Tradition and Departure - Cultural Relations between India and Germany

Posted by Dr. Clemens Spiess • Tuesday, August 17. 2010 • Category: Crossing Cultures
As a result of stronger ties between Germany and India, cultural relations between the two countries have found new impetus drawn from a longer tradition of German-Indo cultural exchange. Foreign cultural policy experiences multiple incentives and support on both sides, which makes it useful to establish sustainable structures of cultural dialogue. However, a number of factors could be listed to shed light on the still asymmetrical nature that marks cultural relations between India and Germany. Among them are: different conceptions of foreign cultural policy, different stages of the respective art industry and cultural infrastructure, a historically determined imbalance of financial and infrastructural resources and the sheer ignorance in the way both countries have perceived the other.

Christian-Matthias Schlaga, Charge d'Affaires, German Embassy in India, together with Dr. Eckart Würzner, Lord Mayor of the City of Heidelberg, at a workshop of the University of Heidelberg's South Asia Institute that was organised by Knowledge Must in New Delhi

At the moment, in the field of fine arts – including photography and architecture – an exciting exchange, influenced by contemporary trends, is developing. However, its possibilities are restricted due to the lack of institutionalization of the Indian art industry. Furthermore, the display of art in India relies more and more on cooperation with local institutions and facilities, whereas the mediation of German (contemporary) art and culture is still and more or less exclusively carried out by the various German intermediary organisations.

In the world of books, an increasing interest in Indian literature can be noted, especially since the Frankfurt book fair in 2006 which featured India as its "guest of honour". Despite the challenges faced by Indian literature in regional languages, which still lags behind and needs continued support to get the attention that Indian literature in English already gets, the obstacles faced by German contemporary literature to literarily "spread its word" in India seem greater, not least because of translation issues. Nonetheless, the innovative projects of a few intermediary organisations ought to be acknowledged.

Indian film has meanwhile arrived in Germany, which holds true not only for the so-called Bollywood productions, but partly also for art films and documentaries. German films are also increasingly present at Indian film festivals, although the entry of German films in India still proves to be difficult if not impossible due to the specifics of the Indian film market.

Classical Indian dance has been enjoying great popularity in Germany for a long time, in contrast to the still rare visibility of modern dance and Indian drama. Established theatre structures with repertoires and ensembles are rudimentary in India, even though small theatre and dance companies have been established in many of the big cities. Above all, in the area of modern theatre and dance – as opposed to classical dance – there have been no supporting structures while different priorities are set. With the exception of dance theatre, the mediation of German theatrical culture still finds resistance in India because of different viewing customs and linguistic diversity – despite a long tradition of Indo-German theatrical confluence.

The German Saxophone Legend Rainer Pusch ( playing with Indian Jazzists

Indian music of all sorts, from classical music to Hindi-pop, has been widely present in Germany and finds an audience, even without much effort of intermediary organisations. Music from Germany, on the other hand, faces difficulties gaining a foothold in India. There is no adequate transfer of classical music from Germany because of the lack of a regular orchestral structure; modern German entertainment music is largely unknown. It is only with regard to jazz music, that musicians from Germany have not only been very well received in India, but many intercultural cooperation projects have been initiated.

German-Indian science and research cooperation is intense and very well positioned. However, a discipline-wise and person-related imbalance prevails: compared to the technical, natural and life sciences, the humanities and the social sciences have a great deal of leeway to make up in bilateral cooperation; and, not enough German scholars and researchers set off for India. The latter also holds for student exchanges.

The need for German as a foreign language has risen enormously in the last few years. German intermediary organisations have met their capacity limits. The teaching of Indian regional languages in Germany is provided by the Indology chairs at 16 German universities; in this respect Germany is very well positioned in comparison with other European countries. There is however, a lack of courses on modern India beyond language classes or Indological research. Therefore, there is an urgent need to extend as well as intensify the learning opportunities and courses on India at the school and university level. The same holds true for German studies in India and courses for studies on Germany and Europe in India.

Students of the Jawaharlal-Nehru High School in Neustrelitz, German Democratic Republic, visiting the Indian Embassy in 1987 to get an introduction on Indian art by Kusum Budhwar, wife of the Indian Ambassador (from the German Federal Archive

School and youth exchanges in German-Indian relations are still underdeveloped. The success of the few existing school exchanges shows how great an interest there is in school partnerships. Expanding these would add a new dimension to German-Indian cultural relations. More effort needs to be placed on supporting measures aimed at promoting a German-Indian youth encounter at a regional and local level.

German political foundations operating in India, along with their education programs in Germany, provide an excellent instrument for fostering German-Indian relations. The foundations operating in India have done remarkable work – some of them for decades. To date, very few German-Indian town-partnerships exist, but where partnerships have come into existence, a tight network of personal contacts has been developed, and the partnership impacts positively on other areas of German-Indian cooperation.

As far as the media coverage of the cultural counterpart is concerned, there is still a backlog in the German-Indian relationship. A horizontal enlargement of thematic offers and a vertical deepening which imparts background knowledge and first-hand information for the understanding of supposedly strange phenomena are badly needed.

For decades, the work of bilateral cultural agencies, particularly the Deutsch-Indische Gesellschaft, have been contributing to the advancement of Indo-German cultural dialogue and mutual understanding. In addition, dialogue initiatives between Germany and India – mostly at the initiative of German cultural institutions, foundations and intermediary organisations – have multiplied in recent years.


This text is a summary of the book written in German language by Dr. Clemens Spiess "Tradition und Aufbruch - Die deutsch-indischen Kulturbeziehungen" that is published by IFA and can be ordered or downloaded as a PDF from their website:

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