Moving beyond Commonwealth, cricket & curry

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Having completed two years as Consul General of India in Melbourne, the palpable excitement with which Manika Jain took over office has not died down since. There are lots and lots of work on her plate as relations between India and Australia gain momentum. Improving bilateral relations is the agenda, Jain had said on assuming office here. There are no set achievable targets in this profession but “implementing day to day consular services, making Australians understand India and vice versa (to some extent), keeping in touch with our counter parts of many countries here are all part of the direction,” said Jain, who joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1993 after completing her post graduate studies in law from Delhi University. But it is also Jain’s connection with the Indian community that deserves attention. This year the Festival of India is set to take Australia by storm. And Jain, along with others, have been working hard to bring to Australia an event that will showcase the rich cultural celebrations of India. In this conversation with The Indian Weekly Jain delves into the festival and a range of other issues.

There is a lot of excitement building regarding the Festival of India? Can you elaborate?

It was Prime Minister Narendra Modi who had promised the people of Australia a great cultural festival from India. Finally, we are bringing Confluence, which true to its name, refers to the most interesting blend of cultural goodness that would please anyone – from an entertainment seeker to the greatest classical dance enthusiast to a young aspiring artiste who has a passion for expression.

What would be the key highlights of the Festival?

Spread over six cities, the festival which will take place over ten weeks through August – November will include conferences and workshops that share insights into traditional and contemporary Indian culture and its confluence with Australia’s curious and congenial populace. Indian artists will collaborate with Australian artists. So there will be a joint performance by the Indian spiritual music group Sonam Kalra and The Sufi Gospel Project and Australian musician Ashlee Clement along with a didgeridoo player.

Renowned Indian cartoonist Ajit Ninan will discuss political humour with counterparts like David Pope and Mark Knight. The festival has also included a slam poetry act by local talent Sukhjeet Kaur Khalsa. In the dance section, there will be renowned classical dancer Sujata Mohapatra, the Kalakshetra Foundation will be presenting an expressive dance piece Jataya Moksham from the Ramayana choreographed by Rukmini Devi Arundale herself, and the famous Pung Cholom, a unique classical dance from Manipur will perform.

A unique part of the festival will be an exhibition by architect Bijoy Jain, who will design MPavilion 2016. Australia’s MPavilion is an award-winning annual architecture commission and design event. The temporary summer pavilion in Melbourne’s historic Queen Victoria Gardens hosts a free four- month program of talks, workshops, performances and installations. An exhibition of Studio Mumbai’s work and inspirations for MPavilion will be displayed at RMIT Gallery in Melbourne. MPavilion is presented by Naomi Milgrom Foundation, Creative Victoria and City of Melbourne, Creative Victoria and ANZ.

All details of the festival are available at the festival website www.confluencefoi.com.

Having completed two years in Melbourne, what has been your experience serving this very multicultural city?

My experience has been a mixed bag of big and small initiatives with largely positive outcomes. The engagement between India and Australia has not only widened but also deepened particularly since the historic visit of Prime Minister Modi to Australia in 2014 just succeeding the visit of Prime Minister of Australia Tony Abbott to India in September 2014. There has been renewed energy and enthusiasm in the bilateral engagement in all sectors which has kept me very productively engaged.

Your past assignments are incredible too. How do you manage to switch your area of focus between so many different countries?

I would say that all assignments of a diplomat are challenges as well as opportunities and we are trained to switch over from one area or country to another. Our job becomes easier if we learn to focus on the present assignment as soon as we receive it.

Is there one experience, person or event in Australia or India that has greatly influenced one or more of your policies?

Policies of a country do not normally get influenced just by one experience, person or event and nor has it been in my case. However, implementation of the broader policy of enhancing engagement between India and Australia may get tweaked after studying local ethos and work culture. Since the Indian work culture and Australian work culture are very different from each other, I have made efforts to bridge the gap between the two to have productive outcomes.

What do you believe is the best thing that is happening between Australia and India right now?

At present since there are no major irritants in the relationship between India and Australia, it has given the time and space to the diplomats of both our countries to pursue a very positive agenda on a wide spectrum.

 What are some of the key issues on which Australia and India can work together?

India and Australia can work together on many issues, especially in the areas where they complement each other such as Australia’s know-how in vocational education can benefit in training the large young force in India and India’s skilled human-power can contribute in the growing service economy of Australia. Joint research in agriculture, climatic and environmental issues, joint-ventures in waste-disposal management, water management and food processing, standardizing business processes are some of the key areas where they two countries can work together.

What misconceptions do you feel the average citizen of this country has toward India and vice-versa?

An average citizen of any country has a stereotype image of the other country and its inhabitants. Indians and Australians are no exceptions to this. I would say generalizing about any country in any perspective would be wrong; whether it might be viewing Indians through the prism of Bollywood or reading Australians from the Goodes’ episode.

What would you like to see achieved in your remaining term as Consul General of India?

The people of our two countries have started engaging better with each other but are still in the process of understanding each other’s culture and strength. Though there is a palpable desire to move beyond the three C’s (commonwealth, cricket and curry) yet I will be very happy to see this understanding deepening so that the engagement can be more productive and long lasting in different spheres where the potential is still not optionally tapped.

Lastly, is there anything that hasn’t already been discussed that you would like to emphasize regarding the Festival of India?

Till now we have given the glimpse only of the Festival of India. The website of the Festival of India has been launched and the official launch of the festival will take place on 26 July in Sydney. Lot more information will be shared from the end of July onwards on the Festival of India.

Lastly, I would like to add that largely India is viewed through the prism of the Indian community in Australia, which puts an additional onus on the community to be the responsible brand Ambassadors of India. India is a large and dynamic sub-continent. It has to be understood in all its complexities and viewed in a broader sense to have a long lasting relationship to the maximum advantage of both.