Mehrotra, Panzano bring interdisciplinary look at worlds largest religious festival to SAI Symposium

Last week’s Harvard South Asia Institute (SAI) 2015 Annual Symposium offered an interdisciplinary look at the the world’s largest religious festival, the Kumbh Mela—a Hindu mass pilgrimage—through projects launched by Rahul Mehrotra, professor of Urban Planning and Design and chair of the Department of Urban Planning and Design, and Megan Panzano (MArch ’10), design critic in Architecture. 

Mehrotra has been a faculty leader on a university-wide research initiative investigating the Kumbh Mela, in which tens of millions of Hindus travel and form a “megacity” on the Ganges River once every 12 years. The event is not only a religious ritual but an organic experiment in urban planning, public health, government administration, and commerce. Published last Wednesday, April 15, and launched at a symposium event in Loeb House last Thursday, his book Kumbh Mela: Mapping the Ephemeral MEGACITY, coedited with visiting scholar Felipe Vera, synthesizes the findings of a crossdisciplinary team of over 50 Harvard professors, students, and researchers who traveled to the most recent iteration in January 2013.

In collaboration with Mehrotra and Benitez, Panzano culled content about the Kumbh Mela for a moveable exhibit, comprising 32 backlit panels of fabric stretched over minimal aluminum framing and printed with illustrative imagery and subject matter on the festival from across Harvard schools and departments. Installed in Loeb House, Panzano’s exhibit will reside in the lower gallery of the Center for Government and International Studies Knafel (North) building over the summer before it travels around the world, its micro-to-macro, pop-up quality exemplifying the nature of the Kumbh Mela itself.

“The Kumbh Mela has […] been an extraordinary gift, because for the last two years it has informed so many answers I’ve given in response to questions about what matters at Harvard University,” Harvard President Drew Faust said at Thursday’s event. “They want to know how the shape of knowledge is changing. They want to know how we can bring people together around issues regardless of their fields and disciplines. They want to know how we’re rethinking how we teach and learn. They want to know how we see our global presence.”