Talking culture: Russian Consul General Oleg N Avdeev on music, dance and his favourite actors
At the sprawling former palace of the Maharaja of Mysore, the Russian Consul General took us by surprise — first, with his fluent Hindi and then, by naming his favourite Bollywood actor.
The Russian influence on the Indian mindset is seldom spoken about. For any student growing up in the 1980s, Russian literature — be it in the form of nursery rhymes or textbooks, and even children’s publications such as the Misha magazines — were a part of everyday learning.
All you’d have to do is turn a book around, and you’d be sure to spot the memorable imprint of a Moscow-based publisher. Things have, of course, moved on considerably since then.
In the spirit of collaboration, so much of Russian learning has permeated every sphere of Indian life — from education and economics to science, defence and especially, space travel.
When it comes to culture, in particular, it’s hard not to spot a Russian DJ, music group, dance troupe or theatre ensemble touring across our cities. And then, there’s the vast field of sports.
For Oleg N Avdeev, Consul General of the Russian Federation in Chennai (since September 2018), the task might seem straight-forward — to further cultural exchanges and build foundations for future cooperation.
But first, he had to negotiate the tricky affair of Indian languages. Thankfully, he was posted earlier in Chittagong, Bangladesh and in Karachi, Pakistan while having worked in Calcutta and New Delhi as well — making him an expert in South Asian affairs.
More importantly, he happens to be a scholar in Hindi — a personal aspect that will always stand him in good stead.
We sat down with him for a chat at the sprawling Russian Consulate premises on Santhome High Road, Mylapore — a former residence of the Maharaja of Mysore.
And, the Consul General surprised us by naming his favourite Indian actor — Mithun Chakraborty. Excerpts from the interview:
You’ve been based in India before — in Calcutta and Delhi. Tell us about your experience in Chennai, and your impressions about India, as you’ve experienced it.
When I first came to India, I was already prepared. I’m a student of Indology (South Asian studies), and I studied Indian languages in college. So when I came here, I knew something about India.
But it is one thing to read, and another thing to see it with your own eyes. When I came to India, I had to learn a lot, as it’s an entirely new experience — not academic learning, but by first-hand experience.
Why did you study Indology?
I was a Political Science and International Relations student, and I opted for the ‘Oriental’ part of the programme. We got to choose which language to study, and I chose Hindi.
You’re one of few Consul Generals here, who’s also fluent in Hindi...
Yes, I speak Hindi quite fluently, and I do engage in discussions. But in Chennai, most people prefer to speak in English.
Do you watch a lot of Bollywood films?
I don’t have much time, but I’m lucky, in the sense that I can watch the films without subtitles. I can understand what they’re talking about, and it’s a big advantage for me.
Now, there’s a bigger chance for me to watch a Tamil movie here...
Are you familiar with South Indian languages like Tamil?
I took a three-month course in colloquial Tamil. I can read Tamil, and I know a few phrases, but learning any language takes a lot of effort and time!
What are the important talking points for the Russian Consulate in Chennai, and in India?
We are posted here to improve relations with the host country in all spheres — economics, culture and politics.
In every sphere, we have to make our own contributions. India and Russia have a long history of a diverse relationship in every sphere, and that makes things easier.
In your tenure as Consul General in Chennai, what manner of cultural experiences would you like to see a lot more of?
We already have quite a few cultural exchanges going on, and very recently, we had two bands come over - one was a jazz band, and the other wasn’t really a band but two, very accomplished musicians who performed at our cultural centre.
Now that we’ve crossed many cultural years, both Indian and Russian, we expect more performances in the future, and more musicians and performers will definitely come over to Chennai. I’m sure there will be more performances here.
We’re interested in the cultural side of things. And, we can’t help note that so many of our books, from back in the 1980s, were actually published in Moscow.
Yes! Previously, these initiatives were funded by our government, and Russian textbooks were printed in all major Indian languages as well.
But that was when we had special publishing houses, with language experts working on translations — that’s why they came to India.
But both those big publishers — Progress and Raduga — are no longer in existence. Progress specialised in textbooks, and Raduga in fiction. But there’s still a lot of literature present, and it wasn’t too expensive, as they were all subsidised.
Even in higher education, it was essential for some of us to read the likes of Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekov, Mikhail Sholokhov, and others… Now, a lot of those stereotypical views of Soviet culture seem to have changed.
Ideology is no longer in our relationship, and we’re open to any cultural experience. Great literature has universal values, as it is based on humanistic ideas.
Sholokhov was a Nobel Prize winner for literature, and he is still widely read. He wrote almost poetically, in very precise prose, and his outlook was very broad.
One of Russia’s biggest influences was in theatre…
The first theatre in India was, in fact, established by a Russian (Gerasim Lebedev), and it was in Calcutta.
That’s something we just learned! Historically, in terms of cultural exchange, we have to make note of the visit of Bollywood icon Raj Kapoor to Moscow, in the mid-1950s. Are Indian films still popular among Russians?
Indian films are not just accepted, but very popular. Indian films, Indian music and Indian dances are extremely popular, and that’s been going on for a long time, since India opened up to Russia a few decades ago.
Raj Kapoor is still very famous back home. But, one of my personal favourites is actually Mithun Chakraborty. He was on TV a lot when I was young, and his performances left an imprint.
Which other areas of culture do you wish to focus on, while you’re in Chennai?
The universal language of culture is dance. Everyone understands it. While other forms of culture are only for a ‘chosen few’. Dance can be understood by everyone, and there’s no need for interpretation.
Also, music. Indian songs are very popular in Russia, and Russia has a very rich song culture too. Our cultural centre is very active in Chennai, with a fine stage and auditorium, where dancers and musicians can perform. Recent shows that we hosted here were very popular amongst Chennai crowds.
Have you discovered the quaint ceramics village in Auroville? There are a few Russian artistes based there as well...
Yes, I know that we have a small Russian community there. I haven’t actually met this Russian artiste in person, but I have seen her creations at an exhibition.
There are of course many other fields that would be open for cultural exchanges - especially sports, when it comes to training and mentorship.
From my first visit to India, I have seen a great change in the physique of Indians. There have been more achievements in sports as well.
I agree, sports is a great area to cooperate, and I remember my experience in Calcutta, when a famous gymnastics team from Russia came and performed with an Indian team.
Both the countries’ gymnasts could be compared, and could learn from each other’s experience. It was a great success, but we haven’t seen anything like that since then.
Have you explored much music during your time here in Chennai?
When I first came to Chennai, we were invited to AR Rahman’s academy, and it was my first visit there. There was a professor there, named Mr Chakraborty, who has been teaching music... and he studied music for 10 years in Russia.
He teaches his students to play music in the traditions of the Russian school of music. One of his students is a 12-year-old prodigy who plays in the traditional Russian style. I think the future of music lies in combining different styles and cultures of music together.
Do you see cultural exchange opportunities as a way of spreading a message of peace?
Any cultural activity is a contribution to peace. Culture is a means to bring peace. Because culture unites. People don’t just like their own culture, but they like learning about other cultures as well.
We often borrow from other cultures. So one can borrow from other cultures and interact with each other. This is why culture is a unifying force and brings people together.
Is there anything you have planned on the topic of food?
If someone takes up the initiative to host an international food festival, we will be more than glad to send our chef. We also have a small restaurant here in Chennai, called Winter Palace.
The name is derived from the winter palaces of the czars, which is now the biggest and richest museum in the world. You should definitely visit Moscow someday. You should go, because you’ll never know what you have missed otherwise!
You’ve been posted in Bangladesh and Pakistan before coming to India. Give us a perspective of how you view Indian urban life, given the benefit of such past experience.
From my experience, all three countries are very similar. Same culture. Same food, which is mostly spicy (laughs). Life can be very simple. Music is very similar, but dance is different.
Like every state in India, everything has its own flavour. Culture is expressed in song and dance and despite some differences, there is something common between all Indians, culturally.
I think some uniqueness, some common history and everything combines to form this distinct culture. It was very interesting for outsiders like me to watch what is different, and what is the same, and arrive at some conclusions.
Give us your perspective on how you would like Russia to view India.
Culture is not the only sphere where we have interaction and it has gone to every sector - from culture to economy to defence and science.
There are a lot of projects that have been very successful and only combined efforts will result in breakthroughs. We are going to help with the first Indian man in space, and in the preparation of the crew, because we have a lot of experience.
After all, the first man in space was Russian. This was the early-1960s and hence, we can share our 50-year experience with our Indian friends.
What is Russia’s view of India and the world?
Religion is very influential, especially when there is an emphasis on the mystery and spirituality of life, rather than material well-being.
Material gains are not important for Russians, and there is a lot of importance given to spiritual well-being.
Some tourists come here to enjoy the beaches in Goa - and living in a cold country, we can appreciate the warm weather and beaches.
A lot of people come to stay in ashrams, and learn from the gurus, and for yoga.
— Jaideep Sen