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Talking culture

It was a cultural round table headed by the American Ambassador to India, Robert Blackwill, who was in the city recently. Some of the views aired...

FOR THE first few moments, it was like a scene out of "Anna and the King of Siam". We almost expected our host, Robert Blackwill, American Ambassador to India, to look up from his place of honour, at the dining table and say: "Soup! Soup! Soup! This is what Yul Brynner, playing the part of the King of Siam had done to put his dinner guests at ease, during an official banquet.

What our host said to us was "Talk! Talk! Talk!"

Of course, the way that Ambassador Robert Blackwill put it was much more flattering. He wanted us to share ideas with him, he said. This was the mode of civilised discourse that he was used to, during his years at Harvard. He disliked cocktail parties he said, explaining, "Just as you begin to feel that someone is going to say something interesting, you find that the natural current of cocktail party discourse has swept that person away and you might never be able to pick up that thread again. I find that sitting around a table is much more congenial to a proper conversation, which I hope will be a dialogue, whereby I can learn something from you."

As we looked around the table, we realised that each one of us had been chosen to represent one area of what could loosely be described as the performing arts. There was an actor, a dancer, a writer, a musician, an art historian, a promoter of art and so forth. Since none of the individuals could be said to be in competition with the other and even in case they did, they were carefully separated by members of the Ambassador's own entourage, who had obviously been instructed to keep silent. We felt a warm glow of approbation that we had been included in this exalted company. We too were being asked to be Ambassadors, or so we imagined! It was a fair exchange, culture for nurture." It was not an official banquet. It was a cultural round table. The setting was formal-informal. We sat around what seemed like a wide expanse of white table cloth, decorated with a low bank of flowers at the centre that seemed to be the size of an ice-skating rink. Ambassador Blackwill is a tall man, with a little boy's face in a large frame. For that evening, he was wearing a wonderful butterfly yellow tie with a formal dark suit. His wife, who was introduced to us, Wera Hildebrand, sat one place away from the Ambassador. She was wearing a white shirt and pants, and a single row of pearls that contrasted most elegantly with a black vest that could just be seen under the white shirt. She occasionally put on a pair of finely rimmed glasses, just to take in the action at the outer reaches of the table. She served as a foil to the Ambassador's tendency to veer off into what seemed like good old American rhetoric about `their' place and `our' place in the world, though we were all supposed to be equal for that one evening, by reminding us that she was Danish and hence, could take in a bit of dissent.

"I think you should answer that," she remonstrated to her husband when someone timidly raised a hand to ask him. "Before we begin, perhaps you can tell us what you know about South India?" He would have none of that. That was being far too democratic. It might have worked at Harvard, but hey, here we were sitting in a remote outpost of the Third World and there was no question but we had to play according to his rules. We speared small morsels of the starters, prawns served with tiny folded discs of the Andhra "Pesarathu". The vegetarians had "Semagada Fry." The menu at least was going to take the middle road between West and East.

He had come to ask us, he said what we could tell him about South India. We took a deep collective breath, shut our eyes in the manner that most Indian like to adopt when they are about to go into the mystic India mode and rattled on about the dawn of civilisation and the glories of South Indian kingdoms sending their argosies out into the countries of South Asia, both East and West. One of us went so far as to enumerate all the ancient names for the countries over which the South Indians had held their sway 3,000 years ago. Obviously watching all the many quiz programs has had a deep and devastating effect on the Indian capacity to make sensible dinner table conversation.

By the time we reached the second course of broccoli soup with shredded almonds, the Ambassador was trying hard to get us back to the present century. What was South Indian culture like, now, he wanted to know. How was it that Indian writers were doing so well in the West. "That's because they write in English" someone sniffed and mentioned the influence of two of the most important books in the Indian canon, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. It seemed very difficult not to slip right back into the past.

A person representing the fine arts said that the art scene in the South was very "bold" and "loud." It may have been meant as a positive statement. In that company however, it was taken as a critique of the sad shape of cultural affairs in the region. Many of those present seemed to indicate that there had been once a golden period where the arts, dance, music and even films had flourished, but again it was all being lost in the din of vulgar elements taking over in the name of a synthetic culture being promoted in the most cynical manner by the media. The dancer who had the most winning way of expressing herself, through her eye movements and hand gestures simply shut her eyes, put her hands before them and said, "I just close my eyes" when she was asked what she did when she saw the new dances being performed on the screen.

The actor mentioned the evil influence of distributors. Someone else talked about the lack of patronage. Yet another person talked about religion and the part it had played in shaping the South Indian sensibility, until the time of Independence when a secular Indian art had come into being. The Ambassador was immediately incensed. "Secular Indian art is an oxymoron," he declaimed. "Even the art that is not religious is in reaction against that religion." We were suitably quelled. There was another awkward moment when a person mentioned the role played by the Brahmin elite in using the performing arts to uphold the traditional way of life that would endorse their importance. Since we were all in one sense or the other part of an elite, it seemed in terrible bad taste to knock that precious minority. For a few seconds there was silence as we contemplated our "Chicken and Cheese roulades and Cottage Cheese Steaks(!) with their "Twin Capsicum sauces."

The musician saved the day by saying that music spoke to people in a universal language. Because of the universality of music, South Indian culture could feel comfortable anywhere. The musician was due to perform in the capitals of Europe the very next week. The dancer fluttered her expressive hands in a beautiful spreading gesture, when we were asked, why if the atmosphere was so oppressive we remained here. "Roots" we replied as one. "I feel I am like a Banyan Tree," explained the dancer, "I can spread my roots far and wide, anywhere that I want, but I will always remain here." It was a lovely moment. We felt proud of her. Until then, we might have been like the ten blind men of Hindustan explaining what the elephant, called South Indian Culture, looked like, but now we had dived deep into our tradition and come out clutching our roots.

The Ambassador looked pleased. The wife signalled discreetly with her gold-rimmed glasses. Time was up, we had nearly consumed our "Malibu flavoured coconut mousse chocolate baskets." It was time to wind up.

"That's fascinating," he said. "That's what makes the difference. You would never find a dancer in Minneapolis Minnesota saying that she was a Banyan Tree. She would just uproot herself and go to New York, if she was good. We need to travel; we need to explore new places, to experience new ideas in America. That's what makes us a young nation." He was impressed he said by our 3,000 years of history, even if for an American who had to deal with just a couple of hundred years, our commitment to the past might seem a little excessive.

Ambassador Blackwill then showed us the poet that was in him by paraphrasing the line from e. e. cummings, who said that artists are people who hear words whispered to each other. The evening for all its contradictions was part of this process of listening to each other in the language of the dancer, the musician, the actor, the poet and all the others who had come to share in the dialogue. In his busy world of strategic alliances and geo-political imperatives, he still felt the need for the consolations of art.

Who knows, perhaps even the whisper of the sacred Banyan!

GEETA DOCTOR

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