Change, transformation, birth and rebirth.
A statue, a painting, a shrine come to life.
An ancient earth goddess, struggling out of the primeval clay.
Demon and god, linga and yoni, evil and good, all parts of one.
Art and life, everyday and holiday.
A tale told by pictures on a scroll and puppets pulled by string; a tale danced, recited, drawn on glass, carved on a wall, traced on a floor, molded into terra cotta, pressed into papier-ma che', cast in bronze.
Aditi as an exhibition and an entertainment, opening today through July 28, will celebrate life as surely the most popular and certainly the most exuberant part of the yearlong Festival of India.
The sheer size of the show is overwhelming, taking up most of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History Constitution Avenue floor. Richard Fiske, the museum director, says it's the museum's largest ever. After "Aditi" closed in London in 1982, 1,200 objects were sent to the Smithsonian to be stored for today's show. The Smithsonian expected 80 boxes more -- 237 came. On Sunday, boxes were still coming. Workers spent all Sunday night and yesterday morning finishing the mammoth installation.
Installed as though they were themselves objects are one Mogul miniaturist, a tie-dyer, a weaver, a sculptor, a juggler, a toy maker, two magicians, two animal/human impersonators, three puppeteers, four dancers, four acrobats, four balladeers and dancers, six painters and eight musicians.
Previewing the exhibition yesterday with M.N. Deshpande, the retired director general of the Indian archeological survey, who served as consultant to the exhibit, was like being transported with one's guru through a village. All the experience of the exhibition lacks is a seat on the back of a bejeweled, beflowered, umbrella-covered and costumed magic elephant. But the embroidered and ornamented cloth-stuffed elephants are not ready to oblige.
India has been thought of as a country of rigid distinctions and castes, a land of fabled princes in fabulous palaces and miserable populaces in unbelievable poverty.
But India's unparalleled crafts workers, perhaps the best and most diverse in the world, make no distinction between a statue of a god and a plaything for a child. An ephemeral painting in henna on the hand of a bride, lasting at most two weeks, is as intricately worked as the design for a silver bracelet.
Everything is decorated. If you can't afford marble, have a god made of grass. If your means don't run to elaborate bas-reliefs on the walls, a painted wall can be as decorative.
Color is the major means for the Indian crafts worker. Great anthills of powdered dye are piled up in the marketplaces. The colors are so strong that a pinch would be enough for more cautious cultures. The patience of the workers is a national natural resource beyond compare. In Aditi, the tie-dyer spends hours sewing minute designs. The miniaturist uses a brush almost too thin to be seen. To paint gilded pictures you have to look through a magnifying glass.
The Indian practice of apprenticeship, the handing down of forms, patterns and techniques, each with its lore, each with its great story, is perhaps the key to why India, more than almost any other country, can boast a continuing tradition, a transmigration of culture, a cycle of rebirth, a reincarnation of genius.
For instance, in Padukottaj in Tamil Nadu, 2,000 terra-cotta horses, some 10 feet high, have stood in one place above ground for at least 300 years. A few stand guard on a wall in Aditi, while in another curve, potter M. Palaniappan makes another. The horse and warriors are much like the Chinese tomb figures that have been recently excavated. But the difference is that India still knows how to make its marvels.
But the very craft can fool the eye. All is not what it seems.
A shrine, with its offerings of stripes of vermilion, a flower, a leaf, a plate of food, is made of great piles of rough rock from the Natural History's Museum's collection.
At a preview, a Smithsonian guard looked at a stripe of white on the floor and said, "What the hell is that?" and tried to rub it out, before realizing it was a painted welcome design. Inside the door, a wizened old man swirled a cloth and turned into a painted woman.
Of the objects, about 700 are from museums, authentically ancient. In general these are in cases, under plastic. The objects standing out, unprotected, are likely to be contemporary manifestations of ancient traditions, very hard to distinguish from the ancient object. In one case, a familiar image of a mother massaging a child with oil is repeated in several versions, made over many centuries.
Some of the objects are indeed survivors from the beginning of civilization. The Harappan, or Indus, civilization goes back beyond 2500 B.C.
The show, which originated with the Year of the Child seven years ago, is organized roughly into the great ages of Indian life: charting the life cycle from puberty to wedding to conception, birth, the child's entertainment and education and then joining the village life of fairs and festival.
The mother goddess, Aditi herself, is represented by a primitive ceramic pot, a bulbous full womb with only rudimentary arms and head, discovered in Madhya Pradesh, dated at 1500 B.C. The male counterpart is a figure made of copper, 2nd millennium B.C., from the Uttar Pradesh region. A terra-cotta mother goddess and child circa A.D. 1 to 100 looks like a creature from some primeval star trek. A male and buffalo figures are terra-cotta lids for pottery burial objects, mid-1st millennium B.C.
Ardhanarishvara, a Shiva figure made in this century, is half bronze, half copper, half woman, half man. "We have many such figures," said Deshpande. "The soul wants to unite with the eternal soul. Always is this cosmic urge to unite."
A fierce bull, Shiva's traditional mount, stood next to his master. Deshpande bent over and peered through the horns at Shiva, while holding the bull's rear. "Very good for virility," he said.
Real people, gowned in the glittering gold of a wedding procession, stand waiting for the visitors under marvelous columns and traditional terra-cotta roofs.
A wedding night chamber of a prince, hung with a tent embroidered with gold threads and lavished with rugs, is set beside a papier-ma che' three-quarter-scale model of a villager's wedding night hut. The poorer couple would still have wonderful paintings on the wall, some revealing the secrets of love. Rolling lamps with a gyroscope always stay upright while the shade with its cutouts of amorous adventures seems to move as it rolls. A huge papier-ma che' bridal party stands nearby.
The importance Indians attach to their children is remarkable when one considers the overpopulation and underdevelopment of every resource but the people. Colorful swings, elaborate mobiles of cotton birds and other delights must make the babies feel welcome indeed. Many objects are made by the parents themselves, but the bazaars are full of enticements. Indian toys of metal and wood, carriages, chariots, and fabulous animals are far too good for the average child. During the year, the children pull and play with them, and then, at holiday time, decorate them, fill them with offerings and dedicate them to the gods.
These toys, along with the entertainments, are ways, as Deshpande pointed out, to educate the child informally. In one gallery, a storyteller chants the great myths and stories, which help teach manners and morals, and unrolls a scroll as he goes. Two puppeteers tell a tale of two argumentative women, while their puppets perform.
Though Aditi was conceived by Rajeev Sethi in New Delhi, and reborn in London, it is in the spirit of the 18-year-old Smithsonian Folklife Festival. S. Dillon Ripley, then Smithsonian secretary, said in 1973 that the Smithsonian is a "preserver and conservator of living cultural forms . . . not a razzle-dazzler or a vaudeville show, but a demonstration of the vitality of cultural roots."
"Aditi is the outside of the inside and the inside of the outside," Ripley said yesterday as chairman of the American National Committee for the Festival of India, of which Aditi is a part. When the Folklife Festival begins outside on June 26-30 and July 3-7, the exhibition will flow from museum to Mall and back again.
Aditi is, as the "Hymn to the Cosmic Gods" says:
"All that has been born and shall be."