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Culture

Dancing by the Yamuna

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Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and the art of oversized soft power

THE GREY SKIES split open, cool showers poured down and a ceremonial rainbow arched over the seven-acre stage. The Yamuna was awash in the golden rays of the setting sun and its waters danced to the musical strains of a thousand nadaswarams. The stage was set for the opening of the World Culture Festival (WCF) in Delhi.

It seemed like the festival, organised by India’s Art of Living Foundation— which had courted innumerable controversies till the last minute—needed divine intervention to kick-start. Despite untimely rains (which made it a challenge to get to the venue unless you were a dignitary), thousands of devotees walked hand-in-hand for more than four kilometers over muck and slush to catch a glimpse of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s vision. An easy option was to give up and turn back. Many did. Hundreds of thousands of guests showed up at the festival, fewer than expected. But those who braved the elements and were a part of the celebrations made memories for a lifetime.

The last WCF organised by the Art of Living Foundation was held in Berlin in 2011 at Olympiastadion, the venue that once hosted the controversial 1936 Olympics. It was the start of a one-of-a- kind celebration where different cultures, traditions, philosophies and, of course, people from across the globe performed on the same platform. Despite the controversy around this massive event, what Delhi witnessed over three days was larger than life in every way. Not just for the viewers but also for the artists who were performing on the biggest stage of their lives.

As an actor and dancer, I have performed on many stages across the country, but what was in front of me was a dream come true. Imagine seven football stadiums clubbed together, crowned by 11 golden domes, covered in colourful carpets, decorated by lights, and owned by over 35,000 artistes. The arena was divided into five levels, with the top level reserved for the main speakers and political dignitaries; over 8,000 musicians and singers were seated in the middle and dancers from 115 nations occupied the remaining space. Flags from 80 countries danced in the wind as participants took to the stage. The performance area was so massive that if you weren’t on stage, or seated at the top, there was little chance you would catch the action.

After a two hour-long gruelling walk to the venue on day one, made worse by a pair of broken slippers, I wasn’t going to sit cooped up in a corner called ‘Media Centre’ and watch the spectacle unfold. I don’t know how I manoeuvred my way onto the stage and it would be safe to say that I was the only journalist there among a sea of performers. What I witnessed around me isn’t a sight that will ever repeat itself. The stage was packed with artists who had arrived from six of the world’s seven continents. I had never seen people of so many different skin tones, ages, energies, languages and talents under one roof. If you believe that travel opens up the world to you, here was the whole world travelling to you—on a single platform at a given time.

While on one side 1,500 Mohiniattam dancers from Kerala swayed their bodies to the sitar, the other side saw 50 Shaolin monks from temples in China prepare for a spiritual Kung Fu dance. As 1,200 dhol players from Maharashtra belted out traditional Kolhapuri folk beats, percussionists from West Africa joined them with the djembe in a most unique jugalbandi. While a group of 50 Taiwanese dancers told the origin of the universe through a beautiful dance Genesis, 40 whirling dervishes from Turkey dressed in black added a Sufi element to the stage. If one had to describe a bird’s-eye view of the show, it would be that mini puppets wearing costumes of every possible colour moved gracefully to a single rhythm. At one point it started to pour and I found myself sharing a massive umbrella with two dancers from the Philippines, one from Assam, one from Rajasthan and another from East Africa. It was literally all cultures under one umbrella.

Israelis and Palestinians shared the stage, as did Indians and Pakistanis.

Religious as well as political leaders of different faiths and philosophies came together on the dais, and spoke of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam—‘the world is one family’. It did not matter which country you belonged to as long as you spoke the language of harmony. For those few hours, differences in political ideology were drowned in thumps of the tabla, and borders between nations blurred by the sound of ‘Om’.

Performers were appreciative of each other’s forms and expressions. A group of dancers from a small European country, who looked like they were straight out of the Bible, couldn’t believe their eyes when over 1,000 folk artists from Chhattisgarh performed the Panthi dance. “The whole stage moved with their energy and they performed bare bodied with instruments. Their precision was unbelievable,” said one of them. These were artists who had never met each other, or perhaps even heard about the other’s art form, but it felt like they spoke the same language. Where else would you see a Hungarian dancer take a selfie with two Sardarjis in colourful pagris and dhotis? “Arrey madam, humaara Bhangra toh inn logon ko bahut pasand aaya (Oh madam, these people really liked our Bhangra),” said one of the dancers, referring to his new Hungarian friend who insisted that he teach her the moves.

I WATCHED A 70-year-old woman from Germany, perhaps the oldest performer on stage, shut her teary eyes for a bhajan to Durga. “Music does not know language. Whatever the song said, I’m sure it was something beautiful,” she told me.

I was yelled at and threatened, stating protocol issues, as I was not seated in the media box. But the experience was worth it. I realised that hosting an event of this scale was no easy task, be it for the organisers, volunteers, cops, artists or the audience. Temperatures dropped unexpectedly and performers shivered on stage for hours awaiting their turn; some were injured while others waited patiently in buses that were jammed in the sludge in the middle of the night.

Volunteers tirelessly helped private vehicles and senior citizens. The Delhi Police tried their best to keep traffic in order. And spectators who had arrived from far away places like Latin America were disappointed that they were far from the stage. But all of this was secondary compared to the larger purpose of the event.

The show ended with 4,600 performers doing different forms of yoga, and the space reverberated with lakhs of people chanting ‘Om’. At one point, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar asked everyone to switch on the torch lights on their phone, as a message of peace.

As I was standing on the highest point of the stage, at a height of around 50 feet, it appeared as if I was watching twinkling stars from afar. And everything was at peace.

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