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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