Bombay Showcase

‘I’m hungry and thirsty for India’

Keen interest:Alan Gemmell OBE says he is passionate about music.— Photo: B. Jothi Ramalingam  

A cat in Elizabethan ruffs looks down from a poster that declares ‘Shakespeare Lives’. Another with Nick Bottom’s ‘donkey’ head, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream , features ‘Mix the Play’, an initiative by the British Council to engage audiences with the playwright the world knows and Britain celebrates.

Seated between the two is Alan Gemmell OBE, 38, who has recently taken over as Director, British Council India. Gemmell, who grew up in Irvine, Scotland, toured with the National Youth Orchestra, and later graduated in law from the University of Glasgow. Gemmell has worked across the world, and before he was in India, was the Director in Israel. There, he successfully brought together Israeli and Palestinian scientists to collaborate across borders and ran a stem cell research fund. He has worked with the British government on counter-terrorism, the migration system and at the Home office and was awarded an OBE earlier this year.

Gemmell is also that rare diplomat who draws from his artistic hinterland. He created fiveFilms4freedom, the world’s first online LGBT film festival, and performed an adaptation of the Swan Lake on the piano for his spouse, Damien Lee Stirk, a classical ballet dancer. Gemmell talks about the increasing appreciation for contemporary India and Britain, and how he hopes to drive change.

What are your plans?

To find the most important things our countries can do together. As Director, you get to work with the best: Sonya Mazumdar of EarthSync [music production house] spearheads ‘Mix the City’ that will tell the story of contemporary India through musicians; [thespian] Roysten Abel heads ‘Mix the Play’, where a series of Indian actors will take Shakespeare across the country and reinterpret his work; and [former captain of the Indian cricket team] Krishnamachari Srikkanth has helped design English Strokes, an app that uses cricket to teach English across 1,20,000 Internet kiosks in Indian villages.

Will you be focussing on science as well?

We work in three areas: education and science; culture; and the English language. We already support Ph.D. exchanges and offer 500 scholarships this year. I was recently at the University of Kerala. I travelled 500 years in one day; they showed me their palm leaf manuscripts and then their gene sequencing lab. If we can do anything to increase Britain’s collaboration in this kind of social-scientific research and health, we’d be very happy.

How much of British Council’s work is known in Britain?

We are a trusted brand in India. Education is at the heart of what we do, to promote curiosity and reflection on the kind of world we want to live in. Every year, thousands take our English exam, and we help them make important career decisions to study in the U.K. This happens in 100 countries across the world where we have offices. We don’t have that in Britain, so we are never going to be as big as we are overseas. But we are known and understood in Britain, and this is a critical time for us to be engaging internationally, including using culture and education.

Do you hope to extend to more tier-II cities in India?

We have a physical presence in nine cities. Thousands use our libraries and we hope to have a broad range of engagements, such as online libraries in places where we don’t have a presence yet. Our English language teaching programme has trained one million teachers in 14 States over a decade. We offer English language employability tests in partnership with the Kerala government to 3,00,000 people. We are supporting the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, who has asked for a ‘study abroad’ programme for students and faculty.

Tell us about the year of culture...

It’ll mark the culmination of four years of Re-Imagine, which was designed to build new creative connections between India and Britain. We’re looking at cultural exchanges that celebrate, reconnect and inspire.

Do you have other interests?

Music is my great passion. It changed my life. I play the piano on most days. I learnt to play at 13 and later went to a conservatoire. It gave me confidence and connected me to a whole new social network. That’s really what culture can do. Right now, India is my other great passion. I’m hungry and thirsty to find out all about this country.

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Printable version | Jul 27, 2021 3:55:13 AM |

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