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What India projected at the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games, says Sheela Bhatt, was a huge Indian mela in all its old shades.
It was India.
Chaotic, crowded, loud but warm, colourful and resonant. That was the projection of India that emerged out of the Commonwealth Games' opening ceremony show at the newly-renovated Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Delhi on Sunday.
Although modern India was completely absent, a fiasco-free evening arrived with hype and extravaganza.
The show that projected India's past was an instant hit with the crowd, which was relieved to see that the event was free of any embarrassment everybody was wary of.
It was more a Manmohan Desai film that mainstream India loved. It was servicing the same middle class audience Ekta Kapoor has nurtured since the last ten years though her saas-bahu serials. It worked. The instant and overwhelming support to it came from the India of Shah Rukh Khan.
Inaugurations of international sports events are always trend-setting, glamorous and spectacular since the days our business mangers have been able to sell it in the market.
India got a fresh chance on Sunday to show how it wants to redefine itself. It had a chance of revision of its old image for international usage. But, India could not dare; it preferred status quo. It presented the same old, well-entrenched clich d image of itself.
This rare opportunity for a fresh image-building exercise comes once in two-three decades. But, what India projected was a huge Indian mela in all its old shades; with imperfections and sweet ethnic emotions of a freely jostling crowd on the playground.
By showing many symbols like turbans, lemon and green chillies that we tie at the entrance of our homes, and even an Indian labourer carrying 30 bricks on his head, the script writer of the show played it safe. So many hackneyed images were passing by in the stadium that only snakes and bullock carts were missing.
Kashmir se Kanyakumari tak, whatever we could think of, was stuffed in the show. The India that excites foreigners and uninformed urban Indian middle class was shown with largely imported technology and the help of vulgar expense.
Wizcraft, the event management company, an old hand in the market, essentially put together the entire show, which was organised by many experts including creative head Bharat Bala. They oversimplified the theme of India and just came up with a potla (bundle) of all things Indian.
If one takes out the Rs 40 crore-imported-helium balloon, then Sunday's show had nothing that could not be produced by a Mumbai, Hyderabad or Chennai-based film producer if given half a chance. It was actually their kind of show.
The estimates vary, but it cost the government in range of Rs 120 crore.
This symphony was more about folk India and less about classic India, but nobody complained. Because it was entertaining for those who valued the rare chance of seeing a movie screen hanging in the air and throwing thousands of images picked up from all over India. It was a glossy image of India, and not real India that was projected through the balloon.
"Nobody was looking for perfection here. Everybody wants masti," said Siddhartha Bansal, post-graduate student in New Delhi's medical college.
He was sitting next to me. He started talking as the programme unfolded.
"I like our Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh. He is so good for India. We are growing. New Delhi has got everything now -- metros, roads and new buses. Don't you think?"
Though we did not know each other, he softly, but firmly, tried to advise me to not criticise the show as it was played out on playground before us. Like the entire gathering Bansal was also a great fan of former president Abdul Kalam. He got excited and clapped when he saw his presence in the stadium.
And, curiously when the Pakistan contingent entered, he got up like many in stadium to cheer them. It was difficult to say why the audience screamed on seeing the Pakistanis. Was it brotherhood? Or competitive spirit? OR BOTH?
Has this show lifted our hopes of tomorrow's India, that's cherishing its past and trying to improve the present?
"Itna kar dikhaya qafi hai [what's shown is quite enough]," said a prudent air hostess, Neha Mathur.
Photographs: Mohammed Shamsuddin/SnapsIndia
She said people thought the Commonwealth Games would not happen at all, but if it could kick- off like this it is big enough satisfaction.
She added, "Kalmadi and his men managed this much. That should be enough for us." Then, she said, "Yeah, okay, corruption is there, but we got the infrastructure that we needed."
The programme has become hit also because it is today's India's little, desperate attempt to draw confidence from those old or ancient cultural disciplines like Katthak, yoga or the amazing vibrancy of old-time Indian instruments' foot-tapping music.
Lalit Jha, a young volunteer at the stadium said, 'I think we should show off yoga and our village culture because China doesn't have it! Nobody has it. I feel nice to see that we had all these things."
Indian culture is a mystic entity for Indian youth.
It' s interesting to see that on such occasions the support to Kathak, Manipuri, Kuchipudi dances is part of the 'patriotic package' parents want to present to their children.
Shivani, housewife living in Rajauri Garden who got three free pass to watch the extravaganza with her children, said, "It's much better than I thought."
She said she liked the show because her children will never get chance to see "Indian culture".
Like many non-resident Indians watch Karan Johar's films to remain in touch with 'Indian culture', Shivaniwanted her children to watch these dances.
Varsha Mehra, a student of Delhi University, was so overwhelmed by the show that she wanted to let off Suresh Kalmadi, the man considered responsible for the pre-event mess.
She said, "It seems after this spectacular show he may not be sacked. Kalamdi bach jaega (he will be saved)!"
Varsha, who wants to get a management degree, said, "I saw a live Manipuri dance first time in my life."
Photographs: Mohammed Shamsuddin/SnapsIndia
Siddhartha and some 10,000 people who had passes or tickets for the show and were instructed to enter only through gate number seven, eight and nine, had harrowing experience reaching the Rs 1000 crore state-of-art stadium. Gate number nine falls on the Jangpura side.
Just last week the underground metro was started at Jangpura. This can happen only in India where thousands of people were asked to pass through an open gutter (called nala) after disembarking at the station to reach the ultra-modern stadium which only an economy with eight per cent growth can afford.
Although the government has spent a fortune on the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, the approach road to one part of the stadium was made of mud and uncut stones. Many old people retuned home half-way. The stench of the gutter on that 400-metre road was so strong that it took time to get over it.
In stand A 28, lots of spectators were there with tickets worth Rs 50,000. A stunning-looking Arisia, studying in a south Delhi college, was collecting free food packets and drinks that came along with her pricey ticket.
She said she got the costly ticket free through her friend's father who is working in a public sector company. She agreed that on the ground there were too many performers, and she was unable to make out who was coming in and who was going out. But then she said in a matured tone, "Jindgi main har cheez perfect nahin hoti hai [Everything is not perfect in life]."
In fact, the corruption issueof the Commonwealth Games did not bother Siddhartha, Arisia, Neha and Varsha, who are all young and impressive Delhities.
The two-hour of show started with a cocktail of Indian instruments that set the tempo. Then came su-swagatam that was to welcome the 71 participating contingents to India. Although there was no perfection in footwork of the school children, nor was the music memorable, still, the spirit behind Hariharan's song worked.
In fact, the audience was quite liberal. The chorus of the children was looking lost, but thanks to the technology of television it can select the best and hide the worst on the ground. The performances looked better on television, but the controversial helium-filled balloon in the stadium was a super hit.
Television can never capture the enormity of it. Children had a fun time with it thanks to the British company that put it up. The event, without the Rs 40 crore helium balloon -- also known as aerostat -- would have flopped, felt many spectators.
It's the biggest helium balloon in the world made by Per Lindstrandt, a Liverpool company, and designed by Merk Fisher. It's underbelly reflected the lights playfully on the huge field. Red and green lights came out the best.
The balloon was suspended 25 metres above the ground. Initially it looked like a dangerous object dangling from the sky but once it started throwing beautiful snapshots and videos of incredible India, 60,000 people started enjoying it.
The balloon is 40 metres x 80 metres x 12 metres. It has a 360 degree projection surface. The children couldn't have asked for more.
The weakest part of the show was the synthetic music that was played when Commonwealth-member countries joined the ceremony on the ground. Music was so uninspiring that except Pakistan, India, Australia and England, hardly any team got a response from massive audience.
After the rally came the train with numerous Indian symbols. Today's India can do anything to get entertained.
Television actor Hussain Kuwajerwala danced on the train to the tune of chainya, chainya. The train looked as if it rolled out straight from the godown of Maganlal Dresswala, who once upon a time supplied garish set materials to Hindi film studios in Mumbai.
The show ended with A R Rehman performing the theme song of the Games, which is nowhere near Shakira's Waka Waka. To leave behind a more memorable tune, he sang the hugely popular Jai ho, which has been already advertised enough on the world stage.
My colleague and dear friend Vaihayasi Pande Daniel was too upset when I told her that India could have been more creative by interpreting its past with fresh insight or by bringing in a new, sophisticated touch to its rich tradition of performing arts.
She said, "I just cannot agree with you. If it had been more classical it would have been sober, socialist Nehruvian, good-to-be-good, boring stuff. This had humour and masti."
She rather gave an explanation that many Indians share otherwise, too.
"I have no issue with India's imperfections. Better that than the rigid perfection of the emotionless West or regimented China. I sometimes think, to be perfect you must lack emotion."
As the show was ending, Gandhiji's sketch emerged on a laser curtain. I got goosebumps.
How we Indians are shaping for the future?
Suresh Dalal, a Gujarati poet, had once written: We go from a funeral to a wedding as easily as one enters one room to another.
We can take anything in our stride.
Kalmadi and Gandhi.
We had tears in our eyes to see Gandhi on this occasion. And, just minutes before I heard so many young hearts arguing that corruption in the Commonwealth Games is tolerable if we get development.
And, even that stink of the gutter is okay to reach the iconic sports stadium which is the pride of India of 2010.