It takes a little over 20 hours to fly from Chicago to New Delhi, India. Before my trip I had spent the last few days and nights editing a video and a series of digital prints to be exhibited during my stay in India. I was hoping to catch up on sleep during the flight, yet the sun was coming up in Delhi when my flight landed and I hadn’t slept more than a few hours on the plane. As my brother-in-law helped me load my suitcases in the car he says “Did you hear what your wife and aunt have cooked up for you?” I said “yeah” thinking he meant the art show we had been planning. He then tells me that they have scheduled a meeting for me with the “president” to review my work at 11 a.m. that same morning. Thinking he meant the president of the local art association, I said it wouldn’t be a big deal and that I was prepared for it. Though I could have used some sleep and a shower.
A few hours later I found myself on the Rajpath heading to Rashtrapati Bhavan which is like being on Pennsylvania Ave. heading to the White House. The Rashtrapati Bhavan is a large, elegant building surrounded by open courtyards, tall trees and a Mughal garden. The building is adorned with statues of elephants and cobras and is topped with small fountains that emanate the relaxing sound of running water. As we wandered up driveways lined with security posts and decorative cannons I wondered, could my brother-in-law have meant the President of India, Pranab Mukherjee? I wasn’t quite prepared for that sort of meeting.
After clearing quite a few security checkpoints I found myself in the President’s secretary’s office explaining my work to several assistants to the Indian President. They informed me that it is quite a difficult process to have artwork reviewed by the President, sometimes taking several years to apply. The President was meeting with Russian President Putin the following day and wouldn’t be able to review my work, but they encouraged me to apply for an official performance as they thought my work had significant artistic merit. My aunt then requested to visit with the President’s wife, Suvra Mukherjee. Her Excellency Suvra Mukherjee is an accomplished Rabindra Sangeet singer (songs written and composed by Rabindranath Tagore, a famous Bengali composer), and she might appreciate the work I had brought with me to India.
The piece I intended to show was a video documentation of Under Saraswati River – a multimedia (music/video) composition originally designed to be performed in a planetarium. The “Under” in the title refers to the fact that the viewers were under the planetarium dome. Saraswati is the name of the Hindu Goddess of learning, art, and science. She is referred to as a river goddess, because she is named for an ancient river that once flowed in Northern India. Images representing Saraswati were composited in real-time video and projected into the planetarium dome.
I had originally composed Under Saraswati River in 2006 with musician, Curtis Bahn. Curtis is a composer and improviser who specializes in live, interactive electronic music performance. He is also a formal student (shagird) of the sitar with virtuoso Ustad Shahid Parvez Khan, and has travelled extensively in India studying and accompanying his guru. This past October (2012) Curtis and I had the opportunity to perform Under Saraswati River as part of The Arts Converge Conference that was held at Northern Illinois University. At NIU we were joined by retired NIU Percussion professor Robert Chappell, who’s interest in world percussion has resulted in studies in African drumming with Kwaku Dadey and Indian tabla drumming with Ustad Zakir Hussain and Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri. A video documentation of this performance at NIU is what I intended to show an excerpt of for my exhibit in India.
My aunt was indeed successful in getting me an informal visit with Suvra Mukherjee that morning. We briefly discussed Under Saraswati River over a cup of tea which led to an invitation to have an official presentation of the video in the Presidential Screening Room the following night. The invitation was extended to my wife’s family and several prominent artists in New Delhi. Upon arrival the following evening security was tight and we weren’t allowed to bring cameras or cell phones, yet they literally rolled out the red carpet for us and we were treated like royal guests. Things seemed to happen very quickly as I was preoccupied with the technical matters related to getting the video to play properly – which it eventually did. After the performance I entertained a brief Q & A session and then posed for photos with the first lady.
So the inevitable question is “what did Suvra Mukherjee think of the artwork?” However it wasn’t proper protocol or decorum for me to bluntly ask her, nor would it have been for her to offer an opinion. She left the presentation as gracefully as she arrived. Her staff, on the other hand, were quite exuberant about the work and had many questions and comments about what they saw. Several of them had even requested copies of the prints that I had on display, which I was happy to oblige. The rest of the evening was spent enjoying tea and hors d’oeuvre’s while discussing art with family members and fellow artists – at which time I did my best to promote the idea of returning to the Rashtrapati Bhavan someday with Curtis to present the work as intended, as a live, multimedia concert.