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Lunch at the Tribeca Grill with: Aroon Shivdasani

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-04-12

"Look around you - India is everywhere in New York," Aroon Shivdasani, executive director of the Indo-American Arts Council, said. "Look around you - India is everywhere in America. India is on Wall Street. India is in the art galleries. India is in restaurants. It's in textiles. It's in high fashion. It's in Silicon Valley. India is on television. India is in the movies being shown in New York."

Ms. Shivdasani is showing some of those movies herself at the ImaginAsian
Theater in Manhattan this week, a very different genre from the Diaspora film festival that she launched five years ago. This week's event, titled "Masters of Indian Cinema," offers oeuvre by internationally acclaimed directors such as Satyajit Ray, Shyam Benegal, Aparna Sen, Mrinal Sen, Budhadeb Dasgupta and Mani Ratnam.

"India's time has come, it's our day" Ms. Shivdasani said, her voice fairly rising with enthusiasm that invited looks from diners at nearby tables. "India is no longer just a curiosity in America. India is being accepted in the mainstream, both culturally and economically."

Indeed, economic, cultural and political ties between India and America have never been closer. America has become India's largest trading partner, taking in more than $16 billion of goods, or 20% of India's annual exports.

More than 80% of India's outsourcing business comes from American companies, amounting to yearly revenues of $8 billion. More than 2 million Indians are settled in America, and they constitute the wealthiest ethnic community, according to Arvind Panagriya, the Jagdish Bhagwati Professor of Indian Political Economy at Columbia University. On the basis of purchasing power parity, India's economy is the world's fourth largest - after America, Japan, and China.

And although 400 million of India's 1.2 billion people are still mired in poverty, its middle class numbers nearly 400 million, the largest in the world. This growing middle class - which also constitutes the world's biggest such market -- is hungry for American consumer goods, which explains why top American companies are increasingly establishing a presence in India. Moreover, Professor Panagriya points out, that with more than 800 million registered voters, India is also the world's biggest democracy and is increasingly opening its traditionally socialist economy to foreign investment and enhanced domestic competition.

The strengthening of political and economic ties between India and America owes much to President Bush's recognition of India as a potential counterweight to Communist China, an Asian giant whose population of 1.3 billion will be overtaken by India in two decades. And the opening up of
India's economy owes much to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who marks the first anniversary of his election in a few weeks. It was Mr. Singh, a professional economist who, as finance minister in an earlier administration, initiated the dismantling of the bureaucratic "License Raj," the crippling system that required permits for the tiniest of economic transactions.

Yesterday, in a dramatic confirmation of Mr. Bush's instincts toward India and Mr. Singh's implementation of free-enterprise policies, the Manila-based Asian Development Bank said that India would become the world's third biggest economic power by 2015, overtaking Japan and accounting for nearly 15% of the global economy. (The ADB also said that by 2035, China's gross domestic product - currently $1.4 trillion - would be double that of America, whose GDP is $11 trillion.)

And it was Aroon Shivdasani, a naturalized American who was born in Bombay, who cannily recognized that as India and America developed their economic and political relationship, this country would become more hospitable to Indian culture.

"It wasn't so long ago that about the only Indian music that Americans seemed to be aware of was that of Ravi Shankar, the sitarist," Ms.
Shivdasani said. "Indian food meant "curries" in some dilapidated hole-in-the-wall. Now India has well-wishers all over the place. Now there isn't a New Yorker who doesn't have a friend named Kumar or Singh or Patel - or Pranay Gupte."

That last reference was hyperbolic, of course, but it suggested to the India-born reporter how shrewdly Ms. Shivdasani deployed her vast network of contacts in launching the Indo-American Arts Council in 1998.

She tapped investment bankers, real-estate magnates, pricey consultants, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, technology titans, and businessmen - including her husband - and obtained support for a variety of cultural events in Manhattan. Established auteurs, actors and writers - including Mira Nair, Ismail Merchant, Shabana Azmi and Salman Rushdie - also lend her support. Their presence at Ms. Shivdasani's events ensures the showcasing of lesser known emerging artistes in each of these disciplines.

Ms. Shivdasani has staged productions by playwrights of Indian origin, and the showcasing of both well-known and rising painters. She has organized readings of works by Indian writers, put together festivals that celebrated ancient Indian dance forms, such as Odissi and Bharata Natyam. She obtained the cooperation of institutions such as Lincoln Center, Christie's, the Museum of Modern Art, and Columbia and New York Universities.
And what has it taken to accomplish all this?

"It's taken complete, unadulterated, 24/7 dedication," Ms. Shivdasani said.
"Many people thought that I was chasing my tail - but one has to be like
Lord Krishna, be at all places at all times. I was determined to ensure that Americans - and New Yorkers in particular - got to know the intrinsic arts of India through specific disciplines like drama, dance, literature, visual art, and films. I'm totally passionate about the arts - and I'm totally passionate about New York."

"And it's helped, of course, that New York is so open to new culture, the city is always hungering for something new and different," she continued.
"It's helped that the Indian faces that Americans see are largely those of professionals - doctors, bankers, hoteliers, businessmen. There's a comfort zone that Indian culture creates."

A major component of that comfort zone, Ms. Shivdasani said, was that Indian culture - and Indians - isn't viewed as a threat to the American ethos.
"Indians don't take jobs away - in fact, they create them in America," she said. "Our presence is benign. We integrate well into the mainstream. Now
Indians are even in Congress, in numerous state legislatures, and in local city and town councils. I see my work as enhancing the cultural diversity of this city, and this country."

Is she concerned that, notwithstanding America's receptivity to new cultures, there might be a backlash against the ubiquitous Indian presence on the economic and cultural scenes?

"A backlash usually results when a culture takes something away from the established culture," Ms. Shivdasani said. "India isn't doing that. India is further enriching what's already a culturally diverse and vibrant society.
There's really no threat from us. Our roots may be Indian, but we're Americans, too. Like most Indians, I was raised to be tolerant of all cultures - India is such a tapestry of different religions and sensibilities. Well, I like to think that America is probably the most tolerant society on earth. I like to think that Americans are also brought up to show tolerance and understanding - and receptivity to new experiences. I'm tapping into that."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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