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 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.
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.