By Maya Babla
LOS ANGELES – Indians represent the largest group of foreign students in Australia, but in June 2009, tensions flared after a series of brutal attacks on Indian students. Students and other Indian-Australians began speaking up, alleging that these attacks were racially motivated and had been happening at a tremendous rate since 2004. Protests ensued, and Australian authorities were criticized for not taking a strong enough stance towards law enforcement officials who were perhaps turning a blind eye to racism.
In addition to straining bilateral relations, this controversy had the potential to be disastrous to the Australian economy, which benefits enormously from the high tuition rates foreign students pay, as well as the robust trade between the countries. The Indian government issued a travel warning to those headed to the continent, a clear sign that Australia’s reputation had been impacted.
Indian media coverage went wild, producing images of Australia as racist and reminding the world of its White Australia Immigration policy, which was in effect from 1901-1966. In particular, a political cartoon published in Delhi’s Mail Today depicted an Australian police officer as a member of the Ku Klux Klan, further depicting the pressure on diplomatic ties. Bollywood represents a powerful cultural institution to be reckoned with on the international stage; the use of Bollywood to shift public opinion worked both ways. On the one hand, superstars like Aamir Khan condemn the racism and call for Australian authorities to do more to prevent these attacks; Amitabh Bachan similarly sent a strong message by rejecting an honorary doctorate by Queensland University in Brisbane; finally, Bollywood unions boycotted Australia by refusing to work on major film productions scheduled later in summer 2009. These actions all added fuel to the fire burning Australia’s once-positive image in India.
Another Bollywood icon took a different approach, however. AR Rahman is widely regarded as one of the greatest contemporary musicians, and his work is featured in an extraordinary number of Bollywood hits; he most recently received international recognition for his Academy Award-winning, Grammy-winning music in the film Slumdog Millionaire, which garnered substantial popularity in English-speaking countries.
AR Rahman gave a free concert at the Sydney Festival, a three-week celebration of the arts and culture that features about 80 events in theatres around the city and a series of outdoor concerts. Generally, the Festival features home-grown artists as a means of showcasing Sydney’s talent, and thus, a concert by AR Rahman represented a shift from tradition.
Tens of thousands of fans lined up from noon at Parramatta Park, a Sydney suburb with a high population of Indians and other South Asians, and the crowds served as a testament to the city’s diversity. The show was enormously well-received, as were Rahman’s comments towards the end of the show, thanking the audience for “being a part of the change,” and calling on Australians to “treat the children of India with support.” Watch his closing remarks below:
The concert received a substantial amount of media attention both in Australia and India. It was broadcasted live by the Australia Network, and was hailed as “touching the very heart strings at a time when Australia-India bilateral relations have come under strain,” by The Times of India. Most media accounts seemed to attribute credit to Rahman himself, and though the Premier of New South Wales made clear that the purpose of the event was to “acknowledge the invaluable contribution that the Indian community has made to the social fabric of NSW,” her comments were sparingly reported.
AR Rahman’s concert was hailed as sending a resounding image of Australia’s tolerance and diversity throughout the world, speaking to the message that Indian culture is celebrated in Australia and appreciated by both Indians and non-Indians alike.
It is significant to note that Rahman’s power to conduct diplomacy artfully (and of course, through the arts) was more effective than the attempts of either government to assuage fears and mend relations. This case demonstrates the power of a private citizen to change and set the tone of bilateral relations. Rahman’s message of unity and love was simple, and because it was told through music, the audience was receptive; by contrast, political leaders do not have the credibility to ask their citizens to forgo the hatred that their own public institutions are accused of perpetuating. The artist was able to get people to listen in a way that neither government could.
While other figures in Bollywood used their celebrity to speak out against Australia, Rahman’s approach was productive in mending India-Australia relations, and brings to light an opportunity for more cultural icons to do the same.