"I can't boil an egg or make a cup of tea. My hands are a useless part of me," says Pupul Jayakar as she settles deep into a chair in the front room of the Indian Embassy on Macomb Street. "I used to do some painting at one time. Horrible stuff," she laughs.

It is a remarkable confession from the woman, once cultural adviser to the late Indira Gandhi and today a leading figure in the renaissance of Indian hand looms and handicraft. She is chairman of the Festival of India, the extraordinary celebration of Indian culture that will bring national art treasures, artists, craftsmen and performers to museums and centers of culture across the United States, opening with an exhibition of Indian sculptures dating from 3000 B.C. to A.D. 1300 at the National Gallery of Art in May.

"I'll tell you one thing about myself," says Jayakar, 70, clearly surprised that she is offering this revelation. "I went totally blind for 10 days. When you go through an experience like that, you come through with a new perception of life."

It happened at age 27, when she was pregnant. "I discovered that blindness is not blackness but explosions of color, the like of which one does not otherwise know. Whatever I understand about art was born then," she says quietly, then she lifts her head and smiles. "Now you have made me really talk."

Mostly Pupul Jayakar likes to talk about the forthcoming festival and its forerunner, the Festival of India in 1982 in Britain. Many believe it was those exhibitions of sculpture, Mughal art, contemporary paintings, crafts, textiles and costumes that prompted the focus on India in British films and television. The expanded American version of the festival, developed in conversations between President Reagan and Prime Minister Gandhi during her state visit here in June 1982, may be the largest cultural program of its kind, with exhibits, concerts and lectures in more than 40 cities in 27 states over 18 months.

"I think of two streams running parallel -- at some point they should meet," says Jayakar. "And I think the Western stream and the Indian stream have been running parallel thousands of years. You could say the Indian mind is worlds apart from the Western mind, but an Indian mind and a Western mind can come very close . . .

"It is only when a thing is done for itself and it is received in the same spirit that you will get a culture that will be a human culture. You can have forms done in the West which may not resemble the forms of India, but it won't matter. The eye has to be cleansed and the brain has to be cleansed and the heart has to be cleansed, devoid of divisions."

Many of the oldest pieces have never before left the country. Huge sculptures dating from 3000 B.C. will travel great distances by cart from archeological museum sites and temples. A vast collection of Indian paintings and sculpture will open at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York next fall, and lavish court costumes of the last 200 years, as well as jeweled objects and fabrics and embroideries and carpets of Mughal India, will be displayed in the next Costume Institute show at the Met.

The nearby Cooper-Hewitt Museum will exhibit the joint efforts of international artists and designers -- among them, architects I.M. Pei and Philip Johnson, textile designer Jack Lenor Larsen, furniture designer Ettore Sottsass, sculptor Isam Noguchi -- and Indian craftsmen.

"The Indian craftsman is not a mechanical turner-outer of objects," says Jayakar. "Each great one is a creator, and he can work in collaboration with another person . . . Whatever the designers do, it will be the interpretation of the Indian craftsman in between."

In her conversation the words "traditional" and "contemporary" disappear. "I never talk about India of the past and India of today," she says. "India today contains India of the past. I don't think there are two separate things. I think it is a travesty to regard them as two separate things. That which is available today is the India of today."

The Festival of India, which is expected to cost $12 million, has not been diminished by Gandhi's death. "I think Indians will be all the more anxious to have the festival a success because of Indira Gandhi's great interest in it," said Indian Ambassador K. Shankar Bajpai recently. Rajiv Gandhi, who represented his mother at the closing of the exhibition in London and has succeeded her as prime minister, will come to Washington in June for the inaugural concert, which will feature Indian master musicians Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar at the Kennedy Center.

After the British exhibition, Jayakar wrote: "To organize a festival is to float oil lamps in tiny boats on a river; for an instant to illumine the ripples on the water and the rapt faces of those that participate in the launching; to awaken sound, color, mood, flavor, fragrance and laughter; to set before the mirror of attention times past and time present; and, when the festival ends, to disappear, like the boats, into the night. Festivals, like all celebrations, are fantasy."

When she was 10 years old, Pupul Jayakar's father gave her money to buy herself a present. She bought a sculpture, the head of a Buddha. "I still have it. It was very cheap in those days . . . and very good," she recalls.

Her father was a civil servant, one of the first Indians to serve at a time when most of the civil service was British. She was brought up in the United Provinces, now called Uttar Pradesh, the biggest state in India, adjoining New Delhi.

"We had an Irish governess since I was 2," she says. "So we learned all about the kings and queens of England and all their peccadilloes before I learned anything about India. She would take us for walks -- I learned a lot of what I know about nature from her in those days."

Her father was deeply religious, but she remembers no ritual at home, but rather a strange mixture of secular religions. She didn't read the Bhagavad-Gita, the sacred text of Hinduism, until she was 22.

Son and four daughters were brought up exactly alike. "We [daughters] were only forbidden two things: forbidden to knit and forbidden to go into the kitchen, because those were the two things associated with women in those days. So we grew up with no sense of being different. The sense of fighting and the liberation movement for women has never been part of my consciousness. I never felt it. It has been true all through my life, and I have worked for over 35 -- no, 40, no, 45 -- years."

She stops, shakes her head and adds quickly, "Save once." She had come back from England, where she had trained as a journalist, and applied for a job at The Times of India. "There was a British editor. He looked at me and said, 'You are better educated than all of my people here, but I can't take you on my staff because you are a woman.' "

From that day, says Jayakar, "I made up my mind that I would never earn a living. I decided that I would do social work and never get a job. I was really angry." Fortunately her husband, who died in 1972, was very successful in the cement business. "He earned enough for me to be able to do what I wanted."

The subject is important to her, but she speaks without anger. "Mahatma Gandhi [the father of the Indian nation] and Jawaharlal Nehru [India's first prime minister] did more for women than anyone in the world, putting them alongside men with no difference."

She got caught up in "the other aspect of Gandhi," living in villages and encouraging the self-sufficiency of the village economy. She committed herself to his emphasis on cottage industries, a policy that has survived along with industrialization because of government support of the hand-loom and handicraft sector.

This may be why she dwells on the craft aspects of the exposition. There is a plan, for example, for an exhibit at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History called "Aditi," which will deal with the cycle of life in a village, from the rite of passage of a young child in a rural setting through his growing up, and how crafts become part of the Indian family life. Poets, puppeteers, mimes, acrobats and bards will participate.

Jayakar has written on the arts, including a major work on the ritual arts of rural India published about five years ago, and is midway through a biography of a great friend, J. Krishnamurti, whom she says "has one of the greatest minds I think in India -- in the world today." A philosopher with a huge following in America, "he has had the greatest influence on my life," she says.

She coauthored the catalogue introduction for a Museum of Modern Art exhibition of textile and ornamental arts in 1955 and once wrote a book on the Buddha for her daughter, who was then 10 years old. "It lay around, and when these publishers wanted something from me I gave it to them two or three years ago and it sold out. I haven't the time to revise it and bring out a second edition."

Her daughter, Radhika Herzberger, now 45, graduated from Bryn Mawr and is married to an American professor at Princeton. She has an advanced degree in Sanskrit, and because she feels strongly her "duty" to India, the couple spends six months a year there, where she runs an education center.

Says Jayakar quietly, "India is a complex country with many problems, many pressures. And yet at the base is a tremendous common sense and deep religious feeling, a sanity which gives it the stability."

For her, the assassination of Mrs. Gandhi was the death of a patron and a great friend. "In the middle of all of her crises, which would crush any human being, she had time for the arts and wanted to know everything in detail about what was happening with the festival. She felt strongly about things, about nature, ecology. When there was a problem of 100 trees being cut . . . the only thing that could save them was to go straight to the prime minister in spite of Punjab exploding on one hand or something else happening on the other . . ."

The sentence trails off, but it is clear the trees were saved.

Pupul Jayakar's fears, like her hopes, are never modest.

"I have felt this for many years," she says. "There has to be a return to a new use of the senses, a great tactile feeling for nature and for the Earth, for people, and a critical self-examination as the basis for awareness. Unless the world and human beings start thinking this way, the only thing that faces us is catastrophe and annihilation."

With Marthand Singh, a brilliant young textile and costume specialist and former curator at the Calico Museum in Ahmenebad, Jayakar has set up a new institution, the National Trust for Cultural Heritage. Its goals are the preservation of monuments, the continuation of disappearing skills and traditions and the conservation of the environment.

"I'm feeling that unless human beings today start thinking in staggering proportions," she starts, then begins again, ". . . People say this festival has become so big . . . If I started to think of it as so big I would start collapsing under the weight of it. But I take it one thing at a time, and then it ceases to be big.

"Nothing is too great, no project insurmountable."

And so the first project of the National Trust is no less monumental a task than the cleaning of the "Ganga," as Jayakar calls the Ganges River. "At Benares, between the Varna and Nasi rivers, the river gets polluted a thousand times . . . We are going to tackle it and get it clean."

She thinks this may be symbolic. But she probably will get it done.