World Culture Festival: How about the art of letting live?

Last Updated: Sat, Mar 12, 2016 06:46 hrs
Art of Living Festival, Delhi

The livestream link to the World Culture Festival claims it is "a celebration of The Art of Living's 35 years of service to humanity, spirituality and human values."

Apparently, this involves the destruction of the wetland ecosystem in an area spanning more than thousand hectares, the pollution of a river and its floodplains, the erection of a 7 acre stage on which 35,000 dancers will gyrate and probably set a Guinness Record (it has been touted the "biggest ever festival of dance and music"), and the deployment of the Army for building bridges (and I'm not speaking metaphorically). Add to all this an influx of unlimited visitors, who are likely to number close to 4 million.

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the "godman" who runs the Art of Living Foundation, has claimed on television that no trees were cut down for the event, and declared that he would rather go to jail than pay the fine imposed by the National Green Tribunal.

The fine is Rs 5 crore (Rs 5.06 crore if we choose to dignify the paltry additional fine the Delhi government has imposed), and nearly half of this could come from the generous donation of taxpayers' money that this government has pumped into the foundation's funds – The Ministry of Culture has given Rs 2.25 crore to Ravi Shankar's Vyakti Vikas Kendra Trust, and culture minister Mahesh Sharma has defended this act, saying it is the government's policy to fund organisations that "promote Indian culture".

Perhaps it is not wrong to label as "the promotion of Indian culture" an event which involves the thoughtless destruction of environment for a self-aggrandising display, and the misuse of national resources – such as the deployment of troops for the construction of a pontoon bridge – for a private event.

After asking all the right questions, the National Green Tribunal has agreed to allow the event to go ahead. Is it possible for such a turnaround to happen without some pressure from the top?

Media reports have said that the Indian government has been promoting the event relentlessly in many of its embassies. After the controversy, Nepali President Bidhya Devi Bhandari, Sri Lankan president Maithripala Sirisena and Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe, who were all invited as guests of honour, appear to have suddenly busy schedules.

Let us pause for a moment to acknowledge that as draconian a dictator as Robert Mugabe is worried about the public relations disaster that will be spawned by his blessing this event.

Taking a cue from this, our very own Pranab Mukherjee has found better things to do with his afternoon, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, faced with the an unenviable choice between missing a godman's event and risking press fury yet again, chose the latter.

Now that Indian culture is synonymous with Hindu culture, and Hindu culture is synonymous with abrasive assertion of one's power and righteousness, missing the event could even amount to being antinational, an allegation at which Modi would baulk.

There are several depressing facts that we must face now – first, it does not matter whether the big names attend the festival or not; the very fact that it is being allowed to go ahead, and that Ravi Shankar has the temerity to refuse to pay a fine, is evidence of the incredible power that one man and what he represents can have at a time of cultural fascism. But at least one big name did "grace" the event – the presence of the Prime Minister at the event ought to be seen as an insult to the collective conscious of India, but I suppose people who care more about the environment than a religious cult would qualify as "antinational" these days.

Second, the Art of Living foundation has been asked to build some sort of biodiversity park as penitence for the damage it has wreaked, and it appears the irony of charging destroyers of an ecosystem with its regeneration has completely missed the decision makers.

Third, the security for the event has been further bolstered after the controversy, and in addition to the army being used as construction labour, we must now swallow the fact that 12,000 policemen are being posted at the event.

Fourth, residents of Delhi must not only deal with this extravaganza taking place on the banks of the river that runs through their city, but must also take circuitous routes to avoid traffic snarls caused by the event.

Last – and most important of all – we must concede that the environment, the trees and animals and soil and water, do not matter as much as the pride of a godman and his tribe, and that those who have been voted into power by us and therefore represent us have essentially bowed down to him. They have decided that letting the environment live is less of a concern than celebrating the Art of Living It Up.

And we are left to mull the irony of this – those who would build temples for Ram wherever possible can so easily forget that The Ramayana is full of instances of birds, animals, trees, seas, and mountains being worshipped and asked permission for every use of their territory.

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Nandini is a journalist and humour writer based in Madras. She is the author of Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage.S

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