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Revisiting the Festival of India (1985-1986)
By Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan |
APRIL 17, 2019
Bene Israel family in Bombay. c. 1890. From the exhibition "The Jews from the Konkan" at the Festival of India
Before the call center brought Indian voices into American homes; before high-profile, cross-over films like Lagaan (2001) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008); before the Pulitzer- and Booker- winning literary fictions of Jhumpa Lahiri, Arundhati Roy, Kiran Desai, and Aravind Adiga; before the Smithsonian Institution’s “Sculpture of South Asia” (1992), “Arts of the Indian Subcontinent” (2004) and “Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation” (2014) exhibits, the “Festival of India” (1985-1986) staged the introduction of India and Indians to audiences in the United States. From our contemporary vantage, the festival was risky and messy, but we have much to learn from its exhibition strategies and political aspirations.

Consider first the festival’s scale: It cost $15 million (paid for by the Indian and U.S. governments, as well as private sponsors), ran for 18 months, and included 215 exhibitions, performances, lectures, demonstrations, readings, and workshops held across 32 states and 80 cities.1 That’s the official count, anyway. Unofficially, 800 events were held in 44 states in 140 cities, from New York City to Anaconda, Montana. There’s no telling how many people were ultimately part of the festival; over 265 Indian craftspeople were involved in the Cooper-Hewitt design museum’s “Golden Eye”alone (that exhibit, subtitled “An International Tribute to the Artisans of India,” featured craft objects produced collaboratively by European and American designers and Indian artisans). Newsweek reported an elephant weekend, an opera, a traveling film festival, a display of Islamic calligraphy in Iowa City, an exhibition on the semi-nomadic tribe of the Kachi Rabaris in Shreveport, and Sanskrit workshops in New York City.2 There were classical dance performances by luminaries including Malavika Sarukkai, Birju Maharaj, and Raja and Radha Reddy, as well as exhibits of artwork by well-known artists like M.F. Husain, S.H. Raza, K.G. Ramanujam, and Laxma Goud. As the Wall Street Journal put it, “You would need the god Shiva’s dancing legs to see all the events, and his extra hands to eat all the chicken at all the receptions.”3
Source: The Washington Post. June 12, 1985.
How did such a mammoth festival come about? In 1982, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and U.S. President Ronald Reagan signed a joint statement affirming their mutual “desire to strengthen cultural, educational and scientific exchange”4 between India and the United States. At their behest, the Festival of India was organized.5 It was modeled in part on the 1982 Festival of India in the United Kingdom, and it ran from the summer of 1985 to the end of 1986. The festival began with a state visit by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, during which Reagan declared 1985 to be the “Year of India” in the United States. He also dedicated the festival to the memory of Indira Gandhi, who was assassinated in October 1984.6

The festival was organized by the Indo-U.S. Subcommission on Education and Culture, which was created in the 1970s by a joint accord of the Indian and American governments and had a binational board of directors. However, according to executive director Ted M.G. Tanen, the Subcommission was never “completely official” (it shared office space with the Asia Society and was dissolved in 1996).7 Pupul Jayakar, Indira Gandhi’s personal friend, biographer, and advisor on arts and culture, was named Chairman of the Indian Advisory Committee for the festival. An advocate for the revival of Indian handicrafts (she founded the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage in 1984), Jayakar aimed high. “In India, where two rivers meet, the land becomes fertile…and the same thing can happen when two cultures meet,” she said at an opening night gala. “Out of the current cultural exchange between India and the United States… ‘a new mind will emerge which will change the destiny of man.’”8

The festival had numerous goals, both lofty like Jayakar’s and more modest. Tanen admitted feeling that “the United States Congress and administration are not likely to change their views of a country on the basis of a festival.”9 The festival was motivated in part by the American government’s desire “to make diplomatic overtures to India before the Soviets” (84). In addition, some organizers sought to present “handicraft as a vehicle for greater commercial exchange”; they aimed “to build tourist traffic to India and to create longer term trade opportunities” (89-90). A larger festival goal was to represent and translate Indian cultures, arts, and traditions to an American audience, to capture what the art historian Rebecca M. Brown describes as “authenticity on the aggregate level” (77). This final charge was significant, given that, in the mid-1980s, mainstream American publications routinely described India as “profoundly foreign” and defined “automatically by the grim gray imagery of despair” (Shapiro). In 1985, America’s India was “a mix of lush and grim…Mother Teresa plucking fly-covered infants from the gutter…half the dhoti-clad population of Madras filling out films as long as the Ganges. And…the formidable Indira Gandhi, balancing on a lotus pad between Russia and the U.S” (Hoelterhoff). As a corrective to such imagery, India had begun in the early 1980s, through efforts like the festival, to project itself abroad as “a craft nation”: “a global cultural reserve where vital traditions of folk arts and crafts, music, and dance are maintained.”10

Festival events were attended by influential politicians and celebrities. In addition to Ronald and Nancy Reagan and Rajeev and Sonia Gandhi, newspapers reported the presence of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., George P. Shultz, Nancy Kissinger, Betsy Bloomingdale, and Sandra Day O’Connor, among others. Prominent diasporic Indians like Zubin Mehta and Ravi Shankar were involved in the festival, as well as India-based participants like Asha Putli, Laxmi P. Sihare, who became the director of India’s National Museum in 1984, and Rajeev Sethi, who, among other distinctions, was the original set designer for Peter Brook’s Mahabharata. The festival was a high society event, in addition to an unprecedented effort at Indo-U.S. cultural diplomacy. “Jacqueline Onassis was resplendent in a beaded dress by Valentino,” the society pages noted the former First Lady’s attendance at a party celebrating the “India!” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Her “bloused bodice and full taffeta skirt” were “as dazzling as the rainbow-striped turban of the Maharajah of Jodhpur, with whom she sat” (Morris).
Source: Richard Kurin, “Reflections of a Culture Broker: A View from the Smithsonian” (1997)
Could the Festival of India happen in the United States today? In Displaying Time: The Many Temporalities of the Festival of India  (2017), Brown stresses that the festival could not happen today nor “in an earlier decade of the twentieth century” (19). Brown situates the festival in the context of the temporal “flows of a mid-1980s globe as punctuated by Cold War politics, postmodern culture, and neoliberal economics” (6). We no longer have the government funding, she writes, “the political will, the obsession with big spectacle, [nor] the popular culture interest in colonialism and in India” (19). Since the 1980s, large-scale collaborations like the festival have been replaced with “private-public partnerships and corporate-funded exhibitions, biennials, and art fairs, often populated and driven by private galleries and individual investors” (157). Meanwhile, India’s image in the United States has changed dramatically. After the IMF-orchestrated economic reforms of the early 1990s, a newly “liberalized” India is more readily associated—and keen to be associated—with high tech and outsourcing than classical arts and crafts. 

As imaginings of India have evolved in the West, so too have exhibition strategies, norms, and tastes. Another reason why the festival could not unfold now as it did in the mid-1980s is that there were as many “living, breathing, labeled people” (68) on display in the festival as there were paintings and sculptures. Numerous festival programs included live participants, including “Aditi: A Celebration of Life” at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and “Mela! An Indian Fair” on the National Mall. “Aditi” and “Mela!” solicited the participation of dozens of folk artists from India, including magicians, jugglers, potters, puppeteers, weavers, painters, musicians, and impressionists. Many of these artists stayed in Georgetown University dorms and were given courses on American ways of life, including “how to stop at street lights, how to sit in a chair, how bread is buttered, and how to say thank you” (Bumiller). As part of “Aditi,” artists worked on crafts like rangoli in view of visitors. “Mela!” included rituals like the burning of an effigy of Ravana, a Ganesh puja at a makeshift temple, and the sale of artisanal crafts. Festival programs also involved Indian American community members who facilitated “the day-to-day lives of the artists and performers” and “served as cultural and linguistic translators in the gallery” (69). Some volunteers were even enlisted to “play” the Indian artists and act on their behalf as vendors in “Mela’s” commercial stalls.

The festival represented India both through sculptures dating to 2500 B.C., as well as figures like “the man who strings beads with his tongue while balancing a knife on his forehead” (Shapiro). Displays like the latter were clearly reminiscent of 19th-century colonial exhibitions. As Brown writes, “Aditi” in particular “invited charges of ahistoricization, oversimplification, objectification of the people in the exhibition, and a series of erasures that enable a firmly Orientalist understanding of the show” (21). By that same token, she stresses a dialectic of “resistance and participation” by those who participated in the festival’s ethnographic exhibits (13-14). Performers were able to “subtly manipulate the events to their own advantage, misbehaving when it achieved their aims, trading places with one another when their work became boring, going shopping and playing tourist in their off hours in the capital” (74). Artists and actors frequently improvised, and they contributed to a nuanced, multi-sensory experience for viewers and participants. 

Brown’s reading dovetails with that of some festival organizers, who celebrated the fact that many of the Indian folk artists did not abide by rules or schedules. For example, they disregarded directives like not to climb trees on the National Mall, turning “Mela!” into what Richard Kurin, then-Program Coordinator for the Smithsonian’s Office of Folklife Programs, called “living events that had their own dynamic rhythm and flow, different from a…prescribed order.”11 This avowal of the liveness of the indigenous artists’ uncontainable improvisations was code for an “Indian” way of doing things. Thus, the activities of bahrupiyas , or impersonators, who dressed as Hanuman, took unscheduled rides on the D.C. Metro, and actually broke the noses of four tourists with their tails, were accepted and even celebrated by some for their “authenticity.”
Source: Richard Kurin, “Reflections of a Culture Broker: A View from the Smithsonian” (1997)
We should be skeptical about the equation of the Indian artists’ authenticity with their uncontainable behaviors, which burst out of the confines of the Smithsonian as a sign of the museum’s ability to offer “real” Indians to its viewers. But what if improvisation had been replaced with scripts, and live people with inanimate cardboard cutouts and framed headshots? I have written elsewhere about a more recent Smithsonian exhibit, “Beyond Bollywood,” which was housed from 2014-2015 in a gallery at the National Museum of Natural History.12 In that exhibit, images and text panels were all cleanly assembled in perfect squares, circles, and rectangles. Portraits of famous Indian Americans were framed by identical stainless-steel thalis. The walls were marigold and mango, featuring Indian signifiers like paisley motifs. Minjal Dharia, who created the branding system for “Beyond Bollywood,” called the exhibit’s design “credibility building” and polished. This is the era of Apple, she told me: “The things that are successful, the things that get people’s attention, are the things that look good.”13

As a result, despite its considerable strengths, “Beyond Bollywood” was strikingly disembodied. It sought to represent the Indian American community as recognizably American, so it highlighted things like football, Weight Watchers, and the first Indian American Miss America. Because “Beyond Bollywood” tried to cleanse the Indian American community of the stereotypical equation of India with chaos, it ultimately took the American viewer someplace that looked and smelled like home—which is to say, that didn’t smell at all. By contrast, “Mela!” included a tandoor kitchen; 5,000 meals were served daily during its run. It was an explicitly “sensual event,” in which “ritual practice, education, commerce, and pleasure”14 were interwoven in order to transport American viewer-participants to India. Festival-goers engaged in a range of embodied performances, from having mehndi applied to their hands to bartering for wares.

After the festival, performance theorist Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett worried that the use of Indian artists in “Aditi” and “Mela!” had turned those people into “living signs of themselves.”15 She questioned the festival’s attempt to represent India via real Indians, saying that the performance of live “specimens” couldn’t help but fall into the traps of the zoological and the theatrical. In response, Kurin defended the display of “living culture” in “Aditi” and “Mela!”, saying, “I seriously doubt people were mistaken for objects.”16 If anything, he argued, the festival had enabled greater valuation of the Indian folk artists back in India, where they inspired the creation of a National Cultural Festival, various regional cultural centers, and the Handicrafts and Handlooms Export Corporation. My sense—though it is easier theorized than practiced—is that representations of Indians in America should lie somewhere between a rogue Hanuman on the D.C. Metro and a cardboard cutout of Miss America, between the easily-Orientalized chaos of the festival and the antiseptic safety of what has followed.
Festival of India catalog: "For 400 years a sacred royal treasure of Kerala, Krishnattam is making its first appearance in the United States."
I first heard about the Festival of India in graduate school while researching the Smithsonian’s immigrant-focused exhibitions. As I shared my findings, I discovered that Arvind Kumar, co-founder of India Currents magazine, to which I had contributed for over 15 years and which I edited from 2007-2009, was specifically inspired by the festival when he started it in 1987. I learned that many of the festival’s artists were members of the “Bhule Bisre Kalakar (Forgotten and Neglected Artists)” collective in Kathputli Colony, a neighborhood of Shadipur in Old Delhi, that served as the model for the magic moving slum in Salman Rushdie’s canonical novel, Midnight’s Children.17 Using ProQuest, I excitedly looked up old newspaper reports and reviews of festival events. I ordered exhibition catalogs from festival programs on I interviewed various scholars, artists, and organizers who had been involved in the festival, and contacted archives where its materials are still stored.18

As it happens, my research took me down a different path, and I have yet to transcribe all my interviews, yet to complete my intended work. But I remain fascinated by the Festival of India: by its size and scale, by the dreams and aspirations it represented, and by the messy, lively, risky exhibition strategies it employed. I am grateful that the festival exists today in books like Brown’s, in the Smithsonian’s various repositories, in oral histories, images, and videotapes held in numerous archives across the United States and India, including our own South Asian American Digital Archive.19 Its promise lives on in these records, awaiting further excavation, analysis, and reflection.
1. Rebecca Brown describes the nature of this partnership: “India set up diplomatic officers in D.C. and New York to handle the Festival; scholars, curators, performers, and artists were recruited from across India to participate. Museums and galleries in the U.S. responded to the availability of funding and the potential for access to India’s art collections by expanding existing plans for India-focused exhibitions or by proposing new shows; ideas came from both India and the U.S., and most shows involved a great deal of international collaboration” (8). See Rebecca M. Brown, Displaying Time: The Many Temporalities of the Festival of India , University of Washington Press (2017): 84. Hereafter cited internally. 2. Laura Shapiro, “5,000 Years of Splendor: The Festival of India is a movable feast of culture,” Newsweek (September 16, 1985). 3. Manuela Hoelterhoff, “Major Miniatures: ‘India!’ at the Met,” Wall Street Journal (Sept 17, 1985): 26. 4. Elisabeth Bumiller, “The India Festival’s Long Road: The Protests, Problems & Promise of the Show That Opens Here Tomorrow,” The Washington Post (June 12, 1985): B1-B2. 5. In 1984, Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic and the Merce Cunningham Dance Company performed in India as part of what was supposed to be a reciprocal “Festival of the United States in India.” Beyond their performances, however, this festival never materialized.  6. Barbara Gamarekian, “For the Gandhis, a Rush of Parties,” New York Times (June 14, 1985): A18. 7. Ted M.G. Tanen, “Festivals and Diplomacy,” Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display,  ed. Ivan Karp and Steven D. Levine, Smithsonian Institution Press (1991). 8. Quoted in Bernadine Morris, “Art, Music and Food Salute India: Metropolitan Museum party and concerts at Lincoln Center are part of festival,” New York Times (September 11, 1985): C10. 9. Tanen 368. 10. Paul Greenough, “Nation, Economy, and Tradition Displayed: The Indian Crafts Museum, New Delhi,” Consuming Modernity: public culture in a South Asian world, ed. Carol A. Breckenridge, University of Minnesota Press (1995): 241. 11. Richard Kurin, “Cultural Conservation through Representation: Festival of India Folklife Exhibitions at the Smithsonian Institution,” Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display,  ed. Ivan Karp and Steven D. Levine, Smithsonian Institution Press (1991): 334. Kurin is now the Smithsonian’s Distinguished Scholar and Ambassador-at-Large. 12. See Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan, “True Stories,” The Caravan  (May 2014): 106-112, and “The Smithsonian Beside Itself: Exhibiting Indian Americans in the Era of New India,” Verge: Studies in Global Asias  1.2, University of Minnesota Press (2015): 158-191. 13. Author interview with Minjal Dharia, January 5, 2014. 14. Kurin 319. 15. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, “Objects of Ethnography,” Exhibiting cultures: The poetics & politics of museum display, ed. Ivan Karp, Smithsonian Institution Press (1990). 16. Kurin 339. 17. See Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan, “Artists We Owe,” India Currents  (April 2014).  18. My interview subjects included Kurin, Patrice Fusillo, who was the Assistant Director of the Indo-U.S. Subcommission, and Jeffrey LaRiche, who was the Program Manager of the Smithsonian’s Festival of India events.  19. See Oral Histories with Godan Nambudiripad, Shanti Shah, and Niru Misra.

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is Assistant Professor of English and Social, Cultural, and Critical Theory at the University of Arizona and Co-Chair of SAADA’s Academic Council.