CULTURE (2017 | Issue 3)

Download print version

Indo-German Cultural Connections

Culture forms an integral part of Indo-German relations. Both countries have a long history of cross-cultural exchanges. What’s Up, Germany? highlights how deep these ties run.

India and Germany’s association is ancient. The first Germans to come to India were missionaries. Way back in 1706, Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg arrived in Tranquebar. He bought a house, mastered Tamil within three months and set up the first Tamil printing press in 1712. Recognising his house as an important monument of Indo-German heritage, the German government contributed ₹36 lakh to convert it into a museum. Another missionary scholar, Hermann Gundert, translated the Bible into Malayalam and compiled a bilingual dictionary in 1872. He happens to be German novelist Hermann Hesse’s grandfather!


Sanskrit and German have common origins. Numerous German scholars have done extensive research in Sanskrit studies and Indology. The missionary Heinrich Roth was the first German scholar to learn Sanskrit and even went on to write a Sanskrit grammar book in Latin in 1660. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Max Müller, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Gottfried Herder, Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt, and the Schlegel brothers translated and studied many texts, including the Rig Veda, the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita.

The translation of Kalidasa’s play Abhigyan Shakuntalam into German in 1791 created quite a stir. Goethe even adapted it for the German stage. In 1881, Wilhelm von Schlegel became the first professor of Indology at the University of Bonn.


In modern times too, German authors have brought Indian culture to Germany. Thomas Mann, author of Buddenbrooks, was fascinated by India’s mythology and scriptures, as is evident in his 1941 novel The Transposed Heads: A Legend of India. Hermann Hesse was influenced by Buddhism and penned the widely acclaimed novel Siddhartha (1922) in English. While living in Kolkata, Günter Grass wrote Show Your Tongue—an allusion to the Goddess Kali’s tongue—in 1988.


German art historian Hermann Goetz deserves a special mention. He was the director of the Baroda Museum and Picture Gallery from 1939–1953 and set up the museology department at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, where he also taught art history. Goetz then served as director of the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi. After 19 years in India, he returned to Germany and taught Oriental Art at the South Asia Institute of Heidelberg University. In 1971, he received the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for his contribution to Indian art. Another noteworthy person was the painter Archibald Müller. Born in India in 1878, he studied at the Madras School of Arts and is regarded as one of India’s early 20th-century great talents.


India and Germany have a long history of academic exchanges. In 1959, IIT Madras was founded with German assistance. It was the first Indo-German collaboration between both governments. Today there are about 400 partnerships between Indian and German universities, and around 14,000 Indians are enrolled in German universities.


German director Fritz Bennewitz was the first to bring Indian theatre to Germany and vice versa. He staged the works of Brecht and Goethe in India and received the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1991. As part of an Indo-German theatre partnership promoted by the German federal government, Ranga Shankara and Schnawwl Theatre (Mannheim) worked together on the play Boy With a Suitcase, which was directed by Andrea Gronemeyer.

In cinema, German director Franz Osten and cameraman Josef Wirsching worked in the Bombay film industry from 1924. Their first collaboration, Prem Sanyas (Die Leuchte Asiens), was with Himanshu Rai. The film met with an enthusiastic response in Munich in 1925. Osten went on to direct 16 movies at Bombay Talkies, while Wirsching shot groundbreaking films like Achhut Kanya (1936) and Pakeezah (1972).


Max Mueller Bhavan: In India, the Goethe-Institut is known as Max Mueller Bhavan. Named after the German indologist Max Müller, this cultural institute of the Federal Republic of Germany promotes knowledge of the German language and fosters cultural cooperation. There are currently six Max Mueller Bhavans in India, located in Bengaluru, Chennai, Kolkata, Mumbai, New Delhi and Pune.

German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD): It is the largest funding organisation in the world supporting the international exchange of students and scholars. DAAD New Delhi, established in 1960, promotes academic exchange between Germany and India, provides information about education in Germany and grants scholarships.