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Kennedy Center's India Festival puts on a Maximum display

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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.

"Jewelry played an important part in Indian lifestyle," says Munnu Kasliwal, whose family for three generations has run Jaipur's Gem Palace, which will curate the "Treasures of the Gem Palace" exhibit and a pop-up shop for Maximum India. "People liked to buy it and keep it as a security. Jewelry is something that is passed on from one generation to the next. It lives beyond us."

Today, a lux set of dangly ruby earrings is hardly the Indian equivalent of a savings bond. They are meant to be worn (the more pieces at one time, it seems, the better), and it's well understood that the perfect bauble is like a spotlight, ensuring that the beauty of its wearer is on display.

Although the pieces in the exhibit are not vintage, Kasliwal favors age-old rose-cut diamonds and old-world traditions, so if you're not blinded by all the glitter, take a moment to check out the craftsmanship.

To represent India's visual arts and crafts traditions, the Kennedy Center enlisted artists to create works solely for the festival: Artist Jitish Kallat will fill the Hall of Nations with a sculpture spelling out one of Mahatma Gandhi's most famous speeches - each letter crafted from delicate, bone-shaped porcelain. In the North Atrium Foyer, Reena Saini Kallat will create the illusion of India's many historic ruins in the form of a vast fallen column made out of 23,000 rubber stamps. Giant moving peacock figures will delight kids and adults alike, while young ones can visit the "Hi! I Am India" playroom to collect stickers, read comic books and learn what it's like to grow up in India.

For "Kaleidoscope: Mapping India's Crafts," the center commissioned a caravan of street bikes - 28 in all - representing every state in the nation, plus a couple of extras. The bikes will be stacked high with crafts from Delhi's Crafts Museum. The Hall of States will be filled with 25 six-yard saris, and in Bharthi Kher's colorful exhibit "I've Got Eyes at the Back of My Head," discs reminiscent of Indian women's ornamental bindis will be hung in the Grand Foyer.

Dance and theater

During the next month, dozens of dancers are preparing to descend on the Kennedy Center, tradition bearers who, Adams says, "represent the top echelon" of the Indian dance world.

Some have spent most of their lives immersed in southern India's ancient bharatanatyam or kuchipudi dance forms, others in northern India's kathak. Even masters of Bollywood's sexed-up shimmying - with eight counts as likely to come from the latest Usher videos as from rural folk dances - will make their way to a Kennedy Center stage.

For the uninitiated, it will be enough to witness gorgeous young things dripping with bling and wrapped in a rainbow of gold-flecked fabrics, their feet slapping the floor with rhythmic precision. Watch closely, however, and you'll find there's a literalism - and athleticism - in their movements that makes Indian dance surprisingly easy to grasp and easier still to adore.

"It can be very athletic; it can be very vibrant. It has leaps; there's a half-seated position like a demi-plie," says Ranee Ramaswamy, co-artistic director of Minneapolis-based bharatanatyam troupe Ragamala Dance, one of the few festival acts based in the United States. But, she says, the real artistry is the dancers' command of their bodies, their grace. "There's an amazing amount of control. It's controlled energy," Ramaswamy says. People are impressed by "very, very high jumps," she adds, but with "a very refined dancer, you can see the music when they dance."

So whom should you see? Madhavi Mudgal and Alarmel Valli will blend both bharatanatyam and long-lost temple dance form Odissi; Shantala Shivalingappa, a much-watched young Parisian dancer and choreographer, will tackle kuchipudi, a dance form once practiced exclusively by men (ever one to defy conventions, Shivalingappa is often seen these days in contemporary dance productions, such as those of German choreographer Pina Bausch). And representing the new wave of companies borne in the West and fusing classical technique with an experimental spirit is Ragamala, which will share a bill with local troupe Dakshina/Daniel Phoenix Singh.

Want to experience India's hip side? You don't actually need a ticket for "Ticket to Bollywood," a touring spectacle spotlighting the Indian movie industry's inexplicable affection for dazzling song-and-dance numbers. Find the family-friendly show free on the Millennium Stage.

Despite a longtime interest in dance, Adams says her first selection for Maximum India was in fact a theater performance: Chorus Repertory Theatre's modernist rendition of Henrik Ibsen's "When We Dead Awaken," which Adams now refers to as her "ah ha moment." The show, which Adams saw at a festival in Delhi, comes from rural Manipur, a state in a northeastern India nestled next to Burma, and yet it is as avant-garde as anything you'd see out of Europe or Asia. It's performed in Manipuri with English surtitles.

"The moment I saw this piece I said, 'I want this to be in the festival,'" Adams says. "It's extraordinary. It's Indian, yet it's also very Western."

For families, Delhi's Ishara Puppet Theatre is bringing "Simple Dreams," a family-friendly nod to children's vast imaginations; the shows feature performers who use umbrellas, sticks and puppets in extraordinary ways.

It's all enough to make your head spin. To coordinate Maximum India - from filling every stage, to tracking the production of every art piece in India, to booking hundreds of flights and procuring nearly as many visas - was a monumental feat.

"To make this happen," says programming director Almeida, "it is madness. You have to be really good with the details. We are transforming all the spaces at the same time.

"That," she says, "is the magic."

ramanathanl@washpost.com


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