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The director of Sampad, an acclaimed arts organisation in the UK, elaborates on the importance of promoting soft power in the UK-India Relationship.
Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel Laureate poet, philosopher and polymath once said when commenting on the Indian diaspora ' To study a banyan tree, you not only must know its main stem in its own soil, but also must trace the growth of its greatness in the further soil, for then you can know the true nature of its vitality'.
My organisation SAMPAD South Asian Arts and Heritage iterates the 'treasure' of cultural wealth we promote from the Indian sub-continent. The statement above underpins the philosophy of SAMPAD going to the very heart of what we do, and that is believing with a quiet passion that the future must lie in creative connections and crossovers.
The long-established cultural connections between India and the UK with historical and political past through to present times finds contemporary expression through a variety of channels. The 2017 UK-India year of culture, 'Re-imagine India', endorsed this partnership with heavy weight government support from both countries. This was one of the most significant development in present socio-political scenario with strong commitment articulated by the Prime Ministers of both countries followed by important portfolio holders. They spoke of heritage and historical links between the two countries, to inform the creation of a shared vision of cultural ties for a long-term future.
As a direct impact of Re-Imagine India initiative relationships were re-ignited, new partnerships were stimulated and doors opened for a new generation of artists and imagination to find expression. Majority of established British organisations and number of regional groups joined hands with their peers in India to share, create, inspire, interrogate and inform cultural content that would reach vast audiences in both countries. The work contained new narratives of 21st century matters spurred by encounters of the millennial creatives, issues and dialogue.
Certainly, this was building on the sterling work that had developed over the past decades with innumerable artists and organisations connecting Indian arts and culture in the most innovative ways with British communities across the UK, inspiring creativity, informing practice and broadening horizons. The Indian diaspora with a strong professional presence across the regions of the UK celebrate every religious and social occasion with sincere fervour. As such, Diwali, Vaisakhi and Eid are recognised dates in schools and given special celebratory status in cities like Birmingham.
The socio-political narrative in the UK recognise that access to arts, culture is vital to maintain a sense of identity, and it clearly improves people's quality of life. Culture, is often understood through the perspectives of inherited social, religious and lived experience and the challenges of unspoken rules and prejudice influenced through assumptions about 'the other'. National and regional agencies in the UK are committed to the development and promotion of culturally diverse contemporary arts, heritage and expression to achieve social cohesion, equity, partnership, respect and human rights.
Working towards this more integrated arts landscape is not without its challenges. It demands tolerance and enhanced intercultural competencies. Within this context of current super-diverse and multidimensional social structures, the voice of the artist is a powerful provocateur for change whether they are 'India born', 'British Indian' or 'India trained'. Sharing a cultural connect they intelligently navigate these complexities and even if the imperatives that influence are distinct, there is an inter-relation in the practice of arts in India and the UK, which enrich and deepen the cultural offer.
The most significant unlocking within the arts have come with the millennials breaking down the divide between 'classical' and 'popular', 'traditional' and 'modern'. A dancer will be comfortable and confident to practice Bharatanatyam in the morning, Contemporary class in the afternoon and be part of Bollywood company performance in the evening.
Multilingual and talented young artists are confidently navigating between Indian and western cultural forms often creating an aesthetic that combine seamlessly to produce a unified British Indian identity. However, it is important to recognise that the traditional arts are alive and well and provide a strong foundation that give an Indian identity to new developments.
Indian music and dance classes have grown exponentially across the country, the Imperial Society for Training in Dance provide accreditation to hundreds of Indian dancers annually, the BBC young Dancer bi-annually recognise Bharatanatyam and Kathak talent within the competition and a new generation of extremely talented, intelligent and exciting artists are programmed in prestigious venues and festivals across the UK.
Interestingly some of these British artists of Indian origin represent the UK culture internationally - and often through the aegis of the British Council. Entrepreneurial Indians are entering the business of producing and presenting aspects of Indian culture of their choice and determining what gets distributed and thereby beginning to shape wider society's understanding of what it means to be 'Indian'.
Outside the subsidised sector, and in keeping with the socio-economic drift, visiting Indian artists are often organised by Indian impresarios who depend on ticket sales within the Indian community. Offerings include recitals by popular Indian musicians, language theatre and blockbuster show featuring Indian film stars.
At SAMPAD, over the past 29 years we have championed the richness and variety of India's cultural offer and moved it from perceptions of being 'exotic' to one of social, cultural and educational relevance. We believe that the future needs to be shaped by generations who are coming up now. They will learn from the past to construct the future. We are hothousing gifted and talented artists, creating opportunities for research with arts and digital development and investing in empowering women and girls to be future leaders.
Our policy priorities enable us to tap into the opportunities that is rapidly expanding the creativity, distribution and marketplace for artists across the world. We are excited with emerging cultural trends in India and the UK and will continue to reinforce existing ties and encourage new encounters that fire up curiosity of the next generation to create and achieve great things together.
The vitality of 'soft cultural power' in the India - UK relationship can only be strengthened by commitment from both governments to acknowledge the potential of dynamic creative intelligence within the arts and cultural sectors. At a time when India and the UK are keen to engage at a range of strategic partnerships through trade and commerce, education, environment, science and politics it is important to recognise the genuine value-added equation through cultural enterprises.
They enable us to interpret, connect, complement and harmonize the intention and impact of other strategic alliances at a people-to-people level. That will be a true celebration of partnership between the world's oldest democracy and the largest democracy.
Piali Ray OBE is the Director of Sampad, an arts organisation in Birmingham, which plays an instrumental role in promoting and encouraging British Asian arts and artist.