Americans are beginning to “get” India in all its maddening contradictions and dizzying contrasts—and they want more. Maximum India, a cultural extravaganza showcasing Indian art and culture, is so sold out here, it has left vast armies of the disappointed. Organised by the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the festival is testimony to India’s soft power that spreads easily, and conquers without colonising.
Some of the best and the brightest gathered, leaving American audiences awed and critics charmed. From Zakir Hussain to Naseeruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi, from Alarmel Valli to Daksha Seth, from Punjabi MC to L. Subramaniam, the parade of Indian stars was impressive. Through much of March, the Kennedy Center resonated with Indian art—dance, theatre, music, literature, cuisine, films. This tour de force glided between the classical and the modern, between raga and rock, between DJ Rekha and Ratan Thiyam, bringing the ferment that is India under one roof.
Mixed fare L. Subramaniam performs at Maximum India. (Photograph by Margot Schulman)
Soulmate, a spunky blues band from the Northeast, belted out strong stuff with an Indian take on what is arguably the most influential musical genre to come out of America. Parikrama, a Delhi-based rock band, had Americans headbanging to its heavy metal lines. Zakir Hussain composed a ‘Concerto for Four Soloists’ especially for the festival and performed it with the National Symphony Orchestra in a grand coming together of two traditions.
Some worried what kind of ‘Maximum India’ would be projected, since the lens was American—Kennedy Center executives conceived, planned and mounted the festival and raised the money ($7 million) from foundations, corporations and private donors. The editorial control was entirely theirs. The Indian government decided it was still an “opportunity” if it could ride along, get equal billing, and be part of the buzz in town. In the end, the Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR) sponsored eight groups while the rest of more than 60 shows were selected and hosted by the Kennedy Center.
It was a commercial project that banked heavily on the global buzz around Indian art, Bollywood and literature. Art managers abroad, egged on by networked Indian gallery owners, are aware of the hoopla and want to join in. Small surprise then, the gigantic installations by Jitish (Public Notice 2) and Reena Kallat (Falling Fables) occupied much space but to undetectable impact. Aficionados thought they were too literal; average viewers found it difficult to read Gandhi’s pre-Dandi march speech in bone-shaped letters.
But Alicia Adams, festival curator, is confident of the choices made and laughs off the criticism. After all, tickets for any of the festival’s music or theatre events couldn’t be had for love or money. It was her third mega festival at the Kennedy Center, after similar feasts from China (2005) and the Arab world (2009). Hitches and glitches are inevitable, and Maximum India was no different.
To begin with, Indian officials wanted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to open the festival but were told that she would be out of town. Instead, the Kennedy Center mustered one senator, two Congressmen and three senior State Department officials but they still didn’t quite add up to Clinton. So Karan Singh, president of ICCR, decided not to come. “Who was the loser? You tell me,” asked an Indian observer, shaking his head over the perennial protocol battles that obsess the keepers of India’s image abroad.
Fund-raising also posed a challenge—the Indian government doesn’t believe in handing over money without control, as China did, entering in a 50-50 partnership with Kennedy Center for its 2005 exhibition, and contributing $2 million. Arabesque, featuring Arab art from 22 countries, was a $10-million affair and the various sheikhdoms were generous. Since ICCR rules prohibit profit-making, complications arose over collaborating with the Kennedy Center, run with endowments and sale of tickets. In the end, ICCR was financially responsible only for the artists and groups it brought and no tickets were charged.
An installation at the fete
“We weren’t able to get what (funds) we were looking for and could always do with more,” said Adams. “We are still working on it and have some pledges.” The Tata Group, Pepsico and a few Indian-American deep-pockets pitched in with $50,000 each and a few with smaller donations of $10,000 and $5,000. The list was short. Donating for the arts is still a distant aim for the community, which has only just begun to write cheques for political campaigns. By contrast, the Chinese Americans come together like a brick when needed, an Indian artist noted.
Then there was muttering about who was selected. Some rolled their eyes at the inclusion of a self-anointed “ghazal queen” based here, thanks to a generous donation from one of her admirers. Similarly, not one but two events featuring William Dalrymple caused others to wonder if India becomes more acceptable when a non-Indian explains it. Adams bravely admitted Dalrymple was her “choice”, not that of Ritu Menon, the “literary curator”.
Some eyebrows were also raised at Kaleidoscope, the main exhibition, because it was mounted on bicycles in a darkened room lit by two large video screens playing scenes of urban streets. Adrien Gardere, the Paris-based designer, defended his choice, saying he did not want “the usual static, frozen approach” but a live one where “traffic is a metaphor for the exchange—between tradition and modernity”.
“Bicycles and all is a western visualisation. An Indian curator would have conceived it differently. But we need to accept that and see the benefits,” an official said. “Three weeks of focus on India, a huge attendance. That counts.”