By Jacob Katel
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Phone lines are cut in the small desert town 60 kilometers from Pakistan. "India and Pakistan are getting ready for war," the e-mail reads, "security is tight. The airport is closed." So in this town in Northern India a handsome, dark-haired man boards a train that will take him from Jaiselmer, his home best known for camel safaris, to the somewhat larger city of Jodhpur. Then flights to New Delhi and Paris will finally bring him to the Magic City. But Harish Kumar is borne by a magic all his own.
Backtrack to the Gypsy Caravan performance at the Gusman Center in downtown Miami on October 26, 2001. An aura of peace and transcendence emanates from the stage as a group of dark-skinned and mustached men regally take their places and sit Indian style onstage. Perfect posture holds up their neatly twisted turbans as they take up their instruments. The mysterious and captivating sounds of the saarangi, aloogoza, dholak, harmonium, pungi, and alaap fill the air. The audience is titillated with ancient vibrations.
Then, like a wildfire, a beautiful dancer dashes onstage. Her makeup is flawless. Her big black eyes are coy as her powerful body gestures to tell her story. Her steps are light and angular. Her dress is hand-embroidered with colorful thread and glass and cowrie shells, beads and metallic ornaments. Her eyes and hands are married to exact and mischievous expression. The many layers of fabric and her precise movements make her look like a doll poised and posed to entertain. And without a moment's notice she drops to her knees and spins cyclically on the stage. Her ornate dress conceals her legs. She looks as if she were flying just above the ground. The audience gasps. Then a hush befalls the auditorium. The dancer exits as quickly and mysteriously as she entered. "More! More!" the crowd yells. But the beautiful woman, Harish Kumar, is gone.
During the intermission the Indian ensemble Maharaja sits behind its display of CDs and Indian goods for sale. The outgoing and flirtatious dancer stands in the middle of the table, sandwiched by two New York-based Australian filmmakers making a documentary about the tour. The dancer introduces herself as Queen Harish and poses her hands for pictures à la Madonna's "Vogue."
The following day in the lobby of their South Beach hotel, members of the Gypsy Caravan mill around and munch on goodies brought to them by their sponsor, Tamalyn Dallal. Members of the groups from Macedonia, Romania, India, and Spain intermingle and break out into impromptu song and dance. Kumar enters and kisses Macedonian diva Esma Rezegova. This time dressed in the traditional men's attire of his region -- a long shirt and loose trousers -- he stands near the center of the group and starts dancing. The filmmakers, never too far behind, get the camera rolling. Harish and Dallal dance to Esma's singing, the Romanian's accordion, and everyone's hand-clapping.
Later on that night the party moves to a posh home in the Design District. Unimpressed by the corny guitar music on the stereo, members of the group chant their own name: "Maharaja, Maharaja." Once their CD is on, the party begins. Harish comes forward, seducing all who see him with his eyes, his dancing, his singing. Later he explains to a belly-dance student: "When I dance I look at people straight in their eyes because I am dancing for them."
A traditional transvestite Indian dancer? "India is very narrow on old mentalities," Harish admits. "I could be a black sheep, but I am very well appreciated here, in India, and everywhere else because what I present is not sexually oriented. It is all about a glamour, style with class, traditions, and crossover. It is pure creation I present. A creation on the base of traditions of my country."