Nikhil Sardana: Please share your background with us.
Alan Gemmell: I grew up in Scotland in an ordinary working class community and somewhere between the ages of 12 and 13 had my first piano lesson. A year later I went to the Royal Conservatoire of Music (formerly Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama), and that intervention changed my life. Soon after, I studied Law and helped set up the Scottish Youth Parliament. I went on to become a civil servant and my last jobs were in economic migration policy and counter terrorism.
I decided then to make a career change and was invited to join the British Council – an organisation that uses culture, education and the English language to share the UK’s approach to society for the benefit of people. In my journey I have learnt that anyone with a passion can change the world and that’s part of our mission really – to help unlock people’s passion or help them gain the skills to unlock their passion. That is what connecting with UK culture can do. So it feels nice to bring all of that together.
NS: As British Council’s recently appointed Director for India, what are the immediate changes you will bring about here?
AG: It is not about change, it is about working out the great things we need to do. That itself is a wonderful feeling about coming to India, as it is the British Council’s most important operation. We are doing this interview in our flagship cultural centre in the world that has just gone through a £3 million renovation. The British Council’s Chief Executive Sir Ciarán Devane reopened this centre and my predecessor, Rob Lynes, really made this incredible renovation happen. The job is therefore to build on those successes.
I am particularly interested in how we grow our online activity because what’s happening in India and all over the world is hundreds of millions of people are joining the digital economy. They are the smart phone generation and are consuming content in a new way.
NS: What are the barriers to effective arts education?
AG: I am a musician and the real barriers to me learning music were financial. We didn’t have a piano at home. There weren’t any piano teachers in my school. The big transformation for me was when my school got a piano teacher!
There is always a challenge towards helping people find what they are good at in the arts and celebrating that very aspect about them. Then there is the broader sense of brining creativity into the curriculum and that is a challenge for education systems everywhere. How can we use arts education, artistic interventions and stimulus? How we can help teachers teach in different ways to develop some of the skills that are critical for the 21st century? Thinking critically, teamwork, appreciation of diversity and celebrating differences are areas that the arts in curriculum can do. We have a number of projects that help do that. Last year we launched the World Voice programme that involves helping teachers introduce singing education of the highest quality into their respective classrooms. This is being delivered in India in partnership with Government schools.
NS: What are your thoughts on Western classical music?
AG: I love Western classical music! That is what I grew up with and it changed my life. I studied Bass Trombone and Piano. I toured with the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland and with the celebrated Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie. That is the music of my youth.
My husband is a classical ballet dancer who has worked for over 10 years in Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake around the world. When we got married, I played my very own transcription of the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake for him and all his friends. Western classical music has played a very important part in my life.
NS: Tell us about the 2017 UK-India Year of Culture. What can audiences look most forward to?
AG: I want this coming year to celebrate, reconnect and inspire people. I want to celebrate the incredible 70 years of Indian democracy and reconnect with people across India, especially its young generation by programming and inspiring work both online and in spaces together. One of the exciting music projects we have announced recently is called Mix the City – a collaboration between Sonia Mazumdar and British digital agency Flying Object. The aim of this project is to tell the story of a city through its sights and sounds. We have asked Sonia to go around Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai and Chennai to find musicians that will tell the story of those cities and altogether create a YouTube video with those musicians. Flying Objects will then create an app that will enable users on smartphones to become musicians and remix Sonia’s video. This is very clever technology because the music samples and the video are in sync. There’s a beautiful product that comes out at the end of this.