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Kennedy Center's India Festival puts on a Maximum display

Video
Before the opening of the three-week Indian festival, the curator, designer and executive chef of Maximum India describe what can be seen and eaten at the Kennedy Center.

Oberoi's first executive decision was to enlist 12 chefs from India's Taj Hotel restaurants - selected for their expertise in Parsi, Maharashtrian, Bengali, South Indian, Gujarati and other regional cuisines - to turn out an uncommonly eclectic Indian menu that includes such lesser-known delicacies as crispy, crepe-like dosas and fish wrapped in banana leaves, as well as such nouvelle offerings as chili-olive naan, saffron-laced lamb shanks and sugary gulab jamun creme brulee. ("The best chefs in India," Adams says, "are in the hotels, if not the homes.")

The Roof Terrace Restaurant will maintain its formal air as it serves high-end continental cuisine, while the casual KC Cafe will become an American version of a roadside "dhaba," serving crispy, calorie-laden street food and snacks. Each week, the chef will unveil a menu of 10 to 12 new dishes in the main restaurant.

In the days leading up to the festival, Oberoi has been anxious about re-creating his flavors more than 7,000 miles from home. Dry spices will arrive from India, and masala mixtures will be ground fresh here. Luckily, help in the form of two tandoori ovens, just the right flour for naan, and fresh ingredients will come from chef Vikram Sunderam, an old colleague of Oberoi's from the Taj, whom foodies might know as the chef of Penn Quarter hot spot Rasika. Oberoi, who was worried that local ingredients might affect the flavors of his cooking, is grateful for the assist. "These guys," he says, "are great help."

Music

Roysten Abel, the Indian-born director of "The Manganiyar Seduction," bristles a bit when someone refers to his masterwork as a "concert."

Though it features 43 musicians and a conductor, "Manganiyar" is very much the eye-popping spectacle: Every musician - the dhol drummers, the singers, the men playing the accordion-like harmonium - performs in a lighted, red-walled cubical, part of a structure that is 36 feet wide and 21 feet high. When a note rings out, the lights on that musician's box come to life, creating an effect that at once recalls "Hollywood Squares" and the street-peddling of Amsterdam's red-light district (hence the name, "Seduction").

"This is the most theatrical performance I've ever directed," says Abel, a Shakespearean actor who created the show in 2006 and has since taken it around the world, including to New York's Lincoln Center last year. "People can't place it: It's a contemporary performance with traditional musicians."

Special effects aside, the music is reason enough to check out the performances at the Kennedy Center. Manganiars, a Sufi clan of performers whose talents reach back generations, are among the most revered folk musicians. "They are the most soulful singers," Abel says. "The whole community sings like that. It's not about showing off how good they are - it's about being the music."

Also featured at Maximum India is another artist who blurs the boundaries of traditional Indian music: British-born rapper Panjabi MC, who rose to fame after teaming up with Jay-Z for a remix of "Beware of the Boys," an old bhangra folk song. By pairing hip-hop beats with bhangra, Panjabi MC has attracted an international following. His show in the Kennedy Center's "Monsoon Club" (a transformed KC Jazz Club) is sold out, but a free performance on the Millennium Stage should make your must-see list.

Speaking of the Monsoon Club, it's definitely worth a visit. The Kennedy Center commissioned a major art installation to give the club just the right vibe for acts who fuse West and East, including Indian blues band Soulmate.

Exhibits

Move over, Hope Diamond. Forty incredible examples of India's insatiable lust for gems - cuffs covered in countless polished rubies, a bird-shaped flask blanketed in diamonds, a diamond wedding necklace that hangs from head to knees - are headed to Washington.


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