who have been empanelled by the committee of eminent experts.