India/ 3.4 International cultural co-operation  

3.4.1 Overview of main structures and trends

The period of globalisation, measured in India after 1981 (although more significantly after 1991) sees international exposure to Indian arts practices take place on an unprecedented scale. While some of this happens through State support, mostly it happens independently of the State – with international biennales, film festivals, art fairs etc. typically preferring to develop independent infrastructures, and going to the Indian state only for financial support or administrative assistance.

Politically, this period has also seen several explicitly political initiatives (e.g. the Vishwa Hindu Parishad) establish international strategies, as well as quasi-independent corporate agencies (e.g. the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce, or FICCI) develop its Entertainment Division called FICCI Frames[1] with a focus on industries such as film, electronic media, event management, gaming etc.

On the part of the State, although the pinnacle of State support was in the 1980s, especially following the various festivals of India, India has seen an aggressive promotion of both bilateral and multilateral strategies for the promotion of Indian culture internationally.

There is not too much policy thinking on how such co-operation takes place, and culture typically functions in soft-power arenas to accompany other major bilateral initiatives India may have with other countries. In the era of global socialism at the pinnacle of the USSR and Eastern bloc, cultural exchange with the socialist countries dominated state thinking. Following the fall of the USSR, other priorities have been added including a focus on the Commonwealth, later modified to a further version under the Colombo Plan,[2] India’s Commitment to the Non Aligned Movement, and the ‘Look East Policy’ inaugurated in 1991.

India’s major (though not exclusive) institution for this is the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) under the Ministry of External Affairs. It has worked in the following areas:

Support to cultural wings/friendship societies of Indian diplomatic/cultural missions internationally

The flagship institution here is the Nehru Centre, London, established in 1992. However, India has several other Centres in different countries, with a clear focus to expand away from the metropolitan capitals of the West. A sampling: the Indira Gandhi Cultural Centre (IGCC) of Indian Council for Cultural Relations, inaugurated in Dhaka in March 2010; the Nehru-Wangchuck Cultural Centre inaugurated in Thimphu, Bhutan, in September 2010; the India-Bhutan Foundation (IBF) established in August 2003 with the aim of enhancing people-to-people exchanges in the focus areas, i.e. education, cultural exchanges and environment preservation, the Indo-BiH (Bosnia-Herzogovinia) Friendship Society formally registered in July 2010; and, the Maulana Azad Centre for Indian Culture in Cairo, set up in 1992 to promote cultural co-operation and to implement the Cultural Exchange Programme (CEP) between India and Egypt.

An interesting sidelight here is the state of Belarus, which happens to be the native state of the legendary father-son duo of painters Nikolai and Svetoslav Roerich, around whose name the Indo-Belarus Friendship Society revolves. The Friendship Society apparently consists of many eminent Belarusians, and has a flourishing Hindi language teaching and Bharatanatyam classical dance programme, as well as a dedicated website to teach Hindi online in Gorki, set up with help of the Embassy of India. Many local students are interested in learning Hindi and classical dances of India. ICCR offers some scholarships every year. A Cultural Exchange Programme for the period 2007-09 was signed by the two sides in April 2007. Currently, 150 students from India are studying in various universities and institutions in Belarus mostly in medicine. Belarus is a beneficiary of the Indian Technical and Economic Co-operation (ITEC) programme (see below for more on ITEC) with 45 slots for short-term training courses.

Cultural exchange programmes

While the most visible aspect of cultural exchange festivals have been the legendary festivals of India of the 1980s and 1990s, and the following ‘Incredible India’ cultural campaigns, there have been numerous other similar events showing India to be at the forefront of the global use of soft skills as a form of showing financial and diplomatic muscle.

To take just one, relatively minor example, India signed a Bilateral Agreement-Cultural Exchange Programme with Algeria in October 2003 to strengthen the cultural relations between the countries, under which cultural troupes of both countries exchange their visits. Algeria thereafter sent their cultural troupe ‘Djemawi Africa’ to India during the India-Africa Forum Summit in New Delhi in April 2008, another 32-member ballet troupe in December 2010 and an Algerian classical music group participated in the India-Africa Forum Summit held in Addis Ababa in May 2011. On its side, India sent a 10-member Bharatanatyam classical dance troupe in March 2011, which performed in Skikda and Algiers, and another 14-member Rajasthani dance troupe toured Skikda, Tlemcen, Sidi Bel Abbes and Oran in 2011. India then participated in the ‘Tlemcen Cultural Capital of the Islamic World’ festival with a photographic exhibition on Islamic heritage of India, a second exhibition of Bollywood film shows on Islamic themes and also sent a Sufi Kathak[3] group, a Koran reciter and an Arabic calligrapher.

In Argentina, a major Festival of India was held in 2008, which included Indian classical and folk dance performances, seminars, food and film festivals, a handicrafts exhibition and an ‘Incredible India’ Tourism Promotion. This went on to become an annual event and the fourth such festival was organised from 5-12 December 2011.

In Vienna, a Festival of India was held by the Embassy of India in Vienna in co-operation with the ICCR and the Export Promotion Council for Handicrafts (EPCH) in 2011, included the mandatory cultural performances, food festivals, film weeks, exhibition-cum-sales of handicraft, business-to- business meetings, seminars on Indian dance, Indian music, Indian handicrafts and the role of ‘information technology in Sanskrit-based studies’.

Perhaps the most significant country, other than the usual Western capitals, with which India has forged bilateral links, is China. The broad contours of the India-China cultural co-operation were laid down in the Agreement on Cultural Co-operation signed in May 1988, which provided for an executive Cultural Exchange Programme (CEP) for implementation. The latest CEP signed in December 2010 during the visit of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to India provides for co-operation in a gamut of cultural fields including exchanges of visits of performing artists, officials, writers, archivists and archaeologists, organising cultural festivals, film festivals and exchanges in the field of mass media, youth affairs and sports. Leaders of both sides announced 2011 as the ‘Year of Exchanges’. As the official statement has it, while ‘young China expresses great desire to know Buddhism, Bollywood and Yoga’, young India ‘admires the Chinese economic miracle’. In 2003, then Prime Minister Vajpayee committed to build an Indian-style Buddhist temple in Luoyang, Henan province, later inaugurated by Indian President Pratibha Patil in May 2010. In February 2007, the Xuanzhang memorial hall was built at Nalanda, Bihar[4] and in June 2008, joint stamps were released, one depicting the Mahabodhi temple at Bodhgaya and the other depicting the White Horse temple at Luoyang.

Another key new link is with Indonesia: the focal points being the two Indian Cultural Centres established in Jakarta and Bali. These Cultural Centres organised a Festival of India in 2009. The Cultural Exchange Programme (CEP) for the period 2011-2014 was signed in January 2011 during the visit of the Indonesian President to India. A key component of this link is to explore shared Hindu traditions, as evidenced in the collaborative dance drama ‘SriKandi’ staged in 2011 with Javanese dance group of Didik Nini Thowok of Yogyakarta, 3 Kathak dancers and 2 Chhau dancers from India.

Support of student as well as advanced training scholarships to and from India

Apart from the ICCR’s fellowships, India also offers various kinds of student and advanced training fellowships for students and professionals. Key among them is the Indian Technical and Economic Co-operation (ITEC) programme, originally launched in 1964 but elevated to become, as the official description says, ‘the flagship programme of the Indian Government’s technical co-operation effort, not only because of its wide geographical coverage but also for innovative forms of technical co-operation’. ITEC has a more geographically focused counterpart, the SCAAP (Special Commonwealth Assistance for Africa Programme). Collectively, the two cover 158 countries in Asia & the Pacific, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean and East and Central Europe. The programme includes

(i) Training (civilian and defense) in India of nominees from ITEC partner countries;

(ii) Projects and project related activities such as feasibility studies and consultancy services;

(iii) Deputation of Indian experts abroad;

(iv) Study tours;

(v) Gifting/Donation of equipment; and

(vi) Aid for Disaster Relief.[5]

The ICCR itself has support under several categories, e.g. the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Co-operation (IOR-ARC) Scholarship scheme.

A sampling of support: in Afghanistan, recently made controversial for India’s presence in supporting development works, India provides 675 long-term university scholarships annually sponsored by ICCR for undergraduate and postgraduate studies for Afghan students in India, and another 675 short-term ITEC training scholarships for Afghan public servants to come to Indian technical and professional institutions annually.

Specialised training and handholding support to other countries

Capacity building programmes are also underway in the fields of media and information, research and education and tourism, among others. To continue with Afghanistan, India has assisted in the expansion of Afghan National Television network by providing an uplink from Kabul and downlinks in all 34 provincial capitals for promoting greater connectivity. Another example is the bilateral financial assistance extended to Cambodia through grants and Lines of Credit. Since December 2003, a team of experts from the Archaeological Survey of India have been working for the restoration of Ta Prohm Temple in Siem Reap with funds provided under the ITEC programme.

Export of traditional skills

A major growth area is Ayurveda, a system of traditional medicine in India, and, generally, traditional healing. Apart from the link to medical tourism, the focus has been on Ayurveda studies. To take one example, Argentina has opened several Ayurvedic Spas and massage centres, and the University of Buenos Aires runs postgraduate courses in collaboration with Gujarat Ayurveda University.

University chairs in Indian/traditional Indian/Sanskrit/South Asian Studies

This kind of support has seen major growth in recent years. To take a small sampling, there is a Chair in South Asia Studies at the University of Vienna. It is claimed that Sanskrit started being taught there from 1845, and in 1955 a Chair for Sanskrit studies was established, later converted into a Chair for Indology and still later became a separate Institute for South Asian, Tibetan and Buddhist Studies. In 2011, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed to establish an ICCR Short-term Chair of Contemporary Indian Studies at Yerevan State University, Armenia. An MoU has been signed to set up a Chair for Buddhist & Sanskrit Studies at Preah Sihanouk Raja Buddhist University, Cambodia, in 2010. In China, a Centre for India Studies was set up in Peking University in 2003. Chairs of Indian studies have also been established in Shenzhen University, Jinan University and Fudan University.


Also, in order to promote India studies, three ICCR Rotating Chairs were set up in 2010 at the University of Jena, University of Freiburg and Heidelberg University (all in Germany), and two more were set up in 2010-11 at Free University, Berlin and Leibniz University, Hannover. A MoU for an Ayurveda Studies Chair was signed between Central Council for Research in Ayurveda and Siddha (CCRAS) and the European University Viadrina, Frankfurt (Oder), Germany on July 14, 2010. A MoU was signed between ICCR and the University Gadjah Mada, Yogyakarta, Indonesia in February 2011 to set up a Rotational Chair on Indian studies in the Faculty of Cultural Sciences of the University.

[2] In January 1950, at the Commonwealth Conference of Foreign Ministers, a plan was established to provide a framework within which international cooperation efforts could be promoted to raise the standards of people in the region. Originally conceived as lasting for a period of six years, the Colombo Plan was extended several times until 1980, when it was extended indefinitely. Initially called the Colombo Plan for Cooperative Economic Development in South and Southeast Asia, it later grew from a group of seven nations—Australia, Britain, Canada, Ceylon, India, New Zealand and Pakistan—into an international organisation of 26, including non-Commonwealth countries. When it adopted a new constitution in 1977, its name was changed to "The Colombo Plan for Cooperative Economic and Social Development in Asia and the Pacific" to reflect the expanded composition of its enhanced membership and the scope of its activities.

[3] A form of Indian classical dance

[4] An ancient centre of higher learning from the fifth century AD to 1197 AD


Chapter published: 22-04-2014