The 28-foot Nataraj statue being installed outside the Bharat Mandapam in New Delhi (Photo: Ashish Sharma)
THE TALLEST-EVER STATUE OF NATARAJ; the remains of a 4,000-year-old chariot found during the Sinauli excavations; ancient traditional crafts to haute couture; jaggery and amaranth laddoo to mango truffle. New Delhi has left no stone unturned to tell the story of India, as the G20 leaders engage in hard-nosed diplomacy. Joseph S Nye, the American political scientist known for developing the idea of soft power in the late-1980s, had said, “[I]n the Information age, the mark of a great power is not just whose army wins, but whose story wins.”
Whether it is Japanese Ambassador Hiroshi Suzuki recently dancing to the tune of ‘Kaavaalaa’ from the Rajinikanth starrer Jailer, or German Ambassador Philipp Ackermann performing the dance steps of the Oscar-winning ‘Naatu Naatu’ from SS Rajamouli’s RRR, or Brooklyn-based Annelies Richmond leading the International Day of Yoga event at the United Nations (UN) headquarters, it is indicative of the lure of a side of India that many believe can change its terms of engagement with nations. “Let us use the power of yoga to build bridges of friendship, a peaceful world, and a cleaner, greener and sustainable future,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who participated in the yoga day programme at the UN this year, had said while addressing the gathering. Representatives from 180 countries participated in the event, creating a Guinness World Record for the largest number of nationalities participating in a yoga session.
When India started preparing to host the G20 leaders, it decided to leverage its soft power, going beyond what the world was already familiar with, unfurling before its guests the wisdom of the past and the present. According to a source familiar with the arrangements, the prime minister has taken interest in every detail. It was after meticulous planning that around 50 locations across the country, each with its own history and culture, as well as art and craft, sculptures, exhibitions, music and food, were chosen for the working group meetings.
The leaders would get a taste of it all before entering the sprawling conference hall to discuss key issues of global concern. At the entrance of the newly built Bharat Mandapam, the venue of the summit, is a 28-foot (22-foot statue and five-foot pedestal) Nataraj, symbolising Shiva as creator, preserver and destroyer, Indian classical dance forms and the ancient art of ashtadhatu (making sculptures using eight metals). Weighing 19 tonnes, it has undertaken a 2,500km journey from a town in Tamil Nadu’s Thanjavur district. The sculpture, made by the sons of famous sculptor Devasenapati Satapati of Swamimalai along with 50 artisans, took six months to finish, after the Ministry of Culture placed an order for it in February. At the venue is a large abstract resin sculpture of a conch shell or shankh, blown traditionally either to ward off evil or at the start of events and rituals. Outside the meeting hall on the second level, seven discs, each 10 feet in diameter, tell the story of the country’s “Wheels of Progress—Zero to ISRO”, from Ayurveda (the “science of life”) and astrology (“the science of light”) to the industrial Make in India. Each disc emulates the half-moon cycle, reflecting India’s key contributions to the world as the theme for India’s G20 presidency, ‘vasudhaiva kutumbakam’—the Sanskrit phrase from ancient texts like the Maha Upanishad which translates as “the world is one family”— greets the leaders. In line with the message of “One Earth, One Family, One Future”, a culture corridor exhibits artefacts loaned by all the member countries for display, physically or digitally. India is showcasing a copy of a 500-year-old Rig Veda manuscript handwritten in the Sharada script, native to Kashmir, and a handwritten version of Panini’s Ashtadhyayi, believed to have been written between the sixth and fourth centuries BCE, describing how Sanskrit was used at the time it was written.
About three kilometres away, at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), exhibits from the excavations in Sinauli, a village in western Uttar Pradesh (UP), are being displayed at an exhibition called ‘Roots to Routes: Past, Present and Continuous’, curated by Raghvendra Singh, former culture secretary. In the 2018 Sinauli excavations, said to date back to 2000 BCE-1800 BCE, there were several findings, including wooden carts with solid disc wheels protected by copper sheets, which were presented as ‘chariots’ by Sanjay Manjul, director of the excavations. According to Meenakshi Lekhi, MoS for culture, NGMA has been made a one-stop arcade for providing an exclusive shopping experience to the delegates and their spouses, with an array of indigenous crafts, art, clothes and jewellery, ranging from those made by traditional artisans to high-end fashion by top designers.
All the five senses will be stimulated through fragrance, cuisine, music, art, craft and textile, says Lekhi. “While we showcase our heritage, we also highlight our science, millets and digital prowess, showing how even a coconut or groundnut vendor is using the digital mode of payment. As we go forward, we retain our culture, like the prime minister says, vikas bhi aur virasat bhi. It is also pragati bhi, prakriti bhi aur sanskriti bhi (progress, environment and culture), an alignment of which we have tried to showcase through our efforts.”
The “immersive experience”, as Lekhi puts it, begins at the hotel, hosting the guests. The five-star Taj Palace has prepared a welcome in the Indian tradition of athiti devo bhava (a guest is like God), a Sanskrit phrase from the Taittiriya Upanishad. “Exquisite floral decor in kaleidoscopic hues will create the perfect setting for a grand welcome and from fragrance to music, the experience will be sensorial,” says Parveen Chander, executive vice president, sales and marketing, Indian Hotels Company Ltd (IHCL). Besides handcrafted in-room amenities and bespoke menus, the hotel has planned rituals like peacock-theme lamp lighting in the lobby at sunset.
The Indian menu has been revamped to include delicate flavours from various parts of the country. Curated under the expertise of executive chef and culinary veteran Rajesh Wadhwa, the menu is a blend of local delicacies, global flavours, signature dishes from the hotel’s restaurants, a host of indigenous millets, heirloom recipes, and time-honoured culinary techniques, says Chander. The millet menu includes desserts like ragi badam pinni and paniyaram, besides bajre ki burfi and kheer. Among other dishes are lamb chops, goat cheese ravioli, kaju matar makhana and buckwheat pasta. With chef Arun Sundararaj, director of culinary operations, along with a team of 120 in the kitchen and 130 service staff, the guests are also being given a choice of Indian delicacies like Awadh murg korma, Malwani prawn, potato varuwal, Hyderabadi ghosht Biryani and coconut payasam from the hotel restaurants.
“The Indian dishes will be cooked to suit the global palette, with the required traditionally used spices but mellow, not too hot,” says Lekhi. In Varanasi, as the G20 Culture Working Group meet came to a close, the delegates were served a ‘Sattvic’ thali dinner, after the ‘Sur Vasudha’, an orchestra of 101 musicians and vocalists from member nations and invited countries. The dinner, without onion and garlic, included a white bean salad, karhi, dum aloo Banarsi with dry fruits and rotis of singhara (water chestnut) and kuttu (buckwheat). Lekhi, who, along with UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, was at the dinner, recalls that the guests were curious about each dish and surprised that such a simple vegetarian meal could taste delicious.
Food has been at the centre of the soft-power debate, whether sushi from Japan, Kentucky Fried Chicken from the US or India’s chicken tikka, with some experts sceptical about the extent of its impact and others convinced it could have immense potential if used prudently. The concept of soft power is itself contested by those who argue that it has not brought the desired dividends. Yet, given the expanse of India’s cultural heritage, many disagree, saying it has benefited the country. Some say what is needed is “smart power”, a term used by Nye who says it is neither soft power nor hard power but both.
The Prime Minister is said to have taken an interest in every detail. After meticulous planning, around 50 locations, each with its own history and culture, were chosen for the working group meetings
Share this on
“For a country with a great, uninterrupted civilisation like ours, it is apt that we are showcasing to the G20 leaders the fact that they are dealing with a country rich in heritage. No other country in the world can claim such a rich history. And we have progressed in science and spirituality. It is a civilisation that has existed for more than 5,000 years. That story has to be told to the world. That’s how people will understand India,” says Ram Madhav, president of the Delhi-based India Foundation.
Nye, who believed countries needed soft power as much as hard power, described the former as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments. It arises from the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals, and policies.” More than three decades later, in an essay titled ‘Soft Power: The Evolution of a Concept’, he wrote: “Authoritarian countries such as China and Russia have trouble generating their own soft power precisely because of their unwillingness to free the vast talents of their civil societies. If openness is a key source of democracies’ ability to attract and persuade by using the sharp power tools of their adversaries, ironically, democracies could squander their soft power advantage.”
India is sparing no effort to ensure that it does not squander its soft-power advantage. Four days before the summit, artists were giving last-minute touches to New Delhi’s streets. As the sun set and the street lights came on, three men were still painting a wall perched on a scaffolding about 20 feet high outside a Metro station. Amidst the flora and fauna painted in deep colours, were some of New Delhi’s sandstone monuments—Jantar Mantar, Red Fort, Qutub Minar. “A French artist had done a bit on 75 years of India’s independence on one end. We continued with the same theme on the rest of the wall, adding more monuments,” says Ramesh Abhishek, operations manager, Graff Inkorp.
Delhi has been spruced up, with sculptures at roundabouts, flowers, fountains, lighting, paintings on walls—all of which intend to cater to the sense of aesthetics. “The beautification will enhance the impact of aesthetics on people, even after the G20 summit comes to an end. It will then be our responsibility to ensure it remains that way,” says Lekhi.