Posts Tagged ‘india’

Building a Mall by the Taj Mahal?: Dispatch 14 from Extraordinary Cultures

Thursday, April 2nd, 2009

Richard Kurin is the Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture here at the Smithsonian Institution. He is a cultural anthropologist specializing in the study of knowledge systems, folk arts, museums, and development. He is currently Study Leader on our Extraordinary Cultures – An Epic Journey Around the World tour, and will be blogging periodically while traveling. This post is fourteenth in a series. To see the other posts, click here.

Dateline: Agra, Part II

A Smithsonian traveler joins in the dance. Photo: Richard Kurin

A Smithsonian traveler joins in the dance. Photo: Richard Kurin

A few years ago there was another threat to the Taj Mahal, a proposal to build a shopping mall and amusement park along the banks of the river, running from the Taj to another world heritage site, the Red Fort. The whole area would be commercialized with stores, rides, food concessions, even roller coasters. The proposal was backed by powerful politicians and “developers”—though one wonders what that term means in this context.

Such was the subject of the most extraordinary performance on our around the world tour produced by Rajeev Sethi especially for our group.

Rajeev is a world class designer. I first worked with him in the 1980s on the Festival of India. He created and designed Aditi—a marvelous living exhibition celebrating the traditional Indian life cycle at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. He designed the Mela or Indian fair, for the 1985 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, and then worked with the Smithsonian, Yo-Yo Ma, and Aga Khan’s organization on the Silk Road for the 2002 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Along the way he’s designed pavilions for world’s fairs, museum exhibitions, hotels, movie sets, numerous programs in support of traditional artisans, and government policies.

Singers entertain the crowd. Photo: Richard Kurin

Singers entertain the crowd. Photo: Richard Kurin

Rajeev’s production, held at our hotel amidst giant billboards, stage sets, hanging screens and curtains was called Taj Mall—Agra Bazaar Revisited. This was a truly astounding participatory experience. We walked into a multi-phonic bazaar pulsing with 170 performers singing, dancing, playing music, doing magic, acrobatics, and puppetry, juggling, doing impersonations and other Indian street art—not to mention courtesans wooing admirers or wandering mystics wooing adherents. We were visually overloaded with the sights of weavers, kite makers, pigeon flyers, embroiderers, stone workers, gem setters, talisman makers, street doctors, perfume sellers, wrestlers, bone setters, box photographers, bangle makers, shoe makers, faux vegetable vendors, and numerous others. It was as if all of India’s traditional arts, from every community, from every quarter of the country had gathered in the space of a tennis court and in concentrated, distilled form, presented the best of their work. Hindu village women danced with oil lamps afire and Muslim devotional singers extolled a sufi saint; even a Catholic girls’ choir sang—in both Hindi and English.

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India: Dispatch 13 from Extraordinary Cultures Tour

Wednesday, April 1st, 2009

Richard Kurin is the Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture here at the Smithsonian Institution. He is a cultural anthropologist specializing in the study of knowledge systems, folk arts, museums, and development. He is currently Study Leader on our Extraordinary Cultures – An Epic Journey Around the World tour, and will be blogging periodically while traveling. This post is thirteenth in a series. To see the other posts, click here.

Dateline: Agra, Part I

The stunning Taj Mahal Photo: Richard Kurin

The stunning Taj Mahal. Photo: Richard Kurin

It’s always great to see the Taj Mahal—even if you’ve seen it a dozen times before. I saw it first in 1970, and it still takes my breath away. The Taj is a UNESCO World Heritage site, annually attracting millions of visitors; our tour takes us through the gardens into the mausoleum and onto the terrace overlooking the Yamuna River.

The Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, who ruled much of northern India in the mid-17th century, had the Taj built as a memorial for his beloved wife Mumtaz, who died giving birth to her 14th child. The Mughals had enormous wealth and strongly supported a varied musical, culinary, artisanal, and religious culture still with us today. Shah Jahan used native materials and craftsmen, but also brought in those from Persia and Central Asia. He built an architectural wonder out of white Makran marble, with a bulbous dome and flowing ornamentation of inlaid precious stones. Well positioned with surrounding gardens to simulate paradise, it is remarkable for its proportion and for its exact symmetry—save for one feature. It was built by Shah Jahan to house only one grave at its center—that of Mumtaz. Shah Jahan was overthrown by his zealous and fanatical son Aurangzeb, held under house arrest, and later buried alongside his long departed wife. His added grave throws off the symmetry of the memorial!

Photo: Linda Currie

The Taj has long been under threat of the deleterious effects of urban pollution, of opportunists prying out the inlaid stones, of visitors defacing the building and grounds, and of too many tourists wearing down the stone work. A number of steps have been taken over the decades to protect this world treasure—reducing pollution, allowing only electric powered vehicles near the site, and so on. Everyone who has visited the Taj Mahal and might visit it in the future will applaud such measures. We have too little beauty and too much ugliness in the world; we need to preserve what beauty there is, and encourage its ongoing creation.

This post is thirteenth in a series. To see the other posts, click here.

Click here to learn more about travel to India.