Come As You Are: Maximum India

24 Mar

by Priya Chhaya

Suspended from the ceiling
A map filled with arts
Dancing over a wheel, a chakra
Calling for virtue from the people.

And at the crowded, energetic stage
Sounds of Rajasthan flow into the melody of the violin

Embrace the dance styling of Punjabi rhythm
Din. Dinaka. Din Din. Dinaka. Din Din.

The art, the dance, the music, the film
All merge together amidst the written word
Imagining the city, embracing the politics
Tagore debates Gandhi
Margins and Majority on the silver screen

India is more than just the sum of its arts
More than a saffron-colored sari, or an exotic smell
But for a short while there is a glimpse,
An attempt to encompass, to gather, to embrace
India at the Max.
Maximum India.

India Map artwork

Part of the Kaleidoscope exhibition, this map of India comprised of traditional crafts floats above the chakra, a prominent symbol in the Indian flag.

For the last twenty days, I attended a variety of shows at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.  From March 1-20, the festival known as Maximum India strove to reveal India to audiences from a variety of perspectives including art, literature, film, dance, song, and comedy. These performances piece together a vision of complexity and variety.  My mission for the festival was to enjoy as many of the free performances as I could. What I couldn’t attend in person, I streamed the recording at home as a live webcast or watched an archived performance.

At every performance, I kept in mind one essential question, “If this festival is about Maximum India, what India are we seeing?” I believe that an Indian identity cannot be deciphered through words alone. That identity comes from the collective culture across class, geography, and race. Or, as Nayantara Sahgal stated in the last session I attended: “Identity is something you want it to be, not what others decide for you.”

Tiffin Boxes

Tiffin boxes from the Kaleidoscope exhibition.

So, what did I find? I learned that music is a universal language. The rock beats of Raghu Dixit included watching an older couple, dancing cheek to cheek, while waiting to go to the opera. A few yards away, a father and daughter bounced up and down while a smallish mosh pit crowded together near the stage.  During a Rajasthani music performance, where a female dancer moved with tiers of pots upon her head, a little boy crawled over my foot to get a better view.

During a literature panel discussing the depiction of Delhi, Mumbai, and Calcutta in novels, I listened to how authors struggle to portray India beyond the exotic stereotype (spice smelling air and flashes of color). I also visited the exhibit Kaleidoscope: Mapping India’s Crafts.  My experience walking through the exhibit was enhanced by video reels, installed at either end, of an individual navigating through an Indian city. Between the two films, various bicycles were on display holding tiffin boxes, pots, ice machines, and other mainstays of crowded urban markets.

Indian Sari

Two of the 20-30 saris, each either stretched out to view the fabric in its entirety or draped.

As for the other paid performances? I talked to one non-Indian who experienced the Henrik Ibsen play, When We The Dead Awaken, where all lines were read in Manipuri. Even with subtitles, she found it difficult to understand (and screaming of the lines also became a little jarring). I also checked in with my mother who excitedly described her itch to stand up and dance in the back of the theater during the The Manganiyar Seduction where a group of musicians brought in the sounds of the desert while sitting in a series of boxes as high as the theater ceiling. One of my uncles talked about sitting on stage for the maestro Zakir Hussain, and another friend watched in awe as two classical dance forms from different areas of the country came together.

Perhaps that is one of the great things about having festivals such as Maximum India. Even when there is something different for everyone to go to—no two individuals experience the same show in the same way. We all bring our own perspectives to the world around us, and while some may jump up and down at a rock concert, others like to hang back and take in the sounds. The emotional connection that resonates from hearing and seeing is an individual experience.

Stamp art display

From Reena Saini Kallat: Falling Fables. Made out of hundreds of rubber stamps, this pillar represented many of the architectural ruins that are slowly falling apart and disintegrating.

My last event involved listening with rapt attention as the niece of Nehru and award winning author Salman Rushdie talked about religion, politics and the Indian narrative—marking the changes in India since independence—and showing how the nation changes with every generation. The lecture even stepped outside of India talking about the influence of Tagore in South America, and Gandhi in movements on the other side of the world. Their conversations about how the written word equals resistance and that literature and politics go hand in hand in defining the Indian identity, and that perhaps this festival, and all that we write about it can continue to explore India to the max.

One final note, as I write this from home, I am listening to Panjabi MC (on the webcast) close out the festival. As the song winds down with familiar tones from his 2002 hit with rapper Jay-Z, he calls out over a crowded room for hands to be raised in the air like a pair of drummers hammer out a beat: Din. Dinaka. Din Din. Dinaka. Din Din. I can see that even as this festival becomes a memory—mixing all the conversations I’ve had and images I’ve seen—this festival was also, above all else, a whole lot of fun.

Priya Chhaya is a public historian that works with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She sees history wherever she goes and believes that it is an important part of the American (and Indian American) identity.


Posted by on March 24, 2011 in Culture, Entertainment, Identity


4 responses to “Come As You Are: Maximum India

  1. vs

    March 25, 2011 at 7:13 am

    As a volunteeer at the festival and a child of 1965 immigrants, it was an interesting experience. On the one hand the festival was amazing because the last major event was 25 years ago by SI on the Mall, and the KC showcased new/old, urban/rural, etc. parts of India. My family would have been embarrassed by how many questions I couldn’t answer about Hindu mythology (I’m not Hindu), but I did enjoy explaining swaraj to the swarms of school groups on spring break from IL/TX/NE.

    But here’s the rub; most of the festival was focused on India, *not* the diaspora or immigrant experience (again, for the most part). There were some notable exceptions (Ragmala, Dakshina and some of the DJ/MC performances). If major efforts like these use only antiquated notions of “India” under a museum display case, then perhaps KC’s effort of international understanding falls a bit short or needs updating. Or maybe no one shows up en masse for a 3-week festival on diaspora/immigrants (sorry HomeSpun!).

    I was surprised by how KC staff and Friends of the KC would say “It’s so great to have your people here…” It’s a comment that is well intentioned as most of us of South Asian heritage know, but as previously discussed on HomeSpun, is a variation on the “Where are you from” question. Maybe I’m too sensitive to the term “your people,” but we live in a country where it took a long time for Fighting Irish to be an acceptable term for most and many Americans raise a pint on St. Patrick’s Day, so I think that future festivals like Maximum India and the HomeSpun project can speed things up for the US South Asian community.

    PS: I know the food was overpriced and not that great, but I still enjoyed it on my breaks because the view was great.

  2. Priya C.

    March 28, 2011 at 2:33 pm

    VS. Thanks for the response. Those are all really good points. I think brainstorming on what a festival focusing on the Indian American diaspora would make an great conversation. Part of that discussion would be, of course, asking ourselves what constitutes the culture of the diaspora–is it just the replication of traditions from India here in the US or the reinvention of those traditions to fit within the “American” way of life, or something else entirely.

    I think one of the things the KC did do well, was acknowledge through some of the more rock/modern performances that modern India looks a lot different from the India of our parents generation. That while traditional folk dance and music does exist it lives hand in hand with Raghu Dixit and Panjabi MC. That talking about India today includes looking at influences that flow west to east as well.

  3. vs

    March 28, 2011 at 7:56 pm

    Priya, I think your flow point is a good one and has occurred in both directions for a long time, historically speaking. One of my favorite movie lines of all time comes from Bend it Like Beckham where the wife of a Bombay businessman tells the UK South Asians that they don’t know India because they haven’t been there for decades.

    In terms of what a diaspora festival could look like (hint hint SI Folklife Festival…), you could compare Hindu rituals practiced in the diaspora outposts (Fiji, East Africa & the Caribbean to India and the U.S.). This shows how difficult it is to say “Oh, that isn’t part of the tradition anymore.” These rituals are just an example, you could substitute any number of South Asian cultural rituals/traditions exported overseas.


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