Its biggest success may be that it is happening at all.

When Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi attends the formal inauguration of the Festival of India at the Kennedy Center tomorrow night, he will open a massive, unprecedented, $15 million cultural event that will run for 18 months in more than 80 American cities. In museums, concert halls and colleges across the country, people will be able to see Indian painting, jewelry, pottery, films, court costumes, sculpture, bronze, gold, kite makers, garland makers, singers, jugglers and magicians. Beginning with the Kennedy Center performances of Ravi Shankar and a group of Kathakali dancers, Americans are almost certain to experience a great show.

But like all great shows, there is a complicated and emotional production story behind it.

Almost three years in the making, the festival is a story of high expectations and large egos, of jealousies and hurt feelings, and of the still uneasy relationship between the United States and India. It is also about the logistical nightmare of transporting priceless art and village children, who have never even seen New Delhi, from one side of the world to the other.

Last month, the festival chairman, Pupul Jayakar, was shouted down at a meeting in New Delhi and called a "liar" twice before a packed hall. A few weeks before that, three top Indian dancers came to the stage for their standing-room-only concert, and instead of dancing, read aloud a letter protesting that they hadn't been chosen for the festival. Then they walked out.

Meanwhile, down in Madras, India, a court has had to decide if nine bronzes, deemed religious idols, should be sent to the National Gallery of Art in Washington for its current Sculpture of India exhibit. The show opened with potted ferns in their place, but now gallery director J. Carter Brown says four of the bronzes have been sent -- fortunately including the one the gallery had already put on its catalogue cover.

This week, a group of 400 quarry laborers organized by the Janata Opposition Party invaded the marble lobby of New Delhi's luxury-class Taj Mahal Hotel, shouting slogans against spending money on what they said was an extravagant festival abroad when there was so much poverty in India. Although it was unclear if the workers knew the precise details of what they were protesting, they did bring a bear and two monkeys with them and seemed to enjoy the reaction of the guests when they had the animals perform dances in the lobby. Afterward, the protesters took tea in the banquet hall near the swimming pool.

Although the controversies have centered on the festival itself, they have also brought out India's mixed feeling about its sudden fame in America, a country India knows has always viewed it as peripheral. Indian newspapers have been full of reports from their American-based correspondents about the rage for India in the West, but the tone is that of an often-spurned suitor who isn't sure if this unexpected interest will be a short fling or a long-term commitment.

One journal, Mainstream, has gone so far as to call the festival the "Aziz Extravaganza," a reference to Dr. Aziz's overzealous picnic in "A Passage to India" that his guests had no intention of reciprocating -- and which nearly ruined him financially.

"We love controversy," says Jayakar, the beleaguered chairman who has long been considered the queen of culture in India. "We love to argue. We love to have a point of view. I have worked for 45 years, and I have broad shoulders."

Jayakar, and Rajiv Gandhi's government, see the festival as a chance to show off a nation's treasures, and also as a cultural and diplomatic initiative that may help economically and politically.

"There's always been a very intimidating distance between the two countries," says Rajeev Sethi, a Jayakar prote'ge' who created the Aditi exhibit now at the Smithsonian. "If it's not our bloated bellies, it's the maharajahs. Somewhere along the line, we got stuck. What we do not concede are common rhythms, and common concerns."

The festival's nay-sayers include some scholars, a museum director and the opposition in Parliament who have attacked Jayakar for sending so much priceless art to the United States, particularly since the United States sent very little art here in 1984. That was the year that was supposed to have been the "Festival of the U.S. in India" -- the other half of an exchange deal that is not well known in America.

"We do have intentions of sending more things to India," says Ted Tanen, the executive director of the Indo-U.S. subcommission on education and culture in New York. "It's never going to be perfect, it's never going to be on the scale of what they're sending us, but we're doing our best."

Through it all, the advance publicity in America for India and its festival has both delighted and puzzled the people here. In fact, the media snowball effect seems to have been caused by an odd coincidence of events starting with the movie "Gandhi," then followed by Indira Gandhi's assassination and the Bhopal chemical leak last December, and more recently fueled by "A Passage to India" and "The Jewel in the Crown," the popular film and the television series that allowed Americans to luxuriate in the British raj without feeling any of the guilt of the English.

There is also Rajiv Gandhi, Indira Gandhi's son and Jawaharlal Nehru's grandson, who seems to have reminded Americans, long fascinated by the Kennedys, of the romance and passion of Indian dynastic politics.

The festival idea germinated in 1982 when Ronald Reagan and Indira Gandhi signed a communique' in Washington that affirmed "their desire to strengthen cultural, educational and scientific exchange." The years 1984 and 1985 were designated as ones of "special focus." Jayakar, a close friend of Indira Gandhi's, would determine with a committee and a curator what Indian art went to the United States while the Indo-U.S. subcommission would oversee the American art sent to India.

But so far, very little American work has arrived. Conductor Zubin Mehta, who was born in Bombay, and the New York Philharmonic performed here last year, as did the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. There have been some small exhibits and a few seminars as well.

Tanen, the subcommission's executive director, says that one of the problems is money. For the Festival of India in America, the Indians are paying shipping, transportation and insurance costs, about a third of the expected $15 million total. The Americans will pick up the rest in exhibition costs, but even so, some Indians have exasperated the Americans by questioning why one of the poorer countries in the world has had to come up with so much money when they are dealing with one of the richest.

Tanen says that reversing the situation and asking India to pay the expensive exhibition costs for displaying American art would be especially difficult, and that America is not inclined to subsidize. "We are looking at India as an important country in the world," he says. "Yes, they've got a lot of economic problems. So do we. But they can pay their own way in the world."

Indians themselves question how much interest there really is in American culture among the mass of people in their country. As one top government official put it, only half-sarcastically, "if there is in fact a great demand in the villages of Karnataka to see 'Hello, Dolly' -- all right, we'll do it."

Complicating all of this was Laxmi Sihare, the director of New Delhi's national museum and a member of the festival committee. Americans say that he asked for the Brooklyn Museum's collection of Egyptian art, Chinese and Korean art from the Boston Museum and also the recent Picasso retrospective that drew record crowds at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. When officials said they weren't about to send over art that wasn't at all American, Sihare, according to both Indian and American officials, got angry. Considered an excellent museum director who has brought the national museum to new standards, Sihare reportedly has threatened to hold up major shipments. Asked about the controversy, Sihare would only angrily say, "I don't give a damn if the whole world complains about me." Then he hung up the phone.

Things came to a head last month, first at a two-hour debate in Parliament where opposition members criticized Jayakar for sending priceless and fragile art to the United States, then at the public discussion organized by the Indian archeological society, where Jayakar was shouted down and Sihare called her a "liar." He also said that "this concept of exchange has been badly misused, leading to cultural exploitation of many museums and institutions of many countries, reducing them almost to the status of cultural colonies of affluent countries."

In between these outbursts, three dancers staged their protest at New Delhi's Sangeet Natak Akademi, at a performance that was to have been in honor of the great Indian dancer, Balasaraswathi. Instead, they directed themselves to Narayana Menon, the Akademi director and Festival of India committee member who was sitting in the first row. Dancer Sonal Mansingh announced that because they had not been selected, they therefore must be of no quality, so "we do not wish to desecrate the memory of the great Bala by performing."

"I thought it was rather silly of these girls," Menon sniffed afterward. "We can't send everybody. We can't even send everybody who's good."

But somehow, never lost in all of this, has been the festival itself. There was an air of backstage excitement on the lawn of New Delhi's Ashok Hotel last month as some of the performers rehearsed for Aditi, billed as a celebration of the Indian life cycle through its arts and crafts people, as well as Mela, the outdoor folk-life festival to be held on the Mall from June 26 to 30 and July 3 to 7.

Most of the singers, dancers, jugglers and tightrope walkers are from small villages throughout India. Most have never been to New Delhi, let alone Washington. Festival organizers have given them a course in America, including how to stop at street lights, how to sit in a chair, how bread is buttered, and how to say thank you. They will stay in dorms at Georgetown University, where two Indian restaurants will cater their meals.

"Slowly, we are preparing them so they won't be shocked," says organizer Probir Guha, adding that although they lead simple lives in comparison with Americans', "they are not simple people."

Which is part of the message of the festival itself. As Rajeev Sethi says about his Aditi project, "There are things in it that every parent, every girl and boy will recognize. At every point, we're talking about common rhythms."