A mysterious foundation is throwing a huge cultural festival on the National Mall The World Culture Festival is expected to bring roughly 100,000 attendees and a massive dance floor to the National Mall this fall.
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A mysterious foundation is throwing a huge cultural festival on the National Mall

Previous World Culture Festivals have taken place in Bangalore, Berlin, and New Delhi and have attracted millions of attendees. Courtesy Art of Living/ hide caption

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Courtesy Art of Living/

The east side of Malcolm X Park in Columbia Heights is an enclave of embassies, red-brick rowhomes, and mansions. Walk too fast and you may miss one such building: the Tudor Revival-style Meridian Hall, home to The Art of Living Foundation.

A brief internet search of the foundation will turn up results about meditation courses, mindfulness retreats, and rave reviews for the location's yoga sessions. Less obvious is the fact that this volunteer-based organization has locations or programs in over 180 countries and has hosted three major cultural festivals — two in India and one in Berlin — with an average of 2.1 million attendees.

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Now, with the backing of D.C. and U.S. government leaders, the foundation is bringing one of these massive events to the National Mall for one weekend this fall.

Led by Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, one of the most widely-followed Indian gurus ever to walk the planet — not to be confused with the Indian composer — the World Culture Festival will take over the Mall from Sept. 29 through Oct. 1. It's expected to attract thousands of performers, world leaders, and humanitarians for the promotion of peace and unity, the organizers say.

When the opportunity to interview Shankar at his D.C. center came up, I couldn't pass on it. The 67-year-old guru said he was in town to lead seminars at the Art of Living building, visit all eight wards, and "connect with people."

Upon entering the center, multiple volunteers introduced themselves and offered refreshments. (The tea was delicious.) As I waited for the guru in a stately room, a volunteer handed me a pamphlet and played a six-minute video on the organization's history, complete with motivational vibes. Around the room, the vibes were more puzzling. A volunteer prepared a camera to record my interview with Shankar for "behind-the-scenes content."

When Shankar arrived for the interview, everyone stood. A half dozen advisers accompanied him, and I quickly realized this wouldn't be a private engagement. When I asked him to introduce himself to the DCist/WAMU audience, Shankar replied with a smile, "But I think you can do that." The attendants blinked at me. My 20 minutes were ticking, so I proceeded with questions.

What's the deal with this festival?

Registration for the three-day program is free. The festival setup will include an estimated 20 jumbotrons, 30 tents, and multiple projection screens along the Mall, from 7th Street SW to the Lincoln Memorial, according to a National Park Service permit application filed by Art of Living and obtained by DCist/WAMU. There will be at least one podium with festival lighting and sound equipment. No permit has been issued yet and likely won't be until shortly before the festival build begins, as is typical for NPS-permitted events.

Shankar describes it as the "cultural Olympics without any competition" and says it will reinforce Art of Living's central message that we are all one human family.

"Today, especially post-COVID, there is so much aggression, there's so much violence in society on one hand and depression on the other hand," Shankar says. "I thought it is very timely for us to bring a festival that would unite people across the spectrum."

A long list of national and global leaders are on the festival's reception committee, which represents people who endorse the event. Over 50 global figures — including current and former heads of state, members of parliament, and United Nations delegates — are supposed to attend or speak at the festival, according to the organization. A 1,000-member gospel choir will sing, and about 2,800 dancers representing more than 35 countries are scheduled to perform.

"Music and meditation, they go together," Shankar says. "Music unites people, and it is the juice of life."

Roughly 50 food trucks from D.C., Maryland, and Virginia businesses — such as Arepa Zone, Koshary Corne, and Taste of Montreal — will serve international dishes throughout the festival, per the foundation. There will, of course, be many opportunities for meditation, and a council of global faith leaders will meet to discuss issues facing their citizens at home. Local pop-up activations in all eight wards will take place before and during the festival.

The Art of Living organizers say the festival will generate $30 million in revenue for the host city. The District wasn't the only city that placed a bid to host the festival, according to Shankar, who says Los Angeles and Albuquerque were also interested. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser helped announce the festival in a press release and video promotion and said Shankar's message of diversity aligns with the city's values.

Following pandemic-era lows in tourism, it's no surprise that Events DC, the city's convention and sports authority, and tourism promotion arm Destination DC are involved in the planning of this event. Designing the festival experience is Hargrove, a Lanham-based event firm that has helped plan over a dozen presidential inaugurations.

Who's the man behind the event?

Shankar, who is often referred to by his honorific titles Gurudev and Sri Sri, is perhaps best known for his viral videos, which carry titles like "This Is The Real Purpose of Life!" Through his social channels, he offers guided meditations and sanguine reflections on how to deal with life's challenges. He often repeats some variation of the mantra that, absent stress, world peace can be achieved. Shankar has been an actual mediator of peace in numerous global and interfaith conflicts according to his website and previous reporting.

Unlike some of his less pop-culture-friendly predecessors, Shankar has been known to wear Ray-Ban shades and drive a Kia between public appearances where his followers travel long distances to receive his counsel, according to a 2022 Financial Times article. But similar to other self-proclaimed spiritual leaders, Shankar has encountered numerous controversies since starting his foundation in the 1980s.

Art of Living was involved in a legal dispute with the National Green Tribunal, an Indian environmental court, over alleged damage the organization caused to the Yamuna floodplains while setting up its 2016 World Culture Festival in New Delhi. An Art of Living spokesperson denies the foundation caused any "substantial damage," citing a 2017 report from the Delhi Development Authority.

Other public relations dustups include Shankar's comments about the Nobel Prize and whether Malala Yousafzai deserved hers. Plus, a string of anonymous blog posts between 2009 and 2012 accused Shankar and Art of Living of brain-washing followers, cult-like activities, and operating a marketing scheme. The spokesperson denies these accusations and says Art of Living "welcomes constructive criticism" from the public, adding that thousands of people have provided testimonials about the organization that "refutes the claims of the anonymous, malicious bloggers."

Asked to respond to critics who are skeptical of his methods and organization, Shankar told DCist/WAMU: "When you doubt something, you like to probe deep into it. When you probe deep into it, you see the intention, you see the work, and then you start appreciating it," Shankar said. "I am always open to criticism."

How many people are expected to come to D.C. for the festival?

By mid-June, World Culture Festival had roughly 70,000 registrants, a number the organizers expect to reach at least 100,000, according to the NPS permit application.

Asked how they will prevent any damage to National Mall during the event, a spokesperson said Art of Living is working closely with the National Park Service and District officials to ensure all protocols are followed. Travelers can expect temporary road closures on Madison and Jefferson drives SW and several roads between 3rd and 17th streets SW throughout the weekend.

Wait, but what is Art of Living doing in D.C. in the first place?

The foundation has been in the District for decades, though it's global headquarters is located in Bangalore. The D.C. location is Art of Living's main center in the United States, though there are satellites across the country — including a yoga studio in Ellicott City and a massive resort in North Carolina that offers "couples wellness escapes."

Despite some controversy, Art of Living is thriving, as the Financial Times detailed. Opportunities for followers to spend money are plenty, including online donation requests and the Sri Sri Tattva health and beauty shop, based at the D.C. location. Registration for a "SKY Breath Meditation" online course costs $295. But people who have signed up for the courses say the results are worth the cost.

One Art of Living program focuses on ending "urban violence" by partnering with violence interrupters and brokering peace between warring gangs in cities like Los Angeles.

As I exited the Columbia Heights building, a peace workshop was underway on the ground floor. I spotted District's "Night Mayor," Salah Czapary at the event, which might have inspired his tweet later that evening: "Peace is not the absence of conflict, it's the ability to resolve conflict through peaceful means."

This story originally appeared on DCist.com

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