India Australia Cultural Relations Are at an All Time High: Ramanand Garge, SVCC Director Sydney

The National Gallery of Australia recently announced that it will return 14 works of art from its Asian art collection to the Indian Government. Among the works being returned include works from the Chola dynasty (9th-13th centuries), an arch for a Jain shrine, from the  Mount Abu region, Rajasthan, the divine couple Lakshmi and Vishnu [Lakshmi Narayana], 10th-11th century,  Goddess Durga slaying the buffalo demon [Durga Mahisasuramardini], 12th13th century, a letter of invitation to Jain monks; picture scroll c. 1835 and more  

National Gallery of Australia Director Nick Mitzevich says in a press release: “This is the right thing to do, it's culturally responsible and the result of collaboration between Australia and India. We are grateful to the Indian Government for their support and are pleased we can now return these culturally significant objects.” (https://nga.gov.au/aboutus/press/pdf/mr_australiareturnsworksofarttoindia.pdf)

In the light of this development, CSP spoke to Shri Ramanand Garge, Director Swami Vivekananda Cultural Center, Sydney on the changing nature of Indo-Australian relations.  He is an avid photographer and has shared some of his photographs taken in Australia and India with us.

How are the cultural relations between India and Australia evolving since you  joined the mission, especially in today’s time, when there is great synergy observed at the summit level? 

India Australia relations are very warm and relations are at an all time high especially at the summit level when both the Prime Ministers are engaging at different forums, multi-laterally and bi-laterally. The warmth is palpable through different informal gestures. Last year, prior to the first virtual summit between India and Australia, the honorable Prime Minister of Australia Scott Morrison had prepared samosas and shared those details through his social media platform and he is frequently engaging with Indian diaspora. His recent visit to a temple in Melbourne also stands testimony to the warmth of the interactions with the Indian diaspora here in Australia as well. 

When it comes to the cultural exchange, I am pleased to inform you that the National Gallery of Australia has decided to repatriate 14 of its artefacts to India. This is a wonderful gesture and this is one of the largest number of items any country has returned to India. The centuries old artefacts from various time periods, representative of the art of different states will be returned to India. The National Art Gallery is a federal entity in Australia and it is the government's initiative as a gesture towards India. 

Prior to that, in 2014, the then Prime Minister of Australia told me about the return of two artefacts - one is a Lord Nataraja icon along with a 1,000-year Ardhanariswara was returned to Shri Narendra Modi ji, the Prime Minister of India, during their summit interaction. So, this is unique engagement between the countries, as compared to other cultural profiles.

The relationship is very warm at the people to people level as well. The standard profile is Curry, Cricket and Citizens, and these are the defining features of India Australia dosti and they are very strong. Be it cultural festivals, food or movies or even for that matter sports engagements are getting enhanced on a daily basis. 

The Indian diaspora has carved out a special place in each and every country it has settled in and has a very strong role in dissemination of soft power. We would love to know your experience of the Indian Diaspora in Australia and its significance in growing bilateral relations between India and Australia.

The Indian diaspora has a large global presence and are known for their constructive character in whichever society they have assimilated across the world and same is the case in Australia where they have a large presence. This has been a very great source of strength for the Indian consulate and all the missions across Australia. They hail from different states of India and when it comes to the interaction with the Indian consulate and to any cause pertaining to India,, they are very much united. Their strength lies in the fact that they work together culturally, and are very vibrant.

I am pleased to inform you that as a mark of respect towards the Indian diaspora, the iconic Sydney Opera House is lit in crimson red on the occasion of Diwali every year. It is a great gesture by the Government of New South Wales and Australia towards the diaspora. Besides this, Indian languages also have a great presence in the academic profile of Australia. Sanskrit and Hindi are taught till the High School level in the main curriculum and along with the 16  Indian languages taught at different community language programs supported by the Government of Australia and the New South Wales government at the state level. That shows the commitment and support by the respective state government as well because when it comes to implementation, it is not just a commitment, it is also backed by  financial support. 

When it comes to the other cultural profile, Indian culinarians are very much popular, and Indian restaurants a huge cultural landmark presence on the horizon of Australia.  

What are the potential areas of cooperation between India and Australia in the field of sports.  

 Australia is a sports loving country and even the present medal tally of Australia in the Olympics stands testimony to that. When it comes to the engagement on sports platforms between our two countries, there is a huge amount of interaction happening with cricket and sports universities in India are also engaging at various levels. These are routine in India Australia bi-lateral engagements in the sports field. 

The recent finals of MasterChef Australia featured two persons of Indian origin, with one winning the competition. How has Indian cuisine been received in Australia the same as it is in the UK, where it has been absorbed and modified into the local culture. Or are there restaurants serving authentic Indian cuisine?  

I am happy to share with you that the Indian cuisine is very much liked by the Australians notwithstanding its spice level. Vegetarian, non-vegetarian all sorts of culinary dishes are prepared. When it comes to awareness about Indian cuisine,  outreach programmes like MasterChef Australia have been front runners creating awareness of different dishes. Earlier you talked about another part of the world, where there is a standard format like Chicken Tikka Masala, where only certain dishes are popular like Idli or Tandoori. When it comes to the culinary profile of India, people who are well versed with local Australian cuisine are also well versed with certain culinary dishes of states like Maharashtra or Jharkhand or certain North Eastern states as well and they are well liked. Certainly when it comes to the preparation part, there may be a difference in the preparation in India and here, but when it comes to the spirit, I feel it is all the same. 

(Pics by Ramanand Garge: Pengong So post of India, UT of Ladakh, Kaola, Australian ship and fish)

Many Australians are interested in Indian textiles especially in the Kutch and Rajasthan belt and they have also come and worked with weavers in this region. Is there any initiative to bring these ties closer in textiles or is it only individuals who are coming and learning?

When it comes to textiles, Indian textiles are also very much liked here especially cotton and silk. These are the two prominent textiles which are popular here, not only because of the texture part but also because of the making part of it as well as the vibrancy, the colors which we have in India are very much liked here. I am happy to share with you that the Powerhouse Museum (which alongside Sydney Observatory and the Museums Discovery Center, is part of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS) here in Parramatta has many Indian ethnic dresses of different states and they are showcasing it in their profile. The related trade and  commercial aspects of textiles are on a  growing track. 

The Education sector is one of the big attractions for a lot of Indians. Lot of Indians travel to Australia to study. Is there a similar interest in Australians to spend their gap year here or to spend time in between their courses traveling in India.  

This is on the rise now. Australia is a popular destination for Indian outgoing students especially in Masters and Research areas. Australian students are willing to engage with Indian institutions of eminence. We have received a warm response to the recent fellowships declared by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations for art and culture. Be it the Pandit Bhimsen Joshi fellowship or the other fellowships  declared by ICCR, people are willing to learn Indian languages, Indian art forms.

Last year we had a very unique interaction between an Indian and an Australian artist where they came together and created a wonderful composition in Raag Desh. See link: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=5_h2XUW91IA

Many Australian artists playing Western instruments have spent a good amount of time in India and learnt Indian classical instruments like Tabla, flute, even for that matter, violin - both in Carnatic and Hindustani style. 

Similar interactions have also happened this year as this is a very special occasion. We are celebrating our 75th Independence Day this year as Amrit Mahotsav - a year long festival is about to begin in a couple of weeks. Sydney based Carnatic artists - both of Indian and Australian heritage have come together and are sharing their expertise and creating another new composition to celebrate this special occasion. Although we are in lockdown in Sydney, they are very much active in their respective studios and they are working and sharing and collaborating on these fronts.

What is the status of Ayurveda in terms of practice? Is there license or considered as alternative or integrative medicine or considered as mainstream medical practice?

Collaborative engagements in this direction are being decided. Apart from this, Ayurveda too is very  much popular here. An Ayush Chair is  likely to be established soon this year  at the National Institute of Complementary Medicine in Western Sydney University in collaboration with the All India Institute of Ayurveda, New Delhi and  they have signed a MoU of research collaboration with each other. Once the chair is established, we are optimistic about more engagement in the fields of Yoga and Ayurveda here. 

While Ayurveda will be at the beginning level, when it comes to Yoga, it is already popular here. Australia being a sport loving country, yoga is a part of their fitness regime. This is the case with many Australians.

On the occasion of International Day of Yoga we had arranged various competitions related to Yoga postures. It was tough for the judges and it was very nice to see people of Australian descent participating in the yoga activities here in large numbers across various cities.

Can you talk about some of the initiatives that you have done at the center which have had an impact on diplomacy and soft power.

The center here is relatively new and we are the youngest cultural center established in 2015 during the Prime Minister's visit to Australia. It was declared in November 2014 and became functional mid 2015 onwards. I am the first Director of the Cultural center and shouldering the responsibilities of at least making our presence felt on the cultural horizon of Australia and simultaneously also thinking about the comprehensive development of the Cultural Center including basic infrastructure in the form of state of art audio visual facilities. The state of the art acoustics stage we have here has a comfortable seating arrangement of a minimum of 200 people.

When it comes to the engagement part, in the consulate, we call it Team India. All wings are lending a hand. When it comes to the cultural promotion part, all wings of the consulate take a very keen initiative under the leadership of the honourable Consul General here and promote Indian culture not only with the Indian diaspora but also go out of their way to present it in different formats - be it trade promotion or any institutional engagements. 

I have been involved in the language development - Sanskrit and Hindi, mentioned earlier as well as the establishment of the Ayush Chair, cultural engagement in the form of Sur Sagar in which we had a joint venture between Indian and Australia artists which was liked by many. As it is the birth centenary of Bharat Ratna Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, we are starting a series of engagements - Legends of Indian Classical Music. We will be interacting with music enthusiasts to celebrate the contribution of Pandit Bhimsen Joshi is unparalleled in India in classical music. This year long series will be called Arghya. We would like to share the experiences of various artists of Indian descent who have successfully contributed to our music and are icons of Indian classical music on a global platform. We will showcase their experiences with Pandit Bhimsen ji along with certain features of Indian classical music. Pandit Jayateerth Mevundi who is also from the same Kirana Gharana of Pt Bhimsen Joshi will inaugurate the series. 

On the culinary front, we already hosted a Taste of India where legendary chefs of India prepared Indian dishes and shared their recipe videos in our programmes. It was one of our key activities during pandemic, and we managed to interact and engage with Australian chefs as well.  Well known Australian chef Maggie Beer, popular in India and Australia, prepared some Indian dishes for our programme. Various chefs are participating in our Aahar series which we held on the International Day of Yoga 2020 and 2021 as diet is a large part of Yoga.  When it comes to cultural promotion, irrespective of which individual assumes office, when it comes to Team India we have always worked together.

In times of Covid, digital diplomacy has come to have a very important role in communication more than face to face engagements. What are the areas in which it has been used in Indian diplomacy?

In the past year right until this summit, digital diplomacy played a crucial role. The first virtual summit was held between India and Australia and various countries followed after that. It was the pinnacle of digital diplomacy. When it comes to our engagements at the cultural center, on special days like World Cultural Diversity Day,  and India being one of the most culturally diverse countries, we managed to engage with people from various Indian states. They came together and shared their ideas in their native languages. We shared it on social media.

Similarly, different dancers came together on World Dance Day and shared their expertise through different compositions. Artists also showed India’s gratitude on Gandhi Jayanthi or National Unity Day to legendary icons of India.   They have paid their gratitude through instrumental music, and classical dances or folk dances. Folk dances are extremely popular because of their vibrancy which represents the warmth and creativity of the different zones of India. The Swami Vivekananda Center in Sydney has been successful in generating quality content for the audiences who are not only interested in visiting SVCC but also very enthusiastic towards Indian culture. They can get great insights about Indian culture on our social media platforms.

(Cover Pic: Diwali Dress up of Sydney Opera House by Shri Ramanand Garge)