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Main | Archive | Issue 7/2008

Getting a Feel of India
Column: Diplomacy And Culture

Muscovites called the street Vorontsovo Pole Indian Street. The Indian Embassy building is at the beginning of it and the Jawaharlal Nehru Cultural Center is in a cozy little courtyard at the other end of Vorontsovo Pole. Black-haired dark-skinned people - clearly not your typical Muscovite - go up and down the street all day long. Though the embassy courtyard, being Indian territory, is off-limits to the general public, the Cultural Centers doors are wide open to all those wishing to familiarize themselves with Indias great culture or at least feel its atmosphere. The flow of visitors increases toward the end of the workweek and does not slacken even on the weekends. At that time, the rooms on the first floor of the main building are jam-packed and the corridors are filled with people eagerly awaiting classes. From behind one door you can hear a teachers rhythmic commands, the pat of bare heels against the floor and the jingling of bells - girls and women, lovers of classical kathak-style dances, are having a class there. From behind another door, you hear the sound of drums: double tabla drum lessons are being given there. Behind yet another door is silence: complicated hatha-yoga asanas, or poses, are being learned. A Hindi-language class, a very practical one, is being held in a small room on the second floor: students are taught how they can, while in Delhi or Mumbai, ask the way to a hotel or a museum and how to bargain with a seller of silver. Whats more, there is a library there where you can not only find books on Indias history and culture but read relatively fresh publications in English and Hindi as well.

The Cultural Center at the Embassy was set up in 1989 following the grandiose India Festival. It showed that there was a huge interest in that remote country in Russia and other republics of the former Soviet Union. Properly speaking, that interest always existed, though only within certain ideological bounds, for many years: one was allowed, for example, to study the history of the national liberation movement, but not Mahatma Gandhis political doctrine. You were free to admire Rabindranath Tagores social novels, but not his philosophy or that of Sri Aurobindo, Swami Vivekananda, tantra, and vedanta. You could do yoga, but without delving into its underlying theory.

Then came perestroika, and all was allowed: to see, read, and publish. The absence of an Indian culture center made no sense and it was opened for the 100th birthday of Jawaharlal Nehru, the architect of friendship between the two countries, and was logically named after him. The Cultural Center was to familiarize Russian citizens with the history, culture, philosophy, the customs, traditions, and various aspects of life of present-day India. That is exactly what it has done for the last 19 years. From an exotic phenomenon the Center turned into a serious institution that harmoniously fit into the Moscow cultural scene. Now its activities arent confined to Russias capital: the Centers dance groups, musicians, and lecturers visit regions that were earlier off-limits to foreigners. Indian culture days are held in Ryazan and Saratov, Volgograd and Ufa, Krasnoyarsk and Vladivostok. Hundreds of lectures, workshops, discussions, dance and music evenings, art exhibitions, showings of films, and concerts are given. The meetings are on most varied topics: The Historic Prospects for the Veda Civilization, Listening to a Recording of Conversations with Krishnamurthy, Bhakti Poetry, Mahabharatas Images in Modern-Day Literature. Special evenings are devoted to big days like the Day of the Republic and the birthdays of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Rabindranath Tagore.

...During the tour given by Abhay Thakur, the director of the Cultural Center, there was a young man with him. He turned out to be Manish Prabhat, the next director, who has come to Moscow after working in Washington. He interestedly looked over the place. Asked about his new job, he said pensively, I feel there are many things that can be done here.

Oleg Torchinsky.
Photos by Alexander Bibik.


-, 2006