The great cultural void
Eminent Bengali poet and author Nabaneeta Dev Sen was excitedly asking about two Chinese poets she had met in 1988 in Kolkata. “I couldn’t even find them on google,” the 74-year-old writer said while interacting with journalists and a group of young and elderly Chinese who had eagerly turned up at the Indian embassy in Beijing to hear her recite her poetry in Bengali – a language they, the Chinese standing around her that evening last week, had learned and loved.
To Sen, not able to locate the women poets Lu Ping and Yang Liuhong was symptom of the lack of living, thriving cultural ties between China and India, two neighbours distanced by war, politics and festering border disputes.
Cultural exchanges between the two countries have been sporadic; for many Chinese, Bollywood still is the cultural window to India. For Indians? Difficult to say except the fact that everyone in Indian cities seem to know, or at least assume, that the nearest market will have cheap goods made in China.
But even Bollywood’s presence in Chinese homes is restricted to few B-grade, obscure Hindi movies like, Chup Chup Ke, which are dubbed in Chinese and repeatedly shown on a CCTV movie channel.
“Three Idiots’ was a rare Hindi movie to have been allowed a big screen release in China last year and is considered a big hit. (Fortunately, the disastrous “From Chandni Chowk to China, some scenes of which were shot on the Great Wall, didn’t get a big screen release here.)
A recent positive exposition of contemporary Indian art was the two-month long exhibition called “Indian Highway”. It attracted large crowds and received positive reviews in some of Beijing’s local city magazines published in English.
But even the Indian artists who were here for the inauguration said they hardly know anything about contemporary art here.
For all the time he spends online, dissident artist, Ai Weiwei, told me last week that he also wasn’t aware of what was happening in art and culture across the border.
Last year, the embassy helped organise an Indian film festival which showed a bunch of interesting documentaries and movies like director Q’s controversial, ‘Gandu’. But the festival, titled, “You Don’t Belong” after a documentary directed by Spandan Banerjee, probably didn’t attract as much attention as expected.
“Long ago there was a lot of ‘Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai’ but it all stopped with the war in 1962,” said Sen, adding the lack of interaction between artists of the two countries is frustrating.
Rabindranath Tagore, of course, has been celebrated in China in recent times, especially during the 150th year of his birth anniversary. He remains among the most widely translated author in China. Fifty of his popular songs were translated for the first time into Mandarin recently along with music notes closely resembling the original. A Chinese university also staged his popular drama ‘Chitrangada’ recently.
Indian yoga is also popular and next week a book on Indian yoga tradition will be published in Mandarin Chinese.
But it’s not Tagore and the stray Hindi movie alone which could bridge the information gap. Artists’ initiatives alone cannot fill the void either as at least in China’s case, nothing can move without government approval.
So, it’s difficult to say what can bring about a renaissance in India-China cultural relations. For one, cultural exchanges and exhibitions should continue with both governments actively encouraging them.
Language is a barrier but as more Chinese learn English, and as Mandarin Chinese spreads in India, it could probably kindle interest in both sides.
Maybe the resolution of long-standing issues could also bring down the barriers of suspicion. But then that’s another long winding story with no end in sight.