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Crime log: Subject barred after shoplifting at bookstore
By Max Porter, Contributing News Editor • February 26, 2024

World Culture Festival brings cultural performances, crowds to National Mall

Meditation, music and cults of personality took center stage at the event.
Jordan Tovin | Assistant Photo Editor
A group of dancers stand with arms outstretched during a World Culture Festival performance on the National Mall this weekend.

Could you stay absolutely silent for 15 minutes straight?

For D.C., the city of loud lobbyists, car horns and hustle and bustle, the answer was yes. 

On Saturday morning, hundreds of Washingtonians joined yoga teachers and Sri Sri Gurudev Ravi Shankar in an hourlong yoga session in front of the Lincoln Memorial. With Zen music playing in the background, the bustling National Mall transformed into an oasis as Shankar led the crowd through a routine challenging them to slow down, breathe and take time away from distractions.

Shankar and his foundation, The Art of Living, promote wellness and diversity through the World Culture Festival, held in the U.S. for the first time this year.

American followers of Shankar’s methods and message, like event organizer Deidre Jackson, said the festival’s inaugural edition in this country was a step toward solving systemic issues like the mental health crisis through their meditation ceremonies.

“It’s just time,” Jackson said. “There has been so much going on across the world, but definitely this country.” She added that it was important “to bring an event such as this that showcases the ability to celebrate outward, but also to come inside in silence.”

Shankar and his Art of Living Foundation are no stranger to controversies. In 2016, when the festival was held in New Delhi, the construction of massive structures, including a 1200-foot stage, caused irreparable damage to the delicate and historical floodplains of the Yamuna River. Despite being fined the estimated equivalent of $744,262 for the environmental damages, Shankar tweeted, “The Art of Living should be lauded & rewarded for even choosing such a polluted place for a prestigious international event.”

This year, however, things are different. The Art of Living has claimed that they have been working in tandem with the National Park Service to ensure there are no damages to the National Mall.

“All [environmental impacts] were taken into consideration, down to having sustainable food eateries,” Jackson said. 

Besides yoga, the World Culture Festival featured songs and dances from all over the world. From Argentine tango to classic hip-hop, the festival was a true celebration of world cultures. The highlight of the day was a meditation led by Shankar. The background music for the ceremony came from a live performance of the cultural longhorns of the Swiss Alpine people, a beautiful marriage of cultures, aligning with Shankar’s outward message of “One world family.”

The sights and sounds of the performances were omnipresent on the mall, as dozens of tall loudspeakers dominated the city soundscape with music. Screens placed alongside the mall showed a live feed of the event and made sure that even people in the back never missed a shred of action.

In between each performance, foreign dignitaries were invited to speak. These important people included a former prime minister of Norway, Mayor Muriel Bowser, the former president of Ecuador and the former president of India, among other distinguished guests. Each thanked Shankar for inspiring people to choose peace and live enlightened lives. Essentially every speaker praised Shankar.

Juan Carlos Losada, a member of the Colombian parliament, even accredited the end of civil war in Colombia in 2015 to Shankar’s mediation.

This braggadocious behavior cast a shadow of self-promotion over the event. It seemed as if the Festival was a celebration of Shankar, with intermittent performances keeping people rapt. The majority of the shops present almost exclusively carried Shankar or Art of Living merchandise and literature, including thousand-dollar wellness retreats. For those tuning into the festival on YouTube, an uploaded recap showcases all of the speeches admiring Shankar in full, while cutting the dance performances to just a few seconds.

Nonetheless, Shankar’s admirers, including Hildebrando Tapia Samaniego, the former vice president of the Andean Parliament, framed him as a beacon of light and humanity.

“Gurudev has been working for peace more than any politician all over the world,” Samaniego said.

Entertaining cultural showcases mired in excessive branding, the World Culture Festival was a convoluted experience. For Shankar’s followers, he gave them a new lease on life through his meditations and breathing practices, while for the common person, the overemphasis on Shankar’s teachings and achievements made the event all the less attractive.

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