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Monday, March 07, 2011

MAXIMUM INDIA at the Kennedy Center - an overview

I first heard about the Maximum India series a month ago from a post by a friend on Facebook.

It figures that this is how I would run across one of the most spectacular Indian music and arts showcases I've ever seen in one place. It's quite possibly the biggest festival in US history to celebrate Indian Culture (Except one in California recently?)

News of this festival took a while to reach Richmond, but I’ve been doing all I can to spread the word. (the Mothership has landed)

I'm a huge fan of Indian cinema, and have been for years. But Bollywood films are all so different in the way they represent Indian culture. The best way to learn, as many will tell you themselves, is to visit India. This is not an easy trip to make, so we're incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to experience some of the highlights of Indian culture here in DC.

The Indian Center for Cultural Relations in New Delhi , and the Embassy of India in Washington DC and many other private, independent and corporate sponsors have made this all possible.

I play Indian music regularly on my radio show. The monthly Bollywood Dance nights we do here in Richmond have had me focused on the Indian continent for years.

You can learn a lot from watching popular Indian films, but they don’t give you the full picture, so I'm always looking to expand my perspective.

I can't put into words why I find the traditions of India so important.

Their hundreds of languages, their countless forms of dance, music, poetry, art, and ways of life ~ so incredibly beautiful and unique.

India (and many other surrounding areas of South Asia) have so many beautiful cultural traditions - it makes sense to me that the Kennedy Center is finally devoting their schedule to India. Why pay attention to compass points when you're looking for inspiration? This festival gives us a rare chance to learn more about India's rich culture.

Browsing through the schedule, I was excited to see three full weeks of performances scheduled (March 1-20). So I bought tickets to three events immediately, and have added others to my schedule since then! The trip to DC takes about two hours by car, but this is a rare opportunity. Some of these artists come from as close to home as DC and New York.

It's great that the festival includes artists like Suphala (NYC) DJ Rekha (NYC - who also performs regularly at DC's Black Cat), Punjabi MC (UK) and Vatsala Mehra(DC).

Several directors will be appearing: Naseerudin Shah, Kiran Rao (her film 'Dhobi Ghat', released this year, will be screening at the festival on March 19th!); and three legendary actresses: Shabana Azmi, Nandita Das and Sharmila Tagore.

(Naseerudin Shah and Shabana Azmi)

Nandita Das will lead a talk entitled "Bollywood and Beyond", and Shabana Azmi and Sharmila Tagore will be taking part in another discussion, 'Portrayal of Indian Women in Film'.

Sharmila Tagore will be at the Kennedy Center on the 19th for Q&A before a screening of one of her early films, "Devi" (the Goddess) which was released in 1960. 'Devi' was not only one of Sharmila Tagore's first roles in Indian cinema, but was also quite controversial at the time it was released. Directed by Satyajit Ray, Devi was based on the short story 'Devi' by Prabhat Kumar Mukherjee.


From Satyajit Ray's website:
"The film generated some controversy on its release in India. It was seen as an attack on Hinduism itself by a few protesters, who tried to prevent the film's international release. However, the film was eventually released and went on to receive a government award, the President's Gold Medal. The teen-aged Sharmila Tagore gives an outstanding performance in the title role. She commented a few years later, "Devi was what a genius got out of me, not something I did myself"

I have watched dozens of Sharmila Tagore's films from her many years in Indian Cinema. She played so many different roles, from pious, to playful, to outright scandalous. To have a chance to see her in person speaking about one of her earliest films is a rare, once in a lifetime opportunity for people who know her films. (more about Sharmila Tagore on Wikipedia)

Shabana Azmi is another one of Indian Cinema's great legends. Possibly her greatest achievements in Indian cinema come from her involvement with groundbreaking films from India's "parallel cinema" genre of the 1970s. Shabana Azmi acted in Shyam Benegal's directorial debut Ankur and many of his other films, as well as countless others by talented and daring Indian directors. These films pushed the boundaries in ways that more mainstream popular "Bollywood" films never dared. Shabana Azmi's performances have always been riveting, and believably "real".. and at the same time graceful, and subtle. Along with other actresses like the late great Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi broke the mold for women in Indian Cinema, and acted in roles that defied cultural taboo and expressed deep emotional and political messages. Shabana Azmi starred in "Deepa Mehta’s 1996 film Fire" which "depicts her as a lonely woman, Radha, in love with her sister-in-law. The on-screen depiction of lesbianism (perhaps the first in Indian cinema) drew severe protests and threats from many social groups as well as by the Indian authorities." (from wikipedia)

"Regarded as one of the finest actresses in India, Azmi's performances in films in a variety of genres have generally earned her praise and awards, which include a record of five wins of the National Film Award for Best Actress and several international honours" (from wikipedia) (Shabana Azmi will also be performing live in a theatre performance, 'Broken Images')

I've always hoped that a festival would come along that would bring together film, music, dance, and visual art from India.

Another highlight of the schedule for the Kennedy Center's Maximum India series was Ustad Zakir Hussain's World premiere of "Concerto for Four Soloists" which was performed three nights in a row, March 3-5th. I attended the March 5th performance this past Friday. Written by the brilliant tabla master and world music pioneer himself, this epic piece was performed with the full National Symphony Orchestra. Two of the soloists are singers that I am familiar with from Bollywood Soundtracks - Shankar Mahadevan (of Shankar Eshan Loy - who have performed such Bollywood Favorites as "Koi Kahe" and countless others), and Hariharan, a very popular Indian playback singer, as well as "one of the foremost Indian ghazal singers and composers". The third singer, Kelley O'Connor was new to me, but her heavenly Mezzo Soprano voice is world famous. (The evening's program also featured the National Symphony Orchestra's first ever performance of Rousell's 'Padmavati" - a piece written by the French composer that was inspired by a trip he took with his wife to India in 1909.)

Friday night also gave me a chance to attend a free performance (one of many scheduled each day) of one of India's most popular singers in recent years - Kailash Kher (who I also play frequently on my radio show)

Saturday, March 6th, I made another trip (2 in one weekend) to see a performance by the Nrityagram Dance group with Surupa Sen, Pavithra Reddy, and Bijayini Sathpathy. Nrityagram is one of the worlds finest dance groups who perform in the ancient Odissi style, developing new pieces every year based on this age-old tradition with new and creative interpretation. They performed a portion of their newest work,'Pratima' which contained references through dance to the simultaneous separation, and union of the male and female principles, and the destructive and creative powers in the universe (represented by Hindu Deities their dance moves described). They also performed another shorter piece titled 'Aakriti' which means 'form'. This was the third time I have seen this world famous dance group perform, and it inspired me beyond words. The first time I saw this group (in Richmond at UR's Modlin Center) I had to come back the next night to see the second show. (photos from that evening here) There is something so beautiful about this style of dance. I have never been mesmerized by movement and physical expression in such a powerful way. And Saturday's performance reminded me why I had made such effort to be there for this date (I drove through a treacherous freezing rain storm from Richmond to get there yesterday.)

This program also included brilliant performance in the first half by legendary dance soloist Priyadarsini Govind, who performed a version of the Bharatanatayam Margam which "is considered to be a mystic manifestation of the metaphysical element of fire in the human body." Her movements were flawless, and communicated so many stories with every twist and turn. One particular piece contained a narration about Nataraj, the dancing form of Lord Shiva, while another dance narrated the anger of a woman whose lover has deceived her.

A documentary is about to be released about Nrityagram called "For the Love of Dance" -- see a preview here:

I am looking forward to a performance this Thursday of Suphala, protégée of tabla players Ustad Alla Rakha and Zakir Hussain (yet another artist who I have featured on my radio show in the past). Suphala's reputation is not only well known in the Indian Classical Music community, but she is also a groundbreaking artist in the electronic, hip hop, club and dance music scene. She blends Indian Classical style into the most modern cutting-edge dance grooves like a chemist in search of a new element.

"Suphala has recorded and/or performed with Norah Jones, Perry Farrell (Jane's Addiction), Sean Lennon, Harper Simon, Yoko Ono, Edie Brickell, Vernon Reid (Living Color), King Britt, DJ Spooky, DJ Logic, DJ Fafu, Vijay Iyer, 4 Hero, Lady Ms. Kier (Dee-Lite), Nina Hagen, Joan Osbourne, Kelly Clarkson, Timbaland, Michael Bland, Yuka Honda (Cibo Matto), Vikter Duplaix, Gingger Shankar, Niladri Kumar, Ustad Sultan Khan, Rakesh Chaurasia, Salim Merchant, and Carol C (Si Se). She is also a pioneer in the field of computational fluid dynamics."

I will also attend sold out performances of "The Manganiyar seduction", a group of Sufi musicians "43 musicians are seated in 36 red-curtained cubicles arranged in four horizontal rows one on top of the other" - based on "a combination of the Hawa Mahal and the Red light district of Amsterdam" (website here) and Punjabi MC (in addition to the screening of 'Devi' on the 19th) - a full day of performances that will be the climactic finale of my attendance of this series.

Tickets and Info: HERE.

Exhibits like Treasures of the Gem Palace (a collection of some of the finest Indian Jewelry you will ever lay eyes on), SARI (an exhibition of Sari fabrics), Thukral & Tagra: Hi! I am India (an exhibition about Indian culture for Children), and Kaleidoscope: Mapping India's Crafts show that this festival was meant to include everyone. There are so many free performances every day, and many exhibits to check out too. It was great to see a school bus full of kids being dropped off at the front entrance on Thursday.

Special thanks to the Kennedy Center for inviting me to attend additional performances that I had not previously planned into my schedule. I feel honored and incredibly lucky to experience the ecstatic sensory overload that this festival truly is. And I hope we will be lucky enough to have see a second edition of "Maximum India" scheduled in the next year or so.

(Check back here soon for links to photos, reviews, and maybe even some interviews if I get really lucky!!)


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