‘I am exploring how to use culture to address foreign policy’

Vishakha N. Desai. Photo: R. Ragu   | Photo Credit: R Ragu

Vishakha N. Desai has been at the cusp of culture, current affairs and commerce for a while now, starting from when, as President and CEO of the Asia Society (2004-12), she transformed it into a transnational organisation that strengthened partnerships among Asian countries. Ms. Desai has also been a Senior Advisor in the Guggenheim Foundation and was appointed a member of the National Museum and Library Services Board by U.S. President Barack Obama in 2013. She is today at Columbia University as Special Advisor for Global Affairs, and as Professor, Professional Practice, Faculty of International and Public Affairs. With a degree in art and a passion for fostering cultural understanding, she writes extensively, conceives innovative exhibitions, and facilitates cross-cultural connections across nations. On a visit to India, she spoke to Vidya Venkat and Rajgopal Saikumar about issues ranging from art and education to global politics and foreign policy.


Are members of the Indian-American community excited about the Modi government’s initiatives for NRIs?

I was personally very excited about the big move by the Indian government to make it possible to invest easily, to vote. It is a big step. For a long time, the Indian diaspora in the U.S. was very frustrated. As an Indian-American, however, my feeling is that we are too focussed on commercial benefits. There is more to our relations.

With elections in the U.S. around the corner, how do you see relations evolving?

After a long history of mistrust, India and the U.S. have finally improved relations. The shift happened in 2005, but in the last few years of the Manmohan Singh government, things were in doldrums, and after Hillary Clinton there was a strong feeling among policy watchers that nobody was making the case for India at the White House. It is in that context that you will have to look at Narendra Modi’s visit to the U.S. After the [Devyani] Khobragade affair, things were really low. My sense is that with the next election, whoever wins, it will still take two to tango. There are lots of points of convergence between the two countries. India did not do enough for the relationship to go forward over the last two years of Obama’s presidential term.

Students in Columbia have been looking at the civil society initiatives introduced to improve India’s relations with Pakistan.

The nuclear deal was a clog but it now has the potential to move, which is a very big deal. Trade will continue to move, too. But more importantly, there exists a natural affinity between the two countries. This is because of the values the two countries share — they are a powerful force. Every government recognises that. The democratic dividend, the diaspora, the entrepreneurial spirit — all these make for natural sympathy. Yet the two countries were not in the same camp because of the Cold War, and we have had to rework that. Lots of people were not in favour of inviting President Obama for the Republic Day function. But Prime Minister Modi ensured that it happened.

Your work on India is located at the intersection of art, culture and foreign policy. Tell us a bit about it.

Indian art history is my field of research. Lately, I have begun to look at history, culture and the use of culture as a tool of foreign policy. For example, my class in Columbia has been looking at the several civil society initiatives introduced to improve India’s relations with Pakistan. I have been exploring ideas on how to use culture to address issues of foreign policy. First, there is a need to map efforts and see how they are faring. The other part is to see how they relate to government-to-government efforts, the highs and lows of the relations — for example, civil society efforts after 26/11 and Kargil. Were they helpful in mitigating the charged atmosphere? What we found was that lots of these efforts are ad hoc, not sustained. We are also looking at the media and what they are saying. The truth is we don’t know enough about each other as countries. Pakistan is like our cousin. I have been there about six times and I see tremendous warmth and connection. Yet, how is it that we have the worst iron curtain between us? We need to nurture our cultural connections.

As part of the Indian diaspora in the U.S., what impression do you have about the position of women in India?

My mother, who just passed away at the age of 100, was the founder of one of the earliest organisations working for women in India, the Jyoti Sangh in Ahmedabad. What is complicated in India is that this is the land of Durga as well as Sita. We have powerful women. A lot of banks and multinationals these days are run by women but we also have the extraordinary violence that affects women. It would be a mistake, therefore, if we only talked about the violence. Because the media is more vigilant, there is increased coverage. There is also perhaps some increased violence because of increased aspirations and changing social mores. India is a democracy, and it would be wrong to think we can’t handle the film that was banned.

How do we move away from the rhetoric of victimhood and towards empowerment?

One thing about Hinduism or the Indic tradition is the multiplicity of ideas. There are multiple paths to the divine. No matter how you analyse the Vedas, this is inherent in our tradition. The thing is to see how you don’t fall into that trap [of victimhood], get beyond that, and put things in context.

You attended the Kochi Biennale last month. Tell us your impressions of Indian art today.

In India today, the contemporary art scene is way too much about objectification and possession. There is no strong ecology of art, meaning the ‘system’ of art with strong academics, research and market. You do not have enough people writing and thinking about it. As a result, the level of dialogue is very poor. The market is driving most of the intellectual discussion. It is after 1991 that more people started consuming art and culture as a product in India. Spaces for sharing art such as the Kochi Biennale are extremely important in this sense, as they provide a genuine space and international exposure for local work, and make a real effort to get local communities involved. I am extremely unhappy that arts and culture are taking a back seat in the education sector. We have more kids today doing math and science and competitive exams. But philosophers have spoken of how the two things that really make us human are creativity and consciousness. We need to promote critical thinking and creativity and use it as bedrock for education.

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Printable version | Oct 24, 2021 12:42:04 PM |

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