In this interview, German Ambassador to India, Walter J. Lindner, who is also a musician, talks about the artwork he unveiled at the iconic Sheila Theatre on the occasion of German Unity Day, apart from several other issues.
German Ambassador to India, Walter J. Lindner, is not just a career diplomat but is also a professional musician who is trained in the piano, flute, guitar, bass and orchestra conducting. Other than studying Jazz in Austria, he also studied at the world famous Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. After entering the diplomatic service in 1988, he served numerous postings in Germany’s Federal Foreign Office. Previously, he has also been the German Ambassador in Kenya, Seychelles, Venezuela, and South Africa.
In this interview, Ambassador Lindner talks about the artwork he unveiled at the iconic Sheila Theatre on the occasion of the German Unity Day, the impacts of the pandemic on the field of art in Germany, his priority areas to boost the Indo-German cultural ties, the international scholarships available to film and media students in Germany as well as the benefits filmmakers can avail while shooting in Germany.
Q. Earlier in the month, on the occasion of the German Unity Day, you unveiled an artwork at the iconic Sheila Theatre in Paharganj, symbolizing Indo-German friendship. How did the unique concept materialize?
A. Our idea was to do something which is typical for Berlin. Now, graffiti is a common sight in Berlin. But we did not want to do it in the diplomatic enclave, but in the heart of the city. We wanted to have something which calls attention. Now whenever we see the artwork represents an Indian woman wearing a traditional Bavarian dress and a German woman donning an Indian sari we see also the cinema. People drive by on the flyover and they see this painting. We wanted to show something which reflects the friendship and the cultural connection between Germany and India.
When we first went there and saw the wall on the house next to the Sheila Theatre, the journalists and others told me that it’s the cinema where they used to go to 20-30 years ago along with their parents. Many of them actually saw their first big screen movie at the theatre. And so a lot of memories came back to them. When we went inside we realized that they had repainted it. It’s a lovely cinema with nice chairs inside and it would be worth restoring it.
Q. What are the impacts of the pandemic on socio-cultural issues and the field of art in Germany?
A. Well, Germany too has been heavily affected by the pandemic. Among those who were affected the most were of course the restaurant owners, hotel owners, taxi drivers and all those dependent on tourism, as well as the performing artists, filmmakers and cinema owners. During the pandemic all the cinemas had to be shut for several months and now that they are opening under strict protocols. Unfortunately not all cinemas have managed to survive. The art cinemas have anyway been struggling to survive and if they close down for 10 months they don’t have huge bank accounts to support them. The same is true of performing theatres. So the state has put in a lot of money to help the restaurants owners, artists, etc. The granted financial aid to cultural institutions and artists has helped many of them to survive. We are good tax payers. I pay almost 50 percent of my income as tax but I if I know that it is used to help the artists and others in need of the state support I am happy because that’s what we should do as state. In Berlin, most of the clubs and venues have survived even after two years of hardship owing to the pandemic because the support they got from the state. The pandemic has taught us about the real value of culture. Maybe it is not measurable but life certainly would be less colorful without it.
Q. As a professional musician, how has your productivity been affected over the last year and a half?
A. At a personal level I also got hit by the pandemic in a sense of performing because I couldn’t participate in concerts. The last one was two years ago. But I utilized some of the free time I had to produce two albums. While “Symphonic Sketches” was recorded between May 2019 to October 2020 at Tucan Records, New Delhi, “A Journey’s Songbook” was recorded between March and August 2020, also at Tucan Records, New Delhi.
Q. Given that a lot of the time has been lost due the pandemic, what will be your priorities to boost the Indo-German cultural ties going forth?
A. Now it’s opening up slowly and I have started attending a few concerts myself but I only go there when I see that the various security measures are met such as vaccination, masks, etc. I think it will still take some more time but we have already started moving in the right direction. The other day I was in Varanasi where you have in an area more than 500 musicians living along with their families. Now, most of them have survived using internet teaching but now they all are craving for concerts again. I did attend a few of open air concerts there with proper safety measures in place and this kind of things you will surely see more often. So we will be coming up with open air concerts, open air exhibitions, architectural and cultural heritage walks. We are having an open air Jazz concert in Hyderabad on the 5th of December with the Qutub Shahi Tombs as the backdrop. It will be in a hybrid form with live performances happening as the venue as well as bands from Germany joining via a digital bridge.
Apart from that we will also see Under the Banyan Tree concert series and other which are open air. If this coincides with the opening of tourism for the country which the government has promised for the 15th of November then this will also add to a bigger audience. These are some of the ideas but of course there are lots of things coming up. We will try to promote a wide range of German culture here including cinema, literature, arts, fine arts, contemporary arts, and different aspects of music, classical as well as contemporary.
Q. Both India and Germany have very strong foundations as far as cinema is concerned and yet not many German films get theatrical release here. Is there a roadmap to make German cinema more accessible to the Indian audiences?
A. Well, on one side, you are right. There could be much more. Now, people in the art scene and film circles, they do know about German cinema. But, as you see the major mainstream culture here follows the traditional Bollywood style and amongst the overseas films it is mostly Hollywood offerings. But this also calls targeting niche audiences and that’s why you have to do some extra work. We participate in quite a number of cinema festivals here. Also a lot of the younger people who watch Netflix have told me that the German television series Dark is a great success here in India. Also, there is the participation of Indian movies in Germany. I remember watching Gully Boy at the Berlinale. So the festival scene is already something good. But there are a lot of things which we can still be doing. Maybe through the digital space we can have other means to do that. Also, dubbing of the German films in the Indian languages is something that can be explored.
Q. Are there any MOUs signed between film schools in India and Germany? Are there any scholarships on offer for budding filmmakers?
A. First of all, regarding the avenues, there are MOUs. The Film Academy Baden-Württemberg, which is in the South West of Germany, and Film University of Babelsberg, one the oldest film schools, which is in Potsdam near Berlin have signed MOUs with the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune and Satyajit Ray Film & Television Institute, Kolkata. Also, there is an agreement between Germany and India to co-produce films. The Lunchbox is one of examples.
As far as scholarships are concerned, there is the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) International Scholarship for Artists in Germany which comprises not only film, but all types of art and all international artists can apply for this study scholarship. The international scholarship is granted for one year which covers monthly scholarship, health insurance, flat-rate travel allowance, family allowance and accommodation subsidy.
Also, under the NIPKOW PROGRAMM, scholarship is granted for international film and media professionals covering paid film residency in Berlin for up to 3 months with a monthly grant of 1,500 Euros.
Q. A lot of the countries are offering different kinds of subsidies and benefits to attract Indian filmmakers to come and shoot in their countries. What benefits can an Indian filmmakers avail they want to shoot in Germany?
A. For production of films, The German Federal Film Board offers a partial refund of the production costs spent in Germany. One of the requirements is that a German film company is involved i.e. as part of a co-production.
As far as series are concerned, they can be partially funded via the German Motion Picture Fund (GMPF). Applications are only eligible if a German Film company is involved. It covers films as well. The funded film or series must be released on German television or by video-on-demand services accessible in Germany.