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Dreaming of India
Published in Ahram Online on 25 - 02 - 2020

It was in 2012 that I first heard of the Indian embassy's plans to launch a new festival. A big celebration was organised in the garden of India House, in the presence of then ambassador Navdeep Suri, his wife, and representatives of the new cultural initiative, India by the Nile: Sanjoy K Roy, the Managing Director of Teamwork Arts, and Ila Gupta, the director and producer of the annual festival which was yet to see the light.
Not long after, in March 2013, the first round of India by the Nile took the stages of Cairo and Alexandria by storm, bringing a variety of Indian arts – from popular Bollywood-style productions to classical art forms rarely represented in Egypt – to the local viewers. Within a few years the festival had proved highly successful, drawing large crowds to all its offerings.
As I followed each of the festival's rounds, I soon discovered the creative power and dedication of its organisers. I learnt more about Teamwork Arts, a company that exports Indian arts to many corners of the world while producing, within India, a number of internationally renowned events such as the International Jaipur Literature Festival, the Hay Festival in Kerala and the Ishara International Puppet Theatre Festival in New Delhi. Not long after launching India by the Nile, Teamwork Arts' creative interference touched on Turkey, where it founded India by the Bosphorus, as well as a Festival of India in Australia. But let's focus on their activities in Egypt.
India by the Nile has been held every year since 2013, with the upcoming round (2-10 March) being the eighth. Its success has resulted from the dynamic cooperation between Teamwork Arts, the Indian embassy in Cairo – led by ambassadors Navdeep Suri (until 2015), Sanjay Bhattacharyya (2015-2018), and the current ambassador H.E. Rahul Kulshreshth, as well as the Egyptian Ministry of Culture and numerous business partners. All of which demonstrates what fertile soil Egypt is for Indian art – something that comes through in the popularity of year-round events provided by the embassy, maintaining the presence of Indian culture in Egypt: screenings, exhibitions, seminars, courses...
Growing consumerism in Egyptian society undeniably feeds the historical fascination with Bollywood. Known from 1960s cinema, the Bollywood Empire, comprising of over 1,000 films from Mumbai, attracts attention and feeds the passion for its superstars, music and dance. Recalling the thoughts of ambassador Suri, it is remarkable that in Egypt we find people in small towns and villages well acquainted with Bollywood films and stars. Moreover, during my personal encounter with attendees of the Bollywood dance workshop (an annual component of India by the Nile, led by the India-based French dancer and choreographer Gilles Chuyen), I realised that many of them had in fact memorized the film songs even though they had no knowledge at all of the language. “Egyptians are very receptive to Indian culture,” said Azar A.H. Khan, who in 2013 was the cultural counselor at the Indian embassy, and his words echoes in my ears, with each round of Indian by the Nile demonstrating just how true they are.
No doubt Bollywood's power is among the crucial components attracting the Egyptian population to the annual event. The Bollywood dance workshop, the shows featuring dance and songs from well known films (and in the first few years a large-scale Mumbai-style extravaganza show staged at the Cairo Opera), topped by a visit of megastar Amitabh Bachchan to Cairo in 2015, all within the festival's framework, only proved that the Bollywood frenzy has deep roots here in Egypt. Equally, screening of numerous films and the visits of actors such as the acclaimed Shabana Azmi (2014), whose renown goes well beyond the Bollywood kingdom, only enriched the presentation of Indian cinematic wealth.
But Bollywood with its performing arts power or films from other corners of India are but an intelligent maneuver that, at the end of the day, helped to raise interest in other, perhaps less commercial but equally vital components of the multi-coloured subcontinent. Nine distinctive classical dance traditions, thousands of years of music and architecture, scores of painting and sculpture schools, crafts, inimitable cuisine and spiritual teachings must have something for everyone. India is after all a country with population of 1.3 billion, 22 official languages and over 120 others in active use, in addition to dozens of customs and many religions. It goes without saying that there is a lot to choose from when presenting even a fraction of India to the world and a testimony to that cultural depth can be captured by a few examples brought by India by the Nile to Egypt over the past seven years.
My first encounter with live performance of India's classical dance in Cairo was in 2013, when three dancers from the Nrityagram Dance Village performed Odissi, one of the recognized classical Indian dance forms. Odissi returned in 2016, staged by Dona Ganguly and her troupe at the Al-Gomhoreya Theatre. As if painting the sacred images as she celebrated a spirituality filled with colours and precision of movement, Ganguly walked us through the array of symbolism hidden in Indian mudras (hand gestures) and abhinayas (facial expressions), which include expressive eye movements. Unable to decipher this fascinating vocabulary, I sat among many other breathless viewers before the picturesque compositions.
A different scent of Indian dance could be had with Manipuri dance in 2015, when a ten-member troupe walked the viewers through a variety of classical and folk dances from the northeast, a part of the country which is in large part nurtured by the southern Asian forms. To me, however, nothing was as impressive and emotionally touching as Kathak, a classical dance which first came with India by the Nile in 2015. Together with her troupe Maram Mehdi – celebrated in her native country as an “A” artist – presented this fascinating art form which involves the storytellers' retelling of mythological epics through gestures which eventually metamorphose into dance. Mehdi was probably the first stepping stone in my deeper explorations of Kathak, whose pictures and rhythmic patterns I was so eager to understand that I ended up looking for Kathak dance classes at Maulana Azad Centre for Indian Culture. Speaking of Kathak, I can't stop myself from recalling a wonderful dancer, Prachee Shah, who in 2017 graced the stage of Cairo's Sayed Darwish Theatre, though this performance was held outside the festival framework. That same year, however, India by the Nile 2017 brought over Aditi Mangaldas, yet another Kathak dancer who performed Uncharted Seas with her Drishtikon Dance Foundation. Veiled in a profound theatrical atmosphere, an unusual setting for classical Kathak, the performance relied on dimmed lights and occasional candles aiming to reveal just a figure or a hand gesture of the performer, no more and no less. Slowly, the rhythmic sound of ghungroos (bells) unveiled the captivating complexity of tatkar (footwork) and set fast chakkars (spins) in motion – in the viewers' souls. But, moving away from Kathak, in 2017, a different scent of India was featured with another vibrant classical dance when Vanashree Rao and her company performed Dramatic Tales, an example of Kuchipudi, the classical dance of Andhra Pradesh, a southern state of India.
The list of masterful dancers showcased throughout the past seven years is truly impressive yet it would not be fair to limit the article to this art form. Music is an equally important component of the festival. In 2013, Shubha Mudgal, an iconic musician who holding her tanpura – a long-necked plucked string instrument with a body that resembles the sitar – treated the Cairo Opera small hall audience to a captivating vocal performance. Two musicians accompanied Mudgal: Aneesh Pradhan on tabla (a kind of drum) and Sudhir Nayak on harmonium. As I submitted to North India's classical singing, without understanding the music or the meaning of the lyrics, Mudgal's meditative sound captured my heart. Nagada, or Indian folkloric kettle drums, were presented during the performance of Nathoo Solanki, Chugge Khan, and other Rajasthani musicians in 2014. In the festival's fifth edition (2017), the world-class violinist Dr. L. Subramaniam offered a fusion of Indian and world music, a rare opportunity to listen to this virtuoso musician. A year later the iconic Grammy-nominated sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan gave performances at a few venues, and in the same edition Kabir Cafe, a collective of folk musicians, fused energetic Sufi and Indian folk melodies. The Thetakudi Harihara Vinayakram (known as Vikku Vinayakram), India's well known and a Grammy award winning percussionist and an ardent representative of Carnatic music (South of India), gave three concerts in 2019.
Nor does the festival lack puppet theatre. In 2017 and following the great success returning in 2019, Images of Truth (Satya ke Pratiroop), the musical, non-verbal show, presented an audiovisual view into Gandhi's achievements and the compound effects they had on contemporary India, resulting in an inclusive experience for all generations. Directed by Dadi D. Pudumjee, founder of the Ishara Puppet Theatre Trust (1986), the show was deemed groundbreaking and subversive at the time of its debut. The puppet play was commissioned in 1993 by the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, a leading government-funded arts organisation in New Delhi, and produced by the Ishara Puppet Theatre Trust in India.
But the performing arts are just one of the sections of India by the Nile and it is worth adding that the event involves a wide variety of other art forms, cultural gatherings, exchanges of thought and expertise. Throughout the past editions workshops were held in which Egyptian literary figures, craftsmen and performers interacted with their Indian counterparts, while exhibitions underlined the history and beauty of Indian textiles, arts and crafts. For instance, the India by the Nile's inaugural edition brought over “Akshara: Indian calligraphy”, an exhibition of Indian crafts fused with calligraphy, whilst 2014 included “India Ink”, showcasing work by a renowned Indian political cartoonist, Sudhir Tailang, on the one hand and a range of saris, the traditional Indian dress for women, on the other. All activities are accompanied by yoga and wellbeing workshops and food fiestas. The most recent rounds of India by the Nile also included seminars on economic relations between India and Egypt, an interesting component that reiterated the strong historical ties between the two countries, a fact which helped to set the scene for cultural dialogue through the ages.
There is no end to the list of artistic, literary and culinary riches introduced by this festival. There were years when India by the Nile lasted over five weeks, while in other instances, all activities were packed into a two-week schedule. As we walk through the festival's history we realize that, regardless of its duration, the variety of presentation and the quality of the performances never fails to impress. The festival's efforts are not limited to Cairo and Alexandria, as the organisers reach out to many other governorates. Port Said, Minya, Ismailia and Fayoum are among the destinations to India by the Nile found its way. In a time when launching and sustaining a large cultural endeavor is no mean feat, the continuation of India by the Nile, the large audience that it attracts, the different social strata it speaks to, is a big success that should be paid attention by all possible partners.
It is only days before the eighth Indian by the Nile opens, and worth noting that it will last only eight days from 2 to 10 March, taking place in Cairo, Alexandria, Port Said and Fayoum. Bollywood fans will be treated to On the Road to Bollywood, a colourful show featuring well-known songs from Bollywood films accompanied by dances, while Gilles Chuyen will lead the annual Bollywood dance workshop. The Astha Dixit Dance Company will provide a modern perspective on Kathak while the culture of Rajasthan will be on display thanks to the folk music Kutle Khan Project, featuring the renowned artist after whom it is named, whose portfolio includes concerts around the globe. There will also be a yoga and wellbeing workshop as well as a taste of Indian cuisine by celebrity chef and entrepreneur Vikram Udaygiri.
Ila Gupta, the director and producer of India by the Nile, describes the festival's eighth round as “a very focused programme” that stresses “music and dance, components which we value very much as our cultural offering to our friends in Egypt”. In this context, she points to On the Road to Bollywood and Kathak, “the first being a beautiful mix of music and dance from the popular films directed and choreographed by Chuyen, the second having a young and fresh group presenting the classical dance form. On the other hand, Kutle Khan will bring to the stage the energy of the desert state of Rajasthan. Khan is very popular across the nations we have been to in the past; it is lively music with universal lyrics”.
The arts, particularly music and dance no doubt remain one of the main mediums linking people together and allowing the culture to move beyond its geographic borders. “By cherishing this art form, people come closer together. We are grateful for the continuous support of the ambassador of India to Egypt who has been supporting and encouraging us to showcase India's culture in Egypt,” Gupta comments, underlining the support of the ministry of culture and other parties involved in this endeavor.
Let us conclude with the words og former ambassador, Bhattacharyya saying: “India by the Nile is a spectacular display of the classical as well as contemporary art and culture of India. It represents the dramatic changes taking place in India. It reaches out to audiences in Cairo and other cities to share the diversity and developments in our music and dance, theatre and films, handicrafts and arts, and even sports and the economy; it builds new bridges.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.


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