In this interview, Ambassador José María Ridao talks about the cultural ties between India and Spain, influence of Spanish literature, focus areas to further boost the cultural bond between India and Spain.
José María Ridao, the Ambassador of Spain to India, joined the Diplomatic Corps in 1987, after graduating in Arab Philology and Law. Over the years, he has been given several assignments by Ministry of Foreign Affairs, European Union and Cooperation of Spain such as in the Middle East, Africa, France, Equatorial Guinea, Russia and United States of America. In 2004, he was appointed as the Ambassador of Spain to UNESCO.
Other than being a career diplomat, he is also a writer who has also been involved actively in intellectual work. In 2006, he joined the El País newspaper as a member of its editorial board. A noted critic and analyst of Spanish society and politics, many of his essays question the patterns of thought established by traditional historiography. He frequently contributes to prestigious magazines and newspapers.
In this interview, Ambassador José María Ridao talks about the cultural ties between India and Spain, influence of Spanish literature, focus areas to further boost the cultural bond between India and Spain, and the role of the Instituto Cervantes in promoting Spanish language and culture in India, among other things.
Q. How do you see the nature of cultural exchange between India and Spain?
A. Well, I believe human culture is only one that the whole of humanity shares. Sometimes, when we think about culture, we think about national cultures. But, I think it’s not the correct approach. The correct approach in my personal view is to think of culture as one single culture for the whole humanity and we merely give our expressions through our books, our poetry, etc. to this common heritage of the entire humanity. So, in this sense, I think India and Spain have contributed a lot to this common culture of humanity just like as other countries have played their parts. So that’s why in the end we have to have two things in the approach to our cultures: respect and interest. And, I think that in the case of India and Spain we feel for each other both respect and interest as it becomes evident to me when I look at the outstanding people working in the universities and translating works of Spanish writers.
Q. Miguel de Cervantes’ ‘Don Quixote’ is regarded as the first modern novel and since then we have had so many wonderful novels emerging from the Spanish world. How do you look at the influence of Spanish literature?
A. As I said earlier the human culture is a common heritage of the entire humanity; the language is just a tiny detail. In the birth of the modern novel there are many influences of Indian cultures, tales, and approaches to how to tell a story. We think that some books such as ‘1001 Nights’ is very close to the Indian tales. So many tales inside this work come from India. And in India you have also this type of approach to the tales wherein there is a central character narrating the tale. Now, Cervantes is actually the heir to this kind of storytelling tradition. The only difference is that in the first part of ‘Don Quixote’ you have the same approach as ‘1001 Nights’. So you have the character of Don Quixote and around him you have many tales. However, in the second part, the character of Don Quixote becomes bigger. So it’s not the tales inside a framework but it’s actually the framework i.e. the character of Don Quixote which becomes more important. So we don’t have to think about influences in this way but we have to think about reinterpretations of this common heritage.
Q. Given that a lot of the time has been lost due to the pandemic, what will be your priorities to further boost the cultural bond between India and Spain?
A.I arrived in August last year and in January this year the Spanish Minister for Foreign Affairs has tripled the cultural budget. So it’s important for us to say this that we have the possibility of investing three times more this year than the last year. We have decided to handle this budget with some principles. The first principle is to bring to the Indian people the most outstanding expression of our art. That’s why we have the exhibition ‘Miró Universe’ with works from the Fundació Joan Miró collection here at the Embassy of Spain in India. The project shows four paintings and one sculpture by Joan Miró as well as photographs by Joaquim Gomis, a friend of the artist and first president of Fundació Joan Miró. The exhibition will be on display till July 24. So this is one thing. The other idea is to offer this openly in the sense that the Indian public is able to access it. So that’s how we plant to employ this increased budget.
Q. Could you please elaborate on the specific areas that you intend to allocate this increased cultural budget to?
A. Now, we plan to utilize the budget in three main areas. The first is in the field of the great productions for the Indian public. We had a performance at the Kamani Auditorium a few months back. It was the first performance in Delhi after the pandemic. It was very important for us because it was a performance with ten songs recorded by Federico Garcia Lorca in 1931 with a Spanish singer known as ‘La Argentinita’. And, it was a huge success. And these songs were sung by an Indian singer named Minu Bakshi with Indian musicians in Spanish. We offered the translations. We are also working with the National School of Drama in order to represent a great Spanish playwright Antonio Buero Vallejo. So the play has been translated into Hindi. This play will be represented here in India in a commercial space. Also, we are preparing a huge performance of Flamenco Real. Now, there are many types of Flamenco such sometimes you can think of Flamenco for the tourists. But this group which is scheduled to come to India in October for a multi-city tour is a team of Flamenco musicians, dancers, and singers related to Teatro Real, which is an opera house in Spain that was selected as the best opera house in the world last.
The second chapter is to help to be present in cinema festivals, dance festivals, music festivals, art festivals, etc. So we are preparing how we can increase the presence of Spanish artists in these festivals.
The third part of our budget is to prepare a huge programme of activities in Instituto Cervantes which are more aimed towards students of Spanish language or people interested in Spanish culture in general. We are preparing a concert of one of the most important composers of classical music in Spain named Isaac Albeniz, interpreted by an Indian pianist.
Q. Could you please elaborate on the role of the Instituto Cervantes in promoting Spanish culture in India?
A. In India we have the biggest Instituto Cervantes in the world in terms of the number of students of Spanish language. So the most important activity of Instituto Cervantes is the promotion of Spanish language. Almost every person speaking Spanish language in Delhi, or for that matter various other parts of India, probably learnt it as Instituto Cervantes. That’s why we have the biggest Instituto Cervantes in the world here in India i.e. in terms of the number of students of Spanish language. So this is the main activity of Instituto Cervantes but at the same time they offer Spanish culture through concerts, conferences, seminars, etc. During the last two years owing to the pandemic it was a big challenge to continue with these activities. On the contrary, Instituto Cervantes was very successful in shifting the activities to the online mode. So that’s why Instituto Cervantes has been able to keep up the number of students through online classes and activities.
Q. How do you look at the success of the Spanish television series ‘Money Heist’ in India? Is there a roadmap to make Spanish cinema more accessible to the Indian audiences?
A. Success is really a mystery. If you had told me a few years ago that ‘Money Heist’ would be such a huge success in India I perhaps wouldn’t have believed it. I think it’s important to contribute to the changing of the image. It’s not about a certain director or a particular series. One really has to look at the industry as a whole. If you think of Spanish cinema as an art then I think in not very long time you will have more films and series that will appeal to your tastes. While as an embassy we have limited say in the nature of the film and television productions but let me assure you that we are working on this, trying to change the image in the minds. The idea is also to promote the work of first time filmmakers as well because a master like Pedro Almodóvar will only make a film once in 2-3 years and so I don’t see any reason why the Indian audiences should wait for that long for a Spanish film. We have some very good young and upcoming filmmakers and so it’s important to bring their work to the Indian audiences through various routes possible.