WASHINGTON — Vast and fabled, the subcontinent of India usually seems infinitely remote and out of time, as if it floated in another galaxy. Recently, however, the place and its people have saturated our consciousness, as if the Indian spirit were trying to tell us something.
Some of the activity, of course, was calculated. The current "Festival of India," which will sprawl from the museums and greensward of the Mall to manifestations around the country this year, is one of those carefully planned cultural extravaganzas whose hidden and perfectly benign scenario is to make our people feel friendly toward their people. It was launched during the recent state visit of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who himself left an agreeable impression of gentle graciousness allied to steely independence.
More psychically compelling is a cluster of events too varied to be anything but a spontaneous signal from the Zeitgeist . They range from filmic fictions like "Gandhi," "A Passage to India" and "The Jewel in the Crown," to tragic realities like the Sikh rebellion, the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the catastrophic crash of an Air India jet in the North Atlantic.
If it all seems too coincidental to be meaningful, it is surely important to remember that Indian philosophy insists on the interconnectedness of all things. Two current exhibitions probe the point. "The Sculpture of India, 3000 BC-1300 AD" (at the East Building of the National Gallery to Sept. 2) is elegantly aristocratic. In contrast, "Aditi" (at the nearby National Museum of Natural History to July 28) is a populist hoot of epochal proportion.
"Aditi" has two subtitles, "The Living Arts of India" and "A Celebration of Life." Take your choice, since in either of those ways or in numerous others, the show is a landmark. For starters, it creates a jostling bazaar-like ambiance that seduced at least one visitor who generally gets claustrophobic in crowds and likes to contemplate his art in sepulchral calm.
It is extremely unusual to cheerfully mix courtly art of venerable prestige with endearing folk art made two minutes ago, but "Aditi" does it with celebratory abandon. The astonishing result is not only that the folk material often appears to have more juice than the serious stuff, but that its innocence is better than most art's sophistication. At one moment a stylized wood figure presents deliciously provocative links to the work of Africa's Dogon people. In the next, a group of goony, life-size papier-mache wedding celebrants makes it unnecessary to ever again look at a sculpture by Jean Dubuffet.
There is enough going on to keep the mind of an art lover churning happily for a week. Technically, however, this is not an art show, and most visitors are understandably more engaged by other exhibits that certainly rank as among the most unusual displays ever put on view in a museum.
The highlights of "Aditi" are living, breathing street performers who have come incredibly far from their homes to demonstrate skills with commendable humor and good grace. They represent a tradition of wandering folk performers that goes back to the Middle Ages.
In recent decades their way of life was nearly snuffed out by India's relative urbanization and by the coming of film and television. Luckily, they are a hardy and resilient bunch. They banded together in New Delhi and finally received some support from the government. Now members of this still-endangered human species delight the American folk. Kacchi ghori dancers in saffron turbans chant songs, pound drums and canter gracefully in life-size horse puppets, miming the pageantry of a wedding procession. Puppeteers have the world on a string, and one juggler, they say, juggles while frying an egg on top of her head.
There are also crafts people embroidering, and potters who do not confine their work to jugs and bowls. Among the more amazing
objects on view are ceramic horses big as real ponies. In a niche, an Indian woman in a sari bends over the hand of a punk-styled American girl, drawing an intricate mandala on her palm. You get the feeling the rapt girl will never wash the hand again.
In this exotic carnival atmosphere, anybody will be forgiven for not asking about Deep Meanings. But true to the rule of interconnectedness, they are there. One performer goes about with face half-covered by a shawl. Stooped and mumbling, he is, perhaps, a wise mendicant. Then a flick of the shawl, and he becomes a painted lady with swaying hips and one flirtatious, almond eye. It all plays perfectly well as a piece of burlesque, but the meaning runs profoundly back to
depictions of the god Shiva as Ardhanarishiva , wherein he embodies his dual nature, both as himself and the goddess Uma.