The final curtain to Maximum India Festival
- Dr. Sunil Kothari
Photos courtesy: Maximum India Festival

March 31, 2011
The final curtain came down on 19th March at Eisenhower theatre with complete 'seduction' by 34 Rajasthani Muslim and two Hindu Manganiyar musicians. Yes, we who attended were all 'seduced"! Never had Eisenhower theatre reverberated with such spontaneous applause each time the kartal player, completed a tihai, ending a jugalbandi, a repartee, with drum players, sarangi players and singers, mesmerizing audience with his amazing command over playing kartal (castanets like wooden clipboards). Like a conductor seen in Western orchestra with his back to the audience, this white dhoti and kurta clad musician astounded us with the play of kartals, sometimes cajoling, sometimes flirting with slight murmur, and suddenly bursting forth with thunder, coming pat on the sam, final beat in perfect union with the mustachioed musicians, in their colourful pugrees, seated in lit up in red velvet colour 'cubicles' almost achieving an orgasmic climax!

Roysten Abel, the director, had masterminded this musical extravaganza with captivating visual, converting cleverly 'the red light area' of Amsterdam cubicles, windows of sex workers, into shrines in horizontal nine rows stacking each with four vertical ones, ablaze with lights as we see in green rooms when dancers/actors put makeup on! Bravo!
The Manganiar Seduction
And what to speak of the full throated singing by the musicians, in their voices the feel of the winds blowing over Rajasthani deserts, fantastic' aroha' and 'avaroha', the ascending and descending notes, the play of sarangis, drums, dhols, mukhaveena, and kartals! The Bulle Shah's ballads, the trance like prayers lifting us from mundane existence/level to spiritual ecstasy, blurring caste and religion borders, the songs as outpourings of devotion and for finale, the entire Muslim ensemble of musicians joining in chorus two Hindu musicians singing Meerabai's bhajan "Karshan na darshan (vision of Lord Krishna) charana ma shish jhukayaji" (bowing our heads before Lord Krishna's feet!), the 'emotional atyachar' generating the excitement surge of bhakti, devotion, led one to 'samadhi', trance like state! I had missed this show at Siri Fort Auditorium in New Delhi, when Roysten premiered it for Osiana's film festival three years ago, and last year at Lincoln Centre's Spiritual Music Festival in New York. For me this first encounter with 'The Manganiar Seduction' was a memorable experience.

Over drinks during the party hosted by Alicia Adams and Gilda Alameda, the two indefatigable curators, at Monsoon Club when the Maximum India fest concluded, Roysten told me how the setting of red light area of sex workers had struck him to metamorphose it as an unseen narrative into a visual setting for this group of musicians. Being a theatre director, it haunted him and finally it happened, when finance was provided by Nevile Tully of Osiana, Rajiv Sethi, who has earned the title 'the cultural czar', introduced him to Managniyar musicians, two of them who accompanied him to Segovia in Spain and mesmerized him with their singing round the clock, and he auditioned more than 1,000 Manganiyar musicians of Rajasthan selecting this absolutely outstanding group, he mounted the show which has travelled in various continents, and finally landed up at the Kennedy center's Maximum India fest for the finale! The production has indeed got 'perfected' in terms of faultless cues, lights switching off, focusing on a set of musicians in the lower row, crisscross, on extreme boxes and in the end all ablaze with musicians folding hands to the audience! The showmanship which the production has now acquired indeed adds to the enjoyment and gives an aesthetic delight!

The literary forums saw Nayantara Sahgal and Salman Rushdie in conversation with the celebrated Ahdab Souief ,the Egyptian author, who was at the recent Egyptian uprising every day, regaling a large crowd in the huge Concert Hall. Someone remarked to Salman Rushdie that he appeared like 'a sit-in comedian'. Salman besides his 'asides' with humour and sarcasm spoke of why his Bombay is not the same, even when Mumbai name is from Mumbadevi. The name as forced by the fanatic Shiv Sena smacks of bigotry and intolerance. He spoke of the 'joy of writing,' the 'use of language' and dismissed someone when asked about writing living in Europe, USA. A writer can be anywhere and still write about his country. He came down heavily on film ‘Slumdog Millionaire'and said it was a bad film and when the director Doyle met him, Salman asked him if he had ever been to India? Doyle had told him that he never had been to India, therefore he said why not go to India and make the film. Salman told sarcastically, would anyone who has not been to Somalia, then say, "I have not been there, so let me go and make a film on Somalia!" He was seeing the film with Nandita Das who also had said that what a bad film it was.

Nayantara Sahgal said that there was no question of women not allowed to write in her family as all were in politics. Her relations, all men, were feminists and encouraged her to write. "Jawaharlal Nehru was always busy coming out of the jail and going back to the jail. But I asked him to read my first novel. He did and next day when I asked him over breakfast how he had liked my novel, he said 'Rather dull!'" Nayantara said it was inevitable that her novels and writings reflect political issues as she was in a family which was fighting for independence and it was not possible not to be affected by that. A very riveting session!

One more was 'Celluloid Lives' when Sharmila Tagore spoke of her journey into films. From Satyajit Ray to now, what the term has come to stay into 'Bollywood' films. Girish Karnad took Shudraks' Mrichhakatika play and scene by scene explained how the play fitted into Hindi masala film. In 'Utsav' based on Sanskrit play, in the end, of course, he did not have the courtesan marry the hero, that was the departure from Hindi film. But he said that it is inevitable that the actors playing hero and heroine do fall in love, giving example of Rekha and Amitabh Bacchan and then how the family comes to protect the hero, already married to another woman and then he is never allowed to meet his love. Rekha was left totally alone, never allowed to meet Amitabh. When there was income tax raid on Rekha and she called Girish for help, he went and met her. She was devastated. He sat there for fifteen minutes and did not know how to help her and what to say. He got up and said, "Come tomorrow in the morning. The shooting starts," and left her.

Sadanand Menon was asked to speak on biographies of South Indian actors. He chose to speak on biography of MGR and giving an example of how the fan clubs in South India turn these heroes into demi-gods, to what extent they go berserk, draw tattoos of the heroes on their hands and when party changes, throw acid and burn out those tattoos, run for giving blood donation when their hero needs blood during operation, go in thousands, proving that they are relations by blood. The politics plays such an important role in their lives,that biographies when written about these heroes look like mere caricature! Sadanand's razor sharp observations mixed with humour had audiences in splits. He impressed the large audience with his analytical approach to the subject. It seemed the audience in Washington knew very little about South Indian films, their heroes' lives or of such phenomenon.

Of course after the unprecedented success of the Jaipur Literary Festival, one cannot afford not to include that 'Last Mughal' William Dalrymple. He looks like a Mughal, quite corpulent, dressed impeccably in white 'chiken' Lucknow kurta and a colourful shawl. Reads impressively and when he has that husky beauty Vidya Shah accompanying his readings, complementing with exquisite thumris and ghazals in her hauntingly melodious voice the audiences cry out, "Wah!Wah!!" The duo does a perfect job and audiences want Vidya Shah to sing more! It was a befitting evening at Monsoon Club; though there was not the throne for William Dalrymple, he evoked the grandeur and tragedy of The Last Mughal through his readings!!

A festival of this dimension and I have not mentioned the crafts, the installations, the political speech Mahatma Gandhi gave before Salt Satyagraha, mounted on huge boards like walls, in bone shaped letters by Jitish Kallat 'Public Notice 2'', Reena Saini Kallat's ‘Falling Fables,' architectural ruins in form of huge pillar-column made of rubber stamps with addresses of the ruins, the staggering variety of crafts on a caravan of cycles, the dazzling diamonds, Jatin Das's collection of fans, though neither Jatin nor I approved of its display in the cages, the exquisite saris, displayed by our 'one and only' Martand Singh, spread like on ghats of Benaras, and draped on mannequins, only one contemporary choreographic 'Sarpagati 'work by dancer Daksha Sheth, imaginative life size puppets by Dadi Pudumjee, and I can go on and on....

Vatsala Mehra, Washington based ghazal singer regaled the audiences at Eisenhower Auditorium with her chosen few ghazals songs, Sufi songs in her silky voice winning a large faithful audience of hers who gave her a standing ovation. Vatsala had recently performed in New Delhi and with her attractive stage presence, captivating ada, graceful gestures complimenting the mood of the ghazals, she won rounds of applause. The curators of the festival had included three to four Indian Diaspora artists as a policy to make the festival inclusive, and taken into account that the Indian Diaspora artists are a part of Maximum India.

Now the TWO glaring major omissions: of all the classical dance forms, absence of Kathak, classical Hindustani and Carnatic vocal music, and no interaction with the Washington based people, authors, musicians, painters, actors, not one reception by the Kennedy Center and Indian Embassy. The opening gala was OK but certainly I did not approve of Zakir Hussain giving solo tabla recital and Madhavi Mudgal and Alarmel Valli dancing before audience seated in groups over dinner table - of course no drinks nor food was served, but did not look proper. I do not think any American musician/dancer would have agreed to perform like that - Gala or no Gala!!.

Yes, I agree, in such a mammoth festival something or the other would be missing. But India is known for hospitality and on that ground Maximum India did not make artists, who made the Maximum India, feel happy. And I still marvel at complete absence of any media coverage by any Indian correspondent even when all our major newspapers have their correspondents in Washington. I was on my own not sponsored by the Kennedy Center, nor by ICCR, nor by any newspaper! And I think The Financial Express is the only newspaper which has covered the Maximum India! Jai Ho!

We shall see now when ICCR decides to hold 'Awesome America !!' how they will 'wow' the Americans and the rest of the people in India.

Dr. Sunil Kothari, dance historian, scholar, author, is a renowned dance critic, having written for The Times of India group of publications for more than 40 years. He is a regular contributor to Dance Magazine, New York. Dr. Kothari is a globetrotter, attending several national, international dance conferences and dance festivals. He has to his credit more than 14 definitive works on Indian classical dance forms. Kothari was a Fulbright Professor and has taught at the Dance Department, New York University; has lectured at several Universities in USA, UK, France, Australia, Indonesia and Japan. He has been Vice President of World Dance Alliance Asia Pacific (2000-2008) and is Vice President of World Dance Alliance Asia Pacific India chapter, based in New Delhi. A regular contributor to, Dr Kothari is honored by the President of India with the civil honor of Padma Shri and Sangeet Natak Akademi award. He recently received the Senior Critic award from Dance Critics Association, NYC.