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Kennedy Center opens 3-week India arts festival

WASHINGTON — The Kennedy Center in Washington has been converted into a palace to showcase India’s arts, precious gems and diverse culture over the next three weeks.

The $7 million “Maximum India” festival opened Tuesday night and runs through March 20. With nearly 100 performances, films and events, organizers say it is one of the largest U.S. festivals ever devoted to the south Asian country of 1.2 billion people.

Exhibits opened Wednesday in the Kennedy Center’s main halls, including a collection of traditional saris, an installation featuring words from a historic speech by Mahatma Gandhi, and colorful crafts from various Indian streets.

“I hope it gets the people who have never been to India to have a sense of what it is — to have a feeling of what it is to walk in the streets of a large urban city in India,” said Adrien Gardere, who curated the art exhibits.

Beyond the visual art, the center also is offering a wide array of culinary creations. All the center’s restaurants converted their menus to creations by master chefs from various regions of India, including Chef Hemant Oberoi, the head chef of Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Palace who recently cooked for President Barack Obama’s visit. A first-time cooking demonstration at the center already is sold out.

The India festival is the latest in a series of large-scale events tracing the cultures of the Silk Road trade routes across Asia. Earlier festivals featured China, Japan and 22 Arab countries.

Many Indian artists have toured in the United States, but not always on the country’s biggest stages, said Alicia Adams, the Kennedy Center’s vice president of international programs.

“What this does is bring it all to the fore and in three weeks allow for the exploration of a lot of art on one of America’s main stages,” she said. “It’s a real opportunity to learn quite a bit about India.”

Bollywood movie star Nandita Das is curating a film series to feature portrayals of women in Indian film since the 1960s, including the country’s first portrayal of a gay relationship on a major film in 1996. In an e-mail from Mumbai, Das said Americans will be surprised by India’s vastly different elements.

“In fact, many different Indias exist in this one country,” she said. “The American audience will get quite a treat of India, an enigmatic land that most are intrigued by but do not really know it.”

Among the festival’s highlights will be the premiere of a new commission for the National Symphony Orchestra by Indian composer Zakir Hussain on Friday through Sunday, as well as theater and dance. A literature series will feature author Salman Rushdie, among others, in the 2,400-seat Concert Hall.

Contemporary artists will have a nightclub space called The Monsoon Club that will feature popular DJ Rekha on March 12 and Panjabi MC on March 19. An Indian architect designed the performance space to look like a frozen monsoon with thousands of tiny threads hung by hand overhead.

One of the most impressive displays shows India’s tradition of intricate jewelry. Millions of dollars worth of jewels are exhibited by The Gem Palace of Jaipur, India, which has served as a jeweler to English and Indian royalty since 1852.

A headdress made of diamonds and pearls that includes 50,000 handset pieces is the centerpiece. It took 25 craftsmen three years to complete and is on loan from an unspecified royal family in India. Visitors may assume the pieces are ancient, but they were all created in the last 15 years, said Siddharth Kasiwal, who heads U.S. operations for the family owned Gem Palace.

“We wanted to show that this kind of love and compassion and patience still exists,” he said. “We are continuing it.”