Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2017 > Reimagining India in Britain

Mainstream, VOL LV No 24 New Delhi June 3, 2017

Reimagining India in Britain

Thursday 8 June 2017

by L.K. Sharma

The Great India Show covers even science in India. It has been blessed by the two governments. Britain is out on a mission to rediscover India.

Those wanting to take a condensed course in India’s heritage and contemporary culture would do well to spend this year in Britain.

They will benefit from a massive exposition of a wide range of performing and visual arts, literature, films and rich collections from the national archives. The Great India Show covers even science in India. It has been blessed by the two governments. Britain is out on a mission to rediscover India.

The UK-India Year of Culture coincides with the seventieth year of Indian independence. Even after seven decades, Britain lingers on in Indian public memory, though as the most-preferred destination for Indian students, it has been superseded by America. But in public discourse Britain figures more prominently. It gets blamed as well as admired more often. V. S. Naipaul noticed this at a meeting of writers in India and asked them with unsuppressed irritation to move on.

In 1851, the Great Exhibition held in London during Queen Victoria’s reign sought to reassure the people about Britain’s industrial and cultural leadership of the world. In 2017 the Great India Show seeks to assure a shaken Britain that beyond Europe lies the Golden Hind!

The jewel in the crown of the British Empire was given a disproportionately large space in the Great Exhibition. Of course, no indigenous industry or technology was displayed. The exhibits focused on the opulent trappings of the empire.

The Great Exhibition was actively patronised by Queen Victoria. This year the UK-India cultural exchange was given a grand start by Queen Elizabeth who hosted a reception in Buckingham Palace.

The Great Exhibition of 1851 was seen as a pivotal moment when Britain sought to find a definition for itself or redefine itself. There was an undercurrent of anxiety about industrialisation and modernisation. While conscious of its power and reach, the country was “wit-nessing class inequality, a fear of foreigners, and a contempt for internationalism”.

The Great India Show comes in the wake of Britain’s decision to leave Europe. Britons feel this island nation has changed. Britain is not what it was, they lament and are gripped by a feeling of uncertainty.

The Great India Show promotes multi-culturalism, thus countering the appeal of the UK Independence Party. The British politicians feasting night after night on the Chicken Tikka Masala at Tandoori Nights tend to dislike jingoism. Those exposed to Tagore’s works see the dangers of nationalism. Cultural exchanges moderate identity politics that is vitiating the atmosphere in many countries.

The Great India Show involving several prestigious British institutions and cities will go on for a year. The celebration plan was announced in 2015 by the then British Prime Minister, David Cameron, and his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi. Prime Minister Theresa May reiterated the commitment during her India visit in November 2016.

Cultural Diplomacy

Cultural diplomacy does not come cheap but the British Government and the cultural institutions are not counting pounds. Culture has a commercial dimension for Britain which boasts of a unique institution called the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manu-factures and Commerce! The Department of Trade and Industry has a strategy for the performing arts. Britain has lost its primacy in politics and manufacturing and sports but is still among the world leaders in terms of culture. It knows that cultural diplomacy is about tourist pounds also.

The Indian High Commission and the Ministry of Culture are supplementing the British effort with India@UK2017. When it comes to cultural diplomacy, New Delhi does not think big. India is far behind China in the number of cultural centres abroad. China gets 200 works translated into foreign languages just to participate in the Frankfurt Book Fair. India mainly depends on Bollywood.

The Jaipur Literature Festival, a private initiative, has done more than any official agency to promote India’s brand image. This time it teamed up with the British Library to spread the message that good writing is done in India also. The Science Museum will show that India is not poor in innovative skills and scientific talent. It is an unusual gesture because while China’s scientific prowess was highlighted through Joseph Needham’s monumental work, scientific India got ignored.

Britain showed little interest in modern India while providing an audience for classical music and dances. India, for its part, was happy to see Ravi Shankar playing the sitar in London and Raj Kapoor being feted in Moscow. It failed to project its space programme.

The British TV documentary-makers focused on the semi-naked Sadhus rolling up the hills and the raped girls of India. An eminent British writer and a noted film-maker focused on the carnival of public-defecation in India.

This British way of seeing India was a legacy of the colonial era. The empire could be justified by portraying the subject races as inferior beings with no traditions of art, literature, thought or philosophy. Even the scholarly journals described Indian art as a monstrosity. Such people were, of course, incapable of governing themselves!

Indo-British political relations during the Cold War discouraged Britain from seeing India in a new light. The irritants included the differences over Kashmir and the official patronage given to the separatists agitating against India.

With the end of the Cold War and India’s emergence as an emerging economic power, relations improved. After 9/11 and the terror attacks in Britain, India’s concerns made more sense to British parliamentarians. Even those British MPs whose lofty pronouncements used to be inspired by the Pakistani migrants in their constituencies, toned down their criticism of India’s human rights record.

This British way of seeing India was a legacy of the colonial era.

The British Foreign Office took a cue from America which had started seeing India not as an enemy of its friend, Pakistan, but as a useful counter-weight to its enemy, named China! British political leaders, pushed by the financial services sector, began courting India. Realising that India invested more in Britain than the European Union, they were happy to walk in Delhi in the mid-day sun.

The profile of the Indian community in Britain changed over the years. Once Indians were seen sweeping Heathrow Airport or selling exotic Indian items from door to door. That was now a distant past. The newspaper headlines began to scream about the British billionaires of Indian origin! Indian business leaders came to the UK to lecture their British counterparts on using information technology. Little Indias had sprung up with shops blaring the Bollywood songs. The pavements got coloured by women in saris.

Pissing into Britain

This was not a sudden development. India, as Salman Rushdie would say, has been pissing into Britain for a couple of centuries. The Indian cuisine had entered Britain even before 1773 when a London café started serving it. Indian cooks were taken to Britain by those returning from a career in India where they got accustomed to a different kind of food. Indian curry powder started selling in 1780.

From the 1870s the Indian dishes served by Indian waiters became a regular feature on Queen Victoria’s dining table. Her personal life featuring an Indian functionary highlighted multiculturalism and solidarity with India!

The popularisation of the Bhangra beats needed no governmental effort.

Cultural exchanges were officially promoted periodically but cultural fusion took place in the normal course. The popularisation of the Bhangra beats needed no governmental effort. Britain could sell English language and literature even when the Indian market for its financial services was closed. Following economic liberalisation, the large Indian market gripped the imagination of the British corporate world. The time was thus ripe for heralding the UK-India Year of Culture in 2017 and for strengthening the multifaceted partnership underpinned by historical ties.

Since the fare during the year will cover all areas of culture, a debate on the British Empire will get prominence. When Niall Ferguson went around publicising the benefits of the British Empire, no Indian academic pointed out the factual inaccuracy in his telling of the economic history of pre-British India. The challenge was belatedly taken up by a writer who joined politics after a successful career as an international civil servant.

Shashi Tharoor launched a scathing attack on the British Empire, first in an Oxford Union debate and then in his book, An Era of Darkness —The British Empire in India.

Tharoor’s eloquence won him millions of social media fans. He will be in the UK to list the misdeeds of the British Empire. It goes to the credit of Britain that no gang has threatened to paint his face black or to ask the publisher to shred his books.

Tharoor’s work largely covers the economic rape and destruction of the Indian handicrafts and industry. This is a field in which a lot of work was done even before independence. An investigation of the ‘evils’ of the British Empire requires a multi-disciplinary endeavour.

Empire and Political Correctness

Fresh material keeps coming to light. One comes across a reference to the adverse impact on the status of women as a result of the Indian male being oppressed and humiliated by the British. So he came home and took it out on his wife. Have the psychological scars been transmitted from generation to generation?

Only last month, an activist pointed out that the policing of the performances during the British Raj banished the snake-charmers and street magicians. A significant cultural loss. Many rules and procedures set down by the British Raj continue and are often blamed for the ills afflicting today’s India.

The historians may hit the jackpot if they discover some of the official files related to India that were presumed to have been burnt. A lot remains to be known about the British officials winning over some Indian princes by spying on their personal lives. So Tharoor’s work will perhaps be followed up.

The British Empire figures regularly at the yearly Jaipur Literature Festival. Its co-director, William Dalrymple, is no admirer of the British Empire but that does not discourage the British Council from participating in the festival! That dispassionate approach will be unthinkable for the Indian Council for Cultural Relations.

Of course, the view that the British Empire was rapacious will be challenged. The first blow was struck this year by the art critic of The Telegraph in his review of the V&A’s “brave” exhibition, Lockwood Kipling: Arts and Crafts in the Punjab and London. Rudyard Kipling’s father was “a polymath whose career as an artist, designer, teacher, journalist, and colonial servant flourished during the British Raj”.

Alastair Sooke laments that not long ago “empire” wasn’t a dirty word but a source of pride, but not today. He says: “British imperia-lism has become associated with jingoism, racism and exploitation of indigenous people for profit that lots of us find shameful.” He wonders whether this tendency has gone too far and the British Empire has been poisoned by political correctness!

The Telegraph review ascribes this “belly-aching and guilt in part to Britain’s current diminished stature and lack of self-confidence on the international stage”. Some in Britain support this art critic but many more are likely to agree with Tharoor’s criticism of the British Empire.

But Tharoor would fail to convince an Indian immigrant, a technologist-tycoon Kartar Lalvani, whose health food supplement advertisements cannot be missed in Britain. During his 50 years in Britain, Lalvani was pained to see that Indians failed to acknowledge their cultural, political and economic debt to Britain. He wrote a book, The Making of India, to set the record straight. This volume by the native informer got extensive coverage in the British newspapers.

Lalvani has spoken when some newly empowered Indian thinkers seem to justify Churchill’s grim forecast about the Indian leaders ruining their independent nation. These thinkers hold Nehru and others responsible for all the ills of the nation. They claim that India’s wasted years ended only when Narendra Modi took over as the Prime Minister of India!


The British Empire is not a fresh issue. Reimagine, the topic picked by the Arts Council England, is a theme with great potential for a vigorous debate. In fact, the entire British project for reimagining India has already been dated since India is changing at the speed of light! Britain is belatedly trying to catch up with the modern India when India is being pulled back towards the medieval times!

India is undergoing a transformation that is more radical than what has hit Britain. Culture’s vital role in international relations is acknow-ledged. But culture has got so entwined with politics in India that a large section of Indians fears the end of the very idea of India envisioned by the nation’s founding fathers.

The governments of different hues came and went but this is the first time in 70 years that Indians are dreading the promised trans-formation that has caught the imagination of the Prime Minister Modi’s followers and the vigilante gangs violently enforcing their code of conduct in the states ruled by his party.

The earlier imagined India of the rolling saints was an imperfect reflection of the reality. Now when Britain seeks to correct its perception through a literature festival and the science museum, it can’t keep pace with the changing reality.

Britain is trying to project a modern, throbbing, self-confident nation that innovates, that generates wealth as well as world-class art, fashion goods, and literature and that has inherited civilisational values.

However, it will be an incomplete image of India if the scenographers and designers skip some features of the contemporary scene. These are a polarised society, cow vigilantes, anti-Romeo and anti-Love-Jihad squads, honour-killings, religious reconversion campaigns, sectarian strife, a tide of intolerance, an outbreak of contrived nationalism and religiosity, populism in politics, degraded public discourse, a frightened cringing media serving fake news, manufactured consent and manufactured dissent.

This Minefield

All this is a rich material for an artist, a cartoonist, a film-maker and a writer who are ready to risk their limbs and are not afraid of mob violence. But this minefield is a no-go area for two friendly governments wanting to boost bilateral trade and investments. Cultural exchanges have a limit. Would India commission a British documentary on the Red Light District of Mumbai? Would the British Council sponsor an India tour by the tattooed pink-faced football hooligans pissing from the upper stands while watching a match in a Delhi stadium? Never.

The new rulers in New Delhi are not favourably inclined towards Nehru and Akbar.

Friendly relations between nations demand caring for each other’s sensitivities, ignoring principles. The British High Commissioner must have sent a secret cable to London cautioning against playing Nehru’s historic midnight speech in Parliament during the seventieth year of Indian independence. The diplomat might have also suggested that no reference be made to Akbar the Great in any presentation on India’s heritage. The new rulers in New Delhi are not favourably inclined towards Nehru and Akbar.

Her Majesty’s Government is alert just in case someone demands the expulsion of Beef-eaters from the Tower of London as their presence hurts the Hindu psyche! A religious group may seek permission to install a giant marble replica of the sacred Indian cow at the Trafalgar Square arguing that it would promote multiculturalism and attract tourists.

With the spotlight only on sugar and spice and all things nice, at the end of the year of culture, India shall remain what it has always been, an Imagined India.

(Courtesy: www.opendemocracy.net)

L.K. Sharma has followed no profession other than journalism for more than four decades, covering criminals and Prime Ministers. He was the European Correspondent of The Times of India based in London for a decade. He also reported for five years from Washington as the Foreign Editor of the Deccan Herald. He has edited three volumes on innovations in India, and completed a work of creative nonfiction on V.S. Naipaul.

ISSN : 0542-1462 / RNI No. : 7064/62 Privacy Policy Notice Addressed to Online Readers of Mainstream Weekly in view of European data privacy regulations (GDPR)