For love of curry, saris, yoga and Bollywood

Dina Ezzat , Sunday 12 Apr 2015

Somewhere between the familiar and the exotic, Egyptians are happily savouring the many aspects of Indian culture at this year's India on the Nile festival

A Bollywood dance workshop in Cairo Opera House
A Bollywood dance workshop attended by hundreds at Midan theatre in front of Hanager Arts Center, Cairo Opera House, Egypt, 31 March 2015 (Photo: Ati Metwaly)

At the Hanger Centre, at the Cairo Opera House, Maguie was standing with her friend Nelly examining a selection of Indian fabrics that Vadil Ahmet was selling Thursday afternoon.

Ahmet was sharing his stock with the clearly impressed client who was considering an Indian sari, or at least an evening dress made of Indian fabrics, for her engagement that is scheduled soon after Easter.

“I want something different. I was thinking of what to wear for my engagement and then I heard about the India [on the Nile] festival so I came to see what they have to offer. They have beautiful fabrics,” Maguie said.

Holding to a turquoise silk embroidered with colourful paillette, Maguie was discussing with Nelly the wisdom of having the material turned into a sari.

“I think it will be new. I am not sure how people would take it, but I love the idea of wearing a sari,” she said.

By Thursday afternoon, Ahmet had brought the remainder of his lustrous materials from the Traditional Crafts Centre in Fustat where the display of Indian pashminas and saris was initiated at the beginning of this year’s third edition of India on the Nile.

He had already sold quite a few of the items he brought from India. “I mostly sold scarves made of silk and blouses made of silk and cotton. I had many ladies asking about the saris and they all seemed very interested, but inevitably they just bought fabrics for regular dresses and did not order a sari to be tailored,” Ahmet said.

He was luckier than Mohamed Ikbal who also participated in the traditional craft pavilion of the India on the Nile festival with a collection of exotic but rather pricy pashminas.

The average pashmina in Ikbal's collection of was for around LE5,000 — a fair price for an artisan’s elaborate work over several weeks. “Some pashminas take a few months.”

Ikbal knows the interwoven colourful silk threads are attractive to the eyes of the ladies visiting the handcrafts pavilion of the three-week India on the Nile festival. It is, however, “a matter of budget,” Nada, a lady in her late-30s, commented after having perused Ikbal's collection.

“They are so beautiful. Really, they would go very well with our [Egyptian] style and our colour of skin, but I cannot afford LE15,000 for two shawls,” Nada said.

Having come for a small treat for herself, Nada decided to opt for a selection of pottery and beads that were also showing in the same pavilion.

“I guess the important thing about this pavilion is not about selling, but introducing the public to an element of Indian artisanship. In this sense, it has been quite successful,” said Mona Hassan from the commercial desk at the Indian embassy in Egypt.

So many similarities

Having opened 30 March with the much celebrated participation of Bollywood mega star Amitabh Bachchan, India on the Nile gained overall wide attention.

“Most of the attention went to the Bollywood shows, which were all fully booked. We also got huge interest in the Bollywood and yoga workshops. The one in Alexandria that was conducted on the beach was particularly beautiful and successful,” said Ila Jubat, producer of the festival.

Jubat is sure of the appeal of Indian dance and Indian meditation to the Egyptian public. It is, she states, very similar to belly dance and to Sufi practices, if “not quite the same.”

“Absolutely,” agreed Radwa, a trainer of Indian dance in one of the new and growing dancing schools in an upscale Cairo neighbourhood. Radwa has several dance classes: bellydance, Bollywood dance and Latin dance.

Throughout her three years in this business, which she joined in Egypt after a few years of training and practice in England where she was born to an Egyptian father and a Scottish mother, Radwa finds that Bollywood dance comes second to bellydance and ahead of Latin dance.

Sometimes, Radwa said, she receives a group of girls who ask for special group training in bellydance or Bollywood dance ahead of an engagement party or bridal shower.

“Girls love the music and they comfortably pick up the moves and find it spontaneous to dance to the rhythm,” she said.

“Bollywood dance is as sensual as bellydance in a way that is different from Latin dance. They are not identical, but there are so many similarities in the underlining concept,” Radwa added.

A customised taste

What goes for Bollywood dance goes for yoga, which is constantly gaining ground because of its simpler and easier to perform moves.

Youssef, an administrator at a popular gym in Cairo and Giza, said he has at least one yoga class per week in every branch of his chain. "Higher discipline" classes exist for those “who truly indulge rather than just follow the vogue.”

The same goes for food, Jabat says. Having brought over three authentic Indian chefs to offer a broader view of the incredible diversity of Indian cuisine, Jubat said she was “delighted” to see that almost every item on the menu was enjoyed by crowds who visited a small restaurant setup next to the Cairo Opera House.

“Some items are more known here, but I think everything that the chefs had to offer received a lot of attention, and the food ran out fast on the four days dedicated to showcasing Indian cuisine,” Jabat said.

Indian cuisine is not as popular in Egypt as Lebanese or Italian cuisine. But it is certainly not without a considerable audience. Amal, an assistant at a Cairo bookstore, says that usually the demand is for “curry and biryani dishes rather than for elaborate Indian cuisine."

Soha, a housewife, who attends Indian cooking classes, says her family like some but not all Indian dishes. “If it has what we would consider an unusual mix of sweet and sour ingredients, or dishes where eggs are the key ingredient, then they don’t really care for it,” she explained.

According to Adel, director of a restaurant that serves a diversity of Asian dishes, “Like Chinese cuisine, Indian cuisine has been customised to better fit an international taste.”

This customised taste is exactly the concept that some stores around Cairo, Giza and Alexandria are counting on to sell Indian apparel and jewelry.

For the last 15 years, said Ola, who works as an assistant designer in one of these stores, there has been a growing interest in “let us say Indian inspired” apparel.

“In the minds of many people who are thinking of Indian fashion in the limited terms of older Indian films, Indian clothes are not something the modern Egyptian woman can resort to,” said Ola.

She added, however: “They change when they get to see the customised use of Indian fabrics and designs into, say, loose morning dresses with matching shawls, or baggy shirts and trousers with matching knitted handbags.”

Keeping India on the Nile

Jubat, who is to leave Cairo in a week as the India on the Nile festoval comes to a close, is considering options for the exhibition for next year.

“Because we feel it is successful, every year we try to expand a little. Maybe we will bring some new things next year and maybe we will go around a bit more. We will certainly want to do more,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Indian Cultural Centre in Cairo, according to Vishvas Sapkal, deputy chief of the Indian diplomatic mission in Cairo, will continue to bring many aspects of Indian culture to keen audiences.

According to Sapkal, the Maulana Azad Centre for Indian Culture (MACIC) is the first Indian cultural centre in the region, established in 1992. The centre is named after Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, independent India’s first education minister and founding president of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations

As part of its regular activities, Sapkal said, the centre conducts classes in Hindi, Urdu and yoga and, periodically, classes in Indian cuisine and dance. The centre also screens Indian films in its auditorium and offers over 800 titles in its library in English, Hindi, Urdu and Arabic, he added.

Sapkal argued that with the considerable success of this year’s edition of India on the Nile, the Indian Cultural Centre would perhaps be receiving more interest and would have to expand its activities.

“The 3rd edition of the India by the Nile annual cultural festival is continued at present and is now billed as the biggest foreign festival in Egypt and has received a huge response and appreciation all over Egypt,” he said.

Sapkal argued that there are endless avenues for cultural affinity that bring Egypt and India together. “Peoples of both countries love each other and there is great warmth between the two. They have been attracted to each other’s culture since ancient times and the modern era is no exception to this,” he said.

He added: “In Indus Valley sites, terracotta figurines of mummies have been discovered.”

Sapkal underlined that “Indians and Egyptians, who have special places for each other in their hearts, have a great interest in knowing more about each other and visiting each other’s country.”

This mutual interest, he added, should soon materialise into a wider scope of cultural exchange, and indeed higher rates of tourism

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