Shivdasani: Indian Culture Is Mainstream
Lunch at the Tribeca Grill
BY PRANAY GUPTE - Special to the Sun
April 12, 2005
around you - India is everywhere in New York," Aroon Shivdasani,
executive director of the Indo-American Arts Council, said.
"Look around you - India is everywhere in America. India
is on Wall Street. India is in the art galleries. India is in
restaurants. It's in textiles. It's in high fashion. It's in
Silicon Valley. India is on television. India is in the movies
being shown in New York."
Shivdasani is showing some of those movies herself at the ImaginAsian
theater in Manhattan this week, a very different selection from
the annual Indian film festival that she launched five years
ago. This week's event, titled "Masters of Indian Cinema,"
showcases films by internationally acclaimed directors such
as Satyajit Ray, Shyam Benegal, Aparna Sen, Mrinal Sen, Buddhadeb
Dasgupta, and Mani Ratnam.
time has come, it's our day," Ms. Shivdasani said, her
voice fairly rising with enthusiasm that invited looks from
diners at nearby tables. "India is no longer just a curiosity
in America. India is being accepted in the mainstream, both
culturally and economically."
economic, cultural, and political ties between India and America
have never been closer. America has become India's largest trading
partner, taking in more than $16 billion in goods, or 20% of
India's annual exports. More than 80% of India's outsourcing
business comes from American companies, amounting to yearly
revenues of $8 billion. More than 2 million Indians have settled
in America, and they constitute the wealthiest ethnic community
in the country, according to Arvind Panagriya, the Jagdish Bhagwati
Professor of Indian Political Economy at Columbia University.
On the basis of purchasing power parity, India's economy is
the world's fourth largest, after America, Japan, and China.
although 400 million of India's 1.2 billion people are still
mired in poverty, its middle class numbers nearly 400 million,
the largest in the world. This growing middle class is hungry
for American consumer goods, which explains why top American
companies are increasingly establishing a presence in India.
Moreover, professor Panagriya points out, with more than 800
million registered voters, India is also the world's biggest
democracy and is increasingly opening its traditionally socialist
economy to foreign investment and enhanced domestic competition.
strengthening of political and economic ties between India and
America owes much to President Bush's recognition of India as
a potential counterweight to communist China, an Asian giant
of 1.3 billion people that India will overtake in population
in two decades. The opening up of India's economy owes much
to Prime Minister Singh, who will mark the first anniversary
of his election in a few weeks. It was Mr. Singh, a professional
economist, who as finance minister in an earlier administration
initiated the dismantling of the bureaucratic "License
Raj," the crippling system that required permits for the
tiniest of business transactions.
in a dramatic confirmation of Mr. Bush's instincts toward India
and Mr. Singh's implementation of free-enterprise policies,
the Manila-based Asian Development Bank said that India would
become the world's third-biggest economic power by 2015, overtaking
Japan and accounting for nearly 15% of the global economy. (The
ADB also said that by 2035, China's gross domestic product -
currently $1.4 trillion - would be double that of America, whose
GDP is $11 trillion.)
it was Aroon Shivdasani, a naturalized American born in Bombay,
who cannily recognized that as India and America developed stronger
economic and political ties, this country would become more
hospitable to Indian culture.
wasn't so long ago that about the only Indian music that Americans
seemed to be aware of was that of Ravi Shankar, the sitarist,"
Ms. Shivdasani said. "Indian food meant 'curries' in some
dilapidated hole-in-the-wall. Now India has well-wishers all
over the place. Now there isn't a New Yorker who doesn't have
a friend named Kumar or Singh or Patel - or Pranay Gupte."
last reference was hyperbolic, of course, but it suggested to
the Indian-born reporter how shrewdly Ms. Shivdasani deployed
her vast network of contacts in launching the Indo-American
Arts Council in 1998.
tapped investment bankers, real estate magnates, pricey consultants,
Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, technology titans, and businessmen
- including her husband - and obtained support for a variety
of cultural events in Manhattan. Established auteurs, actors,
and writers - including Mira Nair, Ismail Merchant, Shabana
Azmi, and Salman Rushdie - also lend their support. Their presence
at Ms. Shivdasani's events ensures the showcasing of lesser-known
emerging artists in each of these disciplines.
Shivdasani has staged productions by playwrights of Indian origin,
and showcased both well-known and rising painters. She has organized
readings of works by Indian writers, and put together festivals
celebrating ancient Indian dance forms, such as Odissi and Bharata
Natyam. She has obtained the cooperation of institutions such
as Lincoln Center, Christie's, the Museum of Modern Art, and
Columbia and New York universities.
has it taken to accomplish all this?
taken complete, unadulterated, 24/7 dedication," Ms. Shivdasani
people thought that I was chasing my tail - but one has to be
like Lord Krishna, be at all places at all times. I was determined
to ensure that Americans - and New Yorkers in particular - got
to know the intrinsic arts of India through specific disciplines
like drama, dance, literature, visual art, and films. I'm totally
passionate about the arts - and I'm totally passionate about
it's helped, of course, that New York is so open to new culture;
the city is always hungering for something new and different,"
helped that the Indian faces that Americans see are largely
those of professionals - doctors, bankers, hoteliers, businessmen.
There's a comfort zone that Indian culture creates."
major component of that comfort zone, Ms. Shivdasani said, is
that Indians and their culture aren't viewed as a threat to
the American ethos.
don't take jobs away - in fact, they create them in America,"
she said. "Our presence is benign. We integrate well into
the mainstream. Now Indians are even in Congress, in numerous
state legislatures, and in local city and town councils. I see
my work as enhancing the cultural diversity of this city and
she concerned that, notwithstanding America's receptivity to
new cultures, there might be a backlash against the ubiquitous
Indian presence on the economic and cultural scenes?
backlash usually results when a culture takes something away
from the established culture," Ms. Shivdasani said. "India
isn't doing that. India is further enriching what's already
a culturally diverse and vibrant society.
really no threat from us. Our roots may be Indian, but we're
Americans, too. Like most Indians, I was raised to be tolerant
of all cultures - India is such a tapestry of different religions
and sensibilities. Well, I like to think that America is probably
the most tolerant society on Earth. I like to think that Americans
are also brought up to show tolerance and understanding - and
receptivity to new experiences. I'm tapping into that."