Talking culture over filter coffee: US Consul General Robert G Burgess in Chennai
The United States Consul General Robert G Burgess arrived only a few months ago in Chennai, but is already eager to get into the thick of the city’s culture, and is looking forward to the upcoming Margazhi season. On his agenda, among other things, are the tasks of mentoring leaders, supporting entrepreneurs, empowering women and fostering cultural exchanges — these are a few of the things that he will be looking into. Excerpts from an interview:
Have you been enjoying your time in Chennai?
I am enjoying it very much. I was very warmly welcomed. Since I arrived in Chennai, I have been getting to know the city and the region.
How much of the city have you been able to go out and see?
I was fortunate to arrive just in time for Madras Week in August this year. I was out in the morning for a heritage walk around Fort St George and I also went to the Marina Beach, where there were thousands of people walking, jogging, doing yoga and enjoying the sea view and the sea breeze. I have been to a couple of music performances, and I have a long list of things I want to see.
How crucial in your view is the role of Chennai, in cultural aspects?
We are fortunate, because Chennai is a real centre and hub for arts and culture, and we have an active Public Affairs section, which engages in all manner of cultural activities with theatre, artists and musicians. Chennai is also a centre for festivals, and I am looking forward to the Margazhi season in December, as it brings international focus on the music and dance performances.
Tell us a little about facilitating academic and cultural exchanges.
Academic exchanges are the central part of our mission. For instance, the International Visitor Leadership Program, which the United States sponsors, takes up-and-coming leaders from a number of fields to the US for a period of time, where they get to engage with American experts working in the same fields.
We also have the Fulbright Program, which is supported by both our governments, where we send top academics to other countries to further their own research. These kinds of exchanges and sharing of expertise and information are important to the development of our relationship.
Are there any special projects on your radar?
One of the first activities I participated in when I arrived was to launch a training session that we sponsor along with the Tamil Nadu Women’s Development Corporation, for a group of women entrepreneurs from rural areas and smaller cities. These are women who have started their businesses and are looking to scale up to the next level. We are very proud to sponsor a program that targets these entrepreneurs.
Fundamentally, we believe that entrepreneurship is an important part of developing wealth and creating jobs. It’s a constant theme as we head to the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, which the governments of India and United States are sponsoring in November, in Hyderabad.
The last summit took place in Silicon Valley. So it seemed like India would be the perfect site for the next summit. The theme for the summit is ‘Women First and Prosperity for All’, which reflects the priority we give to supporting women entrepreneurs, recognising what they can contribute to the larger economy.
The American influence on Indian culture runs very deep. Give us your vision of how you hope to see our cultural affairs evolving.
Indian culture, whether it is film, art or literature, is a part of world culture and it is becoming increasingly popular in the US. For example, on literature, when I was in school, English literature meant British and American authors.
Today, the real centre of English literature is here in India, with some of the best authors being recognised around the world and by some of the top literary prizes. We are seeing connections between cultures that we didn’t imagine 50 years ago. And social media and the internet gives you easier access across cultures.
How important is the aspect of language-based programs and exchanges in your plans?
Language diversity is an important part of our cultural heritages. It is specially important here, in South India. Our consulate covers Karnataka and Kerala, in addition to Tamil Nadu. We have at our consulate, people who speak most of the South Indian languages, and we follow the press in the different states in the local languages.
For some of our programming, for example, when we have visitor programs to the United States, many of them are in English, but we also arrange programs for people who do not speak English, and we include a translator along, so that people who speak a local language can still travel to the United States and participate in our visitor programs. Also, in fact, we have American officers right now at our Foreign Service Institute in Washington, studying Tamil.
How much of your efforts are driven to encourage the preservation of traditions by way of supporting local practices?
Preserving our cultural heritage is an important task, and it is a responsibility that involves all of us as individuals, governments and the private sector. We look for resources to support this preservation. We have a program called Ambassadors Funds for Cultural Preservation, which is a worldwide state department program. We have been able to help in the preservation of some key aspects of culture, including rare books in the United Theological College collection in Bangalore.
It was wonderful speaking with you. Welcome to Chennai!
Thank you very much! I really can’t wait to explore more of the arts and culture, and heritage of South India.