The Smithsonian Metro stop escalator deposits visitors to the Mall practically on the doorstep of the Freer Gallery, yet many hurry right on by en route to other Smithsonian museums, behemoths such as the Natural History or Air & Space Museum. It’s a shame, really, as the smaller museums clustered around the Enid A. Haupt Garden and the Castle are arguably some of the most interesting (and certainly less crowded) museums on the Mall.
I’ve long been a fan of the Freer & Sackler – the two galleries are usually mentioned jointly as they have connecting subterranean galleries as well as both primarily focusing on Asian and Middle Eastern art. The Freer has a moderate-sized auditorium that hosts concerts, lectures, and several film series, while the Sackler has a smaller pavilion space that is occasionally used for public events. In most cases, these concerts are free, although it’s advisable to reserve tickets online through Ticketron for a small handling fee. Some tickets are made available on the day of the performance as well, though it’s necessary to queue for them about an hour before the program.
Usually concerts and lectures center on a special exhibit at one of the galleries, as was the case recently for the opening of the "Garden & Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur" exhibit. For this opening, the Freer & Sackler really rolled out the red carpet, with an entire weekend of special events centering on the north Indian region of Rajasthan. My husband and I made a day of it by going to a morning dance performance held on the steps of the Freer, followed by touring the exhibit, then having a special Indian lunch offered at the museum by caterers, rounded off by two afternoon concerts, one in the Meyer Auditorium at the Freer and the second in the Pavilion at the Sackler.
Attending this opening felt like the closest thing to immersion that one could experience short of traveling to Rajasthan itself. With music, dance, food, storytelling, yoga demonstrations, and lectures on offer, it was quite a spectrum of events. There was even ‘Festival of Lights" program, for the opening took place about ten days before Diwali. (This was a family event, directed primarily at children.)
The Smithsonian, of course, does a marvelous job of bringing guest artists from around the world for its events and festivals, and this opening was no exception. Dancers from the Kalapriya dance company of Chicago were joined by musicians from the Rupayan ensemble of Jodhpur, an ensemble of eight master musicians. The musicians were particularly interesting, as they are members of special castes of Muslim musicians who have served the Hindu Rajput courts for centuries. I’ve long been an admirer of Muslim musical traditions, whether it be Turkish court music or Egyptian percussion, so it was a real treat to hear such a dynamic and authentic group perform.
The performance featured typical music played at weddings and special ceremonies in northern India, all on traditional instruments such as the folk fiddle (sarangi) and double flute, with particular emphasis on invocations and songs of praise of the diety Ganesh. Especially impressive was the vocalist, a tall man with majestic bearing and a mesmerizing stage presence. After he beckoned to the audience during the last number, dozens of people answered the call and came dancing down the aisles. It was a wonderful performance.
Upcoming concerts are announced on the events webpage. This spring (2009), there is bound to be plenty of Turkish and Iranian music, as a big exhibit of art from Turkey and Iran is going to be on loan from the Moscow Kremlin