We have a great advantage over China, but we aren’t using it.
The once-rich and varied Chinese culture is being bludgeoned into a bland government-controlled sameness. We’ve seen a number of ‘cultural performances’ in China. But all these ostensible celebrations of regional folkways were as slick and authentic as Bollywood item numbers! Thank heavens, our 4,635 distinct communities in India have maintained their individuality.
This mix-and-match mosaic fascinates the modern tourist, because people are interested in people. If we forget this basic drive in all humans, we will lose out on the prime motivation of travel. When a person sees an awesome landscape for the first time, the questions that arise are ‘How would I like to live here?’, ‘Would I survive?’, ‘Would I be happy?’ Then, naturally, the visitor wants to know how other humans have adjusted to this environment. How do they live? What work do they do? What are their customs, traditions, food, handicrafts, and dress?
As international lifestyles become the global ideal, travellers seek fascinating alternatives. We have those alternatives, but we need to market them with minimum cost and maximum return.
Advertising is one way. It does capture eyeballs, but increasingly, visitors seek experiences. Roadshows are another option, but, sadly, many have deteriorated into expensive selfies for politicians and babus.
When we see a state bringing a brief ‘roadshow’ to Delhi, we are suspicious. We feel that what the netas really want to do is earn brownie points from their senior colleagues, because their position back home is shaky. It has very little to do with the promotion of tourism.
If a state wants to showcase the fascinating and varied lifestyles of its people, there is a much easier way to do that - use our unique Indian advantage, which is festivals. Don’t try to manufacture them; use the genuine, existing ones.
Rajasthan’s Pushkar Mela wasn’t created. It was discovered by the diplomatic corps of Delhi. It had existed as far back as people could remember, as a religious cattle fair, bringing together the many tribes of the desert. A few embassy folk stumbled upon it and the word spread like wildfire - ‘If you want to see the people of Rajasthan in all their colourful variety, and in a dynamic, celebratory mood, this is where you must go!’
Much the same happened in Goa and its Carnival. Here, however, some creative local folk took tips from Brazil’s Carnival and reshaped their festival to include a street pageant and other spectacles. Sadly, bureaucrats, who have little feel for the local Indo-Iberian culture, interfered and tried to convert it into a replica of New Delhi’s Republic Day Parade, which, originally, was formatted on a Soviet-style spectacle. Happily, Goans are a naturally ebullient people and their irrepressible sprit burst through layers of sarkari stodginess. The carnival has survived despite obtuse, out-of-state babus.
But if we want to promote Indian folkways in all their varied and spirited forms, we have got to use the bureaucrats. Word should go out from the Centre to every district magistrate... through ‘proper channels’, of course! of course!... to list the festivals of every village, temple, vihara, church, masjid, and gurdwara in the district. These lists should be accompanied by brief descriptions, photographs, and dates of occurrence. Those that have significantly unacceptable practices, like animal sacrifice, should carry a warning like that on TV shows - ‘viewer discretion is advised’ - but they should not be excluded. Such prohibitions are the hallmark of a weak-kneed, beleaguered state. They have no place in a vibrant, all-inclusive democracy. Then the list of festivals should be indexed state-wise and in a five-year concordance with the international calendar. The Union Ministry of Tourism should carry this information on its website and make it as freely available as possible.
What will we gain by producing such a five-year ‘Concordance of Indian Festivals?’ Travellers passing through the area, at that time, will be tempted to include the festival in their itinerary out of sheer curiosity. Every one of them is likely to spend a little money on the festival and talk about their experience to friends and relatives. Their word-of-mouth publicity and their photographs will promote the festival to an ever-expanding circle of people. Even their negative comments will stir the curiosity of more adventurous people, particularly the naturally rebellious younger generation.
The bottom, socially-significant line is that the unique diversity of India - its people, dress, handicrafts, jewellery, food, customs, and traditions - will become a perennial source of wonder and income for all levels of society. From airlines and major tourism entrepreneurs to the little fruit vendor and snack peddler; everyone stands to gain.
The greatest gain will be for India’s international image as a diverse, and democratically-vibrant state. But, do we have this all-encompassing vision?