Culture is the way we live, think and behave, feels Dr Suresh Goel, Director General, Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR). And his growing up days in old Delhi is what has shaped him. 'While growing up, I have seen tolerance and accommodation. My school was on top of a mosque. That's my cultural upbringing,' says Goel.
This year is a busy one for Goel as ICCR has a heavy calender of events. 'The organisation promotes cultural collaboration as a means to promote understanding, dialogue from India,' he says. 'When we use culture as Confidence Building Measure, we are asking people to work with each other. This is the agenda I am trying to translate as plan of action for ICCR,' says Goel and he should know, having served as a former diplomat to several countries.
In his long career as a diplomat (Goel did his B.Sc from Ramjas College, M.Sc from Delhi University in physics, researched for two years in tropospheric communication) and then joined the Foreign Services. So why did he join ICCR? 'I joined because I am interested in exploring culture as a human endeavour,' says Goel.
Culture, he says, is both performing arts and attitude. 'If we want to promote cultural dialogue then we need to preserve our culture and give it momentum so that it can develop using the energy of the youth. As a part of that we need to protect traditional forms,' says Goel, who joined ICCR in May 2010 after returning from Laos where he was the Ambassador.
Keeping that in mind, ICCR has already organised the Dhrupad Festival ('if Dhrupad dies then we lose the very foundation of our music, says Goel), the Jaltarang festival, and many more. Coming up is Qawali Festival with qawals coming from neighbouring countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan. Then there is the World Percussion Festival and the World Flute Festival with international artistes. Also, the Delhi International Arts Festival will become the ICCR festival. Goel also plans to revive Delhi Jazz Yatra that was started by Soli Sorabjee.
Another major event is the festival of Russia in India. ICCR will also be commemorating Vivekananda's 150th birth anniversary in a big way. There will be seminars, exhibitions, performances, lectures and more and the organisation is in touch with Ramakrishna Mission.
Internationally this year, ICCR is a partner at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe where two groups will take part. Goel also has plans for the London Olympics this year and says several groups will be performing through the Nehru Centre. Mohiniattam dancer Vijayalaxmi and Bharatnatyam dancer Geeta Chandran choreographed Swan Lake using Mohiniattam which will be set to Korney Chukovsky. 'We are presenting India not just as a traditional culture but a country which has used traditional arts to build new ideas,' says Goel.
The former diplomat has also chalked up the plan for 2014 already. One of the biggest events next year is the India Asean summit. There will be a painter's camp from Asean countries in Darjeeling. These paintings will be exhibited in Patna in July and around the same time there will be a seminar between scholars of India and Asean countries on civilisational links.
The organisation is supporting several Sufi events. There was a Sufi concert by the band Mrigya which sings rock music and the lyrics comprise words from Azaan and Rig Veda shlokas. 'The idea is to explore how our cultural ideas and other cultural areas come together,' says Goel. He says ICCR has completely transformed itself over the years in keeping with Maulana Abul Kalam Azad's vision and academics is also playing a major role in it. ICCR is promoting lots of chairs of Indian studies in collaboration with universities abroad. The institution presently has 35 cultural centres globally and 17 regional offices but is expanding majorly.
With so much work on the anvil, does Goel even get time to relax? Goel went to Corbett National Park last month where 'we saw everything except tigers'. Wildlife, trekking, mountains and the sea are his favourite travel destinations. 'Wildlife is interesting, especially watching how they behave,' he says. Goel is also fond of reading (mostly fiction) but admits he doesn't get too much time nowadays. He is fond of reading Vikram Seth and Shashi Tharoor's works and also books on philosophy.
Working with a cultural agency, how close is he to the performing arts? 'I tried to learn sitar but gave up after six months. Then I tried to learn singing and my wife said it is best not to try. So for me it is mostly understanding and appreciation,' he says, laughing. One would say he is doing quite a good job of it.