Kennedy Center's India Festival puts on a Maximum display

By Lavanya Ramanathan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 24, 2011; 11:23 AM

The Kennedy Center might have dubbed next month's massive, three-week India celebration Incredible India or Wondrous India.

But would either begin to describe the blur of action, color, tastes and sounds of a nation with 1.17 billion people, 15 official languages and myriad beliefs, forms of dress and cuisine?

No, India might be incredible, but it is so much more, explains Alicia Adams, curator of the festival, which begins Tuesday. It's maximum. A place, she says, with "the maximum number of people, the maximum number of possibilities, the maximum heat you could ever tolerate."

"It is one country," adds Gilda Almeida, director of international programming, "but it is like 50 countries."

Adams, vice president of international programming, and Almeida would know. It took them eight pilgrimages to the nation's teeming cities and rural hilltop villages - each time crossing 7,800 miles to visit dancers' homes, festivals, artists' studios, restaurants - to uncover the India they would bring stateside.

You need only trek to the Kennedy Center to experience Maximum India, a festival that's a trip to the East at maximum speed. You'll be transported to a street market in bustling Mumbai, a silk shop in Chennai, an airy palace in Rajasthan - all with the Potomac River still in view.

Step inside and see an extended clan of superlative musicians whose performances are one-part performance art, one-part ancient tradition and, somehow, one-part "Hollywood Squares." And a gem exhibition that glitters with millions of dollars worth of diamonds, rubies and gold; a Parisian-reared dancer setting the dance world on fire with her knack for both the contemporary and old world; and marquee authors, hip DJs and famous actresses.

Or simply go to taste, as a high-profile Mumbai chef brings India's lesser-known cuisines to every restaurant in the Kennedy Center - a first for the arts center's annual cultural festivals.

With hundreds of events packed into a scant 21 days, you would need a tour guide to do it all. We've got the scoop on what to see, where to eat and what the festival's participants want you to know about their homeland - Maximum India.


"There's a life beyond tandoori chicken and lamb biryani," says Hemant Oberoi, the reserved executive chef of Mumbai's sumptuous Taj Mahal Palace and Tower, explaining his gastronomic mantra for the festival.

Oberoi, a career chef plucked last year to prepare a seven-course feast for the Obamas in Mumbai (he fondly recalls the conclusion - a sugarcane sorbet), will lead the festival's major culinary component, transforming the Kennedy Center's two eateries into full-fledged Indian restaurants.

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."


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.


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.

"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."

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