All the way home from the Smithsonian's Aditi festival, kids are singing on the bus, dancing in the aisles, and when finally they reach Georgetown University and start up the steps to their dorms at Henle Student Village, they still chatter and laugh as though they hadn't been working all day.
Two boys race across the grass with kites. A small girl talks to a stranger through her hand puppet. A turbaned musician lets his young son carry the ravanahattha fiddle, which is almost as long as he is. Somewhere a flute softly whistles a meandering melody.
"They're high, is what you would say," remarks Rajeev Sethi of New Delhi, the man who conceived Aditi, a living exhibit of Indian arts. He collected the 40 artists himself from all over the subcontinent, people of many different castes, speaking at least seven different languages, Moslems and Hindus and followers of the ancient tribal religions of the forest.
The first thing they did at the Natural History Museum was build a little shrine ("it's in front of the women's restroom if you want to see it") of stones they found on the Mall. There they gather every morning to celebrate their oneness with each other, and with the people who will be lining up for blocks to see them, and with the stones themselves, for even stones, after all, are fellow members of creation.
"It's amazing, how everyone gets along," says Mark Kenoyer, one of the four staffers on the scene, fluent in Hindi, Urdu and other languages. "We have 10 apartments with about five people in each, and we divided them by caste and put the ladies of one caste together, for instance. But one lady had met a Moslem lady when they were training in Delhi, and they wanted to room together . . . "
In a room shared by several boys -- the group ranges from age 4 to nearly 60 -- an intricate, brilliantly colored painting is propped on a desk, beside neatly stacked art materials.
Outside on the steps a group is cracking coconuts to make up a prasad, a holy offering of food, for the shrine. In Kenoyer's room, people talk quietly with Sethi, who has come to see how they are getting along. He is staying on the Hill.
He introduces Narpat Singh, a tie-dye expert from western India, and Subir Pal, a clay sculptor from Bengal, and Bhaskar Mahapatrah ("his name stands for the sun"), an 11-year-old painter of chariots whose family has decorated them for as long as anyone can remember, and longer.
Squatting on the floor is 58-year-old Chandrakala Devi, "one of the great ladies in painting," married to a railway ticket collector, a woman with many daughters but no real home who tells Sethi that she can paint anytime, anywhere, with any medium. "I wake up with the start of a conception," she says, "and it is carried by the wind. Art walks with me."
Sometimes, he says, translating for her, she talks about the meaning of life with the mendicants at the railway stations, beggars whose heads are covered with ashes. We are all part of a whole, she says.
The halls are suddenly full of barefooted people in robes and bright saris. From a kitchen, specially stocked with Indian cookware and condiments, wafts the dusty, pungent odor of a curry.
"They've talked about the problem of garbage," Kenoyer says. "They discuss things as a group." Meals are catered by two local Indian restaurants, which must cope with the different cuisines of north and south India, not to mention the special needs of Moslems and Hindus, vegetarians and nonvegetarians. "They hate to see food wasted, just shoved down the chute. They can't get used to that. But you can't keep it around to spoil."
Though a few of the visitors speak English and most speak some Hindi, many have never before been outside their villages. So they were given a course in America before coming here.
"I told one guy I met at Trivandrum, at the southern tip of India, that it would take him 24 hours on a plane to reach the United States," says program coordinator Richard Kurin, an anthropologist. "He said that was nothing. It took him five days just to get to Trivandrum."
The group was shown photos of Washington and warned about the hazards of American city life, the noise, the bustle, the traffic. They were instructed in the use of American toilets, for many Indians use the squatting technique common in France, Turkey and some other parts of the world.
"When they saw that we had adapted some toilets in the dorm with a platform built over the commode , they were disappointed. 'We trained so hard for America,' they said."
Kurin spent a week in London before the first Aditi show there in 1982, learning what the problems would be. The early sponsors, evidently expecting experienced travelers, had planned to hand out plane tickets and send them off. "But these are real people. Some are itinerants, so they've seen a lot of India, but most of them have never been outside the country."
Already they have seen something of America: the White House and Mount Vernon (where they didn't like waiting in line), the Kennedy Center, a VCR on which they saw tapes of themselves, the TV sets in the dorm rooms. Before they leave on July 28 they will visit a working farm and see the Air and Space Museum. They learned how to work the coin-operated laundromat on campus and how to take taxis and how to deactivate the air-conditioners, which they find unnatural.
They have also learned about shopping, and a number of them, men and women both, carry about plastic bags from local shops. Another discovery: Among the gifts waiting for them when they arrived at National Airport was a supply of chocolate.
"Some of the girls were very interested in chocolate when we asked them what they wanted," Kurin says. "It's all a wonderful holiday for them. One thing they miss is the chai shops. All over India you can get tea with sugar at these little stands, but here you've got to boil the water and make with the tea bags. They adapt fast. The kids are like sponges, picking up English."
One performer is an impersonator, who mimics characters and speech more or less on the spot. Already he is doing dialogue in English.
Kurin, who is also coordinator for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival's Mela exhibit from India, has watched advance crews of Indian carpenters working with American crews. "The Americans can't believe what those people can do with bamboo and tiles," he says, "and the Indians are fascinated with our nail guns and power drills and other toys. Neither of them will ever be the same again. I don't think the Smithsonian will, either."
Now it is another morning, and the bus has brought them all, the jugglers, weavers, magicians, puppeteers, dancers, singers, acrobats, painters and musicians, to the Natural History Museum, where the lines started forming a half-hour before the doors opened.
Into the staff meeting room the Indians pour, colorful in their robes, carrying their instruments and bowls and mats, sometimes on their heads. The children swarm all over Kurin like kittens, putting on his glasses, prattling with him in Urdu, touching him. The older ones greet him with polite bows, hands together as if in prayer.
Outside on the lawn next to roaring Constitution Avenue, an acrobat troupe sets up a high wire with a casual economy of motion. The supporting ropes are soft and fuzzy with age and the dust of a thousand village squares. A woman in an apple-green sari climbs onto the cable and walks it, balances on one bare, silver-spangled foot, crosses again with a brass bowl on her head. On the grass a small boy and a girl turn handsprings, bend themselves into hoops. Then the girl runs up a rope to the top of a 15-foot pole, lies on a little rack up there and spins herself around and around.
The people who have stopped on the sidewalk, dozens of them, applaud. A father says, "Come on, we got to go get in line." But his children refuse to move, and stand there open-mouthed watching the performers. Some are younger than they are.
At last the smallest boy, who has been working with still-faced concentration, tumbling, contorting his skinny body, moving props here and there, faces the impromptu audience, holds his arms wide as if he were about to make us all disappear, and says, "Fini!" And grins as only a 9-year-old can.