WASHINGTON. Some of Washington DC's cognoscenti still remember Bundu Khan Langa. With his brilliant smile and colorful safa, the oversized Rajasthani turban, the young folk singer would send titters through the audience, exhorting them to "shiiitt down...shiiitt down," so he could start his performance. Once he began, the crowd on the grassy mall in front of the Capitol would end up spellbound, hushed by the soulful melodies that essayed from then 14-year old genius.
It was an event that made Langas and Manganiars, the Rajasthani desert singers, famous, and unleashed the cultural strength and variety of India on the US and the world five years before the term "soft power" was coined by Harvard University's Joseph Nye. Some 25 years after the great Smithsonian Institution's Festival of India, it is now the turn of Washington's other grand cultural establishment, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, to host an India festival at a time the country and its cultural muscle and depth hardly needs any introduction.
Maximum India, a 20-day cultural extravaganza of Indian soft power, kicks off here on March 1 with scores of artistes set to enthrall a capital where India is now looked on more favourably than ever before. A recent Gallup Poll put India among Canada, Britain, Japan - and ahead of China, and even Israel -- as countries rated favourably by Americans. India's strategic partnership with the US has much to do with it, but underpinning that is a cultural bonding that has come a long way since 1985 when America got a sustained taste of India.
In recent years, Kennedy Center has hosted a China Festival, an African Odyssey and an Arabian extravaganza even as memories of the great Festival of India had begun to fade. Fortunately, New Delhi responded with alacrity to Kennedy Center's initiative to drum up the India beat again. The result is a fiesta that will be brighten up Washington DC's cultural calendar in the fading days of winter. "Maximum India may not be on the same scale as the Festival of India, but it is a major effort to display the creativity, ferment, and dynamism that characterizes Indian arts," India's ambassador to the US Meera Shankar observed while unveiling the program.
Indeed, the 2011 extravaganza, which Kennedy Center and the Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR) have been working on for two years, showcases a whole generation of new artistes, alongside familiar icons such as Zakir Hussain and L.Subramaniam. Piano prodigy Utsav Lal, rock band Parikrama, and the folksy Bollywood singer Kailash Kher are among those who will perform on the prestigious Millennium stage.
Some of the performers will be Indian-Americans who may not be household names in India - jazz saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, who is making waves in U.S and Europe, DC's own ghazal queen Vatsala Mehra, and US bhangra-rap DJ Punjabi MC, make the cut. Kennedy has also reached out to the far corners of India, featuring the acclaimed north-east blues band Soulmate and the Hindi-Kannada rock band Raghu Dixit Project, for American exposure.
Leading names in dance (Alarmel Valli and Madhavi Mudgal performing together; Priyadarshini Govind and the Nrityagram Ensemble; Malavika Sarrukai; Shantala Shivalingappa), theater (the peerless Naseeruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi) and movies (Nandita Das) are featured in the program that is rounded off with taste of India sessions with chefs Hemant Oberoi and Ananda Solomon.
While most of the performances are ticketed (prices range from $10 to $100), there are many free events (on a first-come basis), including those on the millennium stage, which will also be webcast live.