Field notes

You cannot question the Art of Living event, it's too big

Who said private event? The World Culture Festival is a force of nature.

“When you want to do something great, something wonderful, many obstacles come, but that only indicates it is a very, very great thing you’re doing.” Addressing the opening ceremony of the World Culture Festival on Friday, Art of Living founder Sri Sri Ravi Shankar was beatific.

Had he not given the National Green Tribunal a piece of his mind, saying he would go to jail but not pay a fine for lasting environmental damages to the fragile Yamuna floodplains? Had he not seen off a chorus of protests against the army being deployed to build pontoon bridges for a private event? Never mind that a clutch of dignitaries, including President Pranab Mukherjee, had backed out last minute, or that he had agree to pay the fine in the end.

Speaking on Friday, the spiritual guru name-checked world peace, organic farming, spiritual well-being and also slipped in gentle reproaches to his detractors – all in the spirit of love and peace. “People said this is gurudev’s private party,” said Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. “I said yes, because the whole world is my family. Vasudhaiva kutumbakam.”

Who could argue with this clincher?

A pilgrimage

The venue itself is fashioned as sacred ground. The way to the festival grounds from the outer gates feels like a pilgrimage. If you enter through gate number 12, for instance, a long and winding path cuts through fields on either side. Some are flattened, some still furrowed. Cauliflowers are growing on the field, ripe for picking. Cows graze peacefully as soulful music wafts down the hot, dusty path, encouraging the weary visitor to keep walking.

By the time you reach the pontoon bridge that spans a stretch of ink dark water, you have walked about two kilometres. On Friday, visitors trooped across the bridge in various states of reverence. Someone was discussing the source of the Saraswati. Someone else was telling a joke: “Usne kahaan paani bahut kaala hai. Toh unhone kahaan, nahi, paani kaala nahi hai, tumne kaala chashme pehen rakhe ho. (This man said the water looked really black. Then the other man said no, the water is not black, you’re wearing dark glasses.)” The jokesmith and his friend then shook their heads about the pollution.

But then the main structure looms up, rising out of nowhere in this quiet landscape, built to dispel all questions. The aesthetic for the grand high stage is best described as epic serial chic. The stage is 40-ft high, 1,200-ft long and 200-ft wide. Steps rise up from the bottom, meant for seating the thousands of performers gathered there. They are crowned by a pillared hall that could be from the sets of the Ramayana or Mahabharata serials. Rounding off the epic serial impression are elephant statues, lined up on either side of the stage.

The worldly meets the divine in this structure. Its backdrop is painted with mountains, possibly Mount Kailash, and lasers make a colourful chakra on the steps. Dhangri dhols were beaten and horns were sounded to start the inauguration ceremony.

Size matters

The idea behind Friday’s ceremony, and perhaps the festival itself, seems to be "we are right because we are big".

Some of it is sheer dumb size. Everything is built on an epic scale. Comperes attempted to stun you with numbers: 1,008 dhangri dhols, 600 mridangam players from Vithoba, 8,500 performers drawn from 110 districts to play in the Art of Living orchestra, 35,973 performers in all, about 35 lakh visitors expected. The Art of Living Foundation had not just done good work, it had done a lot of good work. It funds 51,000 students in 400 schools across the country and aims to plant 100 million trees all over the world.

Then there was the scope of influence that the Foundation could boast of. It had reached 155 countries and leaders from across the world had come to attend the event, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the chief guest. Despite the last-minute pullouts, leaders from France, Russia, Sri Lanka, Suriname, the United Arab Emirates, Japan, Nepal and other countries were lined up on the dais. Colombia had sent an audio message, thanking Sri Sri Ravi Shankar for solving the country’s internal conflict by preaching Gandhian thought and meditation. Modi seemed to be taking foreign policy notes as he sat on the podium.

The organisers and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar himself seem to think the festival is so big, it can no longer be called a private event. It is so big, in fact, that it has become a force of nature. So when a hailstorm broke out at the start of the event, organisers took personal responsibility for it: “The Yamuna is thirsty. Such is the wonder of this Art of Living programme that today Lord Indra sent water to the river once more.”

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.