Small ambassadors make a big hit
Washington — The smallest diplomats of all, the children, will be remembered most vividly when the current two-year Festival of India has left the United States. Like Shish Ram. Shish first came spinning into my life like a scarlet top, his floor-length red tunic coat a blur as he whirled across an office at the Smithsonian Institution Building here, known as the ``castle.'' Arms out, he spun with all the pent-up energy of a child let out to play after a hard task. Then he stopped suddenly, directly in front of where I sat, and smiled a long crescent smile that crinkled his brown eyes. Next he said, ``Hello. Shish,'' in a gravelly, deep voice that sounded like tough-guy film star Edward G. Robinson. It was a surprisingly big voice for such a small boy. We spoke for a few minutes, he chattering away in Hindi as rapidly as a Teletype, I talking to him slowly in English. Neither of us understood much of the other's language, but we were communicating. At the end of our talk, Shish put his face about six inches from mine and began to sing to me: a haunting, joyous song in a minor key.
Suddenly someone called him, and he was off to put on his scarlet turban and do what he had come to this castle and to the United States for: sing Raja- sthan (a state of northwest India) ballads with his father and younger brother in the Smithsonian's ``Aditi,'' or festival of life. Shish was one of nearly two dozen Indian children who had come to Washington for six weeks this summer along with dozens of other Indian musicians, acrobats, dancers, artisans, painters, and craftspeople to re-create Indian arts live at a daily two-hour Aditi show here. The show was SRO (standing room only), one of the hits of the mammoth Festival of India which includes
over 200 exhibits, seminars, programs, and performances across the US for the next year and a half.
The next time I saw Shish, he was running for the yellow school bus we all boarded for a day in the country. Each Wednesday the Indian children, their guardians, the few parents who had made the trip, and museum friends jammed aboard a bus for a one-day holiday. The week before, it had been to King's Dominion, the southern Virginia fun park. This week it was to be a picnic and swim at the Virginia estate of philanthropist and dairy farmer John Archbold.
The children were wriggly with excitement as the adults loaded their special food aboard the back of the bus: huge aluminum vats of spicy Indian tea, thick with milk and sugar; gallons of dal, the thick creamy stew made from lentils; and several dozen cans of cola. Indians in vivid silk saris, blue jeans and T-shirts, or kurtas and dhotis (the white cotton shirts and wrapped pants the men wear) boarded the bus. Then we rumbled out of the Georgetown University campus where the g roup was housed.
From Shish and the others, I learned that Indians do not leave their culture behind them when they travel; they carry it with them like some exotic cocoon. One mustached young man, wrapping a peony pink silk scarf around him as a veil, danced a spoof of traditional Indian women's dances complete with coquettish glances as the bus rocked with laughter. The decibel level was incredible, with the thunder of dholak drums, the castanet clicks of the ghanjh, the wailing of the one-stringed ektars
and sitars. Everyone, including the children, sang at the top of their lungs, and when they ran out of Indian songs, they asked the Americans aboard to sing their favorites. So we went bumping up the country road to the farm singing ``You Are My Sunshine.''
We were met at a fieldstone manor house on a farm called Foxlease by its owner, John Archbold. A tall, bemused-looking man with white hair, he welcomed the Indians warmly. ``I was in India during the War -- Calcutta,'' he said, and invited everyone to look around. We were standing on a flagstone patio overlooking a large turquoise swimming pool, acres of rolling green pastures, and the distant shadows of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Down the road were the 110 black and white Holstein cows they milk daily o n the dairy farm.
The Indian children took one look at the pool and raced off to change into their swimsuits; the Indian men swam buoyantly in their white, wrapped cotton dhotis. The Indian women, who do everything from swimming to bicycling in their saris, chose not to swim that day. But one of the young women, wearing a rouge red and blue-green spangled sari, played Frisbee with some of the others, the jeweled silk sari billowing in slow motion as she ran. A pair of dogs jumped in and out of the pool fetchi ng tennis balls. Tables covered with flowered cloths were set up with picnic lunches of curried rice, meat, and vegetables. It might have been a scene from a movie by Satyajit Ray, the Indian master filmmaker whose new film, ``The Home and the World,'' opened in the US recently.
When the children had had enough swimming and picnicking, a few of them decided to talk into my tape recorder. First came Shish, dripping wet, wearing his orange trunks. Through a translator, he said he likes everything in America, there's nothing he doesn't like, but most of all he liked the log ride and roller coaster at the fun park. When he grows up, he said, he wants to be what his father is: a bhopa, a balladeer of Rajasthan.
Thirteen-year-old Bhaskar Mahapatra, a painter, was looking forward to a trip to the Freer Museum to see Indian miniatures. Bhaskar was not an ordinary sightseer in Washington: ``A painter is always thinking of the subjects for painting,'' he explained solemnly. Everything he's seen here, he's never seen in India, he said. And he wanted to paint dinosaurs next.
Thirteen-year-old Mohammed Rafiq, a magician, came from a small colony outside of Delhi and raised a small eyebrow at the way the tourists dress here. ``In his opinion, the shorts everybody wears don't look too good,'' said the translator, adding, ``half-clothes, he calls them.'' He found the Air and Space Museum in Washington a thriller.
Eleven-year-old Krishna Bai, an acrobat, came from a village near Jaipur called Ajarka. She was dressed in blue, with matching fingernails, and shivered with delight over the acrobatics of the roller coaster.
Twelve-year-old Rajki Nath, from Jaipur, does Rajasthan dances and hopes to dance right through the rest of her life until her marriage. Indian women don't dance at all after they marry, she explained.
The translators were Nita Kumar, an anthropologist at the University of Chicago, who has brought along her own little four-year-old daughter, and Amita Kasbekar, who is working on her MA in political science at Stony Brook College on Long Island, N.Y.
Nita Kumar says what surprised the Indian children most of all here were the living conditions. ``It's all so comfortable, so clean. Most of them are poor, although some of them have comfortable homes, but here everything is clean and carpeted and cool [in summer]. Most of them come from small villages . . . where there is no electricity and no cooking facilities, no hot and cold running water. They don't have beds with white sheets on them, they don't have tables and chairs and as many plates as there are people.''
``What struck me most,'' said Amita Kasbekar, ``is how accommodating the children are. The adults tend to complain every once in a while, but the children just take everything in their stride.'' Although all but two of the children had come without their parents, they had already known most of the adults acting as guardians on the visit, which gave them emotional security. Amita Kasbekar, one of those guardians, talked a bit about the politics of eating in this group where some were Hindu, some Muslim. The Muslims couldn't eat pork, the Hindus couldn't eat beef. ``What was acceptable to both was served: chicken and a lot of goat meat.'' The children ate little American food while they were here: no hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza. Just ice cream, chips, sodas. ``The children said to me, Amita-ji (the ji is a term of respect) there is so much talk about food on television.''
After the dal and curry and fresh fruit were cleared away, the singing began. A one-man country band named Bob Devlin got out his banjo, drum, and harmonica and began to play ``You Are My Sunshine.'' The Indians crowded around him, singing snatches of it; a child in lime green trunks broke into a traditional Indian dance. On it went through ``Country Roads,'' ``Wabash Cannonball,'' (as an Indian boy juggler balanced oranges in time to the music), and ``He's Got the Whole World in His Hands,'' when
an Indian drummer and a sitarist leaped up and joined him in making music. After the music, they brought on the dinosaurs as two entertainers, Michele Valeri and Ingrid Crepeau, sang and danced in friendly monster costumes for the kids.
Then it was time to sandwich ourselves into the yellow school bus and start home. As we were rounding the red barns and the barnyard where the Holsteins stood munching in a pasture, two of the children clamored to get out and pat them. ``Don't you think you've seen enough cows in India?'' asked a woman in a silk sari.