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India on the global culture map like never before

July 10, 2007

Of late the interest in Indian culture has become huge. And the reason is (like one of my commentators Krenim pointed out) – economic:

From an every day perspective your culture traditions etc will matter to a man on the street more as your economy grows and with that how you touch western lives. Notice how Japanese culture went from being joked about in the 1950s to being respected by the average man on the street in the early 90s as their economy caught up with the west. India too has in concert with its economic progress increased its image greatly from a land of maharajas and snake-charmers to well.. something better.

He couldn’t have put it better. In this context I want to write about two events which have been in the news lately:

One is the popularity of comics on Indian mythology in the western world. Its probably the novelty of the comics that is attracting readers, but whatever the reason, interest in India has fueled this trend. The western world has been taught Greek mythology but now people are finding out that Indian mythology is as rich, if not richer in terms of stories and legends and ancient literature. In fact the stories and the rich characters from Indian mythology have so caught the imagination of the west that a 30-part series based on the Ramayana (one of our Holy Books) has been published and marketed by Virgin Comics in the west. Interestingly, the comics are set in a futuristic background to make it appeal to a new generation of readers. Also, various tales with “Indian inspired content” are being successfully marketed in a visual format by Virgin Comics and there are plans to to tap both the Western and the Indian markets with the new, modern versions of the old stories.

The second news item (unrelated to this) which interested me was the news that thirty manuscripts from an ancient Hindu text (The Rig Veda: 1800-1500 BC) are to be included in the 2007 United Nations Heritage list. These texts are the world’s oldest religious books and were passed down from word of mouth before being written in a book form 3000 years ago. These manuscripts are at the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (BORI), in Pune, and will be inscribed in UNESCO’s “Memory of the World” Register 2007. BORI has almost 28,000 ancient manuscripts housed with them.

Another piece of good news. This year, one more monument from India has been added to the UN’s Heritage list. The Red Fort in Delhi. This is in addition to the 26 other sites (including the Ajanta Ellora caves and the Taj Mahal) on the list.

Well, these are a few drops in the ocean when one thinks of the vast cultural treasure that Indian has. True, our ancient university at Nalanda is gone, (destroyed by invaders), and with it a nine storey library which held thousands of years of our heritage…but we still have a lot left. And the world will be the richer for it.

Ofcourse, the fact that Indian fashion, Indian music, Indian Ayurvedic medicines and India’s meditation and yogic techniques are already being used in the west, speaks volumes for the heritage that India can give the world. But these new developments seem to me an official acknowledgment of the fact. We have had too many people stealing our heritage (but more often than not we Indians have been blamed for stealing ideas from the west) – making medicines and clothes directly from Indian culture for which we have not been given credit for.

Hopefully, this will change, because not only has the world woken up to India, the Indian government is making efforts to make sure that our ideas are not stolen.

The Indian government is doubling its efforts to stop the stealing.

As it says here:

Having been hit by a volley of patents and trademarks on things like haldi and basmati, some of which now enjoy protection by virtue of being identified as geographical indications akin to champagne, the government has decided to take up the issue of patenting yoga seriously. Sources said it was important to raise the issue with the US since its agencies have made it a habit of granting such patents. Buoyed by its successful revocation of patents on turmeric, government is hoping for similar results on yoga.

The Indian government has already protested “against yoga-related patents issued by the US Patents & Trademarks Office.” In this particular case, its an NRI (Non Resident Indian) Bikram Yoga founder and US-based Bikram Choudhary who has tried to get a yoga related copyright.

I also once came across a fashion site which had our traditional ‘kurta’ designs and this designer had taken complete credit for them. There was no mention of India anywhere. This can only happen to India! If anyone tries to copy the traditional Chinese or Japanese dresses, it will be instantly known to everyone, so familiar are they with the designs, (Examples: the Chinese Chipua and the Japanese Kimono). India has been associated with the saree, and to some extent the salwar kameez, but we have a far larger variety of traditional clothes because as a country we are a mix of several ancient cultures.

Related Reading: Rare Indian manuscripts are now online
Five things I love about being Indian
Shashi Tharoor’s feel good speech about India

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. July 10, 2007 10:45 am

    yups u have to be successful to be taken seriously.

  2. July 10, 2007 5:19 pm

    Reaping the benefits of the our past…

  3. krenim permalink
    July 10, 2007 5:22 pm

    well thank you for your appreciation!
    I have always believed most things that people do everywhere is primarily driven by their desires to enrich themselves monetarily.
    Japan is the world’s second largest economy,the largest manufacturer of automobiles,the largest creditor to the rest of the world,the largest foreign investor in the west by far…
    It is in our economic interest to understand Japanese culture and society (the degree varies but the intent is always respectful curiosity) and we consider Japan as an equal to the west on its own merits as they demonstrably have an economy that ensures a similar standard of living.Infact the South Africans bent over backwards and classified them as honourary whites to do business with them during apartheid.
    I have no doubt that as the rest of the world converges to western standards of living ~50 years maybe you will see a far more sensitive handling of cultures.Hollywood cannot make anti Jap movies anymore as Japan is hollywood’s second largest market and media is at the end of the day a business.

  4. July 10, 2007 6:30 pm

    Agreed we must save our ancient past from being robbed away. How do you think the government should intervene in this matter? I feel deeply hurt to see that the present Man-moron Singh’s government is taking India back to where she was 50 years ago. With people more concerned about earning their day-to-day living rather than appreciating the rich treasures we house, where do you think India went wrong? Perhaps you could blog about that :)

  5. July 10, 2007 6:41 pm

    Actually the general belief is that in this aspect at least the government is improving. In fact I too think so. Earlier our government was sleeping, but and now its woken up to this patent robbery. There are many cases like this.
    Where this present government has failed miserably is protecting our wild-life. Complete neglect here! And ofcourse government failure can be counted in many other fields, and yes even the patent field but at least they have become aware of it now!

  6. krenim permalink
    July 10, 2007 7:06 pm

    umm patent roberry is actually when indian companies reverse engineer the wests pharmaceuticals and then flood the world market with bargain basement priced generics.

    I mean I realize poor countries need medicines but we aren’t talking basic antibiotics we are talking about cutting edge drugs which cost our companies bilions of dollars to make and wouldn’t exist unless someone invested ridiculous amounts of time and money.

    The West overall is the victim as far as patents are concerned when a enterprising texan patented basmati the indian government atleast had recourse to US courts which ruled in their favour.When indian pharma copies our drugs then the government effectively tells us to shut up when we file for patent protection is this fair? Why should we be penalized for being richer ?

  7. July 10, 2007 7:57 pm

    While I agree that stealing and copying drugs is going on, I don’t share your scepticism of the lack of justice in Indian courts. True, our justice system is not as efficient as yours, and more corrupt but these kind of cases usually get justice as global issues are at stake. Is there a particular case which you are referring to where our courts have denied justice?
    If it is, it is certainly not a norm or a trend.. as a democratic country we do have democratic institutions and there is proper recourse to law and justice.

  8. July 10, 2007 8:56 pm

    Nita, thanks a lot – again a very interesting article with the thorough analysis.

    However I am not quite sure that it is only thanks to the Indian economic development that the country becomes so popular.

    Indian culture is great and can offer so much of knowledge and true beauty- what i feel is that the West has just worn out its theories, concepts and powers and therefor is looking greedily to the ancient Eastern traditions. I believe there is much more behind that trend.

    I will try to make a short survey here in Austria, just ask people around what they think is the source of the interest to India :) lets lee what will come up.

  9. July 11, 2007 4:24 am

    I have been enjoying the comics from Virgin, they have free widescreen editions on their website under the tab “Digital Comics”: http://www.virgincomics.com

  10. Phantom permalink
    July 11, 2007 5:35 am

    Yup, money talks, bullshit walks!!!!! A nation with a strong economy and strategic global importance of course commands more respect in ALL aspects of discussion. Its called honour by associaton. Am economically rich country will be respected not only for its economy and commercial might, but also for its culture etc, and any other shortcomings will be conveniently set aside in others’ perceptoons of this country.

    Best thing for India to do is to increase her economical strength, improve her self-sufficiency, and work hard and increasing her strategic (political, diplomatic, economic, military, artistic, academic) importance within a global context. THEN, the rest of the world will begin to take an active interest in Indian culture, lifestyle etc. It will become fashionable to associate with things and concepts Indian. After all, no one wants to be assoiuated with a loser, but when the loser becomes a champion, everyone wants to join the after-party.

    Priyank – “I feel deeply hurt to see that the present Man-moron Singh’s government is taking India back to where she was 50 years ago.” >>>> I disagree thoroughly. The present govt has, if anything, catapaulted India’s economy from the lethargic, socialist, ineffecient, bureaucratic and highly corrupt economic/political/social regime that pretty much lasted from 1947 to about 1990. True, there are many aspects within governance that need much much much more cleanign up, lots more investment reqd in infrastructure, lots of corruption still exists etc….but the fact is, the economy’s been growing at a pace for the past decade and a half, that wasn’t possibly to even dream of, for the 50 years post-independence. The capital markets are relatively efficient, the private sector is efficient and successful on a global scale.

    What is point of having a glorious ancient heritage if there’s no food on your table. Indulgence in heritage can be done far easier once relatively basic material needs have been met.

    Krenin – by reverse engineering western pharmaceutical products, if the indian pharma’s have managed to totally violate IP, anti-trust, fair trade, product dumping, price fixing etc laws and regulations in the overseas markets (which are their prime markets, the main sources of income), then I struggle to see how they actually get away with doing business. On the other hand…..if the indian/asian firms have reverse – engineered the products and have done so at far lower costs (a natural result of the far lower cost of staffing, conducting business, R&D in India as compared with US, UK, western europe) and have successfully been able to legally by-pass the IP laws etc, then surely there’s nothing wrong with that. I mean, sure, it sucks for the western pharmas to have to compete with a far cheaper product, but thats just business. And sure enough, with due time, the majority of the western pharmas have begun to shift large chunks of their R&D work to the asian countries, as R&D represents the majority of the cost of rolling out a new drug and therefore there are huge cost/time savings to be had by outsourcing.

    The furore arising from the texan co trying to patent basmati rice is not regarding the commercial cheekiness or the disregard for Indian IP…it is an indignant feeling by the indians that the obvious cultural heritage of this product has been blatantly dis-regarded purely in the name of maximising profits. Look, the west has been doing all sorts of things to maximise profits, for decades. If the asian markets start applying their own brand of warfare to achieve the same, whats wrong with that??? as long of course, as everything complies with a globally accepted set of principles (which by the way are quite heavily skewed in the favour of the west……hey…thats the benefit of being the most powerful in the world, you get to manipulate things to go your way).

    The sooner India and China truly elevate their economies to be in the top 5 of the world (in terms of GDP output), the sooner they will have more clout on the global economic, political stage.

  11. krenim permalink
    July 11, 2007 10:06 am

    My basic issue is this the “product” the drug comes out of billions of dollars of research ,testing etc.When it is finally approved our pharma companies have to disclose the molecular formula of the new drug.The Indian pharma cos just reverse engineer this product i.e their research cost to determine this molecule will cure x disease is 0(this is 99% o the cost of development) then they find a new process to produce this molecule and thus with 1% of the cost are able to flood the world market greatly disintevising research into drugs particularly the ones related to tropical diseases etc.
    The Indian government still will not recognize product patent only process patent.And the cost advantage has been blown out of proportion high end researchers in pharma and other such industries earn pretty much the same anywhere in the world.

    [[The sooner India and China truly elevate their economies to be in the top 5 of the world (in terms of GDP output), the sooner they will have more clout on the global economic, political stage.]]
    China already is the world’s fourth largest economy in nominal terms.
    1.US(300mn)-13 trillion
    2.Japan(150mn)-5 trillion
    3.Germany(70mn)-3.5 trillion
    4.China(1.3 bn)-2.9 trn
    5.UK(58mn)-2.5trn

  12. Phantom permalink
    July 11, 2007 6:00 pm

    Krenin – yea agreed it sucks for the western pharma co to spend billions onf new product rollout, and then see an indian or chinese firm reverse-engineer the product at a fraction of the cost, and the flood the markets with it. Well, apart from a sensitized emotional “unfair” aspect to it, i’d say that its just bloody business. The smart ones were quick to realise that whining abt it isn’t gonna help them, so they moved on to establish massive outsourcing centres in india, china, brazil, etc. This is commercial evolution, and its a natural offshoot of globalisation. What if tomorrow the indian or chinese govts decided to prevent these western pharms from selling their products in their markets???? That would hit the western firms even worse as they have NO alternative to this sudden lost revenue At least now they have an alternative, they can outsource and capitalise on the cheaper costs in the asian markets. That way everyone benefits, the pharmas, the consumers (on account of lower prices and more competition in the market).

    “And the cost advantage has been blown out of proportion high end researchers in pharma and other such industries earn pretty much the same anywhere in the world.” >>>> not true. A very very small fraction of the R&D staff, the top notch scientists etc might get US$ packages even in India, China etc cos of their highly specialised skill, research abilities, knowledge, IP etc. However, the TOTAL cost of rolling out a new drug in India is far far less, and also more time-effective than in the west. A bio-tech or pharma graduate in bangalore or bbay can still be recruited for INR 50k a month, that INR 6 lakh, or INR 600,000 a year, thats less than US$15k a year…and this is a pharma grad frm a top institute. The same in the US woud be recruited for at least US$50-70k p/a. And the cost-differential for lower ended workers – technicians, support/admin staff etc is even more. On top of that is lower cost of infrastructure etc, and economies of high scale activity. The cost differential is definitely there, if anything, the outsoucring firms have to keep a heavy handle on the quality of the output, as sometimes no matter how cheap the costs, a critical level of quality just has to be obtained.

  13. krenim permalink
    July 11, 2007 6:51 pm

    However, the TOTAL cost of rolling out a new drug in India is far far less, and also more time-effective than in the west.

    That is because you don’t need 3 rounds of testing for a generic drug.A completely new allopathic drug has never been produced in India for the first time.
    The research infrastructure required is mind boggling.India may have an economic case from a manufacturing point but a innovation ecosystem to produce a brand new drug involving top notch research departments in universities,industry and a regulatory framework does not exist outside the west.Even Japan has failed to build an advanced pharma industry having no pharma companies of any significance to speak of.

  14. Phantom permalink
    July 12, 2007 7:08 am

    Not entirely true – if indian pharma firms like Dr reddy and Ranbaxy have to sell their drugs in overseas western markets, then they have to get approval from regulatory bodies like the FDA in the USA, all of whom apply just as stringent compliance requirements on the indian firms as they do on pharmas of any country trying to sell goods into that market. If the indian pharmas were selling only into the indian and other markets with similarly poor control mechanisms, then yea, I’d completely agree with you, cos theere is an inherent lack of

    Anyway, be that as it may – with pharma giants like Glaxo, Pfizer, Mareck etc having opened up relatively large R&D and producton centres in India and China, it’s fair to assume that they will be bringing in best practise benchmark standards and processes into the pharma industry in these countries, on account of their own need for compliance with regulatory frameworks in the western markets. This will have a rub-off effect on the whole industry.

    Tese days, gepgraphical locations are meaningless. It is very feasible for cutting edge research to be conducted in the top research uni’s in the US and Europe, with the R&D work being done in labs in India, China etc. These pharmas are making it work.

  15. July 13, 2007 7:45 am

    I would also like to point out the initiatives towards preservation of our manuscripts through digitization. I’d covered that a while back: http://mahendrap.wordpress.com/2007/05/28/digitizing-ancient-indian-manuscripts/

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