Hundreds of thousands of people gathered on the National Mall for a three-day cultural extravaganza earlier this month, featuring music and dance performances, speeches by global leaders and interactive activities for all ages.
Kicking off Sept. 29, the fourth edition of the World Culture Festival was hosted by Art of Living, a global nonprofit committed to fostering a happier, more connected, stress-free society through meditation under the teachings of its powerhouse leader, Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. The event promoted a message of unity and diversity, hoping to inspire a harmonious society by bringing people together from all walks of life.
“There is an ancient saying that intelligent people spend their time in coordination, cooperation and uplifting human spirit,” Ravi Shankar told the audience on opening night. “They spend their time in science, literature, humor, music and dance… it’s necessary that we celebrate this without a sense of competition.”
Ravi Shankar has been teaching meditation since 1981, traveling around the world to share his movement and engage in humanitarian efforts. Together with Art of Living, the first World Culture Festival was hosted in Bangalore, India, in 2006, then made its way to Berlin in 2011, and finally to New Delhi in 2016, making this its first appearance in the United States.
By opening night, more than 600,000 people had registered to attend at least one of the three days of programming. Nearly 17,000 performers and dozens of world leaders represented over 100 countries.
Annelies Richmond, director of Art of Living’s US university programs, choreographed the East Meets West Global Dance Fusion group, which featured 250 college-aged dancers recruited from around the country to showcase different styles of dance in one performance.
“Usually when you have a dance battle, it’s like a competition,” said Richmond. “But this global dance fusion was about appreciating each other’s beauty and differences and even from different neighborhoods, different walks of life.”
Meanwhile, a group of Swiss alphorn players traveled from the other side of the world to perform in their second World Culture Festival.
“When people make music together, you don’t need to speak each other’s language because music is the language of communication,” said Ruud Janssen, one of 18 performers with Sounds of the Swiss Alps. “A number of people in this group were actually at the event in New Delhi, and so that inspired them to reconnect and be part of this one as well.”
The festival also featured speeches from global dignitaries who traveled thousands of miles to support Art of Living. Many presented their own experiences of following Ravi Shankar’s meditation practice and their hopes of bringing this festival to more countries in the coming years.
Former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon (2007-16) said he became associated with Ravi Shankar through his former chief of staff, retired Indian diplomat Vijay Nambiar.
Understanding world cultures, Ban told The Washington Diplomat, enhances a greater appreciation among differing ethnicities, which helps to avoid war.
Festival attendee Jaime Aparicio, a former Bolivian ambassador to the United States, said he was inspired by Ravi Shankar’s advocacy of Latin American affairs, including his 2015 involvement in negotiating an end to Colombia’s civil war.
“[Ravi Shankar] is very interested in Latin America so as a former diplomat, I was advising him in assignment specifications in the region. That’s why I knew the Art of Living foundation and all the work he does in terms of peace, meditation and wellness,” said Aparicio. “I came to this festival because I have this great appreciation for Ravi Shankar, but I was very impressed by how attractive it was and how international it was too.”
Additional festival highlights included a yoga and meditation session led by Ravi Shankar, performances by Ukrainian heritage groups, and a rendition of Ode to Joy played on the harmonica by former Slovenian Prime Minister Alojz Peterle, who also performed at the Berlin and New Delhi World Culture Festivals.
Several noteworthy VIPs included US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy; DC Mayor Muriel Bowser; Mauritian President Prithvirajsing Roopun; S Jaishankar, India’s minister of external affairs; Ryzsard Czarnecki, former vice-president of the European Parliament; Ramnath Kovind, former president of India; and US investor and billionaire Tim Draper, among many others.
“Gurudev has said this was a platform for leaders in every sector to come together and renew their commitment to the welfare of society,” said Patti Montella, Art of Living international faculty member and World Culture Festival spokesperson. “At this time in history, this message is needed more than ever before, and that’s why it was so heartwarming to see the people in the audience.”
Additional photos courtesy of Angelique Gingras