12 Indians who are famous in Russia

Throughout the week I have been badgering friends and relatives, and even strangers I met in queues, at bus stops and on public transport with one single question: “Which famous Indian persons do you know about, and what are they famous for?” My modest study yielded a list of people which I decided to divide into two parts, giving six places to the most famous Indian spiritual and political leaders; and another six to society figures, i.e. people who have been successful in cinema, music, literature and sport.

Mahatma Gandhi

“He’s the person whose face is on every single Indian Rupee note”, explained an eight-year-old girl, who had just returned from a trip to India with her parents. But for grown-ups this name is of course primarily associated with India’s movement towards independence from Great Britain. His status as “the nation’s spiritual leader” is beyond any doubt. When speaking about Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence, Russian people like to draw parallels with Leo Tolstoy. For a while the two thinkers were in active correspondence. In 1988 a statue of Mahatma Gandhi was erected in Moscow at the intersection of Lomonosov and Michurinsky Avenues. The sculpture itself, the work of Gautam Pal, was presented to the city as a gift from the government and people of India. Russian architects made the pedestal and put up the statue.

Indira Gandhi

Her name is firmly on the Moscow map. The Indira Gandhi Square is at the same intersection where the Mahatma Gandhi monument stands, and opposite him is a monument of Indira herself, the work of the Russian sculptor O.K. Komov, which was erected in 1987. Not many Russians will be aware that Indira is the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, most people are misguided by her surname and assume she is the daughter of Mahatma Gandhi. Russians are practically unanimous in their positive view of Indira’s political career, seeing her as a person who was ready to sacrifice her life for her ideas.  It is only journalists, who, due to the nature of their profession, are prepared to question her image as the ideal ruler. The reason, of course, is the censorship and the limitation of freedom of press that happened when she was in power.   

Jawaharlal Nehru

If Mahatma Gandhi was the soul of the revolution, then Nehru, as Russians see it, was its arms and legs. Just like his daughter, he has a square named after him in Moscow; this one is on the intersection of Vernadsky and Lomonosov Avenues. And a monument to him was erected here in 1996. This was the work of the sculptor D.B. Ryabichev. For Russians the name Jawaharlal is practically impossible to pronounce, and therefore people do not tend to call the square by its official name. The square is either known simply as “Ja” or by the nearest metro station “Universitet”.  In 1955 Nehru became the first Indian politician to visit Moscow and paved the way for an active friendship between the two countries. At the beginning of his rule Nehru accepted economic assistance from the Soviet Union, and advocated a peaceful relationship between two states with different social structures, however he was always careful to avoid using the term “allied states”. But as tensions mounted between China and the Soviet Union, the Indo-Soviet relationship became closer and closer, and it was only after Nehru’s death that they actually became allies. 

Manmohan Singh

Any educated Russian will be able to tell you that India’s Prime Minister is Manmohan Singh and that he is a Sikh. But the question “And who is the president of India?” is one that not everyone can answer. And in some ways this connects India with Russia. Russia’s president is also less well-known worldwide compared to the Prime Minister. The difference is that for India, and indeed any parliamentary republic, this structure of power is to be expected, whereas for Russia, which is not a parliamentary republic, it is somewhat unusual.  Manmohan Singh has been to Moscow a number of times, he has played host to Russian political leaders in India, and has also met with them in many other countries around the world. Quote: “Our partnership is unique. Two big players in the international community have maintained a stable friendship, whilst relations with between other world powers frequently fall into crisis. The reason for this is the compatibility of our interests, both geopolitical and national.”

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi

In Russia, and indeed throughout the world, Maharishi is famous as the founder of transcendental meditation. Legend has it that - “even the Beatles were among his disciples”.  I don’t need to look to the big names to be able to talk about Maharishi. My parents actually met him in person. Admittedly they were among the last people who managed to do this, as he has all but completely cut off contact with the outside world since the mid-nineties, preferring to communicate via video-link even with the people close to him. The reason that Russian citizens met with the great guru was a somewhat unconventional international project: my parents were among six Russian architects invited to Maharishi’s Dutch residence to work on a project for creating a Vedic park and centre of transcendental meditation (observing all Sthapatya Veda principles of course) on the banks of the Niagara falls in Canada.

Sathya Sai Baba

If there is a place in India that is more popular with Russian tourists than Goa, then it has to be the Sathya Sai Baba ashram. In his message of condolences following Sai Baba’s death A. Kadakin, the Russian ambassador to India, said the following: "Sri Sai Baba and his selfless service have become an integral part of India's identity. <...> [His ideas] have resonated in the hearts and minds of thousands of Russians, who will forever remember his spiritual guidance, wisdom and infinite devotion to his country and the world at large." Sai Baba centres and groups of his followers are found in nearly all Russia’s big cities. And within India a whole Russian quarter has sprung up in Puttaparthi, to the extent that local market traders have gradually learned to speak Russian. However Sathya Sai Baba gave as good as he got: he always thought warmly Russia. Among those who he considered his spiritual predecessors are Helena Blavatskaya, Leo Tolstoy and Daniil Andreev.

Raj Kapoor

This man was up there with the most popular foreign actors in the USSR. People who grew up in the Soviet Union will not only be able to list all the films he acted in (at least the ones that were in circulation in Soviet times), they will also be able to sing the songs from his films. People of the older generation say that for them Raj Kapoor was a symbol of optimism. They saw how, with a smile on their faces, his heroes would overcome immense suffering, and this gave viewers the strength to fight their own battles and to cope with the unpleasantness in their own lives.  One old lady even told me that when her grandchildren gave her a mobile phone, she asked them to find a ringtone with a tune from one of Awaara’s films. Young people today are much less familiar with the work of Raj Kapoor, but they too will have heard of his name.

Aishwarya Rai

As soon as you mention Aishwarya Rai the first thing that springs to peoples’ minds is that she is extraordinarily beautiful and that she won the Miss World contest, and only then will they add “isn’t she an actress?”. In May this year when her husband was taking part in a Bollywood film shooting in Murmansk, the Russian press was full of rumours about the starlet’s imminent arrival. Some said that Aishwarya Rai just wanted to visit her husband; others claimed that she would also be in the film. However the Russian fans’ dream of seeing the object of their adoration against the backdrop of the snowy Murmansk hills never came true. Instead the actress set off for the much sunnier destination of Cannes for the opening of the film festival.

Zubin Mehta

Many people know Zubin Mehta as the great conductor. But not everyone knows that Zubin Mehta was born in India. Just like the Russian composer Spivakov, he became a citizen of the world, a cosmopolitan. Zubin Mehta has a built a close friendship with Russia: “I am happy to come here again and again”, he says during each one of his visits. Zubin Mehta first ended up in Russia, or the Soviet Union to be precise, in 1962 as the leader of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, playing the music of the Russian émigré to the USA, Igor Stravinsky. Since then his life journey has bought him in contact with Russia many times. For example he was the first conductor who worked with the American Russian Youth Orchestra, which was created in the 1980s. He performed at the Festival of the World’s Symphony Orchestras, which was timed to coincide with Russia Day. He led the beat of the Moscow Conservatory Orchestra during the concert at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris… It is interesting that the name Zubin sounds very similar to the Russian surname. Perhaps mysterious onomastic powers have contributed to the conductor’s affection for Russia?

Ravi Shankar

One of my friends identified him as “the Indian Jazzman”, and quickly added that he didn’t really listen to him, as he’s not the best jazzman in the world. However, the Russian people who know Ravi Shankar first and foremost as sitarist and populariser of Indian classical music, rather than jazzman, love his music, because there are no better sitarists than him, and it uncertain that there ever will be. Ravi Shankar first did concerts in the USSR in 1954. But his visit in 1988 is probably of greater significance, when he performed on the stage of the Bolshoi theatre accompanied by Russian ballet dancers.  The recording of this concert became one of the musician’s most successful albums. Ravi Shankar’s third and final visit to Russia, to St. Petersburg, was in 2005 as part of his European tour with his daughter Anoushka Shankar. As always the concert was sold out and he was met with a standing ovation.

Vishvanathan Anand

Cricket is not popular in Russia, so no one really knows about the biggest Indian sports stars. That said, in Russia, as in India people are obsessed with chess. Therefore the name of the current chess champion, Vishvanathan Anand, will be known to many. He was the man who stole the leadership crown from a whole dynasty of Soviet chess-players, who had been world champions for fifty years, only once and for a short time yielding their place to the American player, Robert Fisher.  And this summer Russia and India crossed swords again over chess. But this time it was a case of Moscow and Chennai fighting to host the chess world championship between Anand and Gelfand in spring 2012.

Rabindranath Tagore

He had so many talents in so many different spheres that people sometimes find it hard to pinpoint exactly what his Nobel Prize was for: it could have been for his social activism, for literature, or for something else. Russian poets had huge respect for Tagore, Ivan Bunin, himself a future Nobel Prize winner, was involved in the publication of his first Russian anthology. Then Anna Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak helped with the translations. Rabindranath Tagore came to the Soviet Union in the thirties, after which he published a book titled “Letters from Russia”. The book was banned in his homeland, since it praised the social aspect of life in the USSR and called on India to struggle for freedom. “Letters from Russia” was only published in Russian after the author’s death in 1956. There is a monument to Tagore in one of Moscow’s parks, next to the “Rechnoy Vokzal” metro station. It was made by the same sculptor who made the Mahatma Gandhi statue and was also presented to Russia as a gift from India. 

Photos by AP, Itar Tass and AFP East News

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