'Chennai is a magnet of culture': In conversation with Bharat Joshi
British Deputy High Commissioner Chennai Bharat Joshi gives us his overview of the city’s growing role on the cultural map.
BORN IN Croydon, the United Kingdom in 1969, Bharat Joshi joined the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1995 and had diplomatic postings to Gambia, Dhaka, Qatar and Cameroon. As the British Deputy High Commissioner Chennai, a major part of his portfolio is focused on enhancing trade and investment between the UK and the states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry.
In a discussion with Indulge, he gave us his view of Chennai as a growing metropolis, and the larger role that it plays in cultural affairs in South India. Excerpts:
Let’s begin with a quick round-up of the year that was, and looking forward to 2018, what are we looking at?
2017 has been a very good year for us. It’s been a very busy year. On the success road, we have seen a lot of Indian companies investing in the United Kingdom, including big companies and others setting up businesses there and creating jobs in the UK. We have seen business in the other direction too, as a few UK companies have increased the size of their operations here, in India. It is very gratifying to see UK companies creating jobs in Chennai.
One of my favourite logistics is that the UK companies have created more than 50,000 jobs just in Chennai. It gives you an idea of how embedded UK companies are in this lovely city. One of the important parts of the relationship is the travel in both direction. We have seen a lot of British people coming to India, including to Tamil Nadu. In the other direction, we have seen the Visa numbers shoot up. We have seen visitor Visas go up every year, so we have 11 per cent increase in those, but also 26 per cent increase in student visitor Visas this year. We've had a busy, and challenging, but also a successful year.
For 2018, this is my final year in this position, I think this year is a time for consolidation. We will be looking to build on the successes we have had. I see us doing a lot more work with the Tamil Nadu government, and putting large sums into technical assistance. Also, into support areas to facilitate ease of doing business, renewable energy, to support the state’s massive energy needs, and possibly some work in financial services as well. So we are looking at how we can work with the Tamil Nadu government as well as with the businesses, to make the business environment better.
You took over the British High Commission in 2013. What's your journey been like so far, and how has Chennai grown in your views?
It has been an amazing journey. We came here because I always wanted to work in India. I had come from already being an ambassador to five countries before coming to India. This is my country of origin, and I always wanted to work here. For me, this was a journey of discovery and self-growth, and that’s certainly been the case. I have grown by experiencing very different cultures to my own way — Gujarati. The Tamil culture is very different. I have grown in spending time with the people of this state. I have met amazing people in Chennai, and I have learnt a lot from many of them, and that’s been incredibly important in terms of my own development. I have also see my children grow. I came here with two young girls, and I'm leaving with two young women — my daughters.
In terms of Chennai, the city has changed. It doesn’t change as obviously as other cities in India. I think certainly it is more connected now than it was before when I came. There were four flights a week to Heathrow on British Airways and now there are seven a week, so there are flights daily to Heathrow. Air France is also now flying from here. We are much better connected from Chennai to the rest of the world, and to the west of India, and that’s a big change.
And to see the kind of growth, every time I drive through places like Boat Club and RK Puram and everywhere, you see restaurants you didn’t know existed. If I drive on the ECR or the OMR, there’s so much growth happening that you don’t always see if you are living in Nungambakkam.
Your new Visa Centre is also seeing a lot of growth.
We are very proud of our new Visa centre. It is larger than the one that we had before. It offers more services. It is a part of our continuous improvements in the service we offer. We are very conscious that not only do we have a process, which people don’t see while issuing a visa, but also that we want to make the customer experience as quick and easy as we possibly can for most of our customers. The new visa application centre helps us do that.
We have also opened visa application centres in Kochi, most recently in Trivandrum, where we take applications on weekends, to make it easier for people from Kerala. We offer a whole suite of services as well for people who want to get their visas in five working days, or even the next day, people who want their passports delivered to them, people who want to have business class experiences having a cup of coffee, while their Visas are processed. We are continuously looking at ways that we can improve the service. I am very proud of that. It's a great service that we offer, and that is one of the reasons we saw the numbers increase.
You oversee the affairs of Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry and Kerala. How unique are each of these places?
Everywhere I have been in India, it has been unique. I think that’s a big part of the magic of this amazing country. Kerala is so different from Tamil Nadu, Tamil Nadu is so different from Karnataka, Pondicherry is absolutely unique, with the culture that exists there. That, for me, makes India so special. I spent most of my time in Tamil Nadu, but I am always keen to see more of what's around.
How crucial is the role of Chennai in an overall sense, for playing a hub to develop and further cultural exchange in South India?
For the UK government, it is huge, how the whole South India operation for cultural affairs for the British Council is centred here, in Chennai. All of our programmes are run out of Chennai. Whether we have offices in Hyderabad and Bangalore, the cultural co-operation is driven very much in Chennai by the regional director, who is based here. But more than that, Chennai is just a magnet of culture. It has that long legacy, and history of cultures, and you can’t take that away. It is such an important part of the city. It's part of the bricks and mortar of Chennai. That won’t change.
How much of Chennai have you explored so far, and how do you plan to engage further with the cultural affairs?
We have done a fair bit of travelling. We have been as far down as Kanyakumari, Tiruchendur, and Thiruvanamalai, and we have been across the border to Andhra Pradesh, Tirupati — we are practising Hindus, and seeing the temples is always amazing. I am also very keen to get to Kodaikanal.
In Chennai, what are the places you would like to go to dinner, and what are the events that you would like to attend?
My number one place to eat dinner is home, and you would be amazed how rarely I get to have dinner with my wife and children. But I do like to eat out. The food in the city is fantastic. We pretty much love everything. We are vegetarians and within that, we love all kinds of food in this city. From Saravana Bhavan or Sangeetha Dosa, all the way to Italian food or Pan Asian food at the ITC Chola. I think the Golden Dragon at Taj is phenomenal.
What we haven’t really had a chance to do, because of the nature of my job, is to explore some of the new restaurants. There is some real creativity out there, and Chennai is starting to build a relationship like Bangalore for edgy new restaurants, which are opening up, giving people a choice. I hope I will get a chance to do some more of that over the next few months.
The British Council has been very actively promoting the activities of literature, theatre and cinema. Any plans to bring in more focus on art and music, perhaps DJs as well as pop and rock bands?
The British Council recently brought in DJs for an event in Mumbai. It is difficult, because India is a large country. One of the challenges for all of us in India is scale. And trying to do something across India, within resource windows, they need to find money for all of these projects. That is certainly challenging.
A lot of work that British Council has done is around modern dance, and modern theatre, and extending that to modern music. What we will see is more and more of a focus on delivering products online to get a bigger audience, and often to people who could never afford to come to Chennai and see these programmes - we are trying to find ways to stream these shows to them. I think that’s going to be a big part of the future.
How popular are Indian movies and TV shows in the UK? How would you like to enable more cross-culture collaboratives?
I remember, when I was growing up, we didn’t see Hindi movies, and Channel 4, which was a new channel, would show Hindi movies in the UK. And it would always be Sholay, or Mother India, and you would only have four or five movies in the season. Nowadays, everything you are seeing in India, you can see it in the UK, or anywhere in the world. My children speak fluent Hindi, which they learnt from Hindi movies and Hindi soap operas.
The presence of Indian films is extraordinary. Baahubali, for example, was a huge hit in Europe and in the UK as well as in India. So, I think that crossover is incredible, and what we are going to see is more and more Indian films being successful in their own right, not just with the Indian diaspora, but with the Western audiences. We are very keen to explore that.
We are also keen to explore how UK artistes can collaborate with Indians, how we can build this partnership, because that would make for better movies, something like the Life of Pi. Collaborations create magic, and the more we can connect Indian talent with UK talent - whether it is music, films, theatre and dance - the more incredible creations we will have.
The British High Commission in India recently ramped up its activities on social media. Could you give us an insight into the future plans to extend this engagement?
We are trying to do much more on social media. One of the challenges in a country of 1.3 billion people is, how do you get your message out to the wide groups? And we have lots of information that we want to share. For example, we want to share information around scholarships.
Our largest scholarships programmes around the world is in India. After four years, despite having talked about scholarships all the time, everywhere I go, I am still disappointed that we don't get good applicants from Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
So, how do we find ways to communicate with them, or with the next generation? We hear about the next gen a lot of time, but I still don't meet much of that next generation? How do we do that? So, social media is a big part of how we engage with the next India, future India, and that’s something we are doing with our team. I am on Twitter, on Facebook, but not very actively. How do we use these mediums as ways of engaging with a generation - that's what we want to be talking about.