Drawing parallels between Indian and Bulgarian cultures: A conversation with Dr. Mauna Kaushik

Mauna Kaushik (Credit: Panayot Chafkarov)

What is it like to be an Indian woman living in Bulgaria? What do Bulgarians and Indians have in common? How can we stay connected to our roots when living thousands of kilometres away from our birthplace? 

Lecturer of Indology Dr. Mauna Kaushik shared her story, shedding light on the above questions and drawing parallels between Indian and Bulgarian cultures as part of Multi Kulti Collective’s media campaign, Migrants Got Talent.

Dr. Kaushik, where do you currently work and what do you do in Bulgaria?

I am a guest lecturer at Sofia University and I am the founder of Devam Foundation, Indo-Bulgarian Society for Arts and Culture. I work in the department of Indology, which is part of the centre for eastern languages and cultures, Sofia University. This department has one of the best Indologists in the world: the Bulgarian Indologists who have translated ancient Indian texts from Sanskrit to Bulgarian and many other texts from the modern Indian languages, Hindi and Urdu. 

This department and many of our professors have been facilitated by the government of India and the President of India. I would like to mention that the first Sanskrit-Bulgarian Dictionary was compiled by my father (late) Professor Ram Krishna Kaushik. I’m on its editorial board.

As the founder of the Devam Foundation, can you share what the foundation is and what it does?

Bulgaria has always had good relations with India. In the early nineties, there was a quest to discover India. We decided to take India to those who could not go to India; this was the idea behind this society, which was later registered as a foundation. 

In the initial years, many intellectuals who love India teamed up. Together, we organised events in kindergartens and schools, celebrating Indian festivals. We used to meet enthusiasts, put on a bindi or just some Indian clothes and present other Indian things which are now largely available everywhere. However, during that time, it was different. Many times, I was greeted as if I was a ‘living example of India’ – just for this, I was ready to go anywhere to present India and I would always wear a Sari, a traditional women’s attire. 

I wanted to present an intellectual India to the Bulgarian audiences and groups; an India that was different than the one shown in films. I also wanted to create a bridge between both cultures. So, we started by translating Hindi poems in Bulgarian and Bulgarian poems in Indian. We invited Indian writers, poets, artists, and intellectuals to Bulgaria and have held many important cultural events since then.  

We first presented Indian dances, Bollywood dances and kirtan – a kind of devotional musical and yoga practice – in Sofia Land in 2004. At the time, this was very strange for people but we had a large audience that really enjoyed it.

You mention that people perceived some performances as strange. How do they generally react?

India presents itself in Bulgaria in different ways. First, there is the intellectual part of Bulgaria that knows everything about India. Then, there is another part which knows the colourful India – that is, something they have heard about, the elephants, the films, the Taj Mahal, etc. 

So, it was not totally strange for people because they knew that a country called India exists but yes, when they saw something Indian in reality, it was strange for them although there was affection in their eyes. Almost every person knew something about India, and there was lots of love and respect. This was the beauty, and still is.

Are there any similarities that you’ve noticed between Indian and Bulgarian cultures?

Today [March 18th], we celebrate a beautiful festival in India, Holi. We greet one another by putting colours on each other. This is a spring festival and it is believed that spring commences from this day. Bulgarians also value colours and the energy they bring, as they colour eggs on Easter. Another similarity is the martenitsa and the Indian thread. We also have another festival where sisters tie thread to the wrist of their brothers. In Bulgaria also, many wear a red thread as protection from the evil eye. 

Aside from traditions, one thing which I find to be common between the two is that both Bulgarians and Indians are very emotional and sentimental. To them, family is the first priority. Many people who see Bulgaria as a European country are surprised by this as they know that in Europe, generally speaking, people care less about the kids and the family and are more concerned with the idea of the individual.

Education is another common thing: Indian parents will give every penny they have for the education of their children and the same is true for Bulgarians.

Another thing is that two Bulgarians can easily sit and talk for hours. They share things and everybody always seems to know everything. For example, if you do not feel well, everybody will give you advice, tell you what to drink, where to go, and what to do. This is the same in India. So, the person to person connection is also common to both.

How do you stay connected to your roots when you are in Bulgaria?

You should never forget your traditions and your roots. I have lived here (in Bulgaria) for so long that you can even ask how I remain connected to Bulgaria when I am in India. I have previously organised workshops on martenitsi and delivered lectures on Bulgarian culture and traditions in Icolleges. So, it is better to recreate traditions wherever you are with local things instead of letting them go because you cannot find this or that.

In Bulgaria, I organise lots of events not to show India but to share it with the beautiful people living here. I share it with whoever wants to be a part of it. In this way, the traditions come up, the knowledge about Yoga and Ayurveda, drawing with henna, etc. Of course, it depends on how you want to present your culture and how much you know about it. 

Even if you cook, if you know how your mother has cooked, what kind of spices she has used, what kind of song she has sung, if you know this then you will always remain connected. You must love, adore and respect your own culture, only then can you respect other cultures.

Can you share a little more about Yoga and Ayurveda and how Bulgarians respond to these practices?

Devam Foundation is the global partner of the Ministry of Ayush, Government of India, to celebrate Ayurveda Day in Bulgaria. International Yoga Day has also been declared by the UN on June 21st and, of course, India is the force behind it. 

In Bulgaria, I have met many people who have been practising yoga for 30-40 years. They are exemplary and I respect them as teachers who practice on both the physical and spiritual levels. The Indian Embassy is also popularising yoga, celebrating it in more than 43 cities in the country. So, yoga is definitely flourishing here and you can see a huge acceptance of the art among general masses.

We also have an Ayurveda Association, with Dr. Antoaneta Zarkova as the president and founder. I am the only Indian member on the board. It is very easy to talk about Ayurveda to Bulgarians as it is as though their traditional way of living was written by an Ayurveda guru. The way people used to live in the villages was a sort of Ayurvedic way of life. 

Bulgarians have the ayurvedic mindset and this is getting so popular that ayurvedic terms (such as vata, pitta, and kapha) are becoming part of people’s everyday conversations. One can find Ayurveda practitioners, Ayurveda cooking courses and even ayurvedic herbs, teas in the local shops, here in Bulgaria. 

What advice would you give to people who are considering moving to Bulgaria?

As I said, Bulgarians are very sentimental and so, they are quite sensitive. So, before coming to Bulgaria, learn about the local culture and the local people. Respect their values. 

Bulgaria is not only rakia and banitsa. Bulgaria is so many more things – this is the place where you can find yourself. This is the beauty of this place. It has a different, most extraordinary vibe.

This interview is part of the media campaign, Migrants Got Talent. What, in your opinion, is the value of such campaigns?

I must say, such campaigns are doing a good job in helping people connect to each other and share their own experiences. In Bulgaria, a foreigner is perceived as an ‘other’. They are used to having friends from different nationalities but not having them as part of their everyday lives.

That is why it is very important that such campaigns be carried out: they help to spread the message that people who are here – for whatever reason – are not coming to take what you have. Some people have not come by choice but have been forced to leave their countries and we must have sympathy for them. These campaigns are important for building bridges and give us a space to tell our stories.

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