As March ends, so will the British Council’s one-year-long, mammoth Season of Culture initiative. The calendar of events, aimed at fostering relationships and creating new opportunities for creative sectors, both in India and the UK, was launched in 2022 by the organisation’s then-director Barbara Wickham.
In January, however, there was a change of guard at the British Council, with Alison Barrett, former director of cultural engagement for East Asia at the organisation, taking over as India director. At the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) that took place in January, British Council's India arts director Jonathan Kennedy and Barrett were present to see through the panels that the British Council had organised as part of their collaboration with the fest.
In an interview with Mint, Barrett talks about how now plans to take the conversation forward into her tenure, with what Season of Culture had set out to do vis-à-vis what it has achieved, how all of this is in line with the UK India Roadmap 2030, an agreement of trade and strategic partnership between the two countries, signed on 4 May, 2021 by the then UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and more. Edited excerpts.
What do you see as the achievements of the Season of Culture since you’ve taken over as India director?
It’s been an incredible experience to see the level of engagement that we’ve had across India and the UK, the inclusive nature of the programming, and also the way that we’ve been able to build on scale. Our aim through it all has been to strengthen the links between India and the UK—that’s our DNA. And the Season of Culture enabled us to really strengthen that, and to do so in a way that focuses particularly on the creative economy.
We’re responding directly to the objectives agreed to jointly by both our governments in the UK India Roadmap 2030, (with regard to the) creative sector, and making its contribution to India’s GDP more visible. The idea is to create opportunities for artists, strengthen their skills, ultimately leading to better livelihoods and better opportunities for them. (Through Season of Culture) we have worked with 1400 artists through 20 projects, and they’ve been touring across 21 cities.
How are you planning to build on the relationships you’d nurtured during the Season of Culture?
If I just pick up on the International Publisher Fellowship Program—it has been running globally for several years in different countries. (Season of Culture) has the first time we tried the program in India. The peer-to-peer engagement between young publishers (from India and the UK) was powerful and so mutually beneficial. We’re now trying to replicate that and use the learning (from this experience) globally…to create a network of these publishers so that they have the opportunity to continue learning from each other. We are also keen to identify opportunities for them to build their skills by engaging with some of the bigger publishers in the UK. We had some interesting conversations with a number of publishers during our time at the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) this year, (and hopefully) we will be able to continue giving them those opportunities....
Speaking of the JLF, you’ve been actively involved with the festival. Can you take us through the history of this partnership?
Yes, we’ve been a partner of JLF right from the beginning. Every year, we’ve had some kind of showcase or engagement. For instance, last year, we showcased the findings of the report on the creative economy (’Taking the Temperature’). We’re also really proud to be taking JLF, in partnership with Teamwork Arts, to Belfast. It has also been to London at the British Library.
How have your past collaborations with them been different from what you did this year? Your report on the creative economy last year, and your sessions at the Jaipur Book Mark segment of the JLF this year, both signal that you’re reaching out to an audience of industry stakeholders.
Over the last two years, we have framed our engagement with JLF through the focus on higher level objectives laid out in the UK-India Roadmap 2030 (essentially strengthening the creative economy and its contribution to India’s GDP). So last year, we launched the report about the creative economy, and this year we went back to engage with the Jaipur Book Mark, an important platform for publishers to also think of ways that they can strengthen the ecosystem around writers. So rather than just focusing on the writers and the literature entirely, we’re also looking at the ecosystem that goes around it.
Do you also have tie ups with the various other literature festivals across the country?
Yes, we have an extensive range of partnerships. This includes the Tata Lit Live, where artists from the Season of Culture’s ‘Language is a Queer Thing’ project had performed last year. We launched the ‘India Literature and Publishing Sector Research’ first at the 2022 edition of the Kalinga Literary Festival. At the Kolkata Lit Fest, we had Lucy Hannah, founder and director of Untold Narratives UK, who’s also the Project Director of the ‘Write Assamese’ project (launched during Season of Culture), on a panel with Manaswini Mahanta, an emerging Assamese writer. It was moderated by Debanjan Chakrabarti, Director East and Northeast India, British Council. What we want to do is create opportunities for the writers, translators, and poets whom we’ve been working with, to have a number of different platforms that they can engage with.
The writer attended the Jaipur Literature Festival 2023 on the invitation of the British Council