(An edited version was published under the title of Enter the Elephant in The Hindu, Dec 11, 2011)
For centuries, when Chinese intellectuals spoke of ‘the West’, it was not Europe they had in mind. The West, for them, was India – a land whose cultural and spiritual traditions they looked up to. Wu Chengen’s 16th century work, “Journey to the West”, regarded as one of Chinese literature’s four great classical novels, told the story of the Buddhist monk Xuanzang’s journey to India. In the Chinese imagination, it established India as a land of unrivalled richness in cultural and spiritual thought.
India has long since lost that status. Two centuries of colonial experience has left, among many legacies, growing distance between the neighbours and their civilisations. Indian social and spiritual thought has, today, been almost entirely displaced from the Chinese consciousness, which is increasingly turning to the United States and Europe for intellectual nourishment.
A group of Chinese scholars and intellectuals is boldly attempting to now restore India’s place as ‘the West’ in the Chinese imagination. Taiwanese academic Chen Kuan-Hsing and Johnson Chang, gallery owner and well-known face in the contemporary Chinese art world, got together in December 2009 to launch the “West Heavens” project, which describes itself as “an initiative for fostering ties between India and China through collaborations in art and social thought.” The effort got off to a promising start last year with a series of art exhibitions and social thought forums in Shanghai.
This year, West Heavens has put together a more ambitious effort – a first of its kind month-long festival of independent Indian cinema, which will showcase 30 films in four Chinese cities and hold dialogues on film theory and social thought. The “India-China Dialogue of Film and Social Thought” opened in Beijing on November 25, and will travel to Shanghai, Guangzhou and finally close in Kunming on December 25. It is being hosted by West Heavens, Magic Lantern, New Delhi, the Indian Embassy in Beijing and the Beijing Film Academy.
Curating the event is veteran Indian film historian Ashish Rajadhyaksha, who sees West Heavens as a reflection of increasing interest, among Chinese intellectuals, at “the Indian situation” – how a developing country can retain its democratic traditions and also, at the same time, “achieve modernity without losing our traditions.” He chose films, which includes non-fiction cinema, to give Chinese audiences a more in-depth understanding of India’s diverse traditions, beyond the Bollywood caricatures that persist in China today. The films include Ritwik Ghatak’s “Komal Gandhar”, Paromita Vohra’s
“Morality TV & Loving Jehad”, Dibakar Bannerjee’s “Love, Sex Aur Dhoka” and Anuraag Kashyap’s acclaimed “No Smoking”.
Yun Chen, a Shanghai native who has helped put the festival together and is a researcher with West Heavens, sees behind the group “intellectuals who have a vision for Asia.”
“These independent films,” she says, “address social causes that are more universal, and if you want to increase understanding between the two sides, this is a good way to begin.” “Despite being neighbours, we have had little in the way of cultural contact, with both countries now focusing on the West,” Chen says. “This is a way for us to see each other, and hopefully, finally start talking to each other again.”