Soft power is the ability of nations to shape the preferences and influence the behaviour of other nations through appeal and attraction as opposed to coercion. It represents one of the frameworks through which India can understand and influence its role in the international order. In this backdrop, India Foundation’s Center for Soft Power hosted the first international Conference on Soft Power that aimed to engage in discussions on the need for an India-centric discourse on soft power, how to maximise and deploy soft power assets, particularly in the view of furthering national, regional and global goals, and India’s rise as a soft power nation. The Conference was organised over three days on 17-19 December, 2018 in New Delhi and saw the participation of 63 speakers from 16 countries and over 250 delegates, deliberate on various themes including public diplomacy, yoga, cinema, digital storytelling, Ayurveda, cuisine, performing arts, art craft and design, education, tourism, spirituality, language and literature, and museums and soft power. The conference was inaugurated by the Hon’ble Vice President of India, Shri Venkaiah Naidu. The conference was hosted in collaboration with Nehru Memorial Museum and Library and the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), with the Center for Public Diplomacy of the University of Southern California and Nalanda University as the lead academic partners.
DAY I – 17th DECEMBER, 2018
Prior to the inaugural session, a workshop was held for pre-registered participants, that looked at digital storytelling as a means of soft power. The interactive workshop was conducted by Ms. Stacy Ingber, Assistant Director for Programming and Events, USC Centre on Public Diplomacy and Ms. Amara Aguilar, Associate Professor, USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
The workshop began with Ms. Aguilar giving an account of how devices such as mobile phones have become the primary source of data storage, media consumption and communication across the world. She pointed out that as technology improves, people are attempting to find new and alternative ways of interacting with their audiences in a more engaging manner. She outlined the specifics of different target audiences and how the data they receive differs based on factors such as age, likes and dislikes, and how this in turn is used by different social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, with each one attempting to cater to a specific type of content and a specific audience.
She stressed on the need to think of content circulation and virality in a visual manner. The chance of data being spread across a large number of people is increased significantly when accompanied with visuals. Therefore, it is important that all entities, whether countries or individuals, understand the power of visuals when it comes to sharing a message or data online. In terms of soft power, this is important because it can affect the way a country tells its story to a larger audience. Furthermore, she pointed out the importance of understanding the platform on which the data is being shared, and how that affects the reach of that data – going on to discuss the demographics, purposes and downsides of platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Pinterest, etc. Finally, the participants were shown some of the tools available for them to ensure that their content reaches as wide a viewership as possible and were able to create a “story” in a hands-on manner.
The Chief Guest of the inaugural session was the Hon’ble Vice President of India, Shri Venkaiah Naidu. The session began with an address by Shri Vinay Sahasrabuddhe, President of ICCR, who said that “soft power is essentially about mind space and that is where it differs from hard power. Soft power is not about military might, and the pursuance of soft power helps in withering away of borders.” He also stressed on the fact that most issues arise from a lack of understanding between people and praised the ability of soft power to create harmony instead of division.
In his inaugural address, the Hon’ble Vice President spoke about how India can create its own discourse using soft power as since ancient times, India has been a centre of culture and spirituality. He stressed that India never aspired to be a hegemonic power and always believed in peaceful co-existence. For this, India has always used its soft power as a tool for the welfare and betterment of the society as a whole. He said that from yoga to spirituality, India can use its soft power to reach out to all segments of the global society. He also stated that India, being an ancient civilization, has much to offer culturally to the world serving as a link between these nations.
The Hon’ble Vice President’s inaugural address was followed by a riveting conversation between Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, a yogi, mystic and founder of Isha Foundation, and Mr. Subhash Kak, a scientist, author and Regents professor at Oklahoma State University, USA. The stimulating conversation revolved around science and spirituality and how we can shape a society with seeking as the highest goal. On India’s soft power, Sadhguru said, “If we bring this one thing, that the highest aspect in the world is seeking the truth and liberation, you will naturally have the fragrance of this culture everywhere. It is a natural consequence of seeking”. Sadhguru also addressed the gathering on artificial intelligence and the future of the society, the role of education, and the possibility of bringing back Sanskrit as a mainstream language in India.
DAY II – 18th DECEMBER, 2018
Session 1: Panel Discussion – Cuisine
The first session of the day was a panel discussion on “Indian cuisine as soft power”. The discussion was chaired by Advaita Kala. Chef Vikas Khanna, a restaurateur and judge of MasterChef India began the “delicious” discussion by stating that Indian cuisine has now begun to establish itself in the world food market.
He narrated his experiences from New York and how people were oblivious to the depth and complexities of Indian food, which made it difficult for Indian Chefs to break into the market. However, now as the average American consumer is becoming more aware about Indian food, there is a growing audience and market for it. He also pointed out that due to the lack of India’s presence in food events, it is difficult to promote the cuisine to an international market, but this trend has been changing positively.
The next speaker was Mr Rohit Khattar, Chairman of Old World Hospitality, the group that runs the restaurants at Habitat Centre, New Delhi and the world famous Indian Accent restaurants. He spoke about how he took Indian food to London in 1997 where he observed that most chefs at Indian restaurants were Bangladeshis serving ‘typical gravies’. However, over the years, modern Indian restaurants have come up, that provide a different experience of Indian food than the stereotypical dishes such as Indian Accent that have found a niche audience in cities like New York.
Mr Manjit Singh Gill, President of Indian Federation of Culinary Association, pointed out the inherent difference between the way India and the West view food. He said the West views food as a commodity while in India we view it as a manifestation of God. He pointed out that most consumers of Indian food are unaware of the diversity of the cuisine and restaurants abroad are not innovative in their menus, only offering the typical butter chicken masala and dals. He stressed on the inherent Ayurvedic and wellness properties of Indian food, and how that can serve as a point of entry for many people to Indian cuisine.
Session 2: Keynote Address and Panel Discussion – Public Diplomacy
The session on “Public Diplomacy” began with a Keynote Address by Ambassador Syed Akbaruddin, India’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations at New York. Ambassador Akbaruddin gave the audience an overview of the present state of Indian soft power and noted that large scale multinational institutions such as the United Nations serve as assets of soft power, as they allow India to interact with multiple nations at once, and dictate the manner in which it is perceived at the international level. He continued by highlighting some of India’s significant contributions to the international order, and how these contributions must be better communicated so as to maximise Indian soft power. He cited the example of Hansa Mehta who was instrumental in shaping the wording of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from “all men are born free and equal” to the more gender sensitive, “all human beings are born free and equal”. He also spoke of the little-spoken about role that Indian peacekeeping forces are playing and said that these are instances where “we got the implementation right but did not take credit”. He pointed to the success of yoga at the international level, and projects such as the International Day of Yoga, as striking the balance between implementation and communication.
The Keynote Address was followed by a panel discussion on “Public Diplomacy and Soft Power” that was moderated by Amb. Kanwal Sibal, former Foreign Secretary to the Government of India. The first panelist, Dr. Jay Wang, Director of the USC Center of Public Diplomacy, spoke of the need to shift to a more strategic form of public diplomacy in the age of soft power and technology. He said that the aim of public diplomacy should not be to simply convey a country’s message but also its culture and its values, thereby creating an effective soft power tool. Mr Kieran Drake, Minister Counsellor: Head of Politics and Press, at the British High Commission in India, spoke next and
outlined the challenges and successes that the United Kingdom government faced through its GREAT campaign. The campaign was a coordinated attempt to use media as a means of communicating British culture and soft power throughout the world. The final panelist, Mr. Jonathan McClory, author of SoftPower 30, spoke of his experience in creating the SoftPower 30 report, and on India’s ranking in the list. He pointed out that India was not excluded from the list, but faired poorly on many criteria despite having a rich culture, and thereby was not part of the top 30. He shed light on the methodology of the paper, and said that while India has enormous cultural capital, it falls short in other key areas that bring down its ranking despite having the potential to be an influential country in terms of soft power.
Session 3: Panel Discussion – Museums
The next Panel Discussion was themed around “Museums as Soft Power” and was chaired by Ms Masooma Rizvi, an art consultant. The first presenter was Ms Ngaire Blankenberg, Cultural Consultant and Co-Editor ‘Cities, Museums and Soft power’ who describes herself as a “museum doctor”. She outlined that need to revisit and think of soft power differently, away from Joseph Nye’s conception of soft power, which is outdated in some aspects, especially in the way it views museums as a soft power tool. She said that museums are representative symbols and help shape narratives while also acting as a public space. However, the current perception of museums is that of being for an elite crowd, and so to truly harness the soft power potential of museums, it is essential that visitor services must be upgraded and special attention must be given to empowerment of the staff. She noted that museums must be experiences to engage the audience and to effectively tell its story, citing examples of museums from India to Spain.
The next presenter was Ms. Deepika Ahlawat, Museum Curator and Art Consultant who is based in London. She spoke about how museums help preserve colonialism by telling the story from a Euro-centric angle and highlighted how Western museums rarely repatriate objects they stole from the colonized country. In a way, museums are a continuation of colonialism and shape narratives from their viewpoint. Notable exceptions are some new museums that are sprouting up in former colonized countries that are willing to tell stories from their perspectives and thereby can act as an effective tool of soft power.
The last presenter, Ms. Nalina Gopal, Curator at India Heritage Centre at Singapore, outlined how India’s cultural influence in South East Asia, and the high levels of Indian immigration, has positively affected India’s perception in Singapore. She said it was this perception that facilitated the creation of the Indian Heritage Centre, which aims to provide visitors with an understanding of India and its roots.
Session 4: Panel Discussion – Performing Arts
The post lunch panel discussed the role of performing arts in soft power and was chaired by Ms. Rukmini Vijayakumar, a Bharatanatyam dancer. The first panellist, Ms. Mira Kaushik, Director, Akademi London, stressed on the need for collaborative productions that blend classical Indian styles with western stories, and vice versa, as these would provide a relatable entry point for audiences around the world to Indian performing arts. The next panellist, Mr. Jonathan Hollander, Director of Battery Dance, New York noted the power of India and how its artists acted as cultural ambassadors. He remarked that the depth and variety that exists in Indian performing arts is what makes it unique, and separates it from all other countries. He also stressed the need for investment at the state, national and international level to truly harness the power of Indian performing arts. The final panellist, Ms. Sharon Wezer, Director of the Indian Dance Europe at the Netherlands, spoke about her work in creating the ‘Indian Dance Festival’ in the Netherlands, as a way of introducing Indian dance forms to a Dutch audience. She spoke about how her dance group, looked to combine elements of familiar western classical arts with unfamiliar Indian dance forms so as to reach a wider audience.
Session 5: Panel Discussion – Art, Craft & Design
The next session on Art, Craft and Design was chaired by Ms. Jaya Jaitly, Founder, Dastkari Haat Samiti and the panelists included Mr. Rahul Goswami, UNESCO expert on intangible cultural heritage in the Asia-Pacific region; Ms. Shelly Jyoti, Visual Artist and Independent Curator; Ms. Valerie Wilson, Author and Founder Moti Clothing Company; Mr. Robert Borden,; and Ms. Gaia Franchetti, owner, IndoRoman.
The first presenter, Ms. Gaia Franchetti, owner of IndoRoman in Italy, noted that Indian textiles, and Khadi in particular, have the ability to form strong cultural and soft power relations with other
nations. She said that given the role that Khadi has played in Indian history, it can carry a clear Indian identity to numerous countries across the world. Ms. Shelly Jyoti, a visual artist from Delhi, spoke about how art can act as a means of introducing people to India’s values and its culture. She spoke of how we must be using resources such as Khadi and Ajrakh to promote Gandhian philosophy around the world. The growing desire for handmade commodities and organic goods provides Indian textiles with the perfect opportunity to reach a larger audience than ever before. Ms. Valerie Wilson, the founder of Moti Clothing Company in Australia, was the next presenter. She shed light on the “charming irregularities”, primacy of relationships, hard work and continuous learning that Indian clothing conveys to foreign audiences. She also spoke about her efforts in marketing Indian clothing abroad, and attempting to overcome the negative perceptions that it carried. Her presentation was followed by a presentation by Mr. Robert Borden, Vice President of Enrolment, California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), who pointed out how institutions like CalArts act as the incubators for creative talent. These institutions he said offer artists a platform to express their art on the global stage and to a wider audience and thus further soft power. Mr. Rahul Goswami, UNESCO expert on Intangible Cultural Heritage in the Asia-Pacific region, spoke about how crafts are a manifestation of systematic knowledge, and the efforts of UNESCO to put in place structural and institutional support for crafts. He said that India must learn from other countries and take greater steps to protect and advertise its diverse crafts.
Session 6: Panel Discussion – Yoga
The session on Yoga as Indian soft power was chaired by Dr. H. R. Nagendra, President, Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samsthana (S-VYASA) and began with a presentation by Mr Gopi Kallayil, the Chief Evangelist of Brand Marketing at Google. He narrated his experience in bringing yoga, bhajans and kirtans to Google. He described how yoga has started to be used as a means of team building, and how it has found its way into numerous Google offices around the world, with many of them even sending employees to India for yoga retreats. Next, Ms Nouf Marwaai, a Padma Shri awardee, recounted her experiences as a child, where yoga helped her overcome numerous health issues. She was inspired by this power of yoga, and began to teach yoga in Saudi Arabia. In doing so she says that “Yoga has helped Indian and Saudis rediscover the bond that the two countries have shared since time immemorial”. The final presenter, Ms Suhag Shukla, Executive Director of the Hindu American Foundation, outlined the need for sharing yoga with others in a way that is relatable but at the same time does not delink yoga from Hindu thought and Indianness. She said this can be done through teaching people that yoga is more than just a set of asanas and that although it is a part of Hindu thought, you need not be Hindu to practice it.
Session 7: Presentation – Cinema
Mr. Bharat Bala, a film director, producer and screenwriter, presented on Indian cinema as a potent soft power tool. He gave the audience a first look into India Film Collective, a project that he is working on to disseminate the “untold story” of India through 100 short films. The audience viewed three such short films. Mr Bala said that film is a more powerful medium in telling narratives of India, than typical or traditional ways.
DAY III – 19th DECEMBER, 2018
Session 1: Panel Discussion - Ayurveda
The Panel Discussion on Ayurveda was chaired by Vaidya Rajesh Kotecha, Secretary, Ministry of Ayush, Government of India. The panel began with Dr Vasant Lad, Director of the Ayurvedic Institute in the USA, giving an account of his experiences in taking Ayurveda to the United States, and opening the Ayurvedic Institute in Albuquerque. Next, Dr Abhishek Joshi, an Ayurveda doctor at Universitas Hindu, Indonesia spoke about the long-standing link between India and Indonesia and how Ayurveda has had a large influence on the culture of Indonesia, and Bali in specific. He spoke about UsadaBali, an indigenous form of medicine practiced in Bali – and that the word “Usada” is in fact derived from Sanskrit word aushada meaning medicine. Next, Mr Rajiv Vasudevan, the Founder-CEO of AyurVAID, outlined how the personalised nature of Ayurveda can fill the void left by modern medicine, which is currently very impersonal. He said Western medicine treats symptoms and
not patients, unlike Ayurveda which focus on the specificities of each patient. Finally, Dr. Ramkumar Kutty, Co-founder of Punarnava Ayurveda in Coimbatore, emphasised the need to embrace Ayurveda within India before it can be properly harnessed and exported as an asset of Indian soft power.
Session 2: Panel Discussion - Education
The panel discussion on education was chaired by Prof. Sunaina Singh, Vice-chancellor, Nalanda University and Vice President, ICCR. The first panelists, Ms. Tatiana Shaumyan, Head, Centre for Indian Studies, Institute of Oriental Studies, Moscow expressed her gratitude to be discussing Indian soft power, as traditionally the only area of focus when studying Indian power has been hard power. Mr. Shaunaka Rishi Das, Director, Oxford Center for Hindu Studies, spoke about the universal nature of education as soft power, and how India can contribute by helping define new perspectives on not only what to think but also how to think. He also added that the success of Indian education globally is based on India’s own hard work, and that the onus lies on India to define how it is to be studied. Prof. Subhash Kak, Regents Professor, Oklahoma State University, spoke about the fundamental difference in current dominant global thought perspective and the Indian perspective, and how it is the Indian perspective that can take the world forward given the technological advancements that are underway. Prof. Ramdas Lamb, Professor, Department of Religion, University of Hawaii, outlined the need to ensure that courses on India should be restructured so as to allow for Indian culture to play a more dominant role in the classroom, including even teaching in Indian languages and not only English. Finally, Mr. Come Carpentier De Gourdon, Convener, Editorial Board, World Affairs Journal noted that the current policy is to resist the Indic or Bharatiya perspective. He stressed the need for an international alliance on education to clear misconceptions on India and Hinduism.
Session 3: Panel Discussion – Tourism
The session on “Tourism as Soft Power” was chaired by Ms. Anuradha Goyal, an author and founder of the blog, IndiTales. She began the session by pointing out tourism’s power in influencing the minds of people around the world, by providing them with shared experiences. Next, Mr Manish Sinha, Founder of Unhotel spoke on the power of tourism to take not only the essentials, but also the essence of a place, and translate it through a real story. He gave the example of a grandmother in New Delhi who has hosted people from over 60 countries, telling an authentic story of India, and also added that it is the duty of every Indian to do their bit as a storyteller when promoting Indian soft power. Finally, Mr Nick Booker, Co-founder of IndoGenius, spoke about how bringing foreigners to India can challenge the outdated stereotypes of India that exist. He stressed the need to introduce people to the new India that is emerging in the era of technology and startups – one where India has become an intellectual superpower.
Session 4: Panel Discussion - Spirituality
This panel discussion was chaired by Dr. David Frawley, Founder, American Institute of Vedic Studies, who spoke on how India is not a nation of just any spirituality, but rather is one defined by Dharmic traditions. He notes that this Dharmic tradition has now began to spread globally in many forms, and that this spread of Indic traditions has been India’s biggest source of soft power. Next, Ms. Dena Merriam, Author and Founder of the Global Peace Initiative of Women, Merriam recounted her story of when she first came to India, and how she came to be a Hindu. She spoke about the ongoing commercialisation of Dharma and how it needs to be stopped so as to not lose the essence of what
Dharma is, and eventually spirituality as Indian soft power. Next, Mr. Christopher Quilkey, Member of Editorial Board, Mountain Path, stated that moving forward in the realm of spirituality Hinduism must ask itself the question of, what does it do best? He spoke on the influence that Hinduism has had in every field of Indian life and even on other religions, and pointed out the need to ensure that this knowledge is transmitted to upcoming generations of people. Ven. Banagala Thero, President of the Mahabodhi Society, Sri Lanka, spoke on the historical influence India has had in the world, saying that Indian soft power stretches back to the days of Ashoka and Kanishka – when Indian word dharma was the single principle that defined the foundation of all Asian societies. Finally, Ms Maria Wirth, an author, spoke on the need for India to embrace the spiritual concepts that it has provided to the world, such as concepts of rebirth and Karma, that provide alternatives to western religious ideals and spoke of her own experiences of a German discovering Hinduism.
Session 5: Panel Discussion - Language & Literature
The final session of the Conference on Soft Power was “Language and Literature” that was chaired by Prof Makarand Paranjape, Director, Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla. He began the session by highlighting the immense impact that India has had on literature across history. He points out that India’s contributions have not only been in Indian languages, but that India has contributed vastly in areas of foreign literature such as English literature and Persian Literature. Prof. Paul Palmarozza, Director Sanskrit at St James spoke about the power of Sanskrit as one of the key elements of Indian soft power. He spoke about his experiences in bringing Sanskrit to the West through Sanskrit at St James where thousands of students have benefited from the knowledge of Sanskrit and Indian literature in the West. Prof. Chirapat Prapandvidya, Professor and Head of
Department of Sanskrit Studies, Silpakorn University at Thailand, spoke on the historical literary ties between India and Thailand. He spoke on the influence of Sanskrit on the local language of Pali, and of how Indian literature and stories influenced many of the works of local Thai writers and storytellers. Mr. Robert Arnett, an author, recounted his efforts in bringing his works which outlined stories about India to classrooms in the United States, so that students studying about India would get a more realistic perspective of what India is. He said India has to preserve its traditions and knowledge and not seek to emulate the West but rather serve as a model for them. Next, Paramacharya Sadasivanathaswami, Editor in Chief, Hinduism Today, Hawaii, spoke on his experience in bringing India and Indic thoughts into the literary mainstream through his work at Hinduism Today, and the struggles that they have faced in doing so. His presentation gave the audience a visual insight into Hinduism in the West and how India can use its spirituality as a soft power tool. Finally, Mr. Oscar Pujol, an Indologist from Spain, noted the fact that throughout history Sanskrit and Sanskrit literature had played an important role in defining the knowledge held by the world.
He pointed to a second renaissance for Sanskrit that took place in Europe, which influenced much of modern linguistics. He went on to say that there is a need for a third Sanskrit renaissance in the 21st century.
(This report is carried in the print edition of March-April 2019 issue of India Foundation Journal.)