Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 14:50 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 14:50 | SYDNEY

A touch of Bollywood in Parramatta


Rory Medcalf


18 January 2010 17:29

Two events in the past few days – one positive, one negative – have the potential to act as circuit-breakers in the crisis over the welfare of Indian students in Australia.

The negative event was the suggestion by the extremist Shiv Sena Party that Australian cricketers should be banned from Mumbai. Why might this threat actually do some good? I have explored the reasons in more detail in this opinion piece, but the short answer is that most Indians – including many who have been worried about questions of race and safety in Australia – consider the Shiv Sena to be the last people they want on their side. 

This development is at least a reminder that every society has its share of bigots and that irresponsibly accusing entire nations of racism plays into their hands.  

The positive event, meanwhile, was the free public concert by Bollywood maestro A R Rahman in Sydney's Parramatta Park on Saturday night.

This will be remembered as a watershed moment for Indians in Australia. It was both the biggest gathering of the Indian community in this country's history – much of the crowd of tens of thousands comprised people of Indian or South Asian origin – and a dynamic expression of Australia's openness to multiple cultures.

I can attest to all of this because I was lucky enough to be there. The show was broadcast live across the Asia-Pacific by Australia Network and could go a long way in reducing misperceptions that Indians are not welcome in this country.

Rahman deserves credit for the idea of a free event aimed consciously at building, in his words, a bridge of understanding. It's a relief to know there was enough initiative and imagination in Canberra's public diplomacy community to seize this opportunity (it would have been a tragedy had any bureaucratic naysayer had their way).

Maybe it was a shame that the politician opening the event, the NSW Premier, could not help but play parochial politics: she repeatedly said Indian students were safe and welcome 'in New South Wales'.* It would have been better if she had said 'in Australia' – indeed, it would have been better if the Prime Minister had been there to say as much.

Then again, it does seem that the state of Victoria has a bigger problem than the rest of the country on the Indian student issue, so the sooner Melbourne can be persuaded to take practical steps to overcome its image of denial, the better.

Anyway, on this night Sydney's west did itself proud. And about halfway through the spectacle it occurred to me that, at one level, it doesn't matter if some Indian editors choose not to understand Australia in its totality, or if the starkly outdated, outnumbered xenophobes in either country keep trying to wreck a promising relationship. 

From the mood of the crowd on Saturday night, it was clear that a confident and growing Indian community is now very much at home in Australia, and that will not change.  Jai Ho! 

* Admittedly, the NSW Government covered most of the costs of the event, and provided first-rate security.

Photos by Prudence Upton, courtesy of the Sydney Festival.