The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Behold the lotus in London

There has been no lovelier Indian exhibition in Britain than that which miraculously appeared last week in the forecourt of the British Museum — an Indian themed garden that reflects the rich botanical diversity of India.

This has everything from the Banyan to the Betel nut palm, Peepul, Marigold, Bamboo and Mango. Flowers we may not easily find, say in Salt Lake City in Calcutta — such as the Himalayan Blue Poppy, Purple Roscoea and Sweet Box — are also in evidence. An essential ingredient is the Holy Tulsi (Basil), before which the Indian High Commissioner Shiv Shankar Mukherjee lit a lamp to inaugurate the launch of the Indian summer at the British Museum.

The project is a unique collaboration between the British Museum and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, two world famous institutions which coincidentally celebrate their 250th anniversary this year.

In the Indian garden there is now even a lotus pool. Perhaps when the weather turns a little cooler, we can return the compliment and construct an English garden, say, in the heart of Calcutta. Entry to the garden is free until it is dismantled, sadly, on September 27. Of course, it will be a challenge to look after the delicate plants, especially the Tulsi, on the chilly nights we get even at the height of summer.

One thought occurs to me: Calcutta is incredibly lucky to have a botanic gardens that is quite lush and wonderful as anyone who has visited it will confirm. But the place needs tidying up — and who better to help than the folk, leading world experts in their fields, at Kew? There should now be some form of collaboration between the botanic gardens in Calcutta and London. Apparently there once was. That partnership needs to be revived.

Whirlwind stories

By the time I managed to get to the Aicon Gallery, just off Regent Street, the artist, Jayashree Chakravarty, has flown back home to Calcutta. But no matter, since the artist should be defined by the paintings displayed in her solo show, The Wind Whispers.

A young woman at the gallery, who works in marketing and promotions, gave me a tour of the detailed and disturbing paintings which have a “loose narrative”. Jayashree, she tells me, was inspired by “her life in Salt Lake”. Once, there was apparently fish in the area before bulldozers moved in to bring progress, parks and pizza.

The artist’s fascination with insects is explained by their ability to detect storms and natural disasters before they cause devastation. Her most striking painting of nature claiming back its own — Salt Lake? — in a fierce whirlwind is left untitled but which should perhaps be called Duranta Ghurni (Uncontrollable whirlwind).

Great Game

For quite some time now the Tricycle in Kilburn has been by far my favourite theatre. This is because of the way it turns contemporary events into drama and tries to give audiences a deeper understanding of the truth behind the daily headlines — something we should definitely try in India. Examples are Justifying War, based on Lord Hutton’s inquiry into the death of the arms inspector Dr David Kelly, and Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom, which examined the cases of three detainees, including a British Muslim, Moazzam Begg, in the American prison in Cuba.

But I believe that the Tricycle, under its long time artistic director, Nicolas Kent, has surpassed itself with The Great Game: Afghanistan.

What we are offered are 18 plays, spread across three manageable portions, each about two hours in length. I spent a whole day, from 10am to 10pm, watching the three parts and feel as virtuous as those who still talk of having experienced Peter Brook’s nine-hour long production of the Mahabharata in Edinburgh in 1985.

At the end, I felt I had received a welcome crash course on Afghanistan. In one play, Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad, an Afghan character, is challenged by a British sentry, “Why are you here?” The Afghan’s reply — “I was born here” — seems to me to sum up the whole Afghanistan tragedy.

Maybe we should have had a play revealing how and why the ISI created the Taliban. What I would have loved to have seen included in the Tricycle’s The Great Game was a stage adaptation of the old Indian film, Kabuliwallah, based on the 1916 Tagore short story.

The Tricycle’s next play should be Singur.

Empire building

The Nehru Centre in London will soon have lots of brothers and sisters scattered across the globe.

“We are now on the threshold of a major expansion,” I am informed by Pavan K. Varma, director general of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) who was once director of the Nehru Centre in London, now run by his glamsham colleague, Monika Mohta.

In a shock and awe inspiring demonstration of Indian “soft power”, the ICCR’s budget has rocketed from Rs 60 crore three years ago to Rs 170 crore. Before Pavan pushes off from Delhi to Bhutan as Indian ambassador, he is putting in place the establishment of 14 new ICCR branches to add to the existing 24.

Pavan is very happy with the elegant premises he has checked out in Paris — over a chilled Chablis, I trust. Other branches are opening in Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Dhaka, Abu Dhabi and Washington.

“If the situation allows” he would one day soon like to open a branch in Pakistan — “and why not?”

“Soft power,” explains Pavan, author of Being Indian, “is the ability to project what makes your country unique in cultural terms. Its culture plus heritage plus the factors that identify it — democracy, plurality, a growing economy, an ancient culture and a resilient and vibrant civilisation. You package all that together and that’s your soft power.”

As for the word as written by regional language Indian authors, his recommendation is for “translation, translation, translation, translation”. He warns the book reading culture and intellectual life in India won’t improve until universities once again become centres of learning — he says “the quality of scholarship is abysmal in university departments”. Indians at the London Book Fair said Supriyadi’s (Chaudhuri) English department at Jadavpur University was something of an exception.

Tittle tattle

The subject why Indians don’t generally write biographies that reveal a subject’s unflattering aspects along with the good came up at the London Book Fair.

It was pointed out that the possible response from a subject’s followers had to be taken into account for their literary criticism could sometimes find forthright expression.

Ramachandra Guha disclosed at a panel discussion that he would love to write a biography of Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, the chief architect of the Indian constitution who was born into a Dalit family.

“My grandfather called himself a Brahmin so I cannot write about Ambedkar,” he reasoned.

He was unable to write a biography of the nationalist leader, Veer (Vinayak Damodar) Savarkar, either, because “I have to protect my children”.

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