India through Aussie eyes

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How well do Australians know India? KIRA SPUCYS-TAHAR and RAJNI ANAND LUTHRA carried out a small survey to find out

There are many stereotypes, stigmas and misconceptions surrounding Indian culture as seen from a western perspective. Given the country’s complex history, geography and ethnography, it can be difficult for outsiders to ever really understand the nature of India. As a nation, India is not homogenous; there are varying ethnicities, languages, religions, cultural practices and foods. Basically, everything Australians think they know about India and its people can be challenged or questioned. To mark Indian Independence Day this year, Indian Link undertook a survey of 100 Australians, across various age groups, to understand their perceptions of India and Indians.

The results are somewhat surprising. Significantly more women than men took part in our survey (68 females, 32 males) across three age groups (18-30 years, 30-50 years, and 50+), so it is possible this skewed the results, but overwhelmingly people had positive interactions with the Indian community in Australia, but a more negative outlook when it came to depictions of India in the media and when it came to international affairs.

Just over half of the people surveyed had been to India, with the majority being over 50, though the majority of those who had never been to India also fell in this age group.

When asked about global geography and whether they could find India on a map, 90 people responded ‘Yes, definitely’, with six people responding ‘I think so’ (two from each age bracket) and four people admitting ‘I am terrible at geography’.

When it comes to Indian-origin words seeping into Australian vernacular, the majority of respondents said they ‘know and regularly use’ words such as guru, yoga, nirvana, karma, tandoor and namaste. However, when it came to ‘nirvana’ and ‘namaste’ two female respondents in the 18-30 age bracket admitted they don’t know the meaning of the word but use it anyway.

When asked if they could name the Prime Minister of India, 40 people responded in the negative – 20 in the 50 plus group and ten each in the 18-30 years and 30-50 years categories. Six women in the 50+ category said they could not name the Prime Minister but would recognise his name or face if it was presented to them. Of the survey respondents, 45 people correctly identified Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister of India, while seven identified the PM as ‘Modhi’ or ‘Mohdi’. Two respondents incorrectly identified Manmohan Singh as the Prime Minister.

With regard to Indian culture, 40 per cent of respondents said they had never read a book by an Indian author, or could not recall having done so. The God of Small Things proved the most popular Indian book (22 people) while Salman Rushdie was the most named author (12 people).

Bollywood does not seem to be high on the agenda for most mainstream Australians given when asked if they had seen an Indian movie, the majority of people responded with Slumdog Millionaire. However, 30 per cent of respondents said they had seen Bollywood films in the past, but could not recall the titles, and many people in the 50+ age group said they had seen Indian films while travelling in India. Other popular films mentioned were western movies set in India or Indian diaspora films such as The Best Exotic Marigold, Bride and Prejudice, Monsoon Wedding and Bend It Like Beckham.

The most popular foods selected as a favourite order at an Indian restaurant included curry (34) chicken tikka (15) and biryani (10). When asked if they have ever cooked Indian food at home, 58 per cent of respondents said they have tried cooking curries at home, many highlighting chicken and vegetable curries. Of the 12 people who said they have never tried cooking Indian at home, 50 per cent fell in the 18-30 years category.

The most commonly identified Indian personality in the survey was Mahatma Gandhi with 40 per cent (though 10 people spelled it ‘Ghandi’). Among the 18-30 year old women, popular Indian celebrities included Freida Pinto, Dev Patel and Aishwarya Rai. In the older age groups, recognisable personalities including Indira Gandhi, Amitabh Bachchan and Deepak Chopra. Among men, Sachin Tendulkar and Ratan Tata, proved most popular.

When asked to identify recent news items from India reported recently in the media, 38 per cent could not remember any significant news events. Of those who could identify news stories, 20 pointed to high profile rape cases, eight to the developing free trade agreement between India and Australia and six to the proposed Adani mine in Queensland. Other topics with several responses included commercial surrogacy, cricket, the hanging of Yakub Memen, International Yoga Day and the election of Modi.

Asked to relate news items generally and historically reported in the media about India, almost one quarter of survey respondents answered ‘Rape and sexual violence’. The ongoing India-Pakistan tension and Taj Hotel attacks were the next most known news events with 12 responses each. The Adani mine and cricket were also identified among several survey participants.

Our analysis

It seems reasonable to draw the conclusion that India is reaching out Australians most via its soft power and with its current affairs. The soft power includes food, some movies, literary accomplishments and certain aspects of its ancient culture.

Indian food, as expected, is a winner especially in these times of food porn. The urban mainstream, already fond of experimenting in the kitchen thanks to TV, is now becoming more and more aware of Indian cuisine and its finer aspects. Cook a korma at home? No problem! Or would you prefer some dal, darl?

Indian-themed movies also seem to be making an impact but only those made outside the traditional Bollywood space and in English. This is just as well, as the filmmaking bug spreads in the diaspora: some absolute gems have been offered in recent years that have become surprise hits. No doubt there are more to come in the future.

In terms of India’s literary reach, Australia has become particularly receptive ever since the writing scene has burgeoned in India. Salman Rushdie has made for a new genre of writers who are now regular (and highly successful) guests of the Writers Festivals in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth. Their offerings are lapped up eagerly and with their penchant for universal themes in Indian settings, they are indeed easily appreciated.

Elements of India’s ancient knowledge have well and truly made a mark. Terms such as ‘yoga’ and ‘nirvana’ are familiar in mainstream lexicon so much so that they are no longer looked upon as alien concepts.

In terms of personalities, it is perhaps not surprising at all that Gandhi wins hands down – even though there’s plenty of confusion about how his name is spelled. Yet he is rarely mentioned in daily parlance in his home country. So is the case with Dev Patel, Freida Pinto and Deepak Chopra. Interesting to note that back in India none of these people would fall in anyone’s list of top ten Indians, yet it is these mere mortals that seem to have reached out outside the country with their work in popular culture. Tata, of course, would be on anyone’s list of top entrepreneurs, and Sachin, Amitabh and Aishwarya can seem to do no wrong – even outside India’s borders. Oh, and Jungle Book – great to know someone still remembers this old gem! (One respondent mentioned the characters in this book as Indian “personalities” they are familiar with.)

Australians seems to be quite well-informed of world affairs, with an interest in social and political trends even in countries as removed as India. Equally it can be said that recent events such as sexual violence and terrorism have been so shocking that they stay on in popular memory. India’s economic rise was also seen worthy of mention, Australians recognise the force with which Indian society is transitioning.

It is heartening to note that aspects of Indian culture are increasingly becoming better understood and assimilated into mainstream Australian society. On an equally positive note, the problems faced by contemporary Indian society as it raises itself economically and socially are viewed through a sympathetic lens. Such acceptance and understanding will continue to pave the way for greater understanding between our two peoples.

The questionnaire

Have you ever been to India? Y/N
Do you know any Indian personalities/celebrities alive or dead? Please name them…
Can you remember any recent news items from India reported in the media? Please elaborate
Can you think of a news item ever reported in the media about India? Please elaborate
Name the Prime Minister of India?
Have you read a book by an Indian author? Please give the title(s)
Have you seen an Indian movie? Please give the title(s)
What’s your favourite order at an Indian restaurant?
Have you ever cooked an Indian meal, if yes, what?
Read the following words and tell us how well you know their meaning:
Guru | Yoga | Nirvana | Karma | Tandoor | Namaste
Never heard of it/Know its meaning vaguely/Know and regularly use this word/Don’t know this word but use it anyway
Could you find India on a map of the world?
– Yes, definitely
– I think so
– I wouldn’t be sure
– I am terrible at geography

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