Vasantahabba, Spring Festival

by AFP/Jay Shankar, Feb 10, 2004 | Destinations: India / Bangalore

Bangalore, India, Feb 9, 2004 - From dawn to dusk, 30,000 people took in Indian classical music and dance in a festival designed to preserve tradition but which these days comes with pizza and liquor on the side. Lying on the ground on makeshift mattresses of plastic or coir, Indians and foreigners alike stared for hours at giant screens broadcasting from an ampitheatre already full to its 4,000 capacity.

The amphitheatre is part of Nrityagram, or "Dance Village," a unique institution where students study for more than six years to learn Odissi -- the ancient dance form that originated in Hindu temples. Nrityagram was founded in 1990 by Bombay socialite Protima Gauri to promote Odissi, which is characterised by fluid but graceful turns of the body.

The annual all-night Spring Festival, or Vasantahabba, culminated Sunday morning with fusion music, half-a-day after it kicked off with tribal dancing. But purists believe the festival has turned into too much of a party. In the parking lot of 5,000 cars and 3,000 motorbikes, young people spiked their drinks with alcohol and hunted for cigarettes as a number of women with children slept, waiting for their husbands to leave.

S.N. Chandrasekhar, 82, a dance critic who attended the Spring Festival debut in 1990, was disillusioned. "There are no discerning music lovers out there. They all go as if they are going to a party. It is keeping up with your neighbour, a sort of a status symbol," Chandrasekhar said. "They go there because they get to have their pizza and booze outside their homes," he said. "Any classical Indian music or dance lover gets put off."

But even if popcorn and Coke sellers did brisk business, Philip May, a tourist from London, said he had learned more about Indian culture. "I got a peep into India's varied dance and music. I could stay for 10 years here and still cannot know the culture. The philosophy behind it (the Dance Village) is great," May said. Another tourist, Alex Letelleier from Germany, said it was his second visit to the festival. "I cannot compare this to Woodstock or any other event. This is a big gathering and some people I think come to listen, others to see dances and some others to be a part of the crowd," he said.

Letelleier, who is in Bangalore to learn to play southern Indian drums, said he prefered watching Indian classical dance to rock and roll. "This is much more peaceful," he said. Indian software engineer Sridhar Nevarti took his year-old son to the festival. "It does not happen every day. There is, of course, junk and dust out there, but if you take a combination of all these then you have an atmosphere," Nevarti said.

And some participants find no contradiction between enjoying classical dance and the bottle. Raghunandan Kandait, a 28-year-old self-described "fan of Odissi dance", came with a carton of beer and "some spare booze". "Beer, dance and music make a heady combination," Kandait said. "Where else will you find it other than here?"

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