World Culture Festival comes to National Mall for three-day celebration of diversity and unity
Festival chooses U.S. capital as host location for the first time, drawing thousands of attendees
For its fourth iteration, the World Culture Festival set up on the National Mall for a three-day celebration from Sept. 29 to Oct. 1. More than 450,000 attendees from 180 countries joined the Art of Living Foundation for a weekend of unity and peace.
What is the World Culture Festival?
The World Culture Festival is led by Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, founder of the Art of Living, a nonprofit humanitarian and volunteer-based non-governmental organization. The Art of Living conducts service projects around the world that work toward conflict resolution, environmental restoration and rural development. The organization has reached more than 500 million people across 180 different countries.
The festival kicked off on a Friday night, for the first time in the U.S., having previously taken place in New Delhi in 2016, Berlin in 2011 and Bangalore, India in 2006. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser opened the festival and emphasized the festival’s goals of coming together to celebrate diversity and unity.
The national anthem, performed by the U.S. Army Chorus, set the festival in motion. Bowser also made a land acknowledgment to the Piscataway and Lakota tribes, who opened the performances with over 100 dancers and drummers.
On Saturday, former Indian President Ram Nath Kovind and Mauritian President Prithvirajsing Roopun delivered speeches on cultural unity and the “power of celebrating each other.”
Cultures coming together
The festival was designed to bring together and honor people of all cultures, religions, races and backgrounds, according to Deirde Jackson, an event coordinator and teacher with the International Association for Human Values.
Jackson noted the World Culture Festival’s goals of being a stress and violence-free environment, with a vision for celebrating and honoring cultures through dance and music.
“So [there’s] the celebration, but then at the same time, bringing people together in peace,” Jackson said. “Because there’s so much strife that’s happening, mental illness, and to come together in a setting like this can help start to aid that.”
Jackson has been involved with the Art of Living for 21 years. Prior to joining the organization, she started her career as a teacher in breathing, meditation and intuition programs, traveling around the world. After years of personal practice in meditation and the benefits she experienced to her mental health, she wanted to spread her knowledge to others.
“I saw a significant difference in myself,” Jackson said. “Not only me, but people around me. And because it made such a difference, it was something that I made a part of my daily routine. How can I not share this with others?”
This formative experience motivated Jackson to join the Art of Living, whose humanitarian efforts reflected her newfound values.
“Once you can really have a connection inside, then it's easy to make that connection with those around you in your community,” she said. “When you feel connected to a sense of belonging to yourself and to your community, you’re not the harm — and definitely will not want to harm.”
The Art of Living Foundation has been around for 40 years, and the festival is another event to elevate the humanitarian work they do around the world. The festival housed numerous tents with resources to sign up for public, youth, veterans, prison rehabilitation and university programs. It also offered group meditation, breathwork and wellness seminars in tents throughout the Mall.
Attendees greeted friends and family while watching the performances and speakers. Odongerel Erdene and Munkhsaikhan Davaakhuu, a Mongolian couple who came from London to attend the festival, said they were glad to see people of all cultures coming together for such a peaceful evening.
“We have seen so many cultures, so many different people here,” Erdene said. “They’re wearing their traditional day clothes. Everybody’s so happy. We are very pleased to come to this event today.”
Kelsi Lynde, a dancer with SKY Campus Happiness, said she was excited to perform on such a big stage.
“I got to perform in 2016 at the World Culture Festival in India,” Lynde said. “I met so many friends there that I’m still in touch with. So being here, doing this year in the U.S., to be a part of showing the world that we’re all one family — which is the real message behind this performance — it’s an honor.”
SKY Campus Happiness, part of the nonprofit International Association for Human Values, offers various styles of dance for colleges and universities in the D.C. area. The group performs a diverse range of styles, including ballet, Bollywood, fusion, African Caribbean and hip-hop, with dancers from different cultures, religions and backgrounds.
The second day of the festival brought a plethora of new performances, from Irish jig dancing to Garba, a dance form native to western India. Dancers Avneet Kaur and Yuvraj Rathour — who performed a Bhangra dance — spoke about their enthusiasm for the festival as a chance to represent their country with their performance.
“We have had practices for the past two months, and we have Indians from all over the world who have come to help support this dance,” Kaur said. “Events like this definitely help bring people together, as you can’t really experience anything like this anywhere else in the world.”
Swiss alphorn performer Niki Davida had nothing but praise for the festival and his group’s performance.
“We performed at the first WCF in Delhi, so when the invitation came again for D.C., we were thrilled,” Davida said. “The atmosphere is spectacular; not only is it really friendly, but it’s really human.”
D.C. as a host
The World Culture Festival came to the National Mall at a tense time in the U.S. After numerous violent rallies, such as the Jan. 6 insurrection, that have taken place in D.C. in the past few years, Shankar said he and the Art of Living hope to unite the country. He hoped that hosting the festival in such a setting would motivate policymakers to come together to protect and embrace diverse cultures.
When Spencer Delisle, the vice president of the International Association for Human Values, spoke at the festival Saturday, he shed light on a different issue related to the location of the festival this year.
“We flipped the script, holding the Germany World Culture Festival in the location where World War II was launched,” Delisle said, stating how important it was to change the narrative of negative events in history and associate them in a new positive light through celebrating different cultures and fostering global awareness.
“It's a beautiful way to not only make a statement, but do something actionable as well to just demonstrate how many countries, nationalities, religions and ethnicities are represented here,” Alicia Nelson, an attendee from Arizona, said. “I think understanding that we all have that common humanity first and foremost before any other identity or identification — that’s a powerful takeaway message.”
The Art of Living has consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council. The World Culture Festival receives support from politicians and dignitaries from around the world in an effort to bring further awareness and protection of human rights abuses and xenophobia.
“With everything that’s going on in the world,” Nelson said. “I feel like it’s a beautiful way for everyone to just be like, how can we take this forward?”
This article was edited by Abigail Hatting, Sara Winick, Zoe Bell, Jordan Young, Patricia McGee and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Isabelle Kravis and Olivia Citarella.