India enjoys a strong, positive image in Brazil

June 17, 2019: At India Foundation’s Center for Soft Power in
Chennai, we hosted Mr. Shobhan Saxena and Ms. Florencia Costa from Brazil for
an interaction on "From Soft-Power Influence to Economic and Political
Gains: India’s Engagement with Brazil and the South American Region".

Mr. Saxena is the President of Indian Association of Brazil.
He is a scholar and cultural entrepreneur. He is the founder of BRIC Street, a
Sao Paulo-based organisation working on creating a cultural communication,
bridging the knowledge deficit and building people-to-people contact while
promoting trade between Brazil and India. He is also the founder of Bloco
Bollywood, the first and only Indian street carnival in Brazil.

Ms. Florencia Costa is a journalist and cultural curator.
Costa has been a journalist for more than 20 years and has worked as foreign
correspondents in Moscow, London, Mumbai and New Delhi. She is the co-founder
of Bloco Bollywood and the co-founder of BRIC Street. She is also the editor of
a Brazilian website on Indian culture.

In the sidelines of the interaction, we spoke to them on
understanding more about their initiatives towards enabling India in Brazil
through Bloco Bollywood and in other ways.

The
interview with Shobhan:

When did you move to Brazil? What are some of your areas of work and
initiatives towards enabling India’s image in Brazil and South America?

I moved to Brazil in the year 2012, as a journalist.  In the past six years, I have reported
extensively for various Indian and foreign publications about Brazil and South
America, including the FIFA World Cup 2014 and Rio Olympics 2016. I have also
focused on India’s bilateral engagement with Brazil and multilateral forums like
BRICS, G-20, IBSA, G-4 and WTO, etc. Besides reporting, I have taught courses
on Indian foreign policy, politics, society and cinema at the University of Sao
Paulo. I regularly give lectures on Indian economy and foreign policy at
Brazil’s top universities, think tanks and other institutions. In the past six
years, I have given many lectures on the Indian Constitution, Dr B R Ambedkar,
Sardar Patel, Yoga and Meditation, at the Indian Cultural Centre of ICCR at Sao
Paulo.

As the president of Indian Association (2016-2020), I have
been organizing Indian festivals like Holi, Diwali, Onam, Durga Puja,
Independence Day and Yoga Day events in Brazil, which all attract a large
number of Indian expats and our Brazilian friends.

Image source: Bloco Bollywood

My biggest contribution to the promotion of Indian culture
in Brazil has been the creation of Bloco Bollywood, an Indian street Carnival
in Sao Paulo where we play traditional Indian and Bollywood music. In just four
years, our Bloco has become one of the top carnival parties in Sao Paulo, with
huge media coverage in Brazil’s top TV channels, newspapers and magazines. This
year, we attracted more than 8,000 people – Indians, Brazilians and other expat
communities. Today, the Bloco is the biggest Indian gathering and festival in
South America, with Indian associations from other countries asking us to take
Bloco Bollywood to places like Argentina and Chile. The Bloco has helped in
creating a very positive image of India and our vibrant and colourful
culture. 

What are some of the key areas of work for your wife, Florencia Costa?

Florencia Costa, also a journalist by profession, has lived
and worked in India for seven years. She has a lot of interest and engagement
with Indian culture and festivals. A co-founder of Bloco Bollywood, she is instrumental
in promoting our Bloco among the Brazilians and also in the local media. She is
also a regular speaker on India-related issues at various media outlets, think
tanks and universities. She has just covered the Indian election 2019 for
Brazil’s top magazine Veja, explaining to its readers the vibrancy of Indian
democracy.

She has created a new website called Beco da India (The
Indian Street), a Portuguese site aimed at Brazilians that takes a 360 degree
look at Indian culture and Indian cultural activities in Brazil and other South
American countries. We plan to launch the site in July.

Tell us about the Indian community in Brazil and their areas of work.

We may have a total of 5,000 Indians living and working in
the country. The majority of these people (3,000) are based in the state of Sao
Paulo and Sao Paulo city. All members of the community are represented by the
Indian Association of Brazil, which is the sole Indian organization in Brazil.
The members of Indian community are involved in trade (textiles and consumer
goods), academics, education and businesses like IT, pharma, petroleum, food
and cultural activities. Most Indian MNCs like TCS, Infosys, Wipro, Reliance,
Lupin, Dr Reddy’s, Ranbaxy and Vedanta have their Latin American head offices in
Sao Paulo. The community is slowly but surely growing in numbers as trade and
other engagements between the two countries grow.

Bloco Bollywood seems to have gradually evolved into a fine show of
strength for the Indian diaspora in Brazil. As its founders what do you have to
say about its evolution?

The real Brazilian Carnival happens in the streets in the
form of music and dance parties called Blocos. Somehow, the energy and nature
of Blocos in Brazil reminded me of the street processions we have in India
(Ganesha in Mumbai or marriage processions on the streets of any Indian city).
In 2016, after living here for more than 4 years, I realized that many
Brazilians had an interest in Indian music and dances, especially Bollywood,
but they did not really understand its nuances. So I, with my wife, decided to
create an Indian Bloco as an experiment. Our first Bloco happened in February
2016 in Sao Paulo. We invited the members of the Indian community and our
Brazilian friends to the street party. More than 700 persons, mostly Indians
but some Brazilians, turned up at the Bloco, which is a free, non-commercial
event open to all. For five hours, we played Bollywood songs, Indian pop and
bhangra and dandiya numbers, with people dancing non-stop to the music. Because
of its unique nature, our Bloco got extensive media coverage as people turned
up in colourful Indian costumes.  

Image source: Bloco Bollywood

Today, in just four years, it has become the biggest Indian
event in entire South America. In 2019, we had more than 8,000 people at two Blocos
in different locations. It just shows the power of Indian music, dances and costumes
to attract people. The Bloco has also given a big boost to all Indian
restaurants in Sao Paulo and all Indian textile traders have benefitted from
it, with a hike in sales of Indian dresses close to the carnival.

Given the Bloco’s popularity, we hope to turn it into an
important vehicle for promoting Indian softpower in Brazil with the tagline of
"Happiness and Peace". We are also working on a social project to
give free English classes to underprivileged children and young prisoners, with
the purpose of boosting the image of the Indian community in Brazil.

What does the BRIC Street do? When was it founded?

BRIC Street was founded in 2018. We have just opened an office
in Sao Paulo, with the purpose of increasing people- to-people contact between
India and Brazil, besides promoting business and trade links between the two
countries. We will have two websites: one to promote Indian culture in Brazil
in Portuguese language and the other one (in English) to work as a resource
centre cum online think tank for people working on India-Brazil relations. We
also plan to organise an annual seminar and conference called India Dialogue
Series in Sao Paulo, with the objective of promoting business, cultural and
economic links between the two countries, besides showcasing India’s cultural
prowess in Brazil and other South American countries. We plan to host the first
India Dialogue in October 2019, in the run up to the BRICS summit in Brazil in
November.

What is it about India that resonates with the Brazilian population?

Brazil is a country where India enjoys a very positive
image. Also, as the Brazilian culture itself is a mixture of three cultures -
European, African and indigenous – the people here are very open to other
cultures. Indian things like Yoga, Ayurveda and classical dances are well-known
here. Indian food and Bollywood are also becoming popular. Bloco Bollywood has
generated a lot of buzz about India, with our team being invited to the top TV
shows and getting live coverage on the country’s main channels and wide
coverage in newspapers and magazines. Today, Bloco Bollywood has become the
main vehicle of Indian culture in Brazil. We have introduced Bhangra, Garba and
Bollywood-style dancing on the streets of Sao Paulo. We have also trained a
team of drummers from University of Sao Paulo in playing Bhangra beats. Now,
one of the top and iconic Samba schools in Sao Paulo has approached us to do a
partnership with us. We are also exploring the possibility of getting Indian
folk dancers from India to introduce different Indian dance forms in Brazil and
create a fusion of Indian-Brazilian music and dance.  

Image source: Bloco Bollywood

Do you see India’s soft power influence translating into strong
economic and political relations with Brazil?

Yes, definitely the potential is there. But a concerted
effort has to be made by the government, community organizations, Indian
businesses, cultural centres, chambers of commerce and influential individuals
to make that happen. In that direction, it is very important to bring all
stakeholders on a common platform and to work on it regularly and intensely.
The proposed India Dialogue by BRIC Street is a step in that direction. With
resources and efforts, it can become a platform for promoting business and
trade through Indian soft power in Brazil and all other South American nations.

When did the Indian Association for Brazil start and what is its vision
and mission?

The Indian Association was founded in 1997. That time the
community was really small and the activities of the Association were limited
to organising a few festivals for the members of the Indian community. With the
increase in the number of Indian people, businesses and cultural activities in
Brazil, the Association has grown a lot since then, with a huge jump in its
members and activities. The Association has three basic missions:

  • Providing a platform for the members of the
    Indian community to organise Indian festivals and cultural programmes
  • Promoting Indian philosophy and culture in
    Brazil
  • Doing social activities for the local community
    in Brazil

The Association has a big piece of land (18,000 square metres)
near the city of Sao Paulo and it is working on developing it as a community
centre and a place to promote Indian culture, especially Yoga and Meditation.

Could you describe more about Florencia’s Brazilian website and its
different facets?

Beco da India (The Indian Street) will take a 360 degree
look at Indian culture with sections like Yoga, Meditation, Philosophy,
Cuisine, Music, Dance, Bollywood, Travel, Social Enterprises and Innovation.
The site, in Portuguese language, will be a complete resource centre for the
Brazilians who are interested in Indian culture. At the same time, it will be a
platform for all artists and musicians and dancers who are involved in Indian
cultural activities in Brazil. The site will act as a bridge between innovators
and social entrepreneurs for collaboration.

Yoga and movies are definite strong pillars of soft power. What are the
futuristic aspects of India’s soft power that can bring both Brazil and the
entire South America closer to India to strengthen relations?

Besides the Indian Embassy in Brazil and the Indian Consulate
in Sao Paulo, which organise several Indian events, the main organizer of
Indian events here is the Indian Association. We organize Holi, Diwali, Onam,
Navaratri, Durga Puja, and the Indian Independence Day every year. With more
resources, we plan to make these events bigger and better so that more
Brazilians get an exposure to Indian culture.

Image source: Bloco Bollywood

Image source: Bloco Bollywood

Now, as Bloco Bollywood has become popular across Brazil, we
plan to use it as a platform for promoting Indian Culture, Philosophy, Cinema,
Cuisine, Meditation, Music, Dance and other art forms. We also plan to join
hands with local organisations to create festivals around the theme of India.

The best way to promote Indian culture in South America is
to create a roving Indian festival, which can travel from one country to
another and also use the local talent in each country to give a complete
exposure to Indian culture to our South American friends.

We are already working on creating the Federation of Indian
Associations of South America (FIASA), a collective of all Indian associations
in South America. Active by 2020, the Federation will help in pooling in
resources for the promotion of Indian culture and trade links with South
America.