Art as a metaphor for India

Aparajita Jain, Co-Director, Nature Morte, one of India’s leading art galleries, in a talk on Art as a soft power, says Art plays an important role in society because it is an indicator of “who we were, who we are and most importantly who we can be.”

Those unfamiliar with the world of Contemporary Indian Art may wonder how the above finds expression today in paintings, photography, sculptures, murals, graffiti, antiques, miniatures and installations which constitute the entire spectrum of visual art.

By looking at the works of three artistes, which Aparajita says are her favourites, I was amazed at the ingenuity of the artists in taking themes one can only describe as quintessentially desi, and exhibiting them to popular acclaim abroad.

Given below are three artists and their shows as exemplars of contemporary art:

Subodh Gupta’s exhibition at the Monnaie de Paris -

Showcasing the diversity of Subodh Gupta’s practice, the exhibition features iconic sculptures using stainless steels pots and pans, such as Very Hungry God (2006), for which Gupta is best known and cast found objects, such as Two Cows (2003), alongside very new works, like Unknown Treasure (2017) and the video titled Seven Billion Light Years (2016). While varied in material, the body of work is defined by the artist’s continuous exploration of ritual and spirituality in everyday life.
Subodh Gupta is mostly known for working with everyday objects that are ubiquitous throughout India, such as the mass-produced steel kitchen utensils used in virtually every home in the country. From such ordinary items the artist produces sculptures that reflect on the economic transformations of his homeland while acknowledging the reach of contemporary art and its ideas. While stainless steel is Gupta’s signature medium, he has also masterfully executed works in bronze, marble, brass and wood while dialoguing with found and manipulated objects that encapsulate multiple meanings and reflect on the circumstances of contemporary India.

As the kitchen is the centre of every Indian household, Gupta’s practice too is grounded in the quotidian pantry and it is from here that he reflects on not only personal practices, but also on how often intimate and seemingly insignificant objects and experiences can offer a glimpse into the cosmos at large.

Jithish Kallat’s show Here after Here at National Gallery of Modern Art Delhi-

Jitish’s vast oeuvre, spanning painting, photography, drawing, video and sculptural installations, reveals his persistent probes into some of the fundamental themes of our existence. His works traverse varying focal lengths and time-scales; from close details of the skin of a fruit or the brimming shirt-pocket of a passer-by, it might expand to register dense people-scapes, or voyage into inter-galactic vistas. Some works are meditations on the transient present while others reach back into history and overlay the past onto the present through citations of momentous historical utterances.

Thukral and Tagra: Bread, Circuses & TBD at Yorkshire Sculpture Park (ongoing)

Thukral and Tagra’s work invites people to wrestle with the issues faced by farmers in India through their immaculately conceived installation Bread, Circuses & TBD, which inaugurates The Weston Gallery in Yorkshire Sculpture Park’s (YSP) new building, The Weston. Known internationally for their highly engaging and profound projects that raise awareness of important issues in the world today, the Delhi-based artists continue their ongoing investigation into ‘kushti’, a traditional form of wrestling practiced across India and especially by farmers.

The artists have been interested in the act of kushti as a social construct, the coded vocabulary of sport and the playing field – in this case, the ‘akhara’ – since 2006, when they first began supporting the akhara community in Jalandhar, the hometown of Jiten Thukral. In their first wrestling project, Match Fixed (2010), the artists began to understand the intricate details of the lives, trials, and tribulations of the agricultural community. Their involvement has evolved to support the establishment of a kitchen, run by the families of farmers that have been affected by suicides in order to provide meals for their children.

Informed by their long enquiry into game theory, including their research into the Don Pavey Collection, held in the National Arts Education Archive at YSP, the central installation Farmer is a Wrestler is an interactive challenge that invites participants as players to try out seven traditional wrestling manoeuvres, echoing the game of ‘Twister’. Participants land on numbers, rather than colours, where each represents a trial faced by farmers in India, and across the world, such as global warming, suicide, agrarian distress, and drought. The participant gets to interact with the space to better understand and comprehend the hardship of this present-day situation. The exhibition shows the duality of the figure of the farmer as a wrestler, staging strategies for survival against a complex set of challenges. The work explores not only their psyche but the body and human form as a site for endurance and strength.

A huge and intricate painting in the shape of a wrestling arena is split into sections and shown on the gallery walls. The paintings are comprised of five layers, which link to the hardships and dire situations faced by the farmers in Farmer is a Wrestler, including wrestling figures inspired by the artists’ interviews with the farmers and their families; the crops and the associated activities vital to their livelihood; and a highlight, which gives emphasis to the issues under discussion.

The ongoing series title of ‘Bread, Circuses’ draws from the metaphor of the Roman arena as a stage not only for competition and for the display of sportsmanship, but equally as a mode of survival strategies and the earning of daily bread. It is a body of work that reflects on the lives of Indian people as affected by daily politics, society, and cultural norms. The YSP iteration ‘TBD’ (‘to be determined’), references the precariousness and uncertain future faced by Indian farmers and is represented by the white areas of incomplete canvas in the paintings.

Over the past few decades, farming and agriculture communities across the country have faced extremely difficult situations, living in poverty and oppression, with little or no control over their land or livelihood, leading to suicides. While there are constant protests and uprisings by farming communities, their pleas are often unheard by the government or go unnoticed. A tiny grain of sand or wheat becomes a metaphor that carries through the installation, sand being an element that is sacred for the akhara wrestler and wheat for the farmer.

This project aims to interrogate a larger set of political issues through the act and metaphor of wrestling, applying artistic agency to question the status quo but also offer hope.

Indian Art in context

The net worth of the Indian Visual Art market is approximately 250 million dollars. Seems like a lot? Not really. Neighbouring China commands 11 billion dollars from art.

Museums exhibiting these works attract large audiences abroad as compared to India. Aparajita compares Paris where three museums alone receive approximately 14.5 million visitors annually, to India where all the museums put together receive around 10 million visitors.

However, one can take heart that the international success of Indian artists, an increasing collector base, a rise in the number of curatorial galleries has helped the Indian Visual Arts industry make inroads into art markets abroad.

So how can India leverage her long history of art creation and promotion? What are the problems holding her back? Like everything involving culture, the main issue seems to be lack of Governmental support. “There is no institutional support in terms of government involvement. When we have museums and institutions it helps explain to people what art is. It becomes a place to go to with the kids and there is more awareness and support for artists. We have to start with awareness,” says Aparajita.

Aparajita, listed as one of the 50 icons of Indian Art by Platform, is on the board of the Delhi Chapter of YPO and is a founding member of the Harvard South Asia Institute Arts program. Her non-profit endeavour, Saat Saath Arts Foundation (SSAF), is a first-of-its-kind initiative built to catalyse international art exchange between India and the world. SSAF, working with the Rajasthan government, created the first permanent International Art Space in the state, at Nahargarh Fort.

She says when she began working in art she was constantly complaining, only focusing on the lack of everything when a friend told her to do something about it. “I began thinking, wondering and speaking to people. I spoke to economists, to advisors to policymakers to patrons and to other great thinkers on what it would take for us to get India on the soft power map. We have an amazing number of Heritage sites many of which are languishing that could be used. The ASI lists 3,650 sites and who knows how many are unlisted. The second thing was using the private public partnership model to further the cause of museums art and soft power in India.”

Aparajita along with two others, began an experiment to create India's first
Sculpture park in a heritage site. “However we had no funding and no site, only a deep desire and love for art in India. So we approached the Government of Rajasthan who were very willing. They showed us about 10 sites and we finally we chose a jewel called Nahargarh atop a hill on the periphery of Jaipur.”

It took them nine months from signing the MOU to opening India's first international sculpture park with 61 sculptures with 23 artists in a 500 year old fort funded by the CSR of over 12 companies. While proceeds from the ticket sales goes to the Government, the park saw a cross section of people visiting including school and college students, celebrities including Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post, as well as the local people. The Wall Street Journal mentioned this as a must-visit place in Jaipur.

Aparajita says more and more people should adopt such sites and create experience centers by infusing contemporary art into such places that were once bustling with life. They should then be put online and made to come alive with technologies like Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality so that they can reach the farthest corners of the world thus bringing focus on the intangible assets India has through her built tangible assets.

Aparajita is the co-Founder of New Delhi’s most avant-garde art space, Nature Morte along with Peter Nagy, and is now the Co-Director. Founded in New York's East Village in 1982 and closed in 1988, Peter revived Nature Morte in New Delhi in 1997 as a commercial gallery and a curatorial experiment. Aparajita says Peter was a very successful artist in New York and fell in love with India when he came for a visit. “He started discovering contemporary artistes who were doing really good work, but there was nobody there to show them. He decided to stay back and open a gallery so that there could be a conversation and viewing for these people. He is so successful because he is sincere, extremely committed to the cause and so good with his eye.”

Peter Nagy sums up it all up in an interview where he says that most Western curators are looking for a type of art coming out of India that corresponds to what is considered “progressive” art practice. “They are able to find such works in the practice of artists such as the Raqs Media Collective, Bharti Kher, Anita Dube, Amar Kanwar, Jitish Kallat, Sonia Khuranna, and others. Unfortunately, these curators (and also critics and gallerists) often approach Indian contemporary art with very little knowledge of India itself, so they tend to misinterpret or even ignore artists that may have great relevance to the Indian context but seemingly little to the international context. But, hey, cultural translation is one of the obvious pitfalls of the globalization of the contemporary art world.”

Nature Morte has become synonymous in India with challenging and experimental forms of art; championing conceptual, lens-based, and installation genres and representing a generation of Indian artists who have gone on to get international exposure.

Nature Morte was the first gallery from India to be included in important international art fairs (starting with The Armory Show in New York in 2005) and has participated in Art Basel, Fiac Paris, Art Basel Miami Beach, Paris Photo, Art Dubai, Tokyo Art Fair, Art Basel Hong Kong, Abu Dhabi Art Fair and Frieze New York, among others.

Nature Morte has also organized projects and exhibitions with international artists coming to India and combining their works with those of Indian artists to foster cross-cultural communications. Today, Nature Morte represents such well-known artists as Subodh Gupta, Jitish Kallat, Anita Dube, Mithu Sen, Bharti Kher, Imran Qureshi, Mona Rai, Pushpamala N., Seher Shah, Thukral and Tagra, Raqs Media Collective, and Asim Waqif, as well as others.

Aparajita says that Indian art has a lot of traction in America, but more and more Indian art is getting visible and credibility world over. “We had a survey between 2003 and 2005 which showed that people were keen on doing generic shows of India but now we are moving to in-depth shows of artistes. Right now we have three shows of our artists in different parts of the world. There is a fair amount of interest of Indian contemporary art abroad.”

Most of Nature Morte’s artists are “international artists and not necessarily only artists who have an Indian aesthetic. The idea in contemporary art is for people of Indian origin to become so international that people do not know where they are from. It is about how good the artist is and how many very good thinking artists a country can produce,” says Aparajita.

India’s legacy in Thailand

In a recent interview published by India’s public service broadcaster DD News, Sanskrit scholar Professor Chirapat Prapandvidya, from Thailand, exclaimed, “Thailand is  a crucial place for study of Sanskrit. We started studying Sanskrit long ago. Hinduism and Buddhism existed in Thailand and have very strong influences. The influence of Sanskrit in Thai life is very strong and is intact. ”

Prof. Prapandvidya, who was also a speaker at the India Foundation’s Conference on Soft Power held in December 2018, is an archaeologist by profession. He has dedicated his entire life to the study and propagation of Sanskrit in Thailand. He continues to teach Sanskrit to the youth of Thailand, and he was the first to conceive both a post-graduate course and a PhD course in Sanskrit. He has also archived every inscription relating to the historicity of Indians who have visited Thailand. Prof. Prapandvidya continues to inspire scores of youth in Thailand, thereby bringing Thailand and India closer.

India and Thailand have over a millennia-old religious, cultural and trade links; these links have been concrete enablers of cultural and public diplomacy contributing to the convergence of New Delhi’s “Act East Policy” and Bangkok’s “Look West Policy.”

India’s Legacy in Thailand

As the world’s focus shifts from the British royal family to Thai royal family, Thailand has just recently witnessed the coronation of its first monarch since the people’s king, King Bhumibol, who ruled over Thailand for an exceptionally long duration. The elaborate coronation of King Vajiralongkorn that took place over three days, from May 4 to 6, in the capital Bangkok saw many Buddhist and Hindu rituals performed in the month leading up to the event. The 66-year-old King Vajiralongkorn became Thailand's constitutional monarch after the death of his father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, in 2016 following a 70-year rule.

In what is rare footage released by Thai film archivists, glimpses of the 1950 coronation of King Bhumibol Adulyadej show him pouring sacred water on himself as part of the purification process, soon after which he wears the crown. Available reports state that the use of water is based on a Hindu tradition that dates back to 18th century coronation ceremonies, since the founding of the Chakri dynasty.

To date, the special relationship between India and Thailand exists and is there for all to see. This bond has been carefully preserved and carried forward for generations together, so much so that it plays an integral part in the anointment of the King of Thailand, even today.

Hindu touches of Thai coronation are not new. In ancient India, Rajabhisheka referred to the coronation of ordinary kings. “For the Siamese, Rajabhisheka is rather a Rajasuya, a ceremony for the consecration of an emperor, and it is extremely interesting to find that some of its features can be traced back to the Vedic Rajasuya described in the Satapatha Brahmana,” wrote author Horace Geoffrey Quaritch Wales, advisor of Siamese King Rama VI and Rama VII.

Pertinent here also is the fact that the Thai royal family has never let a ritual in their family be performed without the presence of Indian priests or those who have learned the hymns in Sanskrit and Tamil. “Thai priests have been taught Sanskrit and Tamil hymns, including Thiruppavai and Thiruvempavai,” said Krongkanit Rakcharoen, the former Consul-General of the Royal Thai Consulate-General in Chennai. “Over a period of time, these hymns formed a salient feature of Thai rituals. The monarchy in Thailand reveres these Indian priests, and no ritual is performed without their presence.”

The similarities between Indian and Thai culture are not restricted to the Royal family and do not stop there. The Island of Phuket has a long-recorded history dating back to 1025 CE, which indicates that the island's present-day name derives its meaning from the Tamil word manikram (crystal mountain), which is equivalent to the Thai words phu meaning “mountain,” and ket meaning “jewel.”

Admiration for Indian deities is perhaps engrained in Thai culture. Dr. Padma Subramaniam, who has honed herself not just as an performing artist but also as an academic, in an interview described, “Once in Thailand, I was invited to the puja room of the Royal Thai Opera and there I saw masks of four deities being worshipped—Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh and Bharatamuni.”

Another striking example is that of the Si Thep Historical Park in Phetchabun's Si Thep district, for which the Thai authorities are striving hard that it be declared a UNESCO world heritage site. Architecture at the site is a mixture of the Buddhism-based culture of the Dvaravati kingdom and Khmer culture, which draws on Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism.

Indian-Thai Relations

This civilizational base on which India-Thailand relations have consistently been nurtured, is a true testament to the countless similarities that exist between both countries. Be it Hinduism or Buddhism; be it any branch of Buddhism or even Indian epics like Ramayana, all have had a deep profound impact in the milieu of Thailand. It will not stop at just one Prof. Pranpandvidya; there will be many more such scholars and ambassadors for India who will emerge from the beautiful country of Thailand.

This significant cultural exchange is not a one-way street. In March, Delhi’s Namaste Thailand Festival was organized by the Royal Thai Embassy and showcases many aspects of Thai culture to Indians. This year’s festival also featured the popular folk jazz music band, Asia 7, from Thailand.

While there is much more to achieve, trade relations between the countries have witnessed a steady rise between 2017 and 2018; bilateral trade has witnessed an increase of 30 percent. An interesting annual study brought out by the North American Cultural Diplomacy Initiative has asserted how aspects such as cultural diplomacy and soft power can catapult enhanced bilateral trade. Historically, too, it is trade that actually played an important role in the expanse of India’s culture reaching the shores of Southeast Asia.

The deep significance that India attaches to Thailand was discernible when Prime Minister Narendra Modi, en route to Japan, stopped in Bangkok to pay homage to late King Bhumibol, in November 2016. Describing King Bhumibol as a “world statesman,” PM Modi said, “His Majesty will always be remembered for his compassion, foresight and commitment for the welfare of his people. His departure from this world is also a loss for the international community.”

As cultural commentator Tiffany Jenkins once put it, “The value of the arts, the quality of a play or a painting, is not measurable. You could put all sorts of data into a machine: dates, colours, images, box office receipts, and none of it could explain what the artwork is, what it means, and why it is powerful.”

Looking Ahead

To date, the special relationship between India and Thailand exists and is there for all to see. This bond has been carefully preserved and carried forward for generations together, so much so that it plays an integral part in the anointment of the King of Thailand, even today.

Traditionally, soft power ties have strengthened strong civilizational links between India and Thailand. There are a number of forms of Indian literature that have influenced Thai culture. It was a means for India to forge ties with Thailand and the larger ASEAN region, and these ties will only grow with contemporary relevance. Recently the ASEAN member countries in Bangkok proposed a distinct outlook toward cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region, and vibrant soft power ties will only enable this key objective bringing India, Thailand and the ASEAN more closer in the economically powerful Indo-Pacific region.

(The article was originally published in the USC CPD blog)

Image source:
Tris_T7 via Wikimedia Commons 

Chennai Soft Power 30 : Brand India Through Performing Arts And Music

Hu Shih, the Chinese philosopher who passed away in 1962, is quoted often for saying, “India conquered and dominated China culturally for 20 centuries without ever having to send a single soldier across her border.”

There is no better way to understand the term, 'soft power' than this; the power to influence with our culture and tradition.

The Center for Soft Power is the 4th Center of India Foundation established in collaboration with Indic Academy. Based in Chennai, the Center has embarked on a unique project labelled, Chennai Soft Power 30.

Through this endeavour they bring to you a series of interviews with 30 top-performing artists of Chennai in the field of music and dance.

Listen in on how they got to go overseas, perform to diverse audiences and leave behind a fragrant reminder of the heights our culture has managed to achieve by blending spirituality with rhythm, movements and melody.

Vikku Vinayakram --- The Ghatam Maestro

A ghatam is just an earthen pot. In Vikku Vinayakram’s hands it is an instrument that transports you into a pulsating rhythmic space that is exhilarating.

His first trip out of India was in accompanying the ever-melodious M S Subbalakshmi for a concert to promote world peace. He says Zakir Hussain is like a brother to him --- they have no common language but the rhythm of their instruments!

When Mickey Hart (Grateful Dead band) insisted that the Grammy award for the album they had created with percussionists from seven countries must be shared by all participants, Vinayakram wrote away his royalty to Maha Periyava --- such is his devotion to music and his guru.

Listen to the whole interview here.

Rajhesh Vaidhya --- The Veena Maestro

Rajhesh says he was forced to learn to play the veena because that was his mother’s wish. He was formally trained under Chitti Babu --- the great veena maestro --- at the latter’s gurukul for three and a half years.

Rajhesh went on his first tour abroad during his tenth board exams, to Australia. He has participated in the Festival of India tours accompanying eight dancers on as many occasions to Russia!

He says his veena sounds unique as he works hard to make it so and the one country that he wishes to perform in, is Japan.

If ever there is a soul for music it is in India. These words by Rajhesh express why Indian classical music is so elevating and satisfying for anyone, anywhere.

Listen to his interview here.

Lydian Nadaswaram --- The Child Piano Prodigy

Lydian is the ‘Mozart of Madras’ playing Western Classical music on the piano with such ease as to leave you wonder struck.

If that is not breathtaking, he has also performed by playing, on two pianos at the same, different tunes on each simultaneously!

This child prodigy is lovingly nurtured by his family and he says that he plays his music to make others and himself happy.

Even having achieved so much already, the little champ says his career is just beginning, that he has a lot to learn and that he must keep practising to get better.

Such dedication, such humility is what defines great love for one’s calling.

Listen to him playing and answering questions here

This is only the beginning of the Chennai Super 30 series. Stay tuned for more.

(This article was originally published in Swarajya Magazine)

The Unhotel holiday experience

Co-founder of the famous OYO Rooms, Manish Sinha left the ad world behind to create a collection of hand-picked cottages, heritage homes, luxury camps, jungle lodges, homestays, beach villas and other accommodation which he calls Unhotels.

Environmental friendly, the Unhotel is not a typical commercial establishment which is usually incidental to the whole travel experience. Manish describes the Unhotel as collective of ‘home-inside-a-hotel’ kind of places.

Their clients are people seeking new experiences, “whether they are adventure-lovers, heritage-enthusiasts, want to explore art, culture, wildlife, anything. It's all about wanting to travel different. They are often well-travelled people who aren't particularly focused on digging deeper but rather on digging smarter. Sometimes that means focusing on their end goal - what they want to achieve from the trip - over a tight budget. They're people who interested equally in seeing more of India but also experiencing things outside, all over the world,” says Manish.

Goa is dream for the nature lover. But even for the frequent Goan vacationer, Unhotel seems to offer a uniquely different experience, away from the mesmerising beaches. Wading through semi-hidden waterfalls and streams; spotting the rare Sambar deer, sloth bear, porcupine, ant eater or the more elusive leopard one can trek through the forests and Savannah-like grasslands. A bird lover’s paradise, one can catch glimpses of the Asian Fairy Bluebird, Rufous Babbler, Great Indian Hornbill, White-bellied Blue Flycatcher and many more.

The Forest Refuge in Goa is hosted by Sylvia Kerkar and John Pollard who together, with a dedicated staff, tend to a variety of tasks at the homestay. John, who is English, is an adventure sports enthusiast and the first to pioneer white water rafting in South India in 1999. He started the first Rafting operations in Peninsular India which later opened up South India’s rivers for recreational white water boating. Pollard, a veritable rafting legend, has taken more than 50,000 people through swirling rapids in rivers in South India. Sylvia is passionate about ceramics and runs her own pottery studio at the Unhotel. She offers classes on demand to visitors.

To capture the essence of Goa, rustic and earthy, the Forest Refuge uses its own basic energy supply which is solar-powered; water is supplied by a waterfall nearby and firewood from the forest is used for cooking in ovens, grills and stoves. And there is no internet or telephone connection, offering a total digital detox.

The Unhotels offer a variety of culinary experiences, depending on what kind of experience a guest wants. “Simple homestays, home cooked food, grandma's secret recipes, and regional delicacies are paired up with gourmet menus and fusion food inventions. Malabar, Chettinad, Goan, Assamese, our culinary options are diverse and inspired,” says Manish.

A celebrity client whom Unhotel hosted at their Granny’s Inn homestay in Varanasi was cine star Dia Mirza who stayed with them while doing a food show for Zee TV. “She was looking for an authentic UP-Bihar meal experience, and we were happy to have her at our inn. We are also very happy to have had her since she's a UN Environment Goodwill Ambassador and a future leader, and our company believes in sustainability.”

The Banarasiya experience is all about traditional sarees, ​a visit​ to a weaver ​family, the history of the ghats, and a thousand temples – while staying at Granny’s Inn run by Manish’s mother in law. The beauty of sur and taal can be experienced during the famous Sankat Mochan Music Festival in April every year. One can take it in in the sprawling verandahs of the Sankat Mochan Hanuman temple.

For the conscious traveller, there is a homestay in the Himalayas to support Ladakhi women. And also an opportunity to visit Sonam Wangchuk’s school in Leh and see his work in water conservation through artificial glaciers. Wangchuk’s solution for the water crisis in Ladakh was to conserve a tower of ice in summer so that when it melts, it feeds the fields until the glacial melt waters start flowing in June. Artificial glaciers formed horizontally on a flat surface melt faster as compared to ice cones which extend vertically upwards towards the sun and which receive fewer of the sun's rays per volume of water stored; taking longer to melt.

The vacation itch for most people is not predictable. The ‘want to get away’ feeling usually strikes one suddenly and people frequently make choices based on budgets, ticket availability, and the experience itself. But apart from all the mundane considerations, Manish says, “People are always looking for meaning and purpose - that is one of the main goals of travel. They are looking to enrich their lives and souls, by seeking local and authentic experiences. There is a dedication to spending time learning about a place, and discovering the land through its art, cuisine, architecture, you name it.”

The serene cottages and homes are located in offbeat places near metros but also away at Varanasi, Goa, Kerala, Rajasthan. “One thing I want people to know is that we are not just a market of homestays and unhotels - we are an experiential travel company. The marketing of properties is only a small, technical part of what we do. Our main focus is on crafting uncommon experiences around wellness, art and culture, conservation, adventure, and the culinary world. We are aimed at the discerning audience towards the premium end of the market.”

Unhotels also offers a good place for writers to beat the block. “We have hosted writers' retreats and creative writing workshops at our Unhotels in the past. We also do book readings, and foster a space where literature and knowledge lovers can work passionately.”

While remote, the places offer luxury. “A major pre-requisite for selecting an Unhotel is safety and comfort. Equally important is service quality and eco-sensitivity. The rest is all about finding a unique story to tell and what captures the imagination when one visits the place - that sums up our entire Unhotel selection process.”

While the hospitality industry relies on standardisation for better recall and branding in its décor and utilities the Unhotel has steered away from stereotypes. “We are not a cookie-cutter travel company, as our name suggests. As a result, we don't have one dominant colour in our decor. Rather, we have dominant themes that reflect fresh-ness, positive energy, softness and tranquillity.”

Manish and his team is constantly on the move, enjoying holidays of their own. Be it boutique hotels in Italy, cosy bed and breakfasts in Scotland, Airbnbs in Switzerland, or eco-hotels in Bali – they are eager to sit back and enjoy a holiday once in a while themselves.

“I love India and Hinduism”- Renee Lynn

Renee Lynn is an activist, author, columnist, and Founder of Voice for India Project - a project committed to elevating the eminence of India, to reestablish the many truths about India, and its magnificent cultural heritage. She travels and tweets about her admiration for India and Hinduism .

Here is CSP’s interview with the zestful American from New Jersey so smitten by India :-—

Why the title India “Stripped” for your book? What is the most urgent truth about India you wish to convey?

I had to write India "Stripped" because India is getting fake publicity about being a dangerous and dirty country. I have to tell the world that India is not like what the Indian or mainstream international media sells it to be. I am passionate and fervently getting this truth out. The truth that India is a safe and beautiful country and has the best hospitality in the world. It is very safe for women also, Indian women and foreigners. As a world traveler, I can honestly tell you this is a fact about India and its people.

 You are a global traveler, exposed to and experienced several cultures. What makes India so special to you?

I love the ancient traditions and culture of India. No other country has such intimate festivals with such a significant meaning behind each one. 

I really love Deepavali so much. I celebrate it with my Indian friends here in the USA. It's heartening to see how everyone feels so happy and open-hearted.The gesture of the exchange of gifts/sweets etc. is so welcoming. People are just in full enjoy celebrating and the best meals are prepared. I love how each of the five days has significance to that particular day. Homes are decorated with lamps and lights, it is kind of similar to Christmas here in the USA. I love to do puja at the Akshardham Temple and BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in New Jersey. I go to both of these temples not just on Deepavali but anytime, any day, to do puja. After walking through the temple and doing puja I just sit on meditation at the temple for long. Most Indians go in for ten minutes and rush out, they don’t even give time for puja. I believe it is important to give your time for puja as much as your best offering.

 I love to indulge and participate in India and Hindu festivals. Each festival is so unique and touching to the soul!

When and how did you connect with India and Hinduism?

My first trip to India was January 2009 and since then I have been back 22 times. I fell in love with India on my first trip, it felt like DejaVu. Connecting with Hinduism was easy for me because it is practical and logical. It teaches love and respect as its main tenets and that for me was touching.Growing up in a Christian household and going to the church at that time, they would be ingrained with hell, doom and gloom to the folks and for me, this is a form of control and entrapment.

What is the loveliest thought and feeling you have about Hinduism?

Hinduism preaches non-violence and vegetarianism and I believe this is how we all should live our lives. I wish the whole world would become vegetarians.

What was not working in the Christian upbringing that you thought was working in Hinduism?

Growing up in the Christian environment brought on anxiety attacks and fear because they forcefully keep saying that you are going to burn in hell if you don’t get right with Jesus. This brings on many emotional and psychological disorders as; depression, anxiety, sleeping problems, etc. When I discovered Hinduism and what it teaches I felt free for the very first time, and I was free from anxiety and fear because I discovered the truth in Hinduism. 

According to you, is India missing to understand something or neglecting anything significant about itself? 

I feel the youth are missing out on the beauty of their country and Hindu heritage because they are too fascinated with the West.The youth have become very anti-Hindu lately. Firstly, they think the West is best and they are emulating everything from the West. They feel that if they proclaim their heritage they will be outcasted by other peers. Many have a very liberal education and thinking, so now they are thinking that it is “uncool” to be Hindu. I believe they also don’t want to act pro-Hindu because of the fear of getting humiliated and ridiculed by their peers. I see it all over the social media sites. I would like to speak to these youths about the beauty of Hindu heritage and the difference between India and the West. They need someone to educate them on the other side of the arena.

Hinduism is the oldest religion in the world and the most rewarding and meaningful. It is necessary to keep alive the meaning of this incredible ancient heritage- the various festivals and customs. Also, it is important to remember that yoga is one of the most beneficial gifts from India that we need to try to incorporate into our lives.

Many seem to be aware of the mistreatment of Hindus in India and they have a good sense of their accomplishments. In my book India Stripped, 2nd edition which just released, I spoke about all the inventions and contributions India has made to the world. Many are aware and many are not. I have received emails from folks that bought my book and said they never knew that about India! So if anyone is interested, my book 2nd edition is available on and Amazon India and Flipkart the first edition is available.

Where is your Voice For India project-based? What is the project about?

Voice For India is based in New York, USA.Voice for India is about motivating, inspiring and encouraging. Voice for India is about exposing the truth about India, that the media is falsely reporting. Voice for India is about supporting Hindu equality in India because Hindus are treated unfairly.

All over India the Hindus are treated unfairly.The government has control over Hindu temples but not Churches or Mosques. The Supreme Court is so unfair when it comes to decisions as in the Sabarimala Temple, the Supreme Court had no right to interfere with this Temple because deity resides in the temple and it’s the deity’s privacy which cannot be violated by constitutional interference. Also, in the case of Lord Ram's birthplace, Subramanian Swamy Ji has been working hard to rebuild the temple and still the Supreme Court keeps giving date after date. In another example, the school syllabus is filled with Moghul's stories and biased against Hindu heritage, Hindus will grow up without even knowing their heritage. Hindus are discriminated against so much and I am fed up with this discrimination!

So many folks want to join in on the Voice for India Movement, so it has been very successful lately. I receive hundreds of emails and comments from folks in India thanking me for making them more patriotic and giving them inspiration. I would like to see in the future everyone taking part and all of us being a voice together.

What are the causes you have stood for?

I have exposed people like Priyanka Chopra, in a video about a year ago, it went viral in India and around the world where she was making Hindus look like terrorists and Pakistan the victims, in her TV series. I have exposed Rahul Gandhi with his vicious agenda about Narendra Modi Ji. I basically will talk about issues where Hindus are discriminated against and I also talk about the importance of Hinduism, these are my main platforms.

Your love for India seems to be genuine and overflowing, have you thought about settling in India?

Yes, in the future I am definitely going to be living in Delhi. I will stay some time in the USA and some time in India, divide it up during the year. India is my Motherland, my Life and the air I breathe, I can’t survive without India.

 Any Indian languages that you can speak and understand well?

I am learning Hindi, am not fluent yet but I can speak basic Hindi and talk to anyone in that format. My reading and writing is much better than my listening and speaking Hindi.

Your best place in the world and why?Your best place in India and why?

India definitely by far, no place in the world can compare to its hospitality, traditions, and culture. I also love the anachronistic way about India.

Delhi is my favorite, it feels like home to me.  I spend most of my time in the Delhi area and I have everything I need at my fingertips and there are so many historic/tourist locations in and around.I also love so many places in South India, it is unique in its own way and very beautiful - Coimbatore, Kodaikanal, Ooty, Pondicherry, and Cochin, just to name a few.

What are the most endearing quality of Indian women ?

Indian women are very hospitable when I come to their homes. They are constantly checking on me to see if I need anything. I love when they invite me to dinner, I know I will be fed the best, and most food I can possibly handle!

Indian women are treated as equal, they have the freedom to choose things in life, not like other countries where women are suppressed.In a survey conducted by The Thomson Reuters Foundation and broadcasted by CNN, they reported that India was the most dangerous country for women. Again, I took revenge on CNN and did another video which also went viral.I stated the facts that how can Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, etc. be less dangerous? These women are not allowed to do anything freely. Indian women in India are educated, they work, make their own income. I have so many female friends in India that are doing just this and they are even driving also, which is banned in the countries that they said was least dangerous than India. So yes, Indian women in India have more freedom than a lot of other countries in the eastern hemisphere. Also, some parts of India are not as free as other parts for women but respectively overall to other countries in the East.

Hinduism has many names and forms of Deities as a symbolic representation of Isvara ( Lord) worshipped in all parts of the country. Any symbol or deity you are devoted to?

 I feel the most connected to Lord Shiva. I know Shiva is with me because I am with Him. 

Your favourite Indian menu.

I love all Indian food but Dal Tadka, Paneer Tikka, Dal Makhini, Sarso ka Saag and Punjabi Hariyali are my favorites.

Your thoughts on Bollywood industry and Yoga. 

I don’t care for Bollywood except for a few actors like Akshay Kumar because Bollywood keeps making a mockery out of Hindu Gods and discriminate against Hindus. 

Yoga is awesome, it is magic to the body, mind and soul.

Your most special Book on India.

Recently, Rajiv Malhotra sent to my house 5 of his books which I am reading, Academic Hinduphobia being the first.Other than that I just love to read anything about India. I am so in love with India you can’t even imagine.

"My statement to India: Please never relinquish your beautiful ancient traditions to follow the West."- Renee Lynn

Cultural Contacts between India and Cambodia: Architecture, Sculptures and Inscriptions

India Foundation’s Center for Soft Power hosted a collaborative discussion on the theme “Cultural Contacts between India and Cambodia: Architecture, Sculptures and Inscriptions” on 16.07.2019. The main speaker of the event was Dr. Chithra Madhavan. The round table was attended by numerous esteemed guests.

"India’s imprints have travelled to Southeast Asia primarily through trade and culture in what is described today as soft power. Cambodia is one of the rare countries which has a temple on its flag", said Dr. Madhavan. She also said "Mount Kulen in Cambodia is made of sandstone. It is considered sacred for both Hindus and Buddhists. It truly symbolises India’s shared heritage with Cambodia."

Dr. Madhavan said "A lot of Indian thought is discernible in the architecture of temples in Cambodia. Inscriptions in Sanskrit can be found too. In Banteay Srei temple, close to 11 inscriptions have been found in Sanskrit." "There is ample proof for links between South Indian temples and Cambodian temples", Dr. Chithra Madhavan said.

Dr. Madhavan alsop said "The tradition of depicting Karaikal Ammaiyar along with Nataraja is ingrained in Chola-period architecture. Ammaiyar belonged to the list of 63 Nayanmar saints. And this tradition has been duly transported across the sea to Cambodia." "The names of the Khmer kings like Jayavarman, Suryavarman, Yashovarman and their cities Shambupura, Ratnagiri, Mahendraparvata have roots in Sanskrit."

"Panels on some important scenes from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Samudra Manthan can be seen at the famous Angkor Wat temple", she explained. Dr. Madhavan said that Ta Prohm is one of the finest Buddhist temples in Cambodia. It was used as a location for the film, Tomb Raider. The interaction ended with CSP felicitating Dr. Madhavan for the interactive session.

Envisioning Museums as Global Soft Power Ambassadors

India Foundation’s Center for Soft Power hosted a collaborative discussion on the theme “Envisioning Museums as Global Soft Power Ambassadors” on 27.06.2019. The main speaker of the event was Dr. Deborah Thiagarajan, Founder Director, Dakshinachitra Heritage Museums. The round table was attended by numerous esteemed guests.

"Museums have always been agents of Soft Power" says Dr. Deborah Thiagarajan, while presenting on the topic 'Envisioning Museums as Global Soft Power Ambassadors'. "Think tanks should work in cohesion with the Govt. to enable Museums are indeed our Global Soft Power Ambassadors.", said Dr. Deborah Thiagarajan.

"Technology can also be a great enabler for museums to reach a far wider audience.", said Dr. Deborah. "China has mastered the art of promoting its museums. India needs to catch up.", said Dr. Deborah.

"Private- Public partnerships can help in mushrooming of quality museums." said Dr. Deborah. The discussion ended with a Q&A session.

“There is no doubt that if India strives to harmonise its domestic and international responsibilities, this can do nothing but benefit its international standing: put simply, it will make people around the world feel glad that India exists”

In his popular TED talk - Which country does the most good for the world?  – Policy advisor Simon Anholt asks the question- why do some people prefer one country more than another?

Based on years of study, he says, “the kinds of countries we prefer are good countries. We don't admire countries primarily because they're rich, because they're powerful, because they're successful, because they're modern, because they're technologically advanced. We primarily admire countries that are good. What do we mean by good? We mean countries that seem to contribute something to the world in which we live, countries that actually make the world safer or better or richer or fairer. Those are the countries we like. This is a discovery of significant importance — you see where I'm going — because it squares the circle. I can now say, and often do, to any government, in order to do well, you need to do good. If you want to sell more products, if you want to get more investment, if you want to become more competitive, then you need to start behaving, because that's why people will respect you and do business with you, and therefore, the more you collaborate, the more competitive you become.” 

Working with Heads of State and Heads of Government, Simon Anholt has helped more than fifty countries to engage more productively and imaginatively with the international community.

In 2014, Anholt founded the Good Country, a project aimed at helping countries work together to tackle global challenges like climate change, poverty, migration and terrorism.

Measurement of Good Country progress is done through Anholt's Good Country Index, the only survey to rank countries according to their contribution to humanity and the planet rather than their domestic performance. Since 2005, his research into global perceptions of nations and cities has collected and analyzed over 300 billion data points. 

In 2016, Anholt launched the Global Vote a project that enables anybody in the world to vote in other countries' elections, choosing the candidate who is likely to do most for humanity and the planet: three months later over 100,000 people from 130 countries took part in the Global Vote on the US Presidential Election. The Global Vote now covers an election somewhere in the world almost every month.

In this interview, he answers questions about positioning and responsibility.

How important is a country's Good Country Index Ranking to its Soft Power Rankings?

I created the Good Country Index in 2014 because analysis of the research I’d conducted during the previous nine years on international perceptions of countries showed that the most significant driver of a powerful and positive national image was the perception that a country contributes to humanity and the planet, outside its own borders and beyond its own population: what I call being a “Good Country”. If we define soft power as a country’s ability to influence by attraction, then there appears to be a strong and direct correlation between the two phenomena.

India is culturally very rich and more diverse than any other country but her rankings for Culture are surprisingly low. What determines cultural soft power?

It’s important to emphasize that in culture, as with all the other rankings in the Good Country Index, we are not measuring domestic achievements or assets, we are measuring external impact (and we’re measuring it at a specific point in time, not attempting to take a historical overview, which would be impossible to achieve in an objective way). The culture rankings in the GCI are not a measurement of each country’s cultural heritage, they provide an indication of the degree to which each country shares and spreads the benefit of its cultural activities and resources, year by year, with the rest of the world outside its own borders, and its contribution to the shared wealth, wellbeing and smooth running of the international community in the area of culture. So India’s undoubted cultural richness and diversity is not what is being measured here: it’s the measurable extent to which this richness and diversity is shared, in a given year, outside India’s own borders.

 It’s also worth stressing that the Good Country Index is entirely driven by hard data that measures the actual behaviours of each country: it does not reflect mine or anybody else’s opinions. This means of course that it is limited by the available data: we use 35 datasets produced by UN agencies and other reputable international organisations. Every indicator must measure the actual behaviours of at least the 165 countries in the index, be conducted every year, and be sufficiently robust, neutral, objective and scientific. Of course, many of the behaviours that I would like to include just aren’t measured in this way, and the Culture rankings are no exception: the Good Country Index can’t and doesn’t claim to offer a complete and exhaustive account of what each country does, it’s just an indicator.

 The indicators we use for the Culture rankings are: Exports of creative goods (UNCTAD's Creative Economy Report categorisation) relative to the size of the economy; exports of creative services (according to ITC's ‘trade in services’ categories 10 and 11) relative to the size of the economy; UNESCO dues in arrears as percentage of contribution (a negative indicator); freedom of movement, i.e. the number of countries and territories that citizens can enter without a visa (according to Henley & Partners); and freedom of the press (based on mean score for Reporters without Borders and Freedom House index as a negative indicator).

India's highest ratings are for health and wellbeing. Again what determines health ratings?

Once again, what we are attempting to measure here is each country’s contribution to international health and wellbeing, not the state’s provision of health and wellbeing to its own citizens (this is not, of course, because I consider domestic behaviour to be unimportant – far from it – but simply because such factors are already measured so thoroughly in so much other research and there’s no point in my repeating all of that excellent work). So the indicators we use in this category are: Food aid funding (according to WFP) relative to the size of the economy; exports of pharmaceuticals (according to ITC) relative to the size of the economy; voluntary excess contributions to World Health Organisation relative to the size of the economy; humanitarian aid contributions (according to UNOCHA) relative to the size of the economy; and International Health Regulations Compliance (according to WHO).

How important is the setting up of cultural centres like the British Council or Alliance Français?

Setting up cultural centres provides a valuable resource for countries to share their cultural wealth with other populations and is always to be encouraged. However, in my experience, the more such initiatives are geared towards genuinely sharing national culture with others, the more value they provide and the more popular they prove: cultural centres that exist purely to promote a nation’s cultural assets and achievements tend to be far less cost-effective. The UK’s British Council often refers to the concept of mutuality: the idea that cultural relations works best when it’s about sharing and mingling cultural engagement rather than promoting cultural assets or achievements, and I endorse this view wholeheartedly. 

What role does Government play and what role does the private sector in diplomacy?

Whilst the private sector can play a useful supporting role in cultural relations and even public diplomacy, it must be absolutely clear that the profit motive can never be relied upon to coincide perfectly or permanently with the national interest, still less the international interest. So strategic and policy decisions should never be relinquished by government to other players, no matter how expedient this may appear in the short term.

What would your advice be for a country like India in improving her rankings...a country which is ancient, peace loving and accepting of all cultures? She does not make overt attempts to convert people's perceptions. Will that go against her?

I certainly do not encourage countries to ‘convert people’s perceptions’, which I regard as a waste of time and money, as well as being an unsuitable and undignified aim for a responsible government. A country improves its rankings in the Good Country Index simply by doing a better job of harmonising its domestic and international responsibilities: doing the right thing for its own people and its own territory without harming – and ideally benefitting – people and places beyond its borders. This is the only way that the community of nations can survive and prosper in the coming years. “America First”, “India First” or “Britain First” is a frankly suicidal approach to governance in the twenty-first century, as long as it means that everyone else needs to come last: the real challenge is helping everyone to come first. There is no doubt that if India strives to harmonise its domestic and international responsibilities, this can do nothing but benefit its international standing: put simply, it will make people around the world feel glad that India exists. 

How important is economic and military influence in Good country rankings.

A country tends to rise in the ranking of the GCI if it uses its economic and military power to help make the world work better (so, for example, participating in UN peacekeeping missions will improve a country’s rank whereas causing deaths outside its own borders in other conflicts will reduce its rank).

Can evaluators and rankings agencies be truly sensitive to indigenous cultures?

 Since the Good Country Index focuses exclusively on the external impacts of countries, the amount of sensitivity shown by any individual government towards indigenous cultures will not affect its GCI ranking. Again, it should be stressed that the reason why I don’t measure this factor in the GCI is not because I think it unimportant – quite the contrary – but because the purpose of this particular index is to measure each country’s contribution to the international community rather than towards its own people. There is a good deal of research conducted each year on such purely domestic issues, and I would recommend that anyone who is interested in comparing countries on this basis should refer to this other research.

(Anholt is an Honorary Professor of Political Science and the author of five books about countries, cultures and globalisation. He is the founder and Editor Emeritus of a leading academic journal focused on public diplomacy and perceptions of places.)

“Learning and teaching Samskritam has made my life complete!”- author Medha Michika

Michika Inuzuka transformed herself from being a student of  Environmental Science at California State University into a life long student of Vedanta. She is a former software engineer at Bandai America and Panasonic USA. 

Michika left everything in pursuit of the study of Vedanta scriptures such as Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, and Brahma Sutras under Pujya Shri. Swami Dayananda Saraswatiji, a world renowned and revered traditional teacher of Advaita Vedanta. She started studying under Pujya Swamiji from 2007. 

Now Medha Michika is a Sanskrit teacher and author of books on Sanskrit Alpabhets, Sanskrit Grammar, book of verbal roots based on dhaatupaaTha of paaNini and many more! Her books  are available at under "Books on Sanskrit Grammar”for free download. Printed version of her books are available at and All profit from the sales of her books go towards  charitable works, mainly for printing books in India to be donated to Arsha Vidya Gurukulams in Anaikatti, Rishikesh, and Saylorsburg, or as direct donation to these ashrams.

Here is CSP’s  interview with Medha Michika:

According to you , what is the significance of Samskritam ?

Samskritam is a language of the Veda.The Vedas teach Dharma ( righteous deeds) and Moksha (ultimate freedom), the goals only human beings can achieve due to their faculty of thinking and ability to make choices. Samskritam is a unique language which helps you understand the language of the Veda, that fulfills you and makes you a complete human being. 

How did you get adept in speaking the English language?

Besides reading and talking with college students in USA, our family used to host people that really helped me in speaking good English.

When did you begin teaching Samskritam, what methodology have you developed in writing your books?

When  I was in Rishikesh studying under Pujya Swamiji, I started helping other students of Vedanta in learning Samskritam, from Devanagari script to Panini sutras.

I just follow the methodology of traditional learning and teaching method of Panini-sutras while writing. In my books,I have presented this traditional method in visual forms so that students with modern educational background can easily learn and grasp.

Let me explain a few terms. To understand these terms, one should have studied Panini to some extent. This discussion is meant only for those :-

As a prakriya , the methodology of leaning Panini-sutras, Kaumudi  is the best. Not many people know that this book is for studying Ashtaadhyaayii.When you study a sutra in Kaumudi, you must look up Ashtaadhyaayii sutra-paatha and pick up anuvrttis, then bring necessary words by referring to appropriate Paribhaashaas,and finally make a complete vrttiby rearranging the entire words. One can also refer to commentaries of Kaumudi and Kashika.

How has teaching Samskritam changed your life?

It has made me more patient, relaxed and accepting of myself and others.Of course Samskritam is essential for studying theShaastra! Teaching has given me the depth of understanding the language and  has got me  involved  in the parampara of teaching too!

How is Hindu tradition different form Japanese tradition, what are their similarities?

Differences :

Most of the things are diagonally opposite in the two traditions. For example, in Hindu tradition, people have trust in Bhagavan, the cosmic order, while Japanese people trust in the orders made by human beings  and follow them rigidly.

In India, Vedic values such as study of Shaastra, being a Sanyaasi, giving, selfless service, knowledge of Samskritam, etc. are highly regarded, while in Japan, these principles are not even known.


While listening to the teacher, interrupting the flow of teacher's words by asking question is not considered to be proper in both traditions in India and Japan.Though we don't have the idea of the Lord, the creator, the omniscient and omnipotent, we are in general quite open to see divinity in everything and in worship.Another similarity is we also keep quiet while listening to the teaching !

What motivated you to study scriptures/Vedanta? How did you join Arsha Vidya Gurukulam?

When I was a little child around 5/6 years old, my mother told me  that my existence cannot be defined by "girl" or "Japanese".That really gave me a solid trust in myself, and easily paved the way for the study of Vedanta.

Years later, during my stay in Rishikesh,I was learning Hindustani music and fond of witnessing Hindu rituals, chanting and reciting prayers.The interest to know the meaning of the prayers made me study Samskritam by myself, which of course did not work!

Some people suggested  I go to Shri.Dayananda Ashram. I went to the Ashram in Rishikesh to learn Samskritam, not knowing what exactly to expect.There were no Samskritam classes when I visited the Ashram. Instead, there was a class on Mundaka Upanishad. I heard the class, and immediately  understood that everything that happened in my life was meant to pursue the study of Vedanta. From that day onwards, there has been no turning back in my life. Now, my whole life is centered on the study of Vedanta.

What does your name mean then and now ? 

Michika means "auspicious and gorgeous”. The name Medha is given by Pujya Swamiji which means “intellect “. This is a great blessing to me!

What do you find about India that you don't find anywhere else?

I am inspired by the value systems in India in keeping with higher human goals like - Dharma, Moksha, study of Shaastra, life style and attitude of a Sanyaasi, values of giving, selfless service, and knowledge of Samaskritam.P

Is there any other way to find peace besides studying Shaastras?

Shaastra is meant for finding ultimate peace, which cannot be found in any life  experience or philosophy!

What has been you most gratifying experience so far?

That I was lucky enough to study under Pujya Swamiji.

How do you wish to carry on the legacy of your revered Guru?

By continuing the study and teaching the Shaastra, as guided by Pujya Swamiji.

What keeps your life busy?

Studying and teaching, and moving around the world for that purpose.

Where do you teach Samskritam?

I teach at Rishikesh Ashram,Anaikatti Gurukulam,Japan,Bali and Singapore on a regular basis. In Japan many Yoga students also attend my classes. 

If you wish to change something in your life, what would it be?

Nothing. Meeting Pujya Swamiji and studying the Shaastras has made my life complete and perfect!


Abhanga Repost – taking Bhakti poetry to youngsters

In an informal jam recording of the song – Pundalik Varde, the members of the Abhanga Repost band can be seen sitting in a tiny room in t-shirts and shorts, reciting the names of all the sants of the Varkari Sampradaya.  Not the lyrics one would expect from geeky youth – the names of the gurus of the bhakti movement associated with the Varkaris including Jnanesvar, Namdev, Chokhamela, Eknath, Tukaram and Gadge Maharaj.

Abhanga Repost is a folk fusion band which performs Abhangas written by these composers who worshipped Vittala (or Vithoba) in Maharashtra. But they have given these age-old compositions a modern twist.

Guitarist and vocalist Ajay Vavhal, harmonium player Piyush Aacharya, bass guitarist Swapnil Tarphe, tabla player and multi-percussionist Viraj Aacharya and drummer Dushyant Deorukhkar have come together to create a buzz around the Abhanga.

Historically, the Abhanga has influenced many musical traditions in India. The Sangeetha Ratnakara of Sarangadeva, one of the most important musical texts of India, was from Devgiri, which is in present-day Aurangabad. Both Hindustani and Carnatic traditions consider this to be a definitive text on music.

One expert on Abhangas told this author that while the first example of a scientifically composed South-Indian krithi was Jayadeva’s Ashtapadis, it happened at the same time as the Marathi Abhangas during Sant Gyaneshwar’s period. Marathi Abhangas have the same structure as krithis -- eight lines and then the writers’ name at the end. Ashtapadis are sung in different locations in different manners. And the dhruvapada, which is the most important part in a composition is still sung in a chorus only in Marathi abhangas today.

He adds that the Varkari Sampradaya (those who walk by foot every year to Pandharpur on Ashada and Karthika Ekadashi) laid a lot of stress on community development and music in the community had to come through the participative element, irrespective of gender.

The dhruvapada is structured in such a way that the pitch is common to male or female voices. This unique feature of the Marathi abhanga is not to be found anywhere else in the world. It uses pakhawaj (percussion instrument) as an accompaniment which has a lot of base frequency. It also uses a very different tala structure of high frequency. Anyone listening is touched as it traverses the entire range of frequency of human receptivity. 

All the members of the Abhanga Repost band have a good sense of Indian classical music as they have performed with different classical/fusion bands/artistes. “We have been listing to Indian classical music since our school days and we also try to incorporate classical music in our compositions of Abhanga,” says Swapnil.

Tabla player Viraj is undergoing training under Pandit Ramdas Palsule and his brother and harmonium player Piyush has been trained by Pandit Ajay Jogalekar. He is also undergoing vocal training from Vidushi Nandini Bedekar. The band members also try to attend different classical baithaks to experience the nuances of Indian classical music.

The band was started in 2016 by Swapnil and Dushyant whose families are from the Varkari Sampradaya and so were familiar with these Abhangas. College mates, their mutual love for music and a sense of community brought them together. The lyrics of the Abhangas, deeply allegorical, appealed to the two youngsters. “Each Abhanga has message for a society. It is so commendable that whatever these saints wrote hundreds of year ago, is still applicable in the 21st century, be it be a call for revolution by Tularam, Bhakti worship by Dnyaneshwar or social awareness by Eknath.”

Abhangs are typically very high energy renditions, where the devotees dance, play the dholak and cymbals and everyone joins in the chorus. “In the traditional renderings many Indian instruments were used as accompaniments while presenting the songs. So we too decided to retain its originality by using the tabla and harmonium (which are a must in an Abhanga rendition.) The guitar imitates 'iktari' and drums and the bass guitar plays the role of the Pakhwaj and Dhol and this is how we 'Repost' it!” says Swapnil.

He adds, “Our performance is nothing but a modern 'Kirtan'. We also dress traditionally while performing to keep that folk feel intact. We don't wear the clothes which the varkaria wear but yes we make sure our clothes don't look out of place.”

The band spends a lot of time on research on every Abhanga they render before tuning it, to maintain integrity with the original as well as to retain the meaning. They say while they themselves like all Abhangas, 'Lahanpan dega deva' and 'Amhi bi-Ghadalo' by Sant Tukaram are immensely popular amongst listeners.

Lyrics of 'Lahanpan dega deva'

lahan pan dega deva | mungi sakhrecha rawa ||

airawat ratan thor |tyasi ankushcha mar||
jaya angi mothepan |taya yatana kathin ||

tuka mahne barve| jan whave lahahuni lahan||

mahapure zade jati| tehte lavhael wachati||

The lyrics refer to Sant Tukaram beseeching the Lord to give him back his childhood because it is the only time when man is without Ahamkara or pride.

The band members say for them Bhakti, revolution, art and music are the same. “One has to practice dedicatedly to achieve these things. We can say these are different roads leading to one destination that is divinity or inner piece!”

Their novel approach has brought new audiences to Indian music. “We have received messages from many people who are non-Maharashtrians telling us they were touched by the beauty of the Abhangas. We have also been successful in taking this literature to youngsters who identify with a young band like us.”

The Abhanga has travelled far from its early underpinnings. Sant Namdev has written poetry in Punjabi and his work feature in the Guru Granth Sahib. It is also commonly believed that Abhangas influenced Carnatic music, more specifically the Dakshina Bhajana sampradaya first started by Maruthanallur Swamigal. This in turn influenced the Trinity when Thanjavur was under Marathi rule. “So basically the concept is not confined to Maharashtra. We haven't yet played in the southern part of India but we would love to perform there and spread the wisdom of these beautiful poems,” says Swapnil.