Friday, 17 October 2014

Forever Indian

India has captivated the imagination of the world since ancient times.  Her list of contributions to our collective knowledge base and cultural heritage is formidable.  From small things like buttons (Indus Valley Civilisation, 2800 BCE) to sophisticated concepts like the zero and ahimsa, Indian ideas and discoveries have diffused across the world for millennia and still impact lives today.  A paisley patterned scarf, a dish of kedgeree, a game of Ludo, a peaceful protest rally – these are all more Indian than you think! 

In fact, the planet itself is more Indian than you think, and its Indianisation is not a recent phenomenon; it has been that way for many, many decades, even centuries. But of course, the pace of this process has shot off the charts with liberalisation in the 1990’s.  Simultaneously, the Internet and social media have brought about a heightened awareness and pride. 

India is a youthful nation, half her population is less than 25, almost two thirds is below 35. As we have hit the noughts and twenty-teens, a young generation of Indians has come of age post-liberalisation. They have witnessed unprecedented growth levels internally; burgeoning world interest in India fuelled by her market and manufacturing potential; her space and nuclear capabilities; and her increasing engagement with world trade and tourism.  Last but not the least, they have participated in her remarkably stable democracy in recent times when dictatorships, political turbulence and religious extremism have taken a tenacious hold in many countries abroad.  No wonder they take such pride in India and her heritage, no wonder that they feel the world is their oyster, that it feels ever more ready to be Indianised.

This is not to deny the challenges that India still faces, and there are certainly enough of them.  However, for the first time since independence, we are not defined just by our burdens alone, there are success stories as huge as the challenges in the mix.

The hard facts

India is the second most populous country in the world, more than one sixth of the world is Indian.  And we are not confined to our own country, there is a vast Indian diaspora spread out across the planet.  It is estimated that there are 25 million Indians overseas, both of Indian citizenship and origin.  The countries where there is no local Indian community, if they exist at all, are few and far between.

According to UN, India is projected to overtake China and become the most populous country by 2028.  Therefore, just looking at sheer numbers, there are rather a lot of us Indians.  As our numbers have grown, the world in the most basic sense has become more Indianised.

An estimated 2 lakh Indian students go abroad annually to foreign universities. This figure rose by a whopping 256% in the noughts, though it may be levelling out now.  Even so, there is a significantly large body of university students in UK, Europe, USA and Australia.

The US now has the largest Indian diaspora, with the total population of Indians estimated at more than 3 million, growing at its fastest clip since 2000.  They attain educational levels substantially higher than average, comprise a significant share of the professionals, academicians and entrepreneurs; therefore, they generate and command a share of wealth that is quite disproportionate to their share (just 1%) in the American population.  

Australia has an estimated Indian diaspora of over 3 million as well, also the fastest growing segment.  Compare this to the total population estimated at around 23-24 million people and its impact becomes immediately self-evident, a share of 12-13%, though possibly more diverse in terms of education and affluence than in the US.

Britain, with its long colonial history, traditionally has had a large numbers of Indians living there, currently estimated at almost 2% of the total population.   It has always been more Indian than the rest of  Europe and its Indianisation started in the 19th century : the first Indian MP in Britain was elected in 1892.

There are 6-7 million Indians in the Gulf region, the majority being in UAE and Saudi Arabia; and from where the forex remittances to India are higher than from the West. 

Indians abroad must also include the outbound Indian tourists.  We now travel abroad in huge numbers – 15 million Indians travelled overseas last year, double the number of foreign-bound travellers in 2005.  This is expected to grow to 50 million by 2030, (driving several foreign airlines to redesign their service offerings to include Indian elements).

Each of these individuals, whether student, settled immigrant, Indian worker abroad, or traveller, creates their own cultural footprints and impacts foreigners on their paths.  When these cultural mini-ambassadors measure in the millions, their impact is mighty. 

So, when exactly did this Indianisation start?

Religion, philosophy, art and architectural ideas have travelled along the Silk Road since ancient times, from China and India to the furthest limits of the then-known western world. So much so that the term Silk Road itself has become a metaphor for exchanges between the east and west.  Indian cultural exports are not anything new in that sense.  Buddhism spread along the Silk Road first to China and then to Japan and Korea.  Indianisation started millennia ago. 

The first cultural ideas diffused abroad with the emissaries that Emperor Ashoka sent out propagate Buddhist ideals in the first millennium.  Portuguese and other European traders took not only commodities back to their own countries in the 15th century.  In Victorian times, the Great Exhibition of Indian art and design in Britain in 1851 took an Indian design motif, the ambi or mango, and it was woven extensively into British shawls, in Paisley, from which the English name for the motif is derived.  Vivekananda introduced Americans to the Vedanta in 1893 in Chicago.  Indianisation of the West as well as the East has been going on “softly, softly” since way back in time.

Bollywood has got to have the largest mindshare when it comes to current vehicles for Indianisation.  Much is made of the screening of Hindi films in the West now, of Lagaan’s Oscar nomination, of Slum Dog Millionaire’s recent success.  But the fact remains that Hindi films have been hugely popular from decades before, they connected with common people in foreign lands, with mainstream audiences in Africa and the Middle-East, audiences to whom both Hindi and Hinduism were completely alien.  Guru Dutt’s films were popular with Japanese audiences, Raj Kapoor’s and Dev Anand’s with Russians.  Just as TV channels like RTL beams Bollywood fare into German homes today, so do others like Zee Aflam and Bahrain 55 into African and Middle-Eastern households, and have done so for years.
Indian films had some successes in the West as well.  Mother India was nominated for an Oscar in the 50’s; Do Aakhen Bara Haath, Do Bigha Zameen, Amar Bhupali, and several others won awards at the European biggies of Berlin and Cannes during the 40’s and 50’s. 

The influence of Indian personalities on peoples far away from India, both in terms of the physical distance and the cultural milieu is remarkable.  Gandhi took the concepts of ahimsa, non-violent resistance, and popularised in throughout the world.  Martin Luther King Jr was inspired by his ideals, and Gandhi continues to exert his influence on all peoples who choose to protest peacefully.

Tagore, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913, has exerted a wholly unfathomable influence on the Spanish speaking world.  South American poets/writers such as Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral have been inspired by him.  There are schools named after him in Colombia; university courses on him and his works in Costa Rica. 

Indian musicians have left their own marks on the west too: George Harrison labelled Ravi Shankar as the ‘Godfather of world music’ in the 60’s.  Ali Akbar Khan was the first Indian musician to play Indian classical music on American TV in the 50’s, to record albums outside India and subsequently, to start music academies in Boston and Basel.

Yoga and meditation, Ayurveda, herbal home remedies are almost ubiquitous in all corners of the planet.  The first yoga institute in America was opened in the 1920’s, and yoga went mainstream in the US by the 60’s.  There are yoga institutes and classes offered in Sao Paulo and Rio, Ayurveda is taught in universities in Argentina. Yoga in turn influenced Joseph Pilates, an American of German origin and the inventor of the Pilates system.  Yoga is hugely popular in Germany, there are more than 3 million yoga practitioners according to their local Yoga Teachers’ Association, that’s almost 4% of the population.  Yoga Alliance International, an Indian yoga network of teachers and institutes has members in Europe from Greece and Italy to Turkey, from Britain to the Scandinavian countries.

The last but not the least, Indian cuisine remains one of the most widespread vehicles for Indianisation.  Everyone loves Indian dishes. Chicken tikka masala is the most popular dish in Britain, and the oldest ‘curry house’ has been in operation since the 1920’s there.   Indian restaurants exist in every city everywhere in the world, and seem to thrive even where the local diaspora is thin. If food be the measure of a culture’s influence then we have Indianised great swathes of the world already.

On the backs of entrepreneurs

Cultural exports do not happen in isolation, they nearly always ride on the back of trade, exports of goods and ideas feed off each other.  Let us just take a brief look at what’s happened to Indian exports pre- and post-liberalisation. In 1990, India’s exports stood at around 18 billion USD; that has now crossed USD 300 billion in 2013.  More important than this phenomenal growth, is the diversification of her export markets and deepening of her exports basket.  From basic agricultural commodities India has gradually moved to include value-added, made-up merchandise and services. The star performer here in this growth has been the Indian IT industry.  India has also slowly nudged its way into new markets.  The share of total exports to Africa and Latin America has steadily risen, though the USA-EU-China axis absorbs the lion’s share of Indian exports still. 

A major part in the Indianisation has been on the backs of Indian businesses, big and small.  As with exports, this has spiked phenomenally after liberalisation, especially from the late 90’s. 

Consider this, L.N. Mittal, the Chairman/CEO of the biggest steel company in the world, is one of the richest men in the UK.  The Tata’s are the biggest private sector employers in Britain. If this is not Indianising I cannot imagine what is!  In fact, the Tata’s manufacturing bases now range from South Korea to US in 80 countries.  Similarly, The Aditya Birla Group now operates in 36 different countries, from China to Brazil, from Austria to Egypt to Australia.  Asian Paints operates in 17 markets from S.E. Asia to the Caribbean.

However, long before the megamergers and megabucks happened and grabbed headlines, there were Indian entrepreneurs in UK, in Africa and indeed all over the world; setting up tiny grocery shops, restaurants and other SME’s, Indianising their immediate localities one workshop/shop at a time.  For instance, Chellaram’s set up its first business in West Africa in the 1920’s.  The C.K. Birla group invested in its first engineering unit there in 1960’s.  There are a multitude of examples like these spread across Africa and Europe, North America and South-East Asia and West Asia.

Add to this India’s string of successes with its space programme, the Mangalyaan is only the latest; it should not be forgotten that India has in the past launched several satellites, and has sent a mission to the moon. The Indian flag has flown on its surface, one among just a handful of nations in the whole world. Not just the earth, we have Indianised a little bit of the moon as well.

Add also her nuclear capabilities, her massive pool of young and talented manpower, significant numbers of whom are highly educated and motivated, and further Indianisation of the world seems inevitable and unstoppable.

Up until the 17th century, India numbered among the richest, most powerful of nations; Prof Angus Maddison estimated the Indian economy to have been around a quarter of the world economy during the Mughal period.  Subsequently, it declined to abysmal levels during and due to colonial rule.  But there can be no doubt that India is finally coming into her own again three centuries later; and sometime during the 21st century will reclaim the ground she lost. And I am fortunate that I am born Indian, that I witness this process.  There are a million reasons to be grateful, there are a million reasons to celebrate.

This entry has been written for “More Indian Than You Think” contest sponsored by Lufthansa over at IndiBlogger. 


  1. very beautifully said. best wishes.

  2. You write so vividly and with so much factual base that it is almost impossible to stop... fantastic work... keep it up...glad to read you

    1. Thank you for being here and for your warm words..and for your patience!