Maximum India at the Kennedy Center

Checking out the Maximum India exhibit at the Kennedy Exhibit – I was curious what I would get out of it.  There is an element of busman’s holiday I suppose when I do these sorts of things – ethnic “checking the box” and whatnot – although it’s not like I am any sort of real expert on India (jeez, I cannot name all the states in the country).  I have my walls of cynicism up – sure, they’d come down for the dance program we attended, but we’re talking about the entire exhibit too – and perhaps that is as much an indictment of yours truly.  Full disclosure, no?

Before the actual concert thingy, we started out exploring the entire setup.  The Millenium Stage, where they ran the normal free daily concert, had the sounds of Rajasthan.  The performance seemed fine – although the sound was poor, it sounded like we were in a tunnel of some kind.  But hey, that sort of thing still is about the concert – there is no way to generalize about the entire month of India celebration on the basis of that.

Of course, the other exhibits gave me a chance to grossly generalize – and … well I don’t want to dissuade intrepid DC readers from going.  After all, more culture is better than less – and it’s free.  However, as someone with a stake in the outcome – considering the remarkable resources (the Indian Embassy par exemple) behind it, the cultural exhibits are a massive disappointment.  What is interesting is that the exhibits somehow managed to combine two flaws that seem incompatible: 1) they provided little contextual information, so it was hard to learn why the pieces mattered, 2) the exhibits themselves were not particularly interesting so that what they did seem to offer would only be startlingly revelatory to either really old people or total goobers.  (pardon me if you are either)

An example of the former was their exploration of jewelry and gemcraft.  The exhibit was small and potentially interesting.  However, there were only two placards covering about 15 different items in total.  How can one navigate each object meaningfully?  If the National Gallery of art were run that way, we’d see ten paintings and then a small sign in another room saying “BTW, those were rembrandts.  He’s famus.”

But then the latter becomes a problem in something like the kaleidoscope of crafts.  This exhibit was ambitious – showing craft items in the form of a busy thoroughfare in India on the backs of bicycles and whatnots.  First of all, the “busy street” motif seemed to serve no particular purpose.  There were some videos displaying bustle, but I am not sure whether it gave atmosphere.  (of course, having been to India many times, the bustle provides the atmosphere of claustrophobia so I am not sure that is something you want to sell anyway)  The objects themselves were interesting on a surface level (and one Krishna story that I did not know), but really it was mostly unmemorable.  The neatest part was a map where the regional craft is matched geographically:

A mosaic of India - sure it has an "Indians are people too vibe", but it was pretty cool live.

There were also a lot of fans on display – yippee.

That said, the concert was pretty good.  The dancing was a duo of Odissi and Bharathanatyam classical dancing styles.  The music was workmanlike – there were no gross errors or anything, but the vocals were not of the Nithyashree level.  The dancing was good – the subtle Odissi style was a stark contrast to the Kabuki sort of expressionism that is emblematic of Bharathanatyam when the two dancers were performing similar movements.  The playbill still offered not quite enough context for the audience to understand exactly why it matters – or really why this particular performance was put together in this way.  But the art stands up on its own, and on that front it was worthwhile.

I am sure the concerts and lectures and seminars are cool and worthwhile – or at least some of them are.  However, the rest of this exhibit seemed to be fairly surface – a surprising lack of intellectual curiosity or pride from the Embassy and the other organizers.  They took this for granted.  I would never tell anyone not to get more culture, but there is NO way that Maximum India maximized India.


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