India looking East to build cultural bridges: Karan Singh

New Delhi: India is looking East to ramp up cultural contacts and strike new friendships in Asia on the strength of shared history, says Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) president Karan Singh, who is also a senior Congress leader.

Singh was in South Korea last week to set up a new overseas cultural cell in Seoul and establish a chair of Sanskrit at the Preah Sihanouk Raja Buddhist University in Cambodia for the study of the ancient mother language, the origin of several Asian dialects.

The Seoul cell opened with a festival of Indian culture.

"This is part of my `Look East` policy that I adopted when I took over ICCR six years ago. In the last four years, ICCR has set up overseas cultural centres in Dhaka, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Kathmandu, Thimpu, Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul," Karan Singh told reporters in an interview.

ICCR had two cells in Indonesia, and one each in Fiji, Suriname, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago - the last four being countries where indentured workers from India rose through society to become presidents and prime ministers, he added.

The additions have also entrenched the diaspora`s linkages with India, he said.

Karan Singh, an MP, writer, politician and scholar of Indian culture, said he had adopted a Look East policy "because for 2,000 years Indian culture has had a profound impact on South and Southeast Asia".

"All the great monuments in Southeast Asia like Angkor Vat and Borobodur are grounded in Indian religions (Hinduism and
Buddhism)," he said, stressing the South and Southeast Asian countries share linguistic and Sanskritic roots with India.

"The themes of the traditional dances are drawn from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Bharatanatyam is the most popular dance genre in Southeast Asia. The cuisine is also similar. We have so much in common with these nations - but centuries of colonial invasion had attenuated these links. I am trying to rediscover and revive these cultural links," he said.

ICCR overseas cells facilitate cultural exchange by hosting Festivals of India and festivals of the respective host nations in India, teaching of yoga as well as conducting Hindi classes, the ICCR president said.

"We offer 3,000 scholarships to students from developing countries - with 1,000 in Afghanistan alone. We are trying to set new Indian studies chairs in foreign universities. We have 20 such chairs currently. Indian studies has become an important area - especially in Asia. Earlier, academic interest in India was clubbed under South Asia studies which includes eight countries. Indian studies was getting diluted," he said.

Besides, the ICCR has also been hosting several Indology conferences, he said, adding there was much more on the anvil.

"A lot needs to be done yet. We are looking at more private-public partnerships in culture. We have just acquired a property in Paris in France which will take two years to be ready," he said, North America is another area where the ICCR is yet to set up presence, said Karan Singh.

"But Washington is still jinxed. Every time, a property comes up for sale, we cannot rise to the occasion. I have written to the prime minister and raise the matter at the ministry of external affairs I think we have to rent a property for an ICCR cell. There is no overseas culture centre in North America," he said.

Listing the overseas cultural centres in the pipeline, he said the ICCR plans to set up shop in Toronto, Washington, Mexico, Sao Paulo (Brazil), Buenos Aires, Lagos (Nigeria) and "in one of the Francophile nations like Senegal or Ivory Coast in Africa".