With the high-pitched, metallic sounds of a sitar in the background and the scent of curry in the air, some 1,200 members of the Washington area's Indian community gathered at Wheaton High School this weekend for a program commemorating the 29th anniversary of the Indian Republic.

The Republic day ceremonies, held each year on Jan. 26 in India, have become the occasion for a cultural exchange between the members of the Indian community here, who come from several different regions and represent a diversity of languages, cultures and customs.

At present about 10,000 persons of Indian descent live in the Washington area, according to James Prasada Rao, who heads one of several Indian Groups here.

About 3,000 of the Indians in the area live in Takoma Park and Silver Spring, he said, in part because the national headquarters of the Seventh Day Adventist Church is located in that area. The church runs a college near Bombay.

Jawahar Kalsi, the master of ceremonies for the Saturday program, made India's diversity the focal point of his remarks, while Indian Ambassador Nani A. Palkhavala took the occasion to give the Indians here a report on economic development in their homeland.

Except for the signing, the entire program was conducted in English. "At a function where there are all Indians, we have to use English or else the people wouldn't understand each other," said one of the program's organizers.

There are 16 major languages spoken in India, and hundreds of dialects.

A large part of the audience at the weekend ceremony was children -- which pleased the program's organizers. "The children go to school here and learn about American society. They don't know about India and how India fought for its independence.

"We can't take them to India, but they can get a glimpse of India here," said Ashok Batra, one of the program's organizers.

On Jan. 26, 1950, the new constitution of the world's second largest country was passed into law by India's Constituent assembly. With that act, India became an independent country after centuries of sometimes bloody strife as a colony of the British Empire.

The Indian population in the metropolitan area has been rising steadily since the U.S. government lifted its quotas on Asian immigration in 1969.

Rao said that when his family began to settle here one by one in the early 1960s there were very few Indian families in the area. "There were 50 or 20 families in Takoma Park and Silver Spring," he said.

But now there are 32 different Indian associations in the area. Most represent different regions or languages spoken in India. There also are movie theaters in Takoma Park and Rosslyn that show Indian movies on weekends, and the members of the Indian community here publish their own newspaper, The Indian Express.

Saturday's program was sponsored by the Indian Cultural Coordination Committee, Inc.