How effective is this trendy thing called ‘soft power’? A valuable tool in international relations since 1990 when Harvard professor Joseph Nye coined the term, it refers to the ability of countries and groups to influence others through highlighting appealing cultural values and institutions.
Naturally, cinema is a great bond among people – it used to be American cinema in the ‘fifties through the ‘seventies and then it has been pretty much Bollywood in many parts of the world. We may laugh or turn up our elitist noses at Bollywood’s kitschy offerings but it has opened doors and even saved lives. During the first Gulf War, Indians fleeing across the desert from Kuwait and into Saudi Arabia told many stories of being stopped by Iraqi patrols and being made to sing Amitabh Bachchan hits or say his popular dialogues to prove their nationality. In the ‘eighties, I remember how BTV used to telecast a Hindi movie every Wednesday night and many senior Bahraini businesspeople would plan their day so that they could get away in time for the family Hindi movie dinner!
The governments of Bahrain and India recently signed an MoU about cultural co-operation – so what does that mean? With such a large Indian community in the GCC and the proximity of the West Asian neighbourhood to the home country, Indian cultural events do dominate the calendar in Bahrain. But a closer look will reveal that a lot of it is cinema-driven content and while that is good to an extent – look at those glittering film award shows and the tourists they pull in anywhere in the world – we must balance it with a little more classicism and a more diverse cultural mix so that we can truly explore and understand each other’s backgrounds.
In larger societies in the UK and the US, for example, the government has grants earmarked to promote cultural diversity and even offers access to spaces where communities can practise their cultures. In the ‘nineties when I worked with the community to bring classical not-for-profit events, I recall that there was a phase when the Bahrain government waived visa and event fee charges for such events and even extended local hospitality to visiting artistes. We could hold non-commercial classical shows in school auditorium after school hours and even had the use of Radio Bahrain technicians and studio to record sound tracks for local theatre productions.
When we have leaders signing MoU about cultural exchange programmes, why can we not see such support once again? By all means collect revenue from commercial programmes. But classical cultural programmes are a tremendous challenge to organise because it is a narrower niche and does not boast of the sparkle that movie stars bring to shows. Such a waiving of fees and visa charges for the genuine artistes will undoubtedly boost Bahrain’s reputation as a welcoming port of call for all classical artistes. The loss of revenue can be made up by promoting the classical events regionally and bringing in a diverse tourist audience. Now that Saudi Arabia is also opening doors for artistic events, we shall certainly need to rethink our cultural matrix and pitch our community voices higher.
Meanwhile, cultural groups must also push their contacts back home to help take Bahraini artists for performances there. It is only when the creative traffic is genuinely two-way that we can say the cultural exchange MoU signed in the presence of leaders is valid.