Amid the arguments surrounding Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s controversial World Culture Festival (WCF) 2016, I received a hand-delivered invitation for the three-day event, which will start on Friday in New Delhi. The schedule for the festival listed many performances by national and international artistes, as well as speeches by leaders and politicians. Being a performer myself, what caught my attention was the grand scale of some of the scheduled performances—1,000 Kathak dancers performing to the choreography of the high priest of Kathak, Pandit Birju Maharaj, and 1,000 singers singing verses by Rabindranath Tagore. Since the complexity involved in mounting even a regular performance featuring small groups of artistes is known to anyone who hosts events, it is not difficult to imagine what a Herculean task it would be to put together performances featuring thousands of artistes dancing or singing together, at a venue that would also require security clampdowns owing to its high-profile attendees.
Shubhra Bhardwaj, founder and creative director of Ferriswheel, a Mumbai-based agency that specializes in large-scale events like the XIX Commonwealth Games held in New Delhi in 2010, describes the effort required to successfully stage performances featuring thousands of artistes. She assigns tasks to different teams. A dedicated production team handles sound, light, stage and licensing, while a creative team conceptualizes and details the proposed performances. A third, operations team takes care of rehearsals and associated issues, including food, beverages, transport and all other venue-related issues. An artiste team handles coordination for rehearsals, detailing where each artiste is coming from, arranging for transport, reporting on artistes who miss rehearsals and following up with them, and looking after costumes and props.
These teams also handle countless other details, including accreditation, to ensure that only people with security clearance can enter and exit the venue. Further, with thousands of people working at a venue, it is a full-time job to provide power and safe electricity connections. Housekeeping, and providing a clean and comfortable work area, also demands meticulous planning as well as a workforce.
Bhardwaj says that for the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games, she worked with a cast of 8,500 individuals who rehearsed for three months at the Army Parade Ground (matching the size of the stadium where the final performance was held) in Delhi before moving to the actual venue for rehearsals spanning 12 days! A classical dance segment featuring approximately 1,000 dancers, directed by leading exponents of four classical dance styles, also rehearsed for 12 days at the stadium. Bhardwaj’s team was responsible for arranging close to 6,000 meals a day for this mammoth force, as well as 450 buses to ferry them to and from rehearsals.
With the WCF caught up in controversy, one can only wonder when, where and how much the 1,000 Kathak dancers were able to rehearse for the event.
As for the 1,000 singers at the cultural festival, it is possible that they may only be live props on the sets of this grand spectacle for, in most large-scale events, organizers and event producers almost never take the risk of letting musicians perform live. Usually, on account of security issues, the track or tracks are pre-recorded, and the musicians only lip-sync. After all, Bhardwaj warns, you don’t want a repeat of incidents like the one at the closing ceremony of the 2013 World Cup Kabaddi, where a man breached multiple security cordons, ran on to the stage, snatched the microphone from singer Jaspinder Narula’s hand and started yelling slogans. Fortunately, his slogans remained unheard—the mikes were off since the performers only had to lip-sync to a pre-recorded track.
One is left wondering, especially in the context of the WCF 2016, whether the possible destruction of the Yamuna floodplain isn’t too big a price to pay for merely playing a pre-recorded track, albeit with 1,000 singers acting as if they are actually singing.
Shubha Mudgal tweets at @smudgal and posts on Instagram as shubhamudgal.