We were already experiencing the chaos of Shilpgram long before we arrived – traffic to enter the fair was backed up several kilometers. Logan and I weaved our bikes through cars and scooties, walking them at times, and took shortcuts through nearby neighborhoods to avoid the worst of the jam.
We finally arrived at the main entrance, where I was informed corn – a snack I was craving at the time – was thirty – no, with a second look at me – fifty rupees for a cob. I scoffed for a moment and joined Logan in buying our tickets. Choosing to wait our turn in the queue rather than cut the line, we were promptly passed by at least 10 people. With some elbowing, we shoved our way through to the entrance.
Before us stood a shopaholics paradise! Stalls lined the path, peddling all sorts of goods, from scarfs to statues, smoothies to samosas. I armed myself with some reasonably priced corn (mouthwateringly slathered in lemon and chili, I highly recommend). Satisfied, Logan and I began to leisurely explore the maze of sellers in search of the main stage, our end goal, where music and dances were being performed. After an hour of walking, we had yet to find the stage. I asked a wise uncle selling carpets for directions and he pointed directly to our left, where a giant white structure with flashing colored lights had somehow gone unnoticed (Logan will claim he had known it was there the whole time, truth is subjective).
As we approached, a wall of people came into view, the taller ones watching the stage and the less unlucky ones watching the TV screens projecting the stages happenings. We loitered near the side entrance, hoping to enter the VIP section where Tom and Lena waited. I approached the police officer guarding the side entrance, looked at him expectantly, and asked as innocently as I could, “VIP section kaha hain? Where is the VIP section?” He answered that the VIP section was right there and looked expectantly back at me as if to say VIP pass kaha hain? Eventually, Tom came out and verified our qualification, the officer reluctantly conceding and opening the gate.
We entered into a realm of music. On stage, women in brightly colored dresses danced gracefully to traditional music, men keeping beat on handheld and stationary drums. As the night went on, several acts cycled through, each one highlighting the traditional style of music and dance from a different part of India. Each group which performed was drastically different from the first. Some only played instruments or sang, some danced slowly, calmly, while others danced with a beautiful urgency. They wore outfits of all colors and styles, each uniquely intricate and beautiful. Unfortunately, the acts were described in Hindi, so I did not catch the details of each background. Still, my favorites included a flute soloist and singer who belong on Broadway and an act that featured men beating drums and imitating different jungle animals, while throwing coconuts up into the air to smash them over their heads.
At the end of the night, all of the musicians gathered on stage for one final performance. With such a variety of instruments and backgrounds present, I expected a cacophony to rise from the stage, the different sounds and rhythms colliding together, desperately competing for space. But the sounds that arose surprised me. A beautiful symphony began, sounds from all over India not competing as expected, but blending together. They drums supported the flutes, strings chiming in with a countermelody at times. The musicians on stage had accomplished the ultimate goal of a symphony – to create something greater than the sum of its parts.
Clapping along, I couldn’t help but think of how apt a metaphor that symphony was for India. While the peoples and cultures represented here may vary widely and seem incongruous at times, they have an astounding ability to make room for one another, to come together in their commonalities and create something great. What many write off as purely chaos turns out to be a complicated and beautiful symbiosis, a lesson in togetherness. As I swayed to the beat of so many different drums, I felt at peace among this apparent chaos, knowing the frustrating lack of order I experience on a daily basis is just one more necessary piece in the vast and complex puzzle that is India.
If you’d like to see some short clips of the performances, you can find them here: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/fnscrn685b8d6xv/AAA_3eAFpOJenkP1JC6eZghSa?dl=0