I Just Called to Say I Love You

June 27, 2009


Reflections on the importance of “soft power” in international relations.


Last night, I was briefly at a concert tribute to Stevie Wonder. The performers with Chennai-ites and one of the organizers was the local US Consulate. The Consul-General reminisced about listening to Wonder’s music as a teenager, and there was a slide-show that looped on special screens that featured Wonder and other prominent US musicians, including the late Michael Jackson. The Consulate had slipped in one photo of Wonder with Barack Obama, and the CG made a point of mentioning that the Obamas’ wedding song was a Wonder composition. A sprinkling of ex-pats (consular officers on evening duty?) sat in a corner of Chennai’s most prestigious performance venue, but the audience was more than 95% Indian.

For one evening, there was no Iraq. No Afghanistan. No Bush. No capitalism. No globalization. No negativity. Indeed, there were barely any nationalities, no cultural translation, no politically correct concessions. Just pleasure in the music and wonder (pun intended) at a marvelous talent!

Those of us with cosmopolitan pretensions understand that when soporific speeches and forest-wasting communiques are forgotten, the taste of a delicious new dish and the haunting refrain of a song are what remain with us. The US therefore invests in setting up American Centre libraries (or whatever they are now called); the British Council system is seriously engaged with education and training. The Alliance Francaise, Goethe and Max Muller Insitutes and Russian Centres promote language learning and partner with local organizations to facilitate cultural interaction. In Asia, many of us are beneficiaries of these institutions in one way or another: library membership, language skills, exposure to global cinema, educational counseling.

India takes its heritage seriously and takes great pride in the variety of its cultural riches. In the 1980s, under the aegis of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, Festivals of India were organized around the world showcasing classical and popular arts from this subcontinent-sized state. Twenty years later, this has been overtaken by a growing interest in and fascination for Indian cinema, fashion and food. The Incredible India campaign has begun to restore interest in India as a tourist destination.

For decades, long before the term ‘peace process’ began to be applied to the India-Pakistan context, a ‘piracy process’ kept South Asians in touch with each other. The first signs of thaw in the 1970s brought cricket teams and musicians across borders still being defined. The full flowering of these exchanges began in the 1990s with cultural collaborations, joint hosting of sports events and the forging of a shared popular culture thanks to digital media. This was accompanied by institutional support for multi-track diplomacy and people-to-people contact. As bad as things get, those of us who have been observing India-Pakistan relations for a long time, find it hard to believe that the climate change eased by these small changes is not irreversible.

The same cannot be said of India’s ties with other South Asian states, where cultural exchange and collaboration have not kept pace with trade or even politics. Shared, far less problematic cultural continuities have yet to be built upon outside the universe of ministerial speeches. Can we see Sri Lankan baila artistes on the Indian charts? Or a grand tribute to Kazi Nazrul Islam traveling through Indian cities beyond Kolkata? Can we see student exchanges across South Asian borders? We can advocate, but can we hope to actually see culture, commerce and contact become the primary medium of interaction through South Asia, as it has in so many ways around the world?

This blogger chooses to believe that this will happen, because she knows that the days when letters were intercepted have been replaced by the ability to send text messages and call across borders—yes, just to say, I love you or “just call my name, and I’ll be there”.

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