The arts of India have been on display in this city's museums much of the summer. Last night they took up residence on stage, as the India Festival of Music and Dance opened a week's run at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater.
India's richness in the arts is the result of historical and regional diversity. On stage it's impossible to be as representative as in gallery exhibitions, but the producers of this festival have labored valiantly and foolishly. What was born at the Eisenhower is part concert, part lecture-demonstration. The material is often fascinating, the performances are skilled and some are even flamboyant, but the sum total is antitheatrical. Staging and miking are cumbersome, too much of the narration is impersonal and offstage, and because the different ensembles are treated so equally, there's no climax.
Alone worth the price of admission, though, is Malavika Sarukkai. To see her dance and mime is like watching an impish goddess at play. Each sharp foot tap, every cushioned bounce into the air comes as a surprise. Yet the quality of the movement is clear and its dynamics are continuous as befits the classical Bharata Natyam style in which she was trained.
Pandit Birju Maharaj is a bit pompous. He's very obviously the guru of the Kathak Kendra company and involves himself in everything -- dancing, chanting, explaining, directing. His group choreography looks more show biz than authentic, not due to the "turns and tap" step material but because he synchronizes and uses space in a way that transforms his dancers into a chorus line. All these things are forgiven when one watches his footwork. The man's feet can pound the floor as if they were metal hammers, or they can caress the stage as if it were sweet flesh.
Raja and Rhada Reddy are passionate performers who experiment. In their Kuchipudi suite they develop snaking motions, tapping steps and knee turns to what seems beyond the traditional, but it is the statuesque pose that they really relish. Sometimes these poses create the impression of living statues; there is a vital tension though the bodies are perfectly still. At other times, the results are tense, acrobatic, a bit grotesque.
The Kerala Kalamandalam, a Kathakali troupe, performs mime plays with faces in elaborate makeup and masks, bodies in sumptuous costumes. Because their facial expressions are subtle but their gestures are crude, they tell their stories simultaneously in two different ways.
The musicians, too, are visual performers. The Rajasthani Folk Singers' "castanet" player has a juggler's movements. The percussion ensemble seems to meditate. As with the dancing, the music is of different styles, but don't try to get at the essence of each. On this program it's the performers that dominate, despite their different "schools" and the poor presentation. Perhaps what makes these arts recognizably Indian is their refusal to separate the spiritual from technique and the senses.