Soft power: the Mango Festival and the Festival of India

6. Jul 2009

By Stig Toft Madsen

Hard power –  the power exercised  by armed forced, by economic clout or, perhaps, through bureaucratic fiat – is no longer the preferred form of  power. Supposedly soft power is smarter. Here is an example of how soft power is exercised in contemporary Copenhagen to win over the hearts and minds of the Copenhagen-wallahs.

For two consecutive days the Town Hall square of Copenhagen known as Rådhuspladsen served as the venue of South Asia related events, one Pakistani and one Indian. On July 3rd it was the Mango Festival. Following suit the next day it was the Festival of India.

The events took place on approximately the same spot in front of  Rådhuset, i.e. the Town Hall. For both events a stage was erected directly in front of this building. On July 3rd, the stage served to exhibit the mangoes and as a henna application stall. On July 4th,  a larger stage was used for a variety of performances.  On July 3rd, pakora, samosa, mango and ice cream was served from a stall to the right. On July 4th, “spiritually enriched” vegetarian food was dished out from a stall to the left. On both days various merchandise was also sold. On July 4th, a fourth tent sheltered the more elaborate sound equipment used for the various “items” performed on stage, thereby creating an enclosure where rows of low benches offered the public a place to sit and watch.

The Pakistani events on July 3rd was inconspicuously billed. Though the Embassy of Pakistan had sent out invitations, it was PIA which had organized the event. Many Danes may not know that PIA stands for Pakistan International Airlines. They may therefore have had difficulty from visual cues to impute the purpose of the event, which was to promote tourism to Pakistan by associating Pakistan with the king of fruits in all their splendid varieties. For those approaching the stalls, the PIA supplied a folder inviting prospective tourists inter alia to go country skiing in Northern Areas, Chitral, Kaghan and Swat, or to embark on a Khyber Steam Safari by train from Peshawar to Landi Kotal. Considering that the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs strongly discourages any unnecessary travel to Pakistan, the likelihood that the mangoes will work their wonder and make Danes tour Pakistan is minimal. Still, the event portrayed Pakistan as a destination like any other destination, and certainly not as a dangerous Taliban-infested place.

As far as I was able to ascertain, religious and political references were absent from the Pakistani event, except in the form of a collection box from the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund requesting donations for the victims of terrorism. That was about as religious and political it got. The rest was mangoes (not like the ones in Mohammed Hanif ‘s novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes!) and Punjabi folk dance.

The Festival of India was different. It was neither an official event, nor an event sponsored by a business corporation. Instead it was arranged by the followers of AC Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. The Festival of India was in reality a Hare Krishna event.

In addition to the physical structures already mentioned, the festival featured the full-fledged chariot of the Lord of the Universe, Jaganath.

The people gathered in Copenhagen were the “blessed ones who can get the darshan of the Lord here and now.” While the demons are on the increase in this world, the Gods fortunately become more active showing people the right way. In Poland alone 21 rath yatras have taken place in honour of the Lord, the spectators on Rådhuspladsen were informed.

Two Indian dancers from the Czech Republic performed Bharat Natyam in honour of Lord Krishna, while a couple from Moscow gave a stunning non-classical dance performance portraying the fatal attraction of a butterfly (or moth) to the God of Fire, Agni, a parable of the danger of desire. This was followed by a Magic Show by a ukulele playing Irish follower of Lord Krishna. His humorous show included a song directed against the biologist Richard Dawkins. Dawkins’  probabilistic message that “God probably does not exist” was debunked as a poor statement coming from a scientist. In effect, one of the main messages of the event  was that the theory of evolution was wrong and that the magic of Lord Krishna was far greater.

Thus, the noteworthy  difference between the Mango Festival and the Festival of India was the absence and presence of religious messages. No cry of Allah hu Abkar rent the air above Rådhuspladsen, while Lord Krishna was loudly and repeatedly evoked. Though the Hare Krishna movement in Denmark only counts some 200 regular followers  and the number of Indians in Denmark is small compared to the number of Pakistanis, the Festival of India attracted more spectators. Indians and Danes, it would seem, are more susceptible to participate in religiously-moulded India-related festivals. Fewer Pakistanis and Danes are won over by mango power.

Compared to the simultaneously ongoing Roskilde Festival at some distance from Copenhagen, both events on the Town Hall square were  small events. Though almost as dusty as a camel fair in Nagaur in Rajasthan, the huge four-days beer-soaked rock festival  in Roskilde commanded umpteen times the soft power of net conversion than the decent family-friendly events in Copenhagen.

Literature consulted:

Knut A Jacobsen, ed., South Asian Religions on Display. Religious Processions in South Asia and in the Diaspora, Routledge, 2008.

Laura Elisabeth Schnabel, “Hare Krishna er næsten halveret”, Kristeligt Dagblad 4. Juli 2009, p. 1