- The Washington Times - Friday, June 28, 2002

"I only do what I'm told," joked His Highness the Aga Khan, the guest of honor at Wednesday's annual Freer-Sackler galleries gala, when asked whether, as rumored, it had been his decision to make the affair "black-tie optional."

The sultan and imam of the Ismaili Muslim sect is quite approachable and self-effacing in spite of being one of the world's richest men. He sported a conventional tuxedo, as did about half the male guests in sweltering heat that forced the dinner inside to air-conditioned rooms instead of the Freer courtyard, as previously planned.

The event was a double whammy: a preview celebration of the exhibition "The Adventures of Hamza," an elaborate 16th-century Indian adventure tale, as well as the opening night of the Smithsonian Institution's Folklife Festival, whose theme is the legendary Silk Road and whose underwriter is the Aga Khan.

Just before the reception, as summer rain poured down, ceremonial fires were lit on the Mall to usher in this year's festival, which is being partnered with cellist Yo-Yo Ma's cross-cultural Silk Road Project, dedicated to the ancient trading network that reached from Japan to Italy.

"It was like a monsoon; suddenly it came down like ten thousand men of Harvard," said former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, an exhibit sponsor, referring to that institution's fabled marching song.

"We consider rain good luck," observed India-based festival designer Rajeev Sethi, who had had a run of bad luck earlier that day when the festival's technical director had quit in frustration. None of that drama penetrated the refined precincts of the Sackler Gallery of Art, where 230 guests were entertained during the reception by a duo playing santur, bhoran, cymbal and duff (a kind of drum) exotic instruments intrinsic to Silk Road history.

If the 61 narrative paintings in the Hamza exhibit represent "a fantasy world, right out of 'Indiana Jones,'" in the words of its curator, John Sellyer, the Silk Road Project is very real. It began more than two years ago when World Bank President and part-time cellist James Wolfensohn brought Yo-Yo Ma together with the Aga Khan, whose Trust for Culture promotes cultural outreach. "It's all about sustainability. It's not just an event," Mr. Wolfensohn said in earnest economist-speak, praising Mr. Ma's persistence and follow-through.

"He taught me all I know about the cello," the perpetually smiling Mr. Ma said with a laugh, praising Mr. Wolfensohn in turn. The cellist, considered one of the world's greatest and most personable musicians, was busy in a business suit receiving kisses and hugs of congratulations beside his wife, Jill Horner Ma, a Sackler trustee.

"The day is a dream come true," she said.

Not even Queen Noor, regal in an apricot silk-and-chiffon caftan, was above a few embraces in this talented, titled crowd.

For his part, the Aga Khan the primary supporter of Mr. Ma's Silk Road Project, as well said he would like in two years to take the project on the road beyond its current forays in North America to the countries where the route was prominent many centuries ago. He is hoping it will become "part of the pedagogical background of the culture to which they belong."

So many superlatives were circulating throughout the evening that it wasn't surprising to have newly appointed Freer and Sackler galleries Director Julian Raby, in office one month, speak of the Hamza exhibit as "one of the most ambitious projects of painting ever undertaken a total 1,400 paintings that took 15 years to produce."

The collaboration of Muslim and Hindu artists involved speaks to "the great panoply you see on the Mall," he said, because both "foster a sense of pluralistic culture and appreciation of diversity," a theme "important in this day and age."

A relaxed and smiling Milo Beach, the Freer-Sackler director for 17 years, also was in the audience, back in his former stronghold for the first time since retirement to Massachusetts and a life of research and writing. The evening was something of an escape, too, for Rep. Constance A. Morella, Maryland Republican, who had come direct from a re-election fund-raiser and admitted she had left her campaign literature "for safekeeping at the door."

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