By Sudha Murty
India’s culture is one of the most recognisable characteristics for travellers across the world. Author and philanthropist Sudha Murty shares her views on the county’s many distinguishable attributes that make it easier to form bonds that transcend borders.
It’s common for tourists to research about the destination to be visited before arriving. Not only does this help a traveller to plan a trip better but to also make the experience of going around and discovering new places more immersive. Before travelling, I too do my diligence to understand the destination and its facets. It’s always a delight to know why a certain tradition is being followed for centuries. What also intrigues me is the cultural and historical connect between the place I am visiting and India. And with our vast repertoire of heritage, it’s not so tough to find a link. For me, the historical significance of a place often guides my decision to travel there. For example, a hobby I took up a few years ago, to learn Kannada as it was originally spoken in the eighth and ninth century made me travel through the southern parts of India extensively. Similarly, whenever I get a chance to travel overseas, I make it a point to understand and research about why it is popular. Following this regimen, I have managed to travel to some destinations that are not-so-known amongst Indians. The research that I do, the interactions that I enjoy and the information that I manage to exchange, are, when you think of it, the very framework of people-to-people relationships that eventually bring nations closer.
Take for example a recent trip that I made to Israel following the footsteps of Jesus Christ. My aim was to not just explore the country’s natural beauty but also to be educated and informed about the events that transpired when Christ himself travelled these lands. I enrolled in a three-month long Bible study so that I could atleast recognise the history and the culture of the destination.
While Indian mythology, religious thoughts and philosophies find a resonance internationally, what pleasantly surprises me is the popularity of contemporary Indian culture in the world, even in the remotest parts, and across every age group. A school of classical Indian music and dance in Europe; a gym-full of Americans exercising to the beats of bhangra in New York; yoga being practised from Tokyo to Toronto; Indian restaurants in London and the global reach of Hindi films! Everywhere I have travelled, my country’s heritage and my Indian-ness have been my cultural passport!
The response of local people to my Indian roots has only made me a better human. When you see the beautiful and ancient mosques of Iran or the exquisite temples of Hindu deities in Cambodia, you realise they are in no way inferior – Infact they may even be better than the ones back home. But, this revelation does not make you feel inferior, it only opens your eyes to different possibilities.
A simple attire of a saree or a khadi kurta can immediately put someone you are meeting for the first time at ease and can speak volumes about humility.
In this regard, Bollywood has played a major part in spreading our delightful cultural nuances to the farthest corners of the globe. I remember during my journey through Iran, I had approached a shopkeeper for some fresh naan (a thick, fluffy flatbread resembling a pita/pancake). When the shopowner handed me my order, he looked at my saree and said, “Amitabh Bachchan?” When my response didn’t showcase his enthusiasm, he continued, “Salman Khan? Shah Rukh Khan?”. After hearing the names of the famous Hindi movie actors, I realised what he was trying to say. “Yes, I am from the same country as them,” I replied. He smiled and said, “No money”. Even when I insisted, he refused. In broken English, he explained, “India. Bollywood. Very nice. Good dance. Good dress. Good music. Iranian like!” I couldn’t help but smile.
A Spanish fellow traveller added, “I too love Hindi films. They have increased the popularity of Spain and have also increased tourist footfall to the country. The song “Senorita” from the movie Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, which was shot in Spain has made our country a household name in India. The movie also brought the traditional Tomatina festival into the limelight!”
My travels also took me to Bukhara, a city in Uzbekistan. As I went for an evening stroll, the faint tunes of a familiar Bollywood song had me following it. Within minutes, I found myself outside a restaurant by a lake — Lyabi House. “I am from India and this song is from my country,” I said to the artist the moment he stopped singing. “Hindustan?” he asked. I nodded. “Namaste!” he greeted me with a grin and nodded his head vigorously, as if to acknowledge this new-found link between us. I revelled in the little nostalgia for my homeland, while for the singer, it was his first brush with a person from a land about which he sings songs! It wasn’t about a big achievement such as a space mission or a sports victory, but more about the exhilaration that comes with running into common people rejoicing in an experience from India in a remote corner of the world. I was proud that I belonged to a special country.
In England also, I have often seen the overwhelming influence of Bollywood: from Bollywood-themed restaurants that are quite popular among Britishers to Hindi movie songs being played in public.
But then, Bollywood, can be considered as India’s most popular cultural ambassador. There is a statue of late Yash Chopra, a renowned Indian filmmaker, in Interlaken, Switzerland, and a poster of actors Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol at the entrance of Mount Titlis, a mountain of the Uri Alps. These memorabilia are not just examples of popular cinema, but rather, the popularity of an entire culture – the idea behind India’s movies, the stories from the country and everyday tales of its people.
While traces of Indian culture can be found across the world, I believe that every time we travel, we too become an ambassador of India, spreading its traditions, its philosophies and its soul.