THE elephants stay home when India's Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi steps off the jet for his American visit June 11. But the colossal ``Festival of India'' that follows in his wake for the next 18 months is like some fabled maharajah's caravan of elephants -- painted with flowered paisleys, bridled with jewels -- bearing priceless gifts in a solemn march across the United States.
This $15 million megafestival, sparked by a 1982 agreement between the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and President Ronald Reagan, is viewed by Indian officials as a major landmark in Indian-US relations. It is diplomacy waged with sitars, Rajput paintings, saris, Maurya sculptures, and even an aditi.
Aditi is the word for an Indian ``celebration of life,'' focusing on a spectacular exhibit of 40 folk artists and 1,500 objects of art and crafts in the Indian life-cycle at the National Museum of American History. Thronged with musicians, jugglers, tumblers, and a series of artists painting on henna-red village walls, the huge show, heady with incense, includes dazzling displays of folk art. It rivals the hit ``King Tut'' show of a few years ago in excitement and beauty. Also included in the aditi is an Indian mela, or fair, to be held on the National Mall later this month in the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival series.
The festival, in all its facets, cuts a wide swath across the major cultural institutions of the US. Over 200 performing arts, shows, cultural exhibits, and seminars will appear in 90 cities in 37 states and the District of Columbia through the end of '86. India is sending more than 250 performing artists, artisans, craftsmen, and folk performers, more than 2,500 works of art, textiles and crafts, and 100 scholars for seminars, conferences, and other educational appearances.
The festival will encompass painting, sculpture, dance, films, music, theater, costumes, crafts, science, architecture, and design, and even an elephant weekend at the Bronx Zoo.
At the Indian Embassy here the smell of fresh paint and excitement is in the air. Workmen are putting the finishing dabs on a new coat of cream paint and unrolling the new ruby carpets inside the embassy. Security is tight. Pictures of Rajiv and Indira Gandhi flank the fireplace on the ground floor; on the landing hangs a photo of Mohandas Gandhi.
Upstairs, Indian Ambassador H. Shankar Bajpai sits in a navy leather wing chair and talks of the redecoration. ``That was in the cards anyway, but then we timed it so as to be close to the [Rajiv Gandhi] visit.''
Speaking of the festival, itself, he says, ``We are doing it . . . precisely because we have had a lot of goodwill for India in this country, but in the years of our interchange we've had some misunderstandings and misconceptions. We want to develop a closer understanding between our peoples, and we felt that the cultural medium had never really been explored.''
The ambassador says, ``Many Americans still have rather mixed views of India formed by, essentially, the view that prevailed during our colonial days, when, along with the admiration for our culture and philosophy and a somewhat romantic view of a land of great beauties, and great wealth, and maharajahs, and Himalayas, and what have you, there was a view of a country with great poverty and strange religious and other practices.
``So it was a mix, where a lot of people found us too difficult to understand. And we're hoping that exposure to the creative wellsprings of Indian life will enable them to gather a better view of us and, through that, a better understanding of us.''
Indian writer Santha Rama Rau agrees that her country has much to offer. She makes the point that the 5,000-year-old Indian culture ``is one of the oldest continuous cultures in the world. It has more to offer the rest of the world than political problems. I think the Festival of India's magnitude presents all the other sides of India. . . .''
Referring to the recent PBS television series ``The Jewel in the Crown'' and David Lean's film version of E. M. Forster's novel ``A Passage to India,'' both of which were set in the last days of India's colonial period, she suggests Americans come to India's struggle for independence ``with a tremendous sense of sympathy. America was the first to be shed of the British Raj. It was a basic lesson from your revolution that . . . it was possible to do it, to establish one's own identity -- that it could be done, although not without some bloodshed and general chaos.
``In India, the British [granted independence] perhaps more gracefully than anywhere else . . . , although not without trauma, not without the ghastly division between India and Pakistan. In America it happened so long ago. . . . But, in principle, we had the same thing -- shaking off colonization.''
To help Americans discover India's hidden dimensions, an incredible array of cultural institutions are serving as hosts to parts of the festival. They include Washington's Kennedy Center, National Gallery, and Smithsonian Museum; New York's Metropolitan Museum, Lincoln Center, and Museum of Modern Art; the Boston Museum of Fine Arts; the Cleveland Museum of Art; and the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.
The festival will be officially opened June 13, with a Kennedy Center concert featuring Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, Alla Rkha, Zakir Hussain, and Kathakali dance drama. This opening evening promises to be a dazzler, with honorary festival chairman Rajiv Gandhi and Nancy Reagan leading the diplomatic and political glitterati.
Legendary sitar player Ravi Shankar says of his appearance, ``I cannot carry a placard and walk around and do politicking. The only message I can send I can express through our music, emanating a special something -- a lot of love and peace, a tranquillity which is also a part of our religion, our culture, our heritage. I so much wish for harmony between the people.''
The man who organized the ambitious Festival of India, Minister of Culture Niranjan Desai, hopes there will be a wave of interest in India after the festival is over, as there was in England after a highly successful but smaller and shorter Indian festival in 1982. Mr. Desai points out that the British decided to do ``The Jewel in the Crown'' as a TV series after that festival and that funds for projects like Lean's movie became ``more viable.''
Already scores of new books on India are about to be published in the US. Among them, two coffeetable books, one on the festival itself, another on village life in India are to be published by Harry N. Abrams. A third book on Indian costumes and jewelry is to be published by Doubleday.
In addition, there are TV documentaries in the works from Turner Broadcasting, Jack Anderson Associates, and some independents. The major TV networks have not yet announced any programs. The Indian influence on fashion, however, has turned up in Seventh Avenue collections, as it did as a result of a smaller India festival in London.
At a cost of $15 million, the US version may be the most expensive and stately cultural diplomacy extravaganza ever shared by two nations. In fact, India's government is picking up only one-third of the cost, the equivalent of $5 million in rupees, while the remaining two-thirds comes from a combination of contributing support by the US cultural institutions involved as well as contributors ranging from Air India, the Ford Foundation, and Taj Hotel to the Smithsonian.