Distinction in travel journalism
Is independent travel journalism important to you?
Click here to keep it independent

17 Sep, 2012

Exclusive: The Challenge of Changing India’s Image in Thailand

Bangkok, 17 September 2012 – Three years after being appointed to head the first Indian Cultural Centre in Thailand, Renuka Narayanan is returning home a changed woman. In the process of actively promoting Indian culture, and raising the image of India and Indians, she herself has gained a greater depth of knowledge about Thailand and its deep cultural, social and ethnic links with India. Most important, her stay has been a discovery about herself.

Renuka Narayanan in front of an M.F.Husain painting which greets visitors at the reception area of the Indian Cultural Centre, Bangkok

“When I first came, I knew I would have to start from scratch,” she said in an interview. “I knew there was not much awareness of India and that there were a number of perceptions in place, and I wanted the cultural centre to be a clear window on India, modern India, beyond the the India of Bollywood and the India of clichés. The image of India was that we were considered either very rich or very poor. I wanted to focus on the “thinking India” which was in the middle. I realised that ‘my’ India and my kind of Indians were relatively unknown to Thailand.”

The biggest challenge was dealing with some of the negative perceptions of Indians as “khaek” that have formed over the last 150 years, she said. “I always wondered why this happened, when the Indian community is so hardworking and Indians are hospitable, fun-loving and friendly people in general. However, that journey of discovery took me beyond the traditional areas of Gujranwala (now in Pakistan) and Gorakhpur (North India), two townships to which a number of the Thai-Indian families can trace their roots.

Renuka said the shared Buddhist heritage provided a strong foundation. “The Thai way of life may be centered geographically on Buddha-bhumi (and its origins in North India) but in a million things that have to do with everyday life, the culture Thailand is from South India. That is not articulated enough. As a South Indian, I see it all over the place — in the Thai script or the classical language. Many of the words are the same. Did you know that Chennai is virtually on the same latitude as Bangkok directly across the Bay of Bengal? There was a flourishing tin trade between South Thailand and South India. I had goosebumps when I started discovering this.”

Look East Policy

The Cultural Centre in Bangkok was opened as part of the Indian government’s Look East policy. Similar to the British Council or Alliance Francaise, the centres are the cultural arm of the Indian External Affairs Ministry. Initiated by Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, there are 35 such centres worldwide. Besides ICC Bangkok, there are Indian Cultural Centres in this region at Jakarta, Bali, Kuala Lumpur and Tokyo.

Born in Delhi into a Brahmin family from South India, Renuka Narayanan studied in Delhi and Mumbai and completed a Masters degree in Linguistics from Delhi University. She speaks Hindi, Tamil, Urdu, English and basic French. After living and working in her 20s in Europe and dealing with some personal crises in her 30s, she moved into journalism first as religion columnist and Arts Editor for The Indian Express and then Editor, Religion and Culture, Hindustan Times, wrote columns and books, scripted TV serials and explored the entire gamut of India’s cultural richness while interviewing artists, sculptors, musicians and many more, both in India and abroad.

“It was a very busy and exciting life. Then, one day in April 2009 the phone rang and this job was offered. After some thought, I said to myself, why not? I was going to be 50 years old, in a mood to take risks. Life was telling me to explore another bandwidth. I thought it would be a great learning experience. I would be leaving a high-profile job and a great life in Delhi. But I received a lot of affirmations from friends and colleagues.

“I knew that my biggest challenge would be learning how to run a government office, but they assured me I would get the required admin staff. My next question was, why me? They said I had a background that they felt could be of some use in contributing to the work of our Embassy in Bangkok. I was not sure of that but I knew I wanted to find out. It is always exciting being the startup person. There is a certain responsibility and expectation placed on you to start something, that too something as humongous, complex and frightening as promoting Indian culture.”

Renuka decided to take the job. “I felt I would still be a cultural communicator in the public domain, which is my core competency. But the audience would change, mediated by the rules attached to a diplomatic assignment. My role would shift to being an administrator and arranger from being a performer myself, an interesting proposition requiring a mental paradigm shift that appealed to the spirit of both professional adventure and personal discovery.

“India, my motherland, to whom I owed everything, would be The Performer. A thrilling prospect, for at the end of the day we all work for India. I looked forward to sharing many things that we Indians found interesting and beautiful. And our old books offered a very good tip – always keep in mind whom are you communicating to. The Upanishads say that when someone shows up at a guru’s ashram asking questions, the first response should be: “Who is asking?”


She adds, “I did a lot of homework before coming here. I spoke to several dynamic people in India, many of whom were cultural administrators and activists. I got inputs from people at the policy level, at the field officer level, as well as at the Thai embassy in Delhi. I spoke to many Thais who have studied in India. I got a headful of ideas. But it was not until I touched down in Bangkok (in August 2009) and began exploring the city and meeting regular Thai people in regular situations, that it all began to sink in.

“It took me sometime to take in the surroundings. I found that the Thais know a lot more about India than they let on, and have high level of consciousness about being Asian. They seemed to be telling me, ‘We too are multi-cultural (like Indians). You may find an overriding Buddhist or Hindu template but there is a multi-cultural dimension to our society. Everyone is a potpourri of Chinese, Indian and even Malay cultures. We are a mixture of so many things.’ I personally found that there is an open mindedness and exuberance that everyone shares.”

The centre was inaugurated in September 2009. Thereafter, it took more than a year to fully activate it, while navigating the complexities of running a government office. Once set up, Renuka unleashed a torrent of programmes — from art exhibitions to music and movies, lectures and dance performances. She says, “The exciting part was the fieldwork and devising new programmes and building bridges while doing a cultural mapping of Thailand. This was my biggest advantage. I was able to think out of the textbook. The support of our present Ambassador, Mr Anil Wadhwa, was critical. India House, the new ambassadorial residence, reflects his interest in Indian culture via his personal art collection and that of his wife, Mrs Deepa Gopalan Wadhwa, herself the Indian Ambassador to Japan.”

“In our startup years, I first tried to bring on board all the available Indian talent in Bangkok and also tried to establish relationships with interesting Thai partners and the Thai arts and culture community. We held photography exhibitions, talks on esoteric subjects such as the Ashok Chakra and King Jayavarman VII, sari demo-exhibitions with prints of the north and weaves of the south, henna demonstrations and classical music and dance performances and a series on Indian cookery called ‘Masala Matters’.

“We worked with Srinakharinwirot University (music), Silpakorn University (art), the Sathirakoses-Nagapradipa Foundation (art and literature), the Friends-of-the-Arts Foundation (dance), World Musiq (culture festivals), Carpe Diem Galleries (art), and several other dynamic Thai friends, including those at the Siam Society, the National Museum Volunteers, the National Gallery and Bangkok Arts & Culture Centre and the Buddhadasa Indapanno Archives. They added greatly to our knowledge of Thai culture.

“Events were also held upcountry, such as in Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Pattalung and Nakhon Si Thammarat, where we introduced traditional Indian dancers and shadow-puppeteers. Programme Directors in Delhi are now showing interest in Thai cinema and we have nominated Thai painters, poets and scholars to attend conferences organized by ICCR and other institutions.

“We have also helped send Thai students to learn Hindi at Wardha Ashram in Gujarat and participated in the musical score for the screening of ‘The Light of Asia’, the world’s first film on the Buddha, screened in Bangkok to mark Sambuddhatva Jayanti, the 2,600th anniversary of the Buddha’s Nirvana at Bodhgaya. This year we also loved doing the ‘Manohra Series’ of dance events with Friends-of-the-Arts Foundation. We want this centre to be an open window on India.”

On 27th September, there is a lecture-demonstration at 7.00 pm on ‘The Jaipur Gharana in Kathak at Siam Society.

ICC Bangkok has a team of three professionals from India who play the sitar, tabla and perform kathak, sent to the Centre on two-year postings, and yoga lessons by a Thai instructor. Renuka has given a few talks herself, is a member of the Lecture Committee of the Siam Society and has travelled around Thailand to see fascinating bits of history and heritage that linked the countries.

History books

She feels that history books on both sides need to better reflect this shared heritage. In Indian history books, she says, the coverage of ancient and modern Asian history is very small; they tend to focus more on the medieval, colonial and the Freedom Struggle period. That may change now as India’s Look East policy leads to enhanced relations with Southeast Asia. That, she says, will also give Indians a chance to “learn more about ourselves and put back the many missing pieces of the jigsaw.”

She feels both sides will be amazed at what awaits. “I discovered that (our culture and heritage) does not just connect India and Thailand but the entire region, South Asia and ASEAN. The Bay of Bengal is to Asia what the Mediterranean is to Europe. The whole eastern seaboard of India, Myanmar, Thailand, Bangladesh, all the ASEAN countries, form this golden ring and the Bay of Bengal is our shared sea, the ‘mare nostrum” of Asia. Its waters wash our cultures, our land and the river and island cultures.”

She describes the Bay of Bengal nation-states as the creation of post-colonial boundaries. “The cultural boundaries are seamless. For centuries, we were a kaleidoscope of cultures. Who knows what went from where, so it is a colonial thing to put up mental barriers. Over the years, people took what they liked and made their own. Nobody forced them. My favourite examples are that Thai jasmine, ‘malee’, is known by exactly the same name in all four southern states of India. The art of making khanom khrok (a popular Thai dessert), is something I think South India learnt from Thailand, like the pagoda roofs of Kerala.

“And of course language, the DNA of culture is in language as the words are witness to who met whom, when, where and why. Sanksrit, like Latin in Europe, blended with many local languages in Asia and I also find a lot of classical Tamil. Many of the words are more creatively used by the Thais than us. And of course, what totally blew my mind in Thailand is ‘Khon’, the Thai Ramakien classical dance. I found levels of beauty that I have never seen in some Indian Ramayana productions. I want to stress that if you admire one, it does not mean you love the other less. The music, the meditative quality of the pace of the dance and the exquisite movements are spectacular. Truly, the Thais are masters of pageants and spectacle.

“So the world is full of excitement and discoveries. Culture is a very dynamic thing. It should not be something on a pedestal. It is our food, our conversation, our clothes, our decoration, the way we live life. So much of it is fun, not just gods and goddesses.”

Beyond the Buddhist circuit

Asked how more Thais can be made to visit India, she says Thais should go beyond the Buddhist religious circuit traffic. “There are many different experiences of India (for them to see). Many Thais see India as big spenders (such as in the lavish weddings being held in Thailand). Some see India as the country of I.T. specialists. Others see the India of Bollywood. These are all different bandwidths of the same spectrum. There is room for everybody. For us, it is all part of belonging to one big energetic democracy.”

She says the growing number of Indian cultural centres around the world “will be very important building blocks of our identity in a rapidly globalising world. I remember going to the second World Cultural Forum in Jordan in 2005 as part of the Indian delegation and being asked, ‘How do you Indians hang on to your identity? You’ve got a huge diaspora all over the world, but at the same time, you are unmistakably Indian.’ At first I was surprised but then I realized they may be right. India does have a great many stories to tell. They are all components of our identity, our culture, our music, food, dance, literature. Probably a little too big even for us — certainly Bollywood with its jhatka and matka (shake and swivel dance movements), but at the same time something impeccably austere as well.”

In the process, she has also learnt much about the ups and downs of attracting people to events in Bangkok. Attendance depends entirely on the traffic and weather conditions. “On normal days, events are best with less English and more Thai. And more action less talk, please — everybody loves to see a pretty girl dancing or a cooking demonstration.”

Sense of ‘sanuk’

Renuka is pleased to see Indians in Thailand now coming on board with ideas and activities. This is important for the sake of continuity; just during her tenure, there has been a turnover of three Indian ambassadors in Bangkok and two bosses at the cultural centre head office in Delhi.

Her own travels took her to Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia. One day, she says, she will return to visit Laos and Burma. “I have recovered a sense of what the Thais call ‘luam’, hang loose, an inner calm, a relaxed approach. Like the Bhagavad Gita advises, I have learnt to work without attachment and hope for the best. I have rediscovered my sense of ‘sanuk’ (fun) and tapped endless wells of patience. These are all very stabilising influences, both personally and professionally. I will always cherish the goodness and affection of my Thai friends, the gentleness and warmth of everyday people and their many acts of consideration.”

After she returns home, she plans to take a break before going back to her writing profession, with a number of books in the pipeline. Says Renuka, “I think a good foundation has been laid. What we share with Thailand goes back 2,600 years. There is a lot of mutually interesting work ahead.”

Bonds Across the Bay

As many Indian conferences, incentives and business meetings are being held in Thailand, there is always a demand for good speakers who can relate to things Indians. Renuka Narayanan offers names of Thais with whom she had “some of my nicest experiences”:

Khun Tip (Ms Vararom Pachimsawat), Thailand’s first ballerina

Dr (Mr.) Bunchar of the Buddhadasa Indapanno Archives,

Khun (Ms) Tanistha Pat Dansilp, Managing Editor of ‘Bharat Book House’;

Khun Victor Silakong of the World Film Festival;

Khun (Mr.) Trisdee, whose piano rendition of Bach brought tears to my eyes one evening at the Siam Society;

Khun (Mr.) Somtow’s conducting of Mahler at the Thailand Cultural Centre

Professors Chris Baker and his wife Pasuk

Dr (Mr.) Chirapat Prapandvidya, Dr (Mrs) Srisurang Poolthupya and Prof Peter Skilling.

Dr (Mr.) Parinya Tantisuk of the Faculty of Painting, Sculpture and Graphic Arts, Silpakorn University, with whom Renuka worked on the Bodhi Project of student art talent.