ADITI: A CELEBRATION OF LIFE" at the Natural History Museum is a living exhibit in a red mud hut, a maze of impressions of India.
Rooms overflow with the excitement of the marketplace and 1,500 "things," ranging from humble household goods, to objets d'art, to items that are both. Costumed performers sitting in the corners suddenly come alive like fantasy figures in Disney World.
The title is Aditi, the Sanskrit word for creative power and the name of an ancient goddess, mother of all the gods on earth. But the theme is the cycle of life and its stages according to Indian belief -- among them, fertility, marriage, childbirth and learning.
Colorfully dressed as a slouch-back horse, a man pounces about on bare feet to a drumbeat. He is part of a family troupe of snake charmers who could not import their snakes for "Aditi." Instead, they will be charming visitors with dances that are usually part of wedding festivities.
The "play horse" dance is performed in Rajasthan, which borders Pakistan. It expresses the dominance of the groom's family: They, after all, have furnished the nuptial chamber. Here, a nawab's darkened nuptial chamber from the 19th century is sumptuously outfitted in pillows and decorated in red, the auspicious bridal color. The bride contributes her dowry -- represented here by cooking vessels, lovely cosmetic chests and ceramic jars, also from the 19th century.
The bride's home is decorated with wall paintings by female relatives and friends. To demonstrate, painters here squat before the mock mud walls of the galleries, carefully stroking white paint onto concentric circles of dancing bodies in the wheel of life. Expressing the creativity of Aditi, there are also potters here, and a miniatures carver, a grass weaver, a tie-dyer and a sculptor who works in papier mache.
In a "hut," a woman dips her index finger into a bowl of henna, then drapes the spittle of dye onto her other hand -- slowly weaving webwork onto her palm. In India, women and girls decorate their hands like this for weddings.
A joyful noise comes from the next room, where a quartet of Langa musicians is warming up. Like many of the other performers here, in India they are hired for special occasions. In a gallery full of old and new cradles and mobiles ingeniously made, the musicians rejoice about the birth of a child. Wriggling snake-like to the music, a young boy plays the kartal, which is something like a pair of castanets, and outdoes his older brother. Two men play the saringi, which is like a guitar. Visitors crowd around to watch their raucous singing. Through an interpreter, one of the saringi players explains that this is a lullabye.
Itinerant jugglers, acrobats, puppeteers, balladeers and magicians wander here, as well as two impersonators, actors likely to lurk in a darkened corner and start chanting at you. One bahrupiya (man with many forms) dresses as the great god Shiva, in dreadlocks and animal skin clothes. With a scarf dividing his face, another bahrupiya is half old man, half voluptuous woman, heard to complain, "I can't bear my husband, he's an old man who wheezes all the time. That's why I have come to this festival -- to get away from him and have some fun." Fortunately, interpreters come with this show.
"Aditi: A Celebration of Life" is part of the continuing national Festival of India that, at the end of the month, will spill onto the Mall for the Folklife Festival. Meanwhile, there are also two India photo shows that have opened in the Natural History Museum -- "Rosalind Solomon: India," contemporary photos of Indian festivals; and "Images of India: Photographs by Lala Deen Dayal," views from the 19th century.
ADITI: A CELEBRATION OF LIFE -- At the Natural History Museum, Constitution Avenue entrance, through July 28. Note: Exhibit is open 11 to 5; closed on Wednesdays.
ROSALIND SOLOMON: INDIA -- At the Natural History Museum, second-floor Rotunda balcony, through August 31.
IMAGES OF INDIA: PHOTOGRAPHS BY LALA DEEN DAYAL -- At the Natural History Museum, Discovery Room gallery, through August 31.